Hidden God


Australian Anglican theologian Scott Cowdell quotes René Girard on the essential reserve of Christ:

Christ … withdraws at the very point where he could dominate. We in turn are thus required to experience the peril of the absence of God, the modern experience par excellence. … To imitate Christ is to refuse to impose oneself as a model and to always efface oneself before others. To imitate Christ is to do everything to avoid being imitated. … The death of the gods, which so frightened Nietzsche, is simply the same thing as an essential withdrawal in which Christ asks us to see the new face of the divine.

-          René Girard, Battling to the End, Conversations with Benoît Chantre, Michigan State University Press 2010, page 125, Quoted in Scott Cowdell, Rene Girard and Secular Modernity: Christ, Culture, and Crisis, University of Notre Dame Press 2013.

The Reed and the Spring – H. Bosco


The Reed and the Spring

 

On the cape the worlds of this kingdom disappear,
Invisible vessels that towards Him you steer,
When will we see your light-house flood the space with light
And banish before it the sombre squadron of night?

 

What celestial map showing how to take the promontory
Are you carrying with you as you race around eternity?
And when will you reach the stopover of prayer
to pick up the Eternal One if the harbours won’t let you there?

 

When on the sheltered docks of love and unreason
Did you load onto the admiral’s nave
Some fugitive demon a dream on the run from prison,
The chief of stars, pilot in the starry wave?

 

In heaven’s calm expanses disappear
The ephemeral wakes of vessels of prayer.
Has the ship’s astrologer hoisted the beacon of humanity
Far from earth on the Holy Spirit’s firmity?

Translation into English by Ted Witham 2014

Le cap sur ce royaume ou les mondes s’effacent,
Invisibles vaisseaux qui gouvernez vers Lui,
Quand verrons-nous vos feux illuminer l’espace
Et chasser devant eux l’escadre de la nuit ?

 

Pour affronter le cap quelle carte céleste
Avez-vous emportée en vous courses du Ciel ?
Et quand toucherez-vous, si nul port ne vous reste,
L’escale de prière où l’on prend l’Éternel ?

 

Avez-vous embarqué sur la nef amirale
Aux darses de l’amour et de la déraison
Quelque démon du songe évadé de prison,
Chef d’étoiles, pilote en la mer sidérale ?

 

Dans les grands calmes du ciel où s’évanouit
Le sillage évasif des vaisseaux de prière
L’astrologue du bord a-t-il loin de la terre
Hissé le feu de l’homme au mât du Saint-Esprit ?

H. Bosco, ‘Le Roseau et la source’, Poèmes,
Paris : Gallimard, 1949, pp. 266-267

A thought for a secular Australia


Hugh Jackson, Australians and the Christian God, Melbourne, VIC: Mosaic Resources 2013

 

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Review first published in November 2013 issue of Anglican Messenger.

 

Is Australia a Christian nation? Or have we been taken over by secularists? It matters. Not only does it affect the place of the churches in Australian society, it also has an impact, for example, on whether God should be mentioned in the nation’s Constitution.

 

In Australians and the Christian God Hugh Jackson weaves a narrative from detailed historical evidence. He shows that convicts resented the desultory attempts to muster them for compulsory church parades. Only a tiny minority of “respectable” citizens were ever converted to evangelical Christianity in the 19th Century.

 

Dr Jackson sketches the philosophical and social environment of the enlightenment.

 

The influence of the churches on society should have been evident in the legislation in the colonies establishing education but the secular view won out in every state. Instead of education that was thoroughly Christian, most colonial education allowed only for visiting special religious teaching and general religious teaching in the curriculum.

 

There was a minor burst of activity in both Protestant and Catholic Churches in the 1950s. The Billy Graham crusades created excitement, but the figures show that there was no increase in attendance in the years following.

 

Across the 20th Century Jackson notes a distancing from God. The evidence marshalled by Hugh Jackson reflects a nuanced reality. Australians may gather in awe and respect for the sacrifice made by fellow-citizens in war, but their attitude to the God of Nicene Creed is a thudding indifference.

