ROAD KILL (John 11.1-45 / 12.1-18)

April 9th, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), 9 April 2017

If anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him (John 11.10).

A thud in the middle of the road. Something round and soft. Rubbish, you tell yourself. An old bag of kitchen scraps. A fox must have dragged it halfway into the street, then run off. ‘It’s nothing, Sam’, you call from the rear. ‘Drive on’. ‘Yes, M’lord’. A subtle, steady voice. In the rear view mirror, you make out the contours. Too small for a rubbish bag. Maybe, it was the fox. Light red, blood-matted fur flattened by the wheel of your 2011 Cadillac Ciel. Strange, however. No high-pitched yelp. No whimper. Like the Jack Russell you ran over, a week ago. Must have been a rat. Squeals of a brown rat, faintly, faintly echoing. How in God’s name can you tell? ‘Are we driving extra slowly, Sam?’ you ask the chauffeur. ‘No. Not at all, M’lord’. A twin turbo, 425 bhp V6 engine goes too fast for you to see. Besides, it must be … Check the red numerals in front of you. Midnight. On the stroke. How could you make out anything on the road? This late? Pour yourself a shot of Macallan from the minibar behind the passenger seat. At the first sip, you seem to hear a low moan. Groan, rather. ‘Uhhhh …’ Intermittent wails and whines of pain. Edging off into that low, creaking, grinding sound of a rocking chair. Agitated like a restless child, you enquire: ‘Are we near home, Sam?’ Sam says nothing. In the driver’s rear view mirror, you spot a feature or two of his face never noticed. A grin tightly drawn. An eye oddly sunken. No pupil in sight.

As the heavy, brass gates gradually open, the cadillac makes its way slowly up the drive. Anguish gnaws. ‘Is everything in order, Sam?’ you ask. ‘All in order, M’lord bishop’.

Bishop of Chelsea and Chiswick, Greensborough, and Gerrard’s Cross, Lecturer in Early Christian Pseudepigrapha, you rarely spook so easily. ‘A conjuring trick with bones’, you cite an esteemed colleague. ‘Resurrect?’ a wry smile rests on pallid lips. ‘It’s a metaphor. No one resurrects. The lessons of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Yosef go on past his … demise’. In the crematorium nine miles west of Slough, you watch a small, blue casket, winding its way down the conveyor belt. ‘So, Maria’, you nudge your most obstinate student’s elbow. ‘Will those bones rise up and haunt me? At the stroke of midnight, perchance?’ A single, soul-probing tear wets her cheek. ‘Will skin, bone, muscle reconstitute themselves, as it were, in the grave?’ Eyes wet and sullen stare into yours. ‘My baby shall rise again’, she replies with infinite resolve. ‘In the Res … ?’ you ask. ‘Let’s avoid the “R” word, shall we?’ ‘What are you afraid of, bishop?’ she corners you. ‘I wanted to bury him. Then you convinced, no, you bullied me, to burn him. But you too shall rise. For all that you try to hide from death, you too shall rise!’ Changing topics, you ask: ‘What was his name?’ ‘Lazar’, she states. ‘Lazarus’. Four years to the day, that Balkan beauty wailing her lament for a lost child vanishes into memory. ‘Sam’, you groan abruptly. A pain pulsating down your left arm. ‘Where were we driving tonight, when we hit …?’ ‘Homeward, M’lord’, Sam replies. ‘Don’t call me M’Lord, Samuel’, you correct him. ‘What was that soft, round object in the road?’

‘My name is not Samuel, M’lord bishop’, he says, ‘but Samaël’. ‘That object? Why, that object was … your soul’.

Round contour. Soft edge. A gospel not of Samuel but of Samaël. His archangelic wings, faintly shadowing the rich and self-contented. The mild muddle of middle-class minds. An eye sunken, a fleshless grin tightly drawn. Samaël. Not God-has-heard but God-is-blind. Scouring roads for blood-matted kill, squeal of a rat run over – or else, rocking in his chair. He who lives on wails and whines of pain. Samaël, the accuser. The archangel of death. Go tell a grieving mother that her child’s bones shall not rise – the subtle voice of Samaël gently lulls you into unwaking sleep. Ignore a little body, broken on the road. Incinerate it. The steady hand of Samaël closes around you. But look death straight in his eye …

Say, ‘Blessed is he that comes to break you open’. Samaël-Satan turns and flees.

On the borders of a village called Bethany, in the darkest recess at the far end of a cave, Samaël sits. His eye oddly sunken, his grin tightly drawn. He has his prey. Four days, the body of Lazarus lies bound. Smaller, simpler forms of life, single-celled organisms invade the tissues. ‘By now, he stinks’, wild-eyed Martha grieves bitterly. ‘If you cared’, she wails her lament, ‘my brother would not have died. Now, he shall not rise until the …’ ‘I am the Resurrection’, replies the Lamb of God. ‘Take away the stone from the door of his tomb’. His eye wet with weeping, unshaken in its infinite resolve, stares ever so sullenly into the tunnel. His voice of harsh contours and jagged edges echoes in the walls of Hades itself: ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ Six days before Passover, when lamb’s blood smeared on the lintel keeps the angel Samaël at bay, the Lamb of God sits at a table with Lazarus his friend. In his cup, Martha pours wine. His lips never touch it. Mary anoints his feet with costly nard. ‘Waste of precious funds’, Judas protests prudently. ‘Sell it, give the funds to the needy’. ‘Let her be’, says the Lamb. ‘She anoints me for the final struggle’.

Over the pavement stones of the Holy City, a young colt, the foal of an ass, winds its way. The Lamb of God rides, his eye sullen and infinitely resolved. Beside him walks Lazarus. Dodging palm leaves, branches, bishops – ‘chief priests’, as it were – who seek to kill him. ‘Why do they hate me, Lord?’ he asks. ‘You walk in the day’, Christ replies. ‘They walk in the night. You see light where they see none. Where they die, you live’.

Beloved in Christ: this late in the evening of time, shadows lengthen on the streets of the city. Jerusalem that shouts ‘Hosanna in the highest’ – and soon shall shout, ‘Crucify him’. Where is he now, this Vanquisher of death? Where the enemy least expects him. In a fox, blood-splattered, or a child’s pet run over on the road. In the groaning of a baby too weak to cry. In the chief priest who looks away, caught under the wheel of his cadillac.

Awakening at midnight, only to find himself … his own road kill.

In all things dead and dying, the Vanquisher is there. Sullen-eyed, intense. His mind fixed on a single goal. On behalf of every soul wailing in the night, every moan, every whimper and cry of pain until eternity swallows up time, he descends … into the deepest recesses of all that is. Watching him riding on, the archangel Samaël hides in vain under the fold of dark wings. From him who binds the angel of death and sets his captives free.

DESERT ROSE (Mark 10.32-45 / Luke 7.36-50)

April 2nd, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Sunday of Mary of Egypt, 2 April 2017

They said to him, “We are able” (Mark 10.39).

Far away, far away, faint, scraping sound. Pebbles tossed against a brick wall, but … no, that is not it. Smooth waves lapping a shoreline. Ebb and flow, ebb and flow. Handfuls of dust shaping the sandstone into clusters of crystals called a desert rose. ‘Father Zosima’, you hear some distant voice. Leaning over the Gospel and small, painted wooden Cross, in the chapel where you hear confessions, you bend low. ‘What with four screaming kids, that goddam receptionist job, and a husband who’s always pissed off his skull, when the heck am I supposed to find time to pray?’ Your wise words echo distantly, over her head. Next, you figure. ‘I …I’ve been … looking at those … images online again … and I, well, I …’ At nineteen, the closest he ever gets to a girlfriend. Pathetic words fly past your ears. ‘Tell ya the truth, Father Zos’, a gruff, sixtyish voice grates. ‘All I really did was, well, you know, “edit” my tax returns … and well, smack my fat, ugly slut of a wife and … ah, yes, the slice of cheese. Friday, wasn’t it?’ Far away in your thoughts, dust blows over crystal petals. Chilly laughter lost on desert winds. ‘I’m basically a good kid’, boasts a doe-eyed beauty with alabaster skin. ‘Never drink, never do crack, never … well, you know, Father’. Far from never neverland, you hear windswept sand scraping on stones. Night winds whipping dust into petty lists, point-scoring selfies of do this, not that. Passing for …

The image that you have seen of one who truly repents. Mind melted, soul stripped bare.