 

Hugh Jackson is a reliable narrator of Australia’s connection to the Christian God. He graduated in theology from Cambridge before spending some years in Anglican ministry. His doctoral work and academic career were in history. He remains a deeply committed Christian and a careful observer of the ecclesiastical scene.

 

Australians and the Christians’ God will be the standard in this area for years to come. I recommend it highly for clergy and all with an interest in the church’s place in Australian society.

 

 

From fire and song to imageless Good – Friar Jacopone da Todi


Evelyn Underhill, Jacopone Da Todi, Poet and Mystic–1228-1306, a Spiritual Biography, London: J.M. Dent 1919

(Reviewed by Ted Witham)

It’s no surprise that in reading Evelyn Underhill on Jacopone that you are reading two mystics at once: the 13th century Franciscan and the 20th Century Anglican, Underhill herself.

While unfolding the life of Jacopone, Underhill shows what a great teacher of mysticism she is. Her understanding of Jacopone’s progress in the spiritual life is penetrating and fascinating, and to draw this portrait, she opens up the literature on mysticism in an accessible way.

Jacopone trained as a lawyer, although it seems that much of his time as a student was spent studying poetry and literature. In particular he was fascinated by the new vernacular poetry being created in the dialects of the Italian peninsula with its roots in the love songs of the jongleurs.

He practised for some years as a celebrity lawyer, enjoying the comforts of the good life. He later threw over all the material trappings of success to become a Franciscan Tertiary, spending perhaps ten years in the rough habit of a Tertiary, probably wandering from town to town spreading the gospel message through songs and poetry.

Jacopone

He felt a particular closeness to the ageing Brother Leo still living at the Portiuncula near Assisi and to the zelanti, the party within the friars who emphasised absolute poverty. Eventually he sought entry to the convent at Todi. The friars there took some time to accept him: they were of the more relaxed party, and were perhaps reluctant to accept a strong personality at the extreme other end of the Franciscan movement. Why did Jacopone choose the Todi friary? Certainly the town of Todi was his home. But it may also have been a genuine reflection of his humility. He chose to submit himself to superiors with views quite different from his own, and he agreed to remain a lay brother and not seek the privileges of clerical office within the Order.

He seemed to want the quiet life. But to break a deadlock in the 1294 Conclave his friend, the hermit Pietro Angelerio, was unexpectedly elected Pope Celestine V. Celestine’s administration was a disaster. It appears that Jacopone, the trained lawyer, travelled to assist the Pope, probably at his court in Naples.

At the same time, tensions within the Franciscan Order grew even greater, and, perhaps thinking that Jacopone’s presence in the papal court would help, the friars appealed to Celestine to sort the Order out. Celestine’s solution was drastic. He invited all the zelanti to leave the Friars Minor altogether and to come directly under his protection. Because it would break their connection with St Francis of Assisi, neither the zelanti nor the moderati wanted this, so Jacopone returned to Todi, disillusioned, and probably saddened to watch his friend’s papacy spiral downwards in chaos until Celestine resigned later that year and returned to being a hermit.

Jacopone spent the rest of his life in relative seclusion in the convent at Todi. His poems and songs reveal how he grew spiritually leaving behind the wild joy of his years as a Tertiary, to learn how to order love and to integrate his being as a Christian, and finally to detach himself from everything except God’s grasp of him.

His reputation for saintliness continued to grow in his lifetime, particularly among Tertiaries. Guilds of Tertiaries gathered to sing Jacopone’s songs, often belting them out like rugby fans singing Abide With Me, but also writing their own sensitive spiritual songs in the vernacular.

Jacopone’s story reveals the interplay between the interior and exterior life: how as a Tertiary, he lived la santa pazia (the holy madness). His wandering life reflected the roller-coaster emotions of the jubilo, the interior stage of the soul’s progress, characterised by “immoderate transports, tears, raptures, despairs” (p. 132). This early stage was an inebriation, which, as Jacopone wandered the beautiful Umbrian countryside, he saw reflected in all Creation and in the Creator. (p. 79)

Jacopone strikingly believed that God does not fit with narrow-mindedness.

Dio non alberga en core stretto
tant’è grande quant’hai affetto,
povertate ha si’ gran petto
che chi alberga deitate.
(Lauda LX)

 God does not dwell in narrow hearts,
the larger the heart the greater the desire for God -
poverty has such a great heart
that Deity dwells there.

Eventually Jacopone realised that he needed to be more ordered in love. He passed from Richard Rolle’s stage of “fire and song”, through the stage of intellectual integration, ‘’mentis sublevatio, in which the illuminated mind beholds things above itself” (Richard of St. Victor, p. 231) to a stage of letting go completely to find “Love beyond all language, imageless Good.”(p. 225)

Jacopone writes of this final spiritual stage:


Possedi posseduta
entanta unione
non c’è divisione
che te da lui retragga.
Tu bevi e se’ bevuta
en transformazione
. (Lauda XCI)

You possess – and you are the possessed,
in such a complete union
there is no division
that can drag you away from him.
You drink – and you are the drink
in this transformation.

The saint discovers that God’s love is as ordinary and amazing as gravity, felt as the soul’s weight, carrying it to its right place; God’s love is “the secret of stability, the rule of the Universe”. (p. 235)

From his time as a travelling Tertiary onwards, when he wrote his early songs and ballads, until his death, Jacopone wrote songs, poems and satirical verse in Umbrian. In particular, the Laude (Praises) deserve to be better known. They resonate well with our modern sensibility being both direct and yet clear in describing complexities of the spiritual journey.

In January 2013, HardPress Publishing produced a good quality reproduction of Evelyn Underhill’s 1919 work available online for about $AUD 31, or the original J.M. Dent Publisher version is available for loan (free) through the Australian Public Library System. For those who read Umbrian, the Laude are available online through the Gutenberg project at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/29977.

Why bother with religion?


Talk for the Naturaliste U3A Annual General Meeting introducing my 2014 course on World Religions.

Ted Witham, October 25, 2013

September 11, 2001 was a day on which many people thought the world would be better off without religion. My wife Rae and I were going to St David’s Church in Applecross at that time, and the priest there, Kay Goldsworthy (who later became the first woman bishop in the Anglican Church in Australia) invited the whole Applecross community to a service of reflection on the Sunday afternoon following.

 

The church was packed. I had not seen so many people crammed into the pews for many years. It seems that we human beings on one hand want to get rid of religion, and on the other hand we can’t do without it.

 

We hear noisy atheists like Richard Dawkins claiming that it is child abuse to bring up children in a particular faith. We hear informed and respectful atheists like Phillip Adams on ABC radio making a more reasoned case against religion. But people still flock to hear the Dalai Lama. There are still more people in church on a Sunday morning in Australia than there are at all AFL games on a weekend – though I fear that may change soon.

 

I believe passionately that we need to understand religion if we are to understand what’s going in the world. I’m not sure whether we are in a good position in Australia to understand. While two-thirds of us ticked “Christian” as our religion in the last census, we would have to concede that for many of us that’s a heritage statement. We’re Christian in the same way that we are European. It doesn’t affect our daily lives very much anymore. We’re actually Australians. And as Australians, we’ve never been strong on religion. Many of our forebears came to Australia as convicts or free settlers, and not from the church-going classes. The attempts to force convicts in Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land to compulsory church parades probably made anti-church feelings worse.

 

At the absolute height of our church-going in the nineteen-fifties, maybe nearly 50% of Australians went to church every month. Now it’s down to between 6 and 10% depending on which survey you believe.

 

But to understand the US, we need to understand their enthusiasm for religion; how, for example, in a country that appears on the surface to be like ours, people murder doctors who perform abortions. We have strong contrary views about abortion, but not murderous ones. Those views can only be explained in terms of American Christianity.

 

Some Muslims say they want to establish a caliphate from Malaysia across the Philippines and Indonesia and the top of Australia. You’ve seen the scary maps. But do all one billion Muslims want this? Is this what the Qur’an teaches?