In bare-backed pews bereft of parishioners, no one sits waiting. All gone, Father Zosima. Had you cushioned the pews … ‘Cushion the Gospel’, a voice perched on your shoulder scrapes your eardrum. Whisper them sweet nothings. A little pious how-to, with a reward. ‘No prostitutes, please’, the receptionist-housewife entreats, ‘there are children present’. No starving Lazarus at the gate. No stinking Lazarus in a shroud. First rule of commerce, Father. Give the customer what she wants. ‘If I want to marry a Methodist’ – or a Muslim? ‘who the heck are you to say No?’ Now no one is left. Now and then, a so-called penitent. A bored, bitter nine-to-five mum. A secret wife-beater. A flirt. Pitiful, sticky fumblings in the front of a screen. Do they know what it truly means to repent? Do they imagine the cost? ‘You expect far too much, Zosima’, says the bishop on the phone. His chief priestly voice mildly mocking, akin to the being perched on your brain. ‘Give them whatever they want’. And … conscience? When you dunk a baby, dab a drop of chrism on a brow, or hear long lists of petty misdemeanors, do you not ask: ‘Are you able to follow Christ?’ ‘Yeah, sure’, you hear. ‘We’re able’. ‘Can you stand in the desert alone’, you long to ask, ‘until the sun melts away your last excuse, the sand strips away your last rag, and the night wind lays your soul bare to itself?’ You never ask, of course. You are tired of banging the brick wall. Play the role, Father Zosima. Black-robed, big-bellied bouzouki-player, belching Alleluias, roasted lamb’s fat and honeyed Greek dripping from your beard.

In your heart, you cannot forget the distant echo. The exact image of her who repents.

Repent? What does it even mean? Perching on your shoulder, the subtle serpent laughs. ‘Do you renounce The Enemy?’ you ask in baptism. Inside your brain stem, Satan smiles. ‘Do you renounce all ancient and modern heresies?’ Really? Come off it, Father Zosima. Whisper them sweet nothings, the poor weaklings. Today they promise. Tomorrow leave. Can you not hear my voice on the night winds? Feel my scourge on your back, my spittle in your face? Yield, priest. Everyone does. Who do you think you are … to withstand me? ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?’ you hear a firm female voice. ‘Never give him what he wants’. ‘What does he want?’ you ask. ‘What you have and he lacks …

‘Your integrity’. ‘Is that you, Mother Mary?’ you ask. Taking its shape from a distant echo a frail, firm face. Darkened by sun and wind. She who knows what it means to repent.

Far away across the Jordan, windswept sand scrapes on stones. Dust lining your monk’s habit, your staff, your bread bag, leaves you little to eat and less to drink. As you begin to faint, you spy atop the surging dune a living skeleton. Burnt black by the unrelenting sun. Stripped of its last rags of modesty. ‘Was I not once the doe-eyed beauty of Alexandria?’ ask the dry bones, wrapped in your traveller’s cloak. ‘Did I sell this alabaster body? I did not sell. I took. An infant in its cradle, a silk-skinned boy. A bellowing bull. A corpse. On the steps of the Holy Sepulchre, I lifted my eyes. Could I “take” her too, the red-mantled Mother and gold-mantled Child? “Go, Mary, my sister”, she said. “Go into the wasteland where no flesh can live. Sun, storm, and lonely night wind will wear away the stone that is your heart. Then will you find glorious rest”. These forty-seven years, no eye sees me. Night winds calling “Mary, Mary”, until the mind melts and the soul forgets itself in God’. As her body rises, featherweight, above the dunes, the scraping echo of the sands burns itself into your mind. Wind, and sand, and night, scraping everything away. Everything …

Except integrity. At the sight of her image, the chilling laughter is lost on desert winds.

Beloved in Christ: in the ebb and flow of sand, sweeping over the deserts east of Jordan, trickling down the hourglass of centuries – what is our sin? A tiny tragedy of self-betrayal. A few million stray grains mixing with crystal clusters of gypsum and baryte. Flattening on an axis, fanning outwards into glittering, scintillating shapes. A rosette resembling a rose. But a desert rose crumbles easily. A handful of dust cast into the ocean of Mercy.

To repent is no point-scoring self-portrait. It is a portrait in which you yourself disappear.

You are the true desert rose. Woman of the city, whose name few if any remember. Once, your alabaster body glistened with oil of Alexandria. Fragrant perfumes from the banks of the Indus and crystal gems from the Abyssinian hills. Then you broke the alabaster flask. For forty-seven years, wetting the Master’s feet with weeping, wiping them with your hair. Your faith is not what you take on but what you give up. Not a feeling but a burning forge. Not a soothing song but a sacrifice. A sacrifice that makes you, and us, whole.

Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for us!

TEREBINTH TREE (Luke 1.24-38 / Mark 9.17-31)

March 26th, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Annunciation to Our Most Holy Lady (deferred), 26 March 2017

All things are possible to him who believes (Mark 9.21).

Under the glossy leaves, the red clusters, overhanging the garden bench, a face unseen promises three signs. ‘Show me a sign’, you ask. ‘Prove to me that it’s really, truly you’. Streaming through stained glass, fresh spring sunlight bathes gold leaf, blue tint and red, then retreats behind a cloud. ‘See, it’s not the sun’, you remark. ‘It’s coming from inside’. ‘What is?’ Mum snaps tensely. Along the rigid edge of her lip, foam gathers in liquid rage. ‘The light I saw in the garden’, you persist. ‘It’s coming from …’ ‘See what you’ve started’, she lashes out at the vicar. ‘Not enough hearing voices. Now she imagines light glowing from crushed stone and canvas and wood. Imagine’, she bristles, ‘exposing a girl, at her impressionable age …’ ‘I’m twelve, nearly thirteen’, you feel your body go rigid as Mum’s. ‘… To such a hideous half-pagan totem pole figure …. it’s unEnglish, it’s …. child abuse’. The vicar stutters. ‘M-, Mrs. L-, Latimer, I d-didn’t mean, a-, as it were, to off-, offend’. ‘I’d hold my colonial tongue …’ she grinds her teeth. ‘I b-, borrowed it from …’ As he grovels, light from the object strikes his eye. ‘From the Orthodox priest up the road. It’s the sort of image that English farm folk, nobles, kings honoured from the seventh century. And you you call it unEnglish?’ ‘I’ve never been so offended in my life’, she storms out. ‘Come, Dora’. You do not follow. Your eye follows the light through canvas, paint, and wood into …

Spreading clusters of reddish-violet blossoms, glossy leaves of a tall Middle Eastern tree in your suburban garden in Kent. Where you first heard your true Mother’s voice.

A voice, melodious and merciful. Clear as Mum’s is garbled, radiant as hers crackles with static waves of sex priggishly stifled, rage pitilessly repressed. A voice light years, rather,  light centuries removed from the glass panes and bone-dry bricks of that counting-house that is Mum’s true temple. Eight o’clock every morning, she chains up her cycle to an iron hook on a three-foot stone wall. ‘Remnant of a dead convent’, outside her banking office. She should know. The dead are all around. Waiting angrily in the queue for a paycheque sliced in half. Walled up inside a cubicle – or behind a desk of Honduran mahogany, hand bathed in Amazonian blood. In her office, despair gathers dust from dense filing cabinets. Crumpled receipt for a child unborn. Shredded bill for success dearly bought. Should you come across a dream deferred, stuff it in an envelope. Deposit it in the circular file. When five rolls around, repair to the pub. Wash out your soul dust with a jolly pint. Only beware the undertaste of a life misfiled. ‘You’re twelve, nearly thirteen’, declares Mum enthroned in Mayfair blue behind her desk. ‘Time to start planning the future. A position in the firm, perhaps?’ ‘Your Mum simply wants the best for you’, echoes the mild vicar from Toronto. Fresh sunlight retreating behind a cloud. At only twelve, you already recognise that deaf, dumb spirit. Rigid limbs of the repressed. Foaming lips, grinding teeth. Spurning an icon of Mary for an idol of Mammon. Forgetting the England that once was.

Under long leaf and red bloom, you still hear England’s Mother call you from death to life.

In an England bereft of convent refectories, where Ned the ploughboy ate his fill after the harvest failed; where Nell placed a handmade corn dolly on the edge of the Virgin’s altar, thanking her for an infant’s fever lifted; in a Manchester, a Liverpool, a London where the feverish bundle outside Sainsbury’s looks up at cages of corporate greed – who is dead? Who is alive? Can you tell? Testify to Our Lady’s all-holy image. Speak the truth and you set the living apart from the dead. When the deaf-dumb spirit hears the truth, immediately it convulses whatever body it possesses. Which foams and goes rigid, or turns and flees. Blessed is she who does not flee. Blessed is she who follows the beam of light.

Does she believe impossible things? All things are possible to her who believes.

In the dry, dusty northern town called Nazareth, very little seems possible. Crippled under the hobnails of Rome, robbed by Bedouin bandits and money-changers in a marketplace, an ageing carpenter does what he can to survive. So very little possible. To his intended, a girl of twelve, nearly thirteen … everything is possible. Fresh spring sunlight bathes her face, as she sits there spinning outside the shop. The sun almost blinds her – but it is not the sun that speaks. ‘The Lord is with you, favoured one!’ Shaken, she does not rise and flee. ‘Fear not, Mariam’, the face unseen assures. ‘You will conceive a child and call him by a conqueror’s name. Like his forebear David, he shall slay his tens of thousands. Not by the sword but by the truth’. ‘I have never “known” a man’, says Mariam. ‘The Light that hovered over creation shall overshadow you’, declares the voice. ‘The Child born of you shall make the blind see, the lame walk, the dead live – and blessed is he who shall not be offended on account of him!’ ‘Let it be then’, she replies, ‘just as you have said’. From a fountainhead of blood and bone and flesh, Light inconceivable is conceived.

‘Why do you hide your face in your wings?’ asks a twelve-year-old bathed in a blue light. ‘I cannot look upon the living Ark’, the archangel shudders. ‘The Light is in you’.

Beloved in Christ: when the sun streams through stained glass, all that it takes is a cloud or two, a twisting of the earth on its axis, to blot out the light. When Light Himself streams into the Virgin’s womb, he leaves his imprint forever. On gold leaf, blue tint and red, stone crushed into paint, canvas and wood. He is in the glass that is her icon … and in the girl. No dust of dead souls, no idol of Mammon shall ever blot him out.

Under glossy leaf and reddish blossom, the light in the garden takes you by the hand.

‘Do you know what sort of tree this is?’ she points to oblong leaves and reddish clusters. ‘It is Pistacia palaestina, the terebinth tree. Sitting under such a tree, Gideon, the Judge, asked the angel for three signs of a coming victory over the unbeliever. Fire from a rock. Dew upon the earth … and fresh dew, on a fleece, while the soil below stays dry’. ‘Show me three signs’, asks Dora. ‘Have you not guessed already?’ says the Virgin. ‘The Virgin who conceives yet remains a virgin. The light born in a cave and victorious on a Cross’. ‘And the third?’ asks young Theodora, lover of the icon. ‘A girl of twelve, nearly thirteen’, replies the Mother of England, ‘who follows the beam of light from death to Life’.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

MIDNIGHT STRIKES (Mark 8.34-9.1)

March 19th, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Veneration of the Cross, 19 March 2017

What can a man give in return for his life? (Mark 8.37).

In the sticky, steamy streets below the window, the uproar of clashing cymbals, shrill solo saxophone, tearing trumpet and wailing trombone scrape like fingernails on a chalkboard over the monotone hum of the flutes. High-pitched flutes by the hundreds, crudely carved from ebony. Black as the starless heaven. One hour until midnight. From the wrought-iron balcony, you watch the flickering torches light up masks. A huge nose, a protruding belly. Limpid eyes of a coffee-coloured, bare-breasted girl, decked out in feathers of blue, violet, and … red. Bobbing atop a float full of lilies and magnolias, a cardinal in a tricornered hat humps her from behind. ‘Smile, Daddy’, you interject sardonically, ‘it’s carnival’. From his wheelchair, blank eyes gaze into a space beyond smiles. It is the night of topsy-turvy, this weird, wild night of masks. A peacock mask of bright plume and phallic beak. A clown’s mask of reddish tufts, bulging nose, and idiot-blank brow. Yours? A half-skull in lurid yellows, reds and whites. Around the eyes, the pinkish red blush of a fever. You felt his pulse. Dead as a door nail. Why not honour his last wish? Wear the mask. Imprint upon it your own smile. Grin as you did when you tipped him from his wheelchair, left him bed sores bleeding into soiled sheets. ‘Never mind, Daddy’, you smiled, wiping off the saliva from his purple nails. Now you stand ready to inherit. On one condition, stipulated in his will.

You must wear the carnival mask and not remove it until the stroke of midnight.

One hour until midnight. Step by step traipsing the spiral staircase, you descend from the balcony down into the street. Your foot slips on something mushy. ‘Yeuch!’ you spit. ‘This filthy, stinking cesspool of a city’. Carnival brings it out. An alligator on a leash, snapping at stray mutts. A fat slob in Harlequin motley, pissing on the front steps of Holy Rosary. Is it any wonder they call it Mardi Gras, Fatty Tuesday? Greasy and fat. Well, why not stroll inside, get away from the stink? ‘You don’t really have to believe’, you persuade yourself. Crossing into Daddy’s old parish, you smile. No candle stand. No baptism font. No statue of Mary – oh, I mean, ‘Our Lady’ – by the old, unused high altar. No Stations of the Cross. No Cross. They covered up the last one in ‘69. Took it down, sold it for kindling, you see. How Daddy loved his ritual! Beads in hand, clouds of incense rising on the stern, sombre Gregorian chant. Old Fr. Laferriere in his smoke-stained red chasuble, back turned away. Streamers flying, guitars ablaze, Tessa Quigley now bounces merrily down the aisles. Fr. Gowan, in a Eucharistic suit of clown’s blue, violet, and red passes out Ritz crackers and cups of Welch’s grape. ‘An anodyne, inclusive church’, you beam. ‘A smiling church, not some exclusive “cult” like the Methodists used to call us. Is there a Cross anywhere left in sight?’ At most, a clock over the western door. Only a few minutes left. The mask feels airtight, sticky, clingy, like Daddy’s dying hand. Go to the washroom, wash it off. A minute now. ‘I’m rich’, you hear the clock strike. Tearing off the mask, you look in the mirror.

Indelibly imprinted on your skull, the sardonic smile, the feverish features of … a mask.

It need not be New Orleans, the city of masks. Under the uproar of scraping train wheels, the monotone and high-pitched hum of gossip, every countenance on the tube is a mask. Pink face glued to a smartphone. Ruddy wrinkles too stiff to weep, staring at blank tunnel walls. An alligator in Versace, a corporate suck-up’s grin etched in every ingratiating edge of his lips. Captive smiles on pitiless faces. Afraid of bowing down at the footstool of your own pain, how will you do anything but flee a dying man in a wheelchair – or on a Cross? Give them a Carnival opiate, say church-going agnostics. Motley colours of green, white, and red. Guaranteed never to ruffle a peacock’s plumes. Give them a mask.

Wool ropes in hand, incense rising in sober, severe Byzantine chant, we wear no clown’s motley today. Only the martyr’s red. We offer no Carnival gospel. Only the Cross.

If anyone would come after me, says our crucified God, let him deny himself the shrill solo of a self-willed mask. The reddish tufts, the bulging drunkard’s nose, the idiot-blank brow. Let him wash off the lily-fresh scent for the stench of sour vinegar and gall. Let him never seek me on smooth pillows, in smooth words that stroke a conscience or blind the soul to to the face behind the mask. Let him never seek me in pink-cheeked praise or the happy, heathenish antics of aggiornamento, Ritz cracker Communion and Welch’s gentle grape. I am not there. I am in the sticky, steamy streets, the Son of Man declares. I am inside an adolescent body, shuddering as the adversary humps her from behind. I am in the tear of a child lost in the crowd, seeking my holy Mother’s image where she used to be. I am the dying man in the wheelchair. I am the priest, the monk or nun, the nameless, the unloved for whom no one prays. I am the Face of every life lost for my sake and the Gospel’s.