 

Up to one in six of the families in the Perth suburbs of Murdoch and Winthrop are of Chinese origin. Our second biggest trade partner – and growing – is China. Taoism teaches a certain way of bettering oneself, to become a noble, by being natural and harmonious, it’s called wu wei. It includes the “Three Jewels” of compassion, moderation and humility… and getting ahead by education. This strand of Chinese religion is very helpful in understanding how they think and relate to others.

 

The civil war in Syria and the ongoing conflict in Iraq is between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Australia has accepted 500 refugees from the Syrian conflict. We ought to know more about them than just the bare fact that they are Muslims.

 

There’s a propaganda war being fought between the hard-line Saudis who spend huge amounts of oil money to promote their Wahhabi view of Islam. They build mosques in India and pay Imams’ wages around the world. Al-Qaeda came out of Wahhabi Islam. On the other hand the government of Qatar funds the English-language news channel Al-Jazeera. Their aim is to challenge the spin of both Arab and Western governments as an expression of their faith.

 

Or propaganda closer to home is the Malaysian court last week upholding a government ban on non-Muslims using the word “Allah” for God. This ignores nearly 2,000 years of usage by Arab Christians, Jews and Hindus and probably 1600 years of usage by Indonesian and Malay Christians. “No,” the ruling Muslims proclaim, “the word belongs to us, and if you use it, you will serve a prison term.” Interesting times.

 

The course that I offer next year will run for just 1 hour a week for 12 weeks. This will be time only to scratch the surface, even if we restricted ourselves to the most populous religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and traditional Chinese religion. What I propose is to take one aspect, holiness, and discover with you what it means in eight or nine religious groups to experience holiness. We may find in the end that the idea of holiness turns out to be too Christian and western to do justice to some of the other religions, but it will give us place to stand and explore and not be overwhelmed, because otherwise there is so much to know.

 

Each week I will talk or show a video for 20 or 30 minutes and then allow you to discuss the ideas that have been raised. I will aim to be respectful but not uncritical of people’s beliefs, including my own. I am a convinced Christian, but this group is not an exercise to persuade you of any particular belief or idea – it’s an opportunity to help us be better informed and understand a little better complex and important happenings in our world.

 

Loving God through Music


My sermon for the Third Order Convocation

Sunday 15 September 2013 – The Stigmata

Loving God through music

God takes human art very seriously. This weekend has reminded us of God’s interest in art. Anne has introduced us to icons which lead many to worship and may help us worship God too. Asta and others reminded us of the importance of play in art.  Of course God has chosen as God’s principal means of communication with us a book full of parables, like that of the pearl we just heard, and poetry and insightful novels like Job and Ruth and Joseph and glorious liturgical praise-poems like those in Revelation.

The art form I know best is music. My Grandad was the first to tell me that you can tell how sincere a person’s faith is from the way he sings. I didn’t know then that he was quoting Thomas Hardy who was quoting John Wesley! It’s true that you can tell from a person’s voice something of their emotional state, and it’s true that singing leads many of us to worship.

We can take our lead from Jesus. We know that he sang. In the synagogues of his time – as today – the Scriptures are always sung. When Jesus stood up in the synagogue and took down the scroll of Isaiah and began to read, he chanted. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he sang. In our parish in Busselton, we are learning a new sung version of the Lord’s Prayer, and some people are objecting. I smile because I know that Jesus would have chanted his prayer both to help memorisation and also to convey awe and reverence:  [sing] “Our Father in heaven.”  The disciples sang a hymn on their way to the Mount of Olives.

Broadening our view of Jesus from Jesus the man to Jesus the Christ who was with the Father from the beginning, the Wisdom who was beside the Creator, we know that Wisdom played (Proverbs 8:31). Some scholars believe that Wisdom, the Christ, was playing a musical instrument. In Job, the “morning stars sang together”. Christ is the morning star (Rev. 22:16), so if we conflate Job and Revelation, we can hear the eternal Christ – the morning star – still singing. John Calvin says that Christ is the Precentor, the lead singer in heaven.