The Face of every life saved. For what can a man give in return for his own face?

Beloved in Christ: nothing is more hideous than an unending smile. A grotesque, grinning mockery, its eye unable to weep. Its heart unable to break – and thus little by little, unable to love. Save your life, says the nose weary of sickroom smells and sticky, steamy streets. Come down from that wrought-iron balcony. Then run, run quickly. Vanishing out of sight. Lose yourself in the crowd. Hide behind the banners of yellowish-orange, blue and white, violet … and red. Among walls and words bereft of the Cross. Wear your mask of choice.  You may find that it grows on you.

Today is no Passion Play, homegrown and harmless. It is your Passion … and ours.

We are not standing at the foot of Golgotha, watching a dying Body that no human hands will shelter from the bracing winds and biting cold. Ours is the body buffeted in the winds, ours the soul nailed upon the wood. Ours the burden of mercy, from which a churchgoing coward and amiable atheist flees. Ours is the choice. If the light of his countenance – that is, Mercy’s face – is imprinted on you, you will fall down and worship wherever you see his Cross. If not, lose yourself in the carnival. Never touch the nerve of humanity’s pain.

Avoid it, shun it, run from it. All the hours and minutes of your life. Until midnight strikes.

NOT AS THE SCRIBES (Mark 2.1-12 / John 10.9-16)

March 12th, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamas, 12 March 2017

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may  have life (John 10.10).

Shining the lamp directly into your sockets, she bends down. Heavy breathing ruffles fine hairs on your ear. A pungent scent of sushi assaults your nostrils, mingling with a vinegar aroma of Laurent Perrier-Cuvée. Her preferred late afternoon tipple. ‘Say it’, a hot breath hisses in your ear. ‘Say: “A tool of patriarchy, keeping my sisters oppressed”. Say it. Say it!’ Behind closed eyes, you long for a Mars Bar. A sausage off a grill, glistening with fat. How long have they kept you awake? Twenty-four hours? Forty-eight? No food, no drink. Staring sleepless at incandescent lamps and windowless walls. In an underground cellar, under the college, twelve student participants and four faculty chant: ‘Say it, bitch! Say it now!’ ‘Say it’, the trainer snarls. ‘A tool of the patriarchy. That’s what your “Jesus Prayer” is’. ‘But …’ your sleep-starved brain shapes a word. ‘Nuns. What about … nuns?’ ‘Nuns?’ the name drops poisonous from her lips. ‘Brainwashed sheep, my little lamb. They can’t even think for themselves. Female eunuchs’. The entire room applauds, as if on cue. On the edge of your ear, she growls: ‘Maybe out in the backwoods of, of – where did you say your folks come from?’ ‘U-, Ukraine’, your breath gives out. ‘Maybe in that icon-kissing, incense-burning, patriarchal cult of yours, nuns think. I seriously doubt it. Certainly, not in this US of A. Not in this college. Not in this year, 1991’. Squeezing out a tear, you look up.

‘For Chrissake, Netty’, a colleague begs. ‘She’s just seventeen’. ‘Prime for conditioning’, she replies. By the lock of silver in her chestnut curls, you recognise your interrogator. ‘Dr. Massari’, you sob. ‘Why?’ ‘Why, Christina’, she gloats. ‘It’s your sensitivity training’.

Sensitive to every ‘feeling’ but faith, committed to equality for all sexes but male; devoted to a diversity inclusive enough to exclude your little patriarchal sect of bejewelled bishops and praying priests, Bernadette Massari, PhD, plays the game called ideology. Ideal bloodsport of the academic. It is after all 1991. Being politically correct, the latest vogue, permits her to exploit a pawn and block her opponent’s king. ‘You’re young, pretty’, she whispers into your palpitating mind. ‘You know how to assert yourself. Stop praying “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy” to some imaginary Face in the light’. Fading now, fading steadily, your mind switches off. You awake to find yourself in a dingy, dusty corner of grandfather’s old shop in that little town outside Winnipeg. Standing by the till, on a sweltering August afternoon, he wipes wet streams from his brow to his shirt soaked with sweat. He never wears short sleeves. On his forearm, the digits 98691. Granny brings a tall glass of iced tea, her wide  cheekbones jutting over a sunken, hollow face. She never touches meat. Not since … A domestic animal, perhaps a pet, with four feet – perhaps two – leaves a foetid taste on her lips ever since the famine of 1933. ‘How do you spell Holodomor, Babusia?’ you ask her. ‘With an H,’ replies Granny. ‘Like Holocaust’. Lost on a chessboard of ideology, pawns in the hand of the scribe. By the rusty cash register, you spot a notice printed only in Ukrainian.

‘Tse ne povynno povtorytysia’. This must not be repeated.

As late as 1991, a soviet socialist utopia dies of old age and transplants itself to the West. ‘Repeat after me’, the trainer orders. ‘Yes, yes’, the prime candidate for conditioning gives in. ‘Demystify your worship’, says the commissar of the politically correct. ‘The face that you see in the Light when you pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy”. Who is he? Is he there, your optical illusion of a man? Wash him from your mind’. Why do you suffer this abuse from a woman, Christina, that you never would from a man? ‘Who’s speaking?’ you groan softly. ‘I am Gregory, Archbishop of Thessalonica’, says the voice. ‘The heretic, Bernardo Massari: Barlaam the scribe. As my name is Palamas, I recognise his voice’.

‘I have seen the rise and fall of many a scholastic scribe. Many a thief who comes to steal and kill and destroy, consigning lives to death by the stroke of a professor’s pen. Rise up. Defy him. Stand your ground’.

Paralysed with a crippling fear, you cling to your cot. A voice inside your soul that coaxes and cajoles, beats and batters you, deprives you of sleep, food, and faith, bends down to your ear. ‘Say it’, the voice hisses. ‘There’s no one there. No one! Can you even see him on account of the crowd?’ ‘I believe’, your brain stubbornly shapes the words. ‘I believe’. It is not your faith, Christina, that sends branches cracking, splitting, straw flying this way, that, mud falling in clumps on the floor. It is the faith of your friends that removes the roof. The icon-kissing, incense-burning harvest of martyrs, tried in the furnace of spin and lies. Those who have suffered with you now lower you down. ‘Daughter’, the Son of Man tells you, ‘your sins are forgiven’. ‘Who does he think he is, God?’ ask the scribes. Always the scribes. ‘Why do you question me, you blind guides?’ asks the Son of Man. ‘Which is easier – to say: “Your past is now behind you” or: “Get up and walk”? Rise up, then, Christina. Rise up from your mental cell. Turn your back on the brainwashed generation and walk away. All that you need to do is rise and walk away’.

‘Holy Father Gregory’, you ask, ‘am I really like the paralysed man?’ ‘You are the lamb that got away’, replies the saint. ‘The pawn that fell from the board into the hand of the King’.

Beloved in Christ: truth knows no male or female. Injustice knows no male or female. Hypocrisy knows no male or female, no immunity of sex and race and class.  Truth slides off no politician’s grill, glistening with fat. Ever so slightly ‘underdone’, suiting the taste of social utopians and the tenured bourgeois Left. Truth is no aphorism borrowed from Aquinas, no nicety from Nietzsche, no witticism from Wittgenstein. Truth is no theory privately concocted, no light switched on and off at will. Truth is the Light shining into the interrogation chamber and piercing the windowless wall.

Truth looks that brainwashed brainwasher straight in her eye, declaring: ‘Feminazi is as Nazi does’.

Behind the ovens of Auschwitz, beneath charred waters of Chernobyl, the eye of a scribe hides from Truth. Reshape it, recast it, mold it into whatever tool of lies and liars you like. So long as truth is an It, not a Who. ‘What is truth?’ ask the political pundits – the scribes, toying with an ideology and throwing life aside. ‘Who is Truth?’ replies Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica, champion of theologians. He who prays to Light from within the Light. He who speaks with authority and not as the scribes.

Holy Hierarch Father Gregory Palamas, pray to God for us!

NO NEUTRALS (John 1.43-51)

March 5th, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Triumph of Orthodoxy, 5 March 2017

When you were under the fig tree, I saw you (John 1.48).

From the balcony, you see him wander in. Wide-eyed, full of wonder. A teddy, held tightly, ears gnawed, face kissed bare of its velvet fur. From the crevices among the old Norman rafters, from the secret cleft in the oak, from a cricket’s crawlspace where no sunlight has shone for nine hundred years, you watch him. At age four, maybe five, he has never been inside a church. Scanning bleak walls, frigid Edwardian columns, a Georgian plaque with Hymns 512, 534, and 666 firmly in place, his eye sees through the names of dead vicars. Modestly engraved in mouldy mahogany. He smiles. ‘He sees!’ red-robed, golden-winged Michael clasps his sword. ‘How does he see us?’ ‘His eye is pure’, Catherine leans upon her fiery wheel. ‘He has not yet learned to hide’. ‘Mikey, so there you are’, a frantic voice calls his name. ‘Don’t you ever, ever wander into strange places all alone’. ‘I’m not alone here, Mummy’, he replies. ‘Don’t you see them?’ His mother stares at a bare, brown wall. ‘There’s nothing on these walls’, she runs her hand over the empty panel. ‘Can’t you see the faces, Mummy? A lady on a wheel. A soldier with a sword’. ‘He sees!’ the archangel tugs at your monastic sleeve. ‘Go help him, Agathon’, great martyr Catherine commands. ‘Hold his hand. He may be one of us’. Climbing down the stairwell, you slip your left hand invisibly around his. ‘Father Agathon?’ he stares into sockets, where once were eyes.

‘They’re here!’ Mikey sobs, ecstatically. ‘They’ve never left!’ ‘Who?’ Mother asks. ‘Father Agathon …’ ‘Agatha?’ she puzzles. ‘The icons!  What? Mikey cups his ears. ‘What’s that? Mummy, what’s a … hairy tick?’ ‘Don’t say heretic’, Mother scolds. ‘It’s intolerant’.

Ever so Christian, ever so tolerant, the parish church stands cleansed of ‘graven images’. A few cobwebbed pews, of course. A creaking pulpit, yellowing hymnals, and a plaque of wooden hymns where Holy Catherine once leaned in triumph on a flaming martyr’s wheel. ‘Mustn’t be triumphalist, Mikey’, Mum insists. ‘Icons for instance. Helpful to some, rather unhelpful to others. Neutral, really.’ But at age five, Mikey is not yet versed in double talk. Where archangel Michael once pierced the heart of a lawless icon-smasher, Lucifer, now stands the graven plaque of ten commandments. No foul talk, no illicit sex. No … graven images. In the name of a commandment, by royal decree, an image of Christ ripped from atop the gate. Wailing nuns toppling the ladder, butchered in the street. Fingers, toes, breastbone ripped from a saint’s tomb in the ashes of a gutted monastery. Snapped under a Saracen sandal or a Bolshevik boot. So it begins. Again and again. You watch them come and go. Gérmanos the patriarch, dying in exile. Nikíphoros, Methódios refusing to burn an image. Christ the express Image of his Father. Bound to your chair, Monk Agathon, you can hear the fire crackling. Sense the sap gathering under gold leaf, red flames licking the dry yolk from your Saviour’s eyes. Feel the blood at the root of a singed beard, on the stump of an  icon-painter’s arm. Hollowed-out sockets in his face where once were eyes.

Now you inhabit dark places. Gutted churches. Whispering, ‘we are the martyrs of the holy icons. We are still here’.

Monks yield to magistrates, priests to parsons. Holy images to Word of God. In your new, reformed ‘church’, where then is Aaron’s golden robe and bejewelled breastplate? Where is the ark sheltered by winged cherubim, toppling the idol of Dagon in his temple? Where is the incense offered to the Child in Bethlehem, fit only for a God in the flesh? Scattered. Among slivers of the Saviour’s image, hacked into kindling. His Mother’s, his monk’s, eyes gouged from the sockets. A child wanders the ruins. He knows. He sees. He never blinks at a God who eats and weeps, bleeds and suffers and rises. What Caliphs and Calvinists, Latimer and Lenin, KGB, Gestapo, and so-called Islamic State forget, he remembers.

Clasping his hairless teddy, kissed bare of its fur, he knows precisely what a Holy Icon is. Whoever honours the Holy Icon is his friend. Whoever dishonours it is Antichrist.

On the outskirts of Bethsaida, Christ the Holy Icon appears to Philip. No Torah scroll held in his hand. A human Face that eats and weeps, bleeds and suffers and rises from death commands him: ‘Follow me’. ‘We’ve found him!’ Philip sobs, ecstatically. ‘The One we’ve heard about, read out in Moses and the Prophets. Jesus, from Nazareth!’ ‘Nazareth?’ his friend Nathanael laughs aloud. ‘I’ve seen him’, says Philip solemnly. ‘Come. See’. Still on the horizon, the Holy Image remarks: ‘Behold a child of Israel in whom is no guile’. ‘How have you heard of me?’ asks Nathanael. ‘When you were sitting under the fig tree’, says the Holy Image, ‘I saw you’. ‘Rabbi’, the words barely escape his lips, ‘you are the image of the living God!’ ‘All because of the fig tree?’ the Image jokes. ‘Wide-eyed Galilean full of wonder, you will see the heavens open, and fiery angels descending on him who sets the captives free’. ‘All the captives?’ asks Nathanael. ‘All who recognise my image’.

‘He who rejects my Image, rejects me; and he who rejects me, rejects him who sent me’.

Beloved in Christ: from a secret cleft up in the oak rafters, from a cricket’s crawlspace, an old ghost-monk named Agathon watches a boy enter a gutted church. Always hoping that he, like a new emperor Michael, will restore the holy icon on a new Sunday of Orthodoxy. Unseen in dark places among forgotten rafters, he watches – but does not hide. He never hides again. ‘Spit!’ he hears those heretic voices, fire entwining his feet. ‘Spit in the face of your idols!’ But the scourged spine, the bleeding stump, the stubborn lips never move. Climbing his torso, the flames consume his cassock. Not his conscience.

Gathering around him the scattered who are yet to believe, he knows what heresy is. And what is Orthodoxy.

One day, in the desert of Wadi al-Natrun in Lower Egypt, a few monks tested the resolve of his patron saint, Agathon of Scētis. ‘Are you Agathon the fornicator?’ they taunt. ‘Yes’, the aged monk replies sadly. ‘Are you Agathon, who talks foul rubbish?’ ‘I am’, he lowers his face. ‘Are you Agathon the heretic?’ ‘I am no heretic’. ‘Holy Father’, the young monks ask ashamed. ‘Why did you suffer us to call you an idle gossip, even a fornicator, but not a heretic?’ ‘I am the weakest of men’, Abba Agathon answers. ‘But a heretic is an enemy of God’. In the war between truth and error, there are no neutrals. Whoever is not with us is against us. Whoever does not gather with us, scatters abroad.

LOST LEAVES (Matthew 6.14-21)

February 26th, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Sunday of Forgiveness (Cheesefare), 26 February 2017

Your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6.18).

‘Mother?’ Under the fever, a gentle tapping. ‘Mother? Mother Micaëla, can you hear us?’

All that you hear is a faint rustling, the distant, muffled rustling of leaves. ‘Her fever’s over 103. Yes, 104’, you hear the young nun’s voice. ‘Hear the rattling in her chest. She won’t last the night’. ‘She has confessed. She’s been anointed’, the older voice replies. ‘Now it is only a question of time’. Time, time. The higher the fever mounts, the deeper you sink. Rustling assorted leaflets in your handbag, in that church so long ago, you pretend never to notice a thin queue forming in the aisle. ‘Hypocrites’, you swear, seated. ‘I will not join them. What have I done to be forgiven? What do I have to forgive? Just look at them all. Flaring cheekbones. Olive brows. Icon-kissing, incense addicts, hurling themselves into open coffins. Pressing wet lips on paint and wood. I’m not one of them. I’m still the child of the Norfolk Broads. Alone at midnight, in farmer Tooley’s field. I am what my past has made me’. As the fever climbs, you sink deeper. 1943. ‘Fair ter middlin’, Ma’am’, you still hear old man Tooley stuffing a scarecrow’s head with straw. ‘Dunt fare tew sharp terday’. ‘Mr. Tooley, do speak English’, Mum scolds. Bare, bony knuckles, tightening around your bruised wrist. Fever mounts. Where are you now? 1943? 2003? Memory, inside memory. Demons of your past demanding toll. Nothing to forgive? Too much to forgive.