Great theologians of the 20th Century like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were accomplished musicians. Music, they said, especially like that of Mozart and Bach, invites us into the Gospel like parables.

But I think the importance of singing and worship is not just hi-falutin’ like that. When we sing in worship, we have to listen to each other and take into account each others’ voices. It’s nice to have a choir or a strong voice to give us a good idea of the pitch and the pace, but it’s the reality of hearing our relationships as the Body of Christ that strikes me as important. We hear each other, we give way to each other in love, we allow the Body to change us and improve us.

Most Sundays as we listen to each other we hear high voices and low voices, adult voices and children’s voices. Occasionally some brave tenor will sing his part. The voices weave together to create something new and striking. We are transformed as individuals and as a community.

Over the last 10 years my attendance at church has been hit and miss because of my health. And I do miss it. I miss receiving the sacrament in company; I miss the people; and I really miss the singing. The music incarnates the Church for me. The Roman Catholics at Vatican II hit on something when they said that “the incarnation brings heaven’s song to earth so that earthly singers can join” (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy §83). We sing and we become the Body of Christ here and beyond here.

Singing reveals emotion. How often have we heard people say, “Oh I can’t sing.” Sometimes they might mean they are worried about singing in tune, but more seriously I think they’re worried about what people will think of them. My daughter says to me, “Dad, you sing too loudly and I get embarrassed.” It’s easy to be put off.

But be encouraged to sing. Be encouraged by Jesus for whom singing was important. Be encouraged because of what happens when you allow your voice to come out. Your sisters and brothers will hear the emotions you reveal and will accept you and love you for those emotions. Your voice with its emotions will become part of the rich tapestry of sound. And when we all allow the song to sing in us, when we let go and let the music happen, then we allow Christ to sing through us.

In a few moments we will renew our promises as novices and as professed. We will sing solo for a bit and allow ourselves, our whole lives to be sung by Christ, his instruments, his voice, his song.

Clement of Alexandria said back in the 2nd Century, “Christ plays the instrument of creation (especially the human part of it), Christ sings the true song, and Christ himself is the new song played by the Father.”

It’s a wonderful thought that may have occurred also to Francis playing air violin on two sticks. We are a musical instrument, and if we let go in the music, Christ plays us, Christ sings us, Christ lifts us up to the Father.

Please sing with me:

Father, we adore you,
Lay our lives before you,
How we love you.

Ted Witham
This sermon much inspired by the essays in Jeremy Begbie’s excellent
Resonant Witness on music and theology.

Saint Louis – patron saint, not patronising


Jacques LeGoff, Saint Louis, University of Notre Dame Press 2009, Hardcover (ISBN 9780268033811) $80 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The name of Saint Louis is often evoked as a patron saint of the Third Order. I realised this year that I had been a tertiary for 30 years and have a rough knowledge of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary and perhaps a better knowledge of the Mother of our Lord, but knew almost nothing about our third patron saint.

France’s finest medieval historian Jacques LeGoff was director of studies at l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He has a particular interest in Saints Francis and Clare and the spread of their movement through Europe in the 12th Century. His studies into money and Saint Francis and medieval culture and the church not only provide new insights into Francis, but are also inspirational for Franciscan living. Surely, I thought, from his ten year-long study of Saint Louis, which resulted in this book of nearly 1,000 pages I would both learn more and be encouraged in my Franciscan journey.

Saint Louis is a fascinating book to read. In the first Part, Professor LeGoff draws on all the evidence at his disposal to lay out the life of Saint Louis: he covers his childhood, the influence of his grandfather Philippe Augustus, the early death of his father Louis VIII, his co-regency with his mother Blanche de Castille, Louis’ piety and close circle of advisers, his departure on two crusades, the better organisation of his kingdom under the principles of justice and peace, and his death in Libya.

The king was deeply influenced by the new religious orders. He founded a Carthusian monastery called Royaumont. There were always friars in his retinue, including the Franciscan Geoffroy de Beaulieu, one of his confessors whose biography was instrumental in the king’s candidacy for sainthood. At this time in history the Preaching Friars and the Friars Minor were popular with royalty everywhere. Louis’ brother-in-law Henry III of England also included mendicants in his entourage.