Shoulders arching stiff, rigidly pressing into the pew, you refuse to ask anyone to forgive. By now, the line of wet-eyed worshippers files past you. Never looking back.

1943. Back then, a dozen eggs cost 1 shilling 6 pence. A Mars Bar, 6 pence only. And by God, you never heard of the Orthodox Church. Puritan stock dies hard in those little East Anglia villages. Matthew Hopkins’ buckled black hat, hunting witches along the waterway. Since you were five, you could never cast the image of that scarecrow from your dreams. ‘Mawkin’, as the country folks call it. A grim, gaunt mockery of a man, his moth-eaten rags flapping in the North Sea breeze. Late into the evening, you would watch his dismal skull take shape in a chimney fire. Hear him chuckle in the dry, dead leaves, in the birch twigs, and the stitched, stilted grin on his lipless face. She knew that you were afraid of him, the mawkin, more than anything else. As the embers burned grey, your Dad would scoop you up. How could you tell him what was following you? Straw footsteps climbing a staircase, down the corridor, into the little bedroom in the attic. You clutched your pillow, unbending. Nothing else to clutch. Every time you wet your bed, she took away a toy. A dolly. A bear. How could you ever turn over in the night, let alone rise and relieve yourself – if overhead a bald, burlap skull, a fleshless grin stares you in the face? One wintry night, to ‘cure’ you of your fear, she left you there. Alone. In the field. Five-year-old wrists bruised by a strap. A fox’s piercing howl to shatter the nerve. An owl’s hunting call, striking deep in the mind. Flapping in the Norfolk night, the scarecrow’s grin. Sucking away your every tear.

The next morning, you never wept. Never bent low. Never forgave. Anyone. Anything.

Anything is easier to forgive, any debt easier to pay … than the past. Rusty gate and bar, iron fetters bind you to a coffin if your limbs are too rigid to hurl yourself inside. Shoulders carry a crippling weight, if they arch stiffly, rigidly, never bending to embrace a frail, fellow sinner and be embraced in return. In the feverish delirium of a dying nun, faces from your past appear. Flaring cheekbone, olive brow … or the stitched, stilted grin of a stiff-lipped, Puritan stock. Too proud to weep – and with a tear, put out the flames in your dying mind. Dry, dead leaves of memory, too long repressed. Tears, too long held back. Demon faces demanding a toll from every one of us at the hour of our death.

The tollhouse is our own soul. The toll, three or four words. ‘Forgive me, a sinner’.

When your fever exceeds 103 and life draws to its close, will you hide behind a thousand  masks of denial – or pay your memory its toll? Will you settle for a ‘fair-to-middling’ middle class Christendom of quaint cosy cottages and lurid leaflets titled: ‘Am I Good Enough to Get into Heaven?’ Knowing now on your parched lip and collapsing lung, that no one is? Will you stuff your meddling mind with idle talk, feed your lust for power that blinds you to the greatest weakness of all: a soul that cannot see itself? ‘What have I ever done, to be forgiven?’ you boast from your stiff, rigid pew. Never noticing the child that you left, alone and afraid, in some windswept field at night. ‘What have I to forgive?’ you ask. Forgetting that until you forgive your oldest injury, the past will hover above your bed, a bald, burlap skull and fleshless grin, staring you in the face? Many, many tollhouses you must pass in and out before your soul can rest. Haunted fields and bridges of dread. Thorny woods of dry, dead leaves – but once you have paid your debts to memory, you shall hear the faint music of rustling leaves long forgotten.

The lost leaves of paradise.

Beloved in Christ: on this the last Sunday before Great Lent, we forgive. To forgive is not to feel: riding blind nightwinds of pain and joy over a desolate field. To forgive is never to condone. To call good evil or evil good, like a black-buckled, icon-smashing Puritan, who has his reward. To forgive is never to rehabilitate your past. It is to let it go. It is never an easy way out, a stroll in the wasteland called memory lane. It is a declaration of war. ‘You have no hold on me’, we tell our past. ‘I break my bonds and begin to live’.

‘I am what my past has made me’, the unforgiving soul snarls. ‘I am what I make myself’, says she who forgives. Whom the Father’s eye sees in secret, and secretly sets free.

Before the fading eye of the Schema Nun, Micaëla, many images pass. The stiff-necked, stiff-spined convert, bound immobile to a pew by fetters of custom and manacles of pride. A five-year-old inside her, deprived of toys, tears, and any tender thought at all – until one Sunday, she falls at the feet of a stranger and embarks upon a new life. As her heartbeat mounts, then drops, Mother Micaëla feels it grow … quiet. On icy-cold lips, no trace is left of the stitched, stilted grin of Death’s dream kingdom. Only the peaceful smile of one who has opened all her doors, faced all her demons, and laid all memories of evil aside.

GATES OF HORN (Matthew 25.31-46)

February 19th, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Sunday of the Last Judgment (Meatfare), 19 February 2017

He will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left (Matthew 25.33).

Running your hand over fuzzy green mould on the wall, your finger flips on a light switch. Antennae quivering, glossy wings and bristly legs hastily scurry under the floorboards, as the roaches try to escape the bulb. What is left of the old iconostasis lies in splinters, like a medieval Communion rail, sunken in piles of mouse droppings and ever-mounting dust. ‘Imagine’, you muse, ‘I once actually attended a service here. For her sake, not mine’. At the eastern end of the ruined church, on a raised step in front of the altar, you can almost hear the ranting, raving priest. ‘Really’, you scoff. ‘No wonder he emptied out this church. Black-bundled beggars. Hungry, sick strangers, wasting away in detention centres. Who cares to hear about such morbid things?’ As your voice echoes, you seem to spy a slight shape disappear behind a column. ‘Incense up my nostrils’, you recall. ‘Popish icons. All foreign rot, that church of hers. It wouldn’t even give me Holy Communion. Five minutes into the sermon, I up and leave’. As if wishing to relive your petty victory, you deliberately pass the spot where you left her standing. Huge dark eyes, moist pupils darting back and and forth. Afraid to leave. Afraid of leaving you. ‘She’ll not complain’, you assure yourself. ‘An undocumented refugee? A Christian? Send her back to Syria, if she gets out of line’. From behind her column, the slight, slighted shape looks on. Forlorn and lost.

Like a hare caught in a trap, light transfusing her white dress. Her white bones.

‘Scrawny little thing, wasn’t she?’ Auntie Agatha asks, pouring tea in her ivory bone cup. ‘From Syria, or somesuch?’ ‘Um, yes’, you prevaricate. ‘Good thing you didn’t marry her, Algernon. A pity dying so young’. ‘She was a refugee’, you reply, hoping in vain to evade the issue. ‘She was a Christian, wasn’t she? Anti, Anti-, Ortho- …’. ‘Orthodox’, you snarl. ‘Is that a sort of Catholic, Algie?’ naïve blue eyes enquire. ‘Worse’, you answer. ‘At least, the fanatic gave her the last rites. Morbid fellow, banging on about starving beggars and refugees. Like … her’. Bubbling up from beneath your waking mind, the slight, small form. A tangle of torn black hair, brow sun-kissed yet pale. Afraid of trusting, yet trusting in you. What made you so resent that priest, pull back from the hungry, sick, naked souls whose pain he invoked week after week? Was it not she? She who smiled pitifully at your jokes, for fear of angering you. She who loved you with a refugee’s love, thirsty, desperate – but loved God more. You made her choose. Shutting the bedroom door at night, you think to shut her out. She is always there. Closing the cover of that latest read, you think to close your memory. She lives on every page. As your mind slowly sinks into your pillow, you set foot on your nightly journey. Running your hand over that fuzzy green mould on the walls, you flip that light switch and enter that roach-infested church. You remember walking out. Only it is not an Orthodox church, sunken in piles of mouse droppings and ever-mounting dust. It is you. From behind every column, a bony white hand extends toward you.

Your lover’s eyes, moist with tears. Forcing you to relive that moment. Again and again.

Judgement wears no barrister’s wig, no scarlet tabs of a High Court judge, gown trimmed in purplish red. She wears the soft, unstained white of a would-be bride. Judgement casts no thunderbolts, no sadist’s lust for whips and chains, no frosty, damning eye. Rather the eyes of a refugee – huge, dark, moist with tears – fearfully pleading: ‘I was a stranger and you did not welcome me’. Pour yourself a cup of Earl Grey. Cut a slice of Battenberg and forget. At the close of a day, of a life – of time – her hand reaches toward you. Her love so casually despised … yet unquenchable, implacable. Always and forever there. True eyes of love that never look away. Rise and leave, as you will. Flee under floorboards.

Roaches always flee when you switch on the light.

In the light of a blazing noon, there is no shade of night. No fuzzy wool blanket spun from fibres of denial to pull back over your head. No column to hide behind. In vain you search for mild, misty words, evasive excuses to blur the boundary between a new us and them. He who comes in absolute light separates the sheep from the goats. From dark recesses of memory, he raises all your spirits. To the scrawny refugee from Syria, blackmailed and betrayed, he says: ‘Come to my arms, my bride, my fair one. I too am a Stranger, feared and despised’. To lips that spoke fearlessly for justice, he promises: ‘Inherit the Kingdom of my Father, you who are merciful’. To a stiff neck, and an evasive eye, he laments: ‘My hand reached to you, you pulled back. My eye sought you out, you looked away. My lips called out, you rose and left’. ‘When did I walk out on you, my Lord?’ you smirk ironically. ‘If you did not recognise me in a tangle of torn black hair, a brow sun-kissed yet pale, an abject heart that craved only your love, you will you not recognise me now.

‘I leave you the unquenchable fire of my love, my constant love. To warm your dreams’.

Beloved in Christ: on the Day the books are opened and all hidden secrets come to light, sleeping or unsleeping, you will arise. When a soft hand, sun-kissed yet pale, reaches to take yours, you will try to pull back in vain. When tears flow down from huge, moist eyes, pleading like an animal caught in a trap or a child forsaken in the forest, in vain you avert your face. Whatever its features, this is the face of Christ – and Christ will never go away. Love is the two-edged sword, fit for defending those who have no one on earth to defend them. Fit for slicing through a tangle of lies. In your waking hours. Or in your dreams.

Death is a dream, they say. A dream from which only the living awake.

When a day, a life, a world comes to its end, which dream will be yours? Which gates will you pass into eternity? The smooth broad gates of ivory that deceive, or the hard narrow gates of horn that reveal the truth? When the end is no longer drawing near but now, will the Day find you sleeping or awake? The Icon of meekness will not rouse you if you wish only to sleep. The deathless and immortal will not stamp his image forcibly on your heart. He will not begrudge you a slice of cheese, a can of Stella, a shudder in the loins. He will not be satiated with so petty a fast. He will take you by the hand, throw open the gates of horn, the book that is your heart … and show you what is there.

PRODIGAL (Luke 15.11-32)

February 12th, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Sunday of the Prodigal Son, 12 February 2017

A great famine arose in that country (Luke 15.14).

Leaning face forward, you cling tightly to the table. ‘You understand, Father, we were all brought up that way. A sleepy little Ontario town. It’s not exactly Toronto, eh?’ The figure in black, perpendicular to you, fiddles with the silver cross atop his gold stole. Silently, he waits. ‘Nothing changes in a little provincial town’, you affirm. ‘Every Monday, ten on the dot, Mr. Campbell opens up the savings and loan with his rusty old skeleton key. Just as his father did, and his father, and his before him. Old Mrs. Darby at the post office dusts off her portrait of the Queen, then sorts the mail from Orillia, Parry Sound, and Sault Ste Marie. On Sunday, it’s off to chapel. Simple Gospel, mind you. Work hard, scrimp, save. Your arse aching from a hard plain pew, you look up at the memorial plaques. No icons, mind. A face or two, in bas relief. Stony, sexless, dry-eyed as our old Plymouth Brethren stock’. The figure dressed in black quietly strokes an elaborate, gilded Gospel cover. ‘We were brought up that way’, you stress. ‘If we ever squandered a nickel on a Cadbury bar, or slipped an arm around a pretty girl at a dance, or …’ Silently, the figure waits. ‘Or ever cried …’ A lock falls from your lips. ‘It was the strap to your knuckles. The swish of a belt. Supposed to make a “man” of you. What’s the real measure of a man, a clean, God-fearing man, if not …?’ A silence falls between you and the figure in black.

Silently but surely, his mind now sees into a conscience long sealed with a stone.

Priestcraft, you call it in the back of your mind. Why am I telling him? Years in the Church have never quite cured you of a Protestant’s distrust. ‘What if I locked him in the cellar?’ abruptly you blurt out. ‘He was my boy, damn it. I had to make a man of him. But I swear, I never once …’ The hand on the Gospel slips onto a richly embroidered, gold altar cloth. ‘I never laid a hand on him. It was a kitten, for Chrissakes! Mangy, mewling little … Yes, I took it out of his arms that night, drove into the woods, left it there. “No use crying over spilled milk”, I told him. What are you going to do with a kid who gets beat up by bullies then comes running boo-hoo to mommy? Spare the rod, and spoil …’ That priestly hand on the altar cloth reaches for his blessing Cross. ‘My Dad used to wallop me with a cane until blood splashed my legs’, your voice darkens. ‘I never beat my boy. I sent him away to a military academy. When he came home, never again did he cry. Never talked much afterwards. One late night, he went down to the cellar where he used to be so, so afraid. Funny’, your spirit cracks. ‘He used to think … that rope … in the corner … was a snake’. Thirty years dry, you smell the alcoholic fumes in your nostrils. The scar on your left wrist begins to ache. Ever since you first joined the Orthodox Church, you hoped against hope to forget. You journeyed into a far country, that strange, foreign land, where drunkards try to drown a guilt that no soul can bear. Blot out the image branded on an eye. In the quiet of a confession, awakening from sleep, you feel a mirror shatter inside your brain.

Hanging in a cellar, dead lips declare: ‘You were many things, Daddy, but never a man’.

What is the measure of a man? A bum blistered on hard pews? Blushing from the blow of a Bible-black belt or soul-snapping cane? Will you find it in the cold, clean, tearless eyes, the steely eye of a cadet, seeing no holy image on the walls – or in the heavens? Will you see it in skeletal fingers pinching pennies or in bleak, forlorn chapels of twisted unbelief? From Islington to Idaho, a great famine sucks the soil dry. Generations wander over bare, winding roads, littered with burnt fragments of Christ’s holy icon – or the icon of a child on his knee, pressing nearest to his merciful heart. The stony seed pod of the icon-smasher sticks in the gullet. Until you spit it out, your soul starves. Forgetting that …

The measure of a man is mercy.

In a muddy field, under merciless torrents of rain and blistering sun, he waits. He leans in hunger on the staff of a swineherd, gnawing into the wood. Exhausted, he lies among the pigs. His brown hand grasps at a rock-rigid, fecal-encrusted pod. He would even bite into it, were it not foetid as the breath of the last pock-marked whore. Hard as the dice thrown on the chances of one last coin. ‘Gimme what’s mine, old man’, his boyish bravado rings mercilessly in his ears. In this far country, no one gives. ‘A man’s religion is his own’, the grasping voices growl. ‘Ask your own god for help’. Rising acid-sharp into his cheeks, his eyes, a hunger that no pods can satisfy. A guilt unbearable, an image branded on a soul. At last, his spirit breaks. ‘I will arise’, he swears. ‘I will sweat in my father’s fields, if only, only, I can come home’. Still on the horizon, he sees his old father come running. No belt to beat him. No blame. Falling on his neck, the old man sheds tears. Prodigal tears, tears unstinting, unsparing. Lavish as a feast on fatted veal. Or a rich inheritance thrown away. ‘Is he even a man?’ the elder brother growls. ‘Why dress the spoiled brat in embroidered robes of gold? I’m the one who’s done his duty, not him’.

‘All I have is yours’, the prodigal father answers. ‘Take what you want. All mine is yours’. ‘But why be merciful to him?’ the Plymouth Brother asks. ‘Because he is my son’.

Beloved in Christ: are we not the prodigal Church? Prodigal incense wave on wave, olive oil, jasmine, and myrrh. Prodigal candles burning in the eyes of holy ones whom we hear and see and kiss. The Gospel preached – unstintingly, unsparingly – to the spendthrift on a muddy field, his purse-lipped puritan brother, and the little boy locked in the dark cellar, quivering at the coil of a rope. Come from the famine-wasted fields of heresy and feast at our prodigal table. We will crown you with oil of chrism and a robe of uncreated gold.

Only ask no simple Gospel. Truth is not simple. Nor indeed is the human mind. Or the human heart.

Laying his heart on a holy table where a deacon confesses before being ordained priest, the guilt-ridden convert no longer justifies his past. He lays it down. A flood of tears, fiery as lava, bursts in torrents from his eyes. Arms embrace the spectral image of … his child. ‘Are you not also a prodigal?’ the figure in black asks. ‘Let your tears flow. Let them burn away the last chaff of cold cruelty, and melt the last icicle of denial. You have wandered in a far country of exile. Now weep your pride away. Today you have become a man’.

THE SHARED WOUND (Luke 2.22-40 / 18.10-14)

February 5th, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Meeting of Our Lord in the Temple (deferred), 5 February 2017

A sign that is spoken against (Luke 2.34).

‘Get a whiff of this’, the officer on duty clamps a meaty palm into an olive-drab armpit and thrusts it out. Inhaling, his buddy exclaims: ‘Man oh man, whatcha call that?’ ‘Narcissus’, the officer brags. ‘Hot shit, huh?’ ‘Nar … ss … siss?’ his buddy falters. ‘Lopez, you are one dumb asshole’. Adjusting his brassy bald eagle badge, fixing his stars-and-stripes tie pin, border agent Myers explains: ‘It’s a Greek myth, dumb-ass. Narcissus was this gorgeous guy who looked in a pond and fell in love with his own reflection’. ‘What’s it gotta do with deodorant?’ Lopez asks. ‘Aw, sorta smells like daffodils. Only stronger. Keeps you safe’. Next in the queue steps up. ‘Number 1966’, Myers barks. A slim, olive-tinted figure, in the tightest Benetton jeans and a green headscarf. Bright, black pupils look worried and wet. ‘Hey, baby’, Myers unconsciously thrusts a finger into the crease in a US passport. ‘What do we have here?’ he reads. ‘Where were you born?’ ‘Iraq. I’m a naturalised citizen’, she replies. ‘Over there!’ On signal, two blue-skirted officers with cropped blonde hair escort her away. ‘Number 1967’, Myers calls. A frail old man bends low, in a long flowing robe of black. ‘Where’re you from?’ the agent scrutinises the scarred brown face and grey beard. ‘Syria!’ he reads a passport. ‘But I am Christian’, the man feels an object inside his robe. Thrust into a back room, a dull moan. Clatter of a priest’s Cross, falling to the floor.

‘Enemy alien, if I ever saw one’, Myers notes. ‘But …’ Lopez clasps his crucifix. ‘ISIS can wear a Cross, too’, the agent smirks. ‘We’ve gotta keep our country safe and secure’.

Secure and self-assured, the next in the border queue steps forward. ‘Number …’ A look. Agent Myers hesitates. ‘Number 19 … 6 … 8’. This foreign bad dude sports no Benetton, no green giveaway Muslim scarf, no imam’s Cross. A Hindu-Hippy dark blue robe stained almost black, over his blood-red brown tunic and an olive body broken by soldiers’ blows. Like the priest, his brow bears the sharp, red scars of torture. Judging from his beard, he can be no older than around thirty-three. ‘Passport’, Myers demands. As if unexpectedly anxious. The migrant hands him his papers. ‘This ain’t no green card’, Myers puzzles. ‘What’s this funny script, Arabic?’ ‘Aramaic’, Lopez comments. ‘I learned a few words in Bible class’. ‘What’s it say, dummy?’ asks the agent. ‘It says: malkut. It means Kingdom’. ‘You a king, or something?’ the agent baits the migrant. ‘You have said it’, he replies, in a tone gentle as a turtledove yet wise as a serpent. ‘You sassin’ me, boy?’ Myers menaces. ‘Don’t you know that I can detain you indefinitely? No 6059B, no I-94. No permit whatsoever. Don’t think of contacting your friends, or family, or lawyer. See that li’l gal in the scarf? Seems she has a baby. She’ll never see that baby til I say so. Homeland Security and me!’ ‘You can do nothing to me’, says the Migrant calmly. ‘I can testify against you’, the proud patriot browbeats him. ‘I can send your ass packin’, back where you came from’. ‘You would not be the first’, replies the Migrant, slowly walking away.

A trail of blood from wounds on his back, his brow. Where his footsteps were, no trace.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Berlin, 1932. Thirty per cent of the country, out of work. A grey sleeve signs an Enabling Act. A Chancellor supplants the Parliament. New York, 2001. Two planes crash into gold-rich towers – and from the splintered shards, bursting bombs, and spray of bullets over sixteen years … in the blood of three thousand victims, a blue sleeve signs an Executive Order. ‘I thank God Almighty’, patriot Myers prays with himself, ‘that my Country ain’t like other countries. Extortioners, drug dealers, rapists. Adulterers, terrorists – or that li’l gal in a headscarf with a bastard American brat’. Encircled by oceans, he feels quite safe on his mental island called a nation state.

Look down into that blue expanse. What will you see? A malignant narcissist, addicted to his own mirror image? Revived fears and fantasies of a rogue state? Or what the Migrant himself sees? Every refugee. Every outcast. Every Sign that is spoken against.

Under the shadow of Temple columns, she places her baby in an elderly stranger’s arms. Frail Symeon bends low in his long flowing robes of black, as though the burden were too heavy. In tear-encrusted, half-blind eyes, a fiery joy. ‘My time is come at last, my Master, according to the promise. Now let me die. My eyes have looked on the face of him, who redeems us from that long night of ignorance and fear. He who pours out his light on the nations, until no nation is left. Only the Israel of God’. Under a white Galilean headscarf, black pupils well up wet. A cold sweat of anxiety sprinkles the slim, olive brow of the girl. ‘Beware’, old Symeon looks deep into her eyes. ‘This Child will be the fall of an old order and the rising of a new. He will share the agony of a baby unborn, murdered in the womb; a migrant’s child, kept from its mother’s arms; a refugee tortured in the old country, or in the new. All his poor, turned back at the border. Many, many borders he will try to cross. All in vain. Until no fox’s hole is left, nor bird’s nest. No country to call his own. The sign of the eternal Migrant, spoken against. That sword of grief will pierce your soul, too. But in the wound that you share, all outcasts will find refuge’. An old widow named Anna, haunting the Temple, smiles as the girl from Nazareth walks away. In her arms, her light-bearing Child.

He forges a new Israel not from his own reflection but from the ocean of humanity’s tears.

Beloved in Christ: encircled by the vast, blue ocean, mental islanders build a nation state where blood and borders coincide. Labels to lull the questioning spirit, slogans to silence the critical brain, a narcissist looks into the pond and falls in love … with his own lie. The Pharisee’s vaunted virtue, the patriot’s pride. Thanking God that he is not like other men. Safe, secure, and separate. Behind the forty-foot wall of his people’s republic.

A kingdom is no people’s republic. It is no nation state. It is the realm of the King.

Royal footsteps leave no trace, where he shakes off the dust from his feet. A testimony to those who follow against those who would not welcome him. As his bluish-black robe and blood-red tunic disappear into the terminal, Deputy Agent Lopez follows. ‘Who are you?’ he asks him reverently. ‘A migrant’, states the Migrant, ‘who shares the wounds of many. Fear not’, he fingers the crucifix around the agent’s neck. ‘I shall come again’.