Part II of LeGoff’s book interrogates the evidence at greater length to explore how much can really be known about Louis Capet as an individual, given that many 12th Century writers attempted not to write accurate portraits of public figures but to delineate ideal princes. LeGoff concludes that we can dig through the flattering surface of the documents and find an individual.

Part III includes family trees, charts, bibliographies, extensive notes and the text of Saint Louis’ letter to his subjects after his first crusade. Gareth Evan Gollrad has done a mighty job in translating Saint Louis into English. Rarely are you aware that you are reading a translation. I was a little disappointed that maps and charts were not completely translated, so would not be accessible to all English readers. There were occasional surprising non-translations, for example, Saint Benoît is not translated when referring to the Benedictine monastic tradition.

Louis IX is the first person recorded speaking French. He was in the habit of sitting on the ground, partly as a disposition of prayer in his chapel, and partly to put people at ease in the presence of the king. He enjoyed laughter and jokes with his close friends, and in fact, liked laughing so much that he tried to fast from laughter on Fridays!

His personal practice including hearing as many offices recited during the day as possible, adjusting prime to 2 a.m. rather than midnight so he had enough energy to govern the country during the day. His confessors often thought him excessive in his asceticism and talked him out of fasting from meat on Mondays as well as Wednesdays and Fridays. Friar Geoffroy cautioned him to be gentle with flagellation.

He gave alms to the poor. He knew it was his duty to do this publicly in procession, but he also privately fed the poor from his table, feeding the handicapped with his own hands. (These were the days before kings were sequestered from their people in lavish palaces.) Louis was privately generous with money not only with the poor, but with close friends like the knight Joinville who lost everything in the crusade.

He believed he was called to go on crusade: even though a little late in crusading history he was a Christian king of his time. He was a fighting knight but he had learned from St Francis, and his strategy included converting the Muslim leaders. He wasn’t successful, but in captivity he was allowed to keep his breviary. His captors respected his faith as the Sultan had respected Francis’s.

In preparation for the Crusades, King Louis did what no king before had done. He actively sought the forgiveness of his people, sending agents throughout his lands and making good any injustices that he had caused.

Returning from his first crusade, he spent time with the Franciscan Hugh of Digne, and was so impressed with Friar Hugh that he begged him to come to Paris to join his retinue. Hugh refused, but Louis implemented Hugh’s ideas.

The Franciscan’s biggest idea was that everything in the kingdom’s administration should serve justice and peace. In a feudal world, this was radical. It meant, for example, that Louis took direct control of the growing towns, because without his authority, the poor and the lesser people would never see justice. Hugh also apparently persuaded the king to tone down his dress and personal style.

Sainte-Chapelle. Built to house the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the Holy Cross

Louis considered one of the great acts of his reign buying the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the Holy Cross from Constantinople. The purchase price was so high Louis had to raise cash to secure them and have them escorted back to Paris. To house and expose these relics he built the exquisite but also expensive Sainte-Chapelle primarily as his private place of meditation.

In the coronation liturgy, Louis was crowned “the most Christian” king. His aim was to live out that promise. By the standards of the day, he was a holy man as well as a monarch who was wise enough to guide his people on the transition from feudalism to a more central society.

But strangely, for this reader at least, Louis was not a tertiary. He gave equal favouritism to Carthusians, Dominicans and Franciscans. Though critics taunted him by claiming he was a secret Franciscan friar, LeGoff decides there is no possibility of the king belonging to any Order.

Jacques LeGoff concludes that as he came to know Louis Capet, as family man, Christian and king, he

“came to understand why many people had a desire to see him, to hear him, and to touch him, A personal charisma was added to the prestige of his function…This was the charisma of a king who did not need to wear the crown … to impress anyone, the charisma of a tall, thin handsome king with the eyes of a dove whom Salimbene of Parma had seen coming barefoot through the dust on the path to Sens. He was an impressive character regardless of his appearance…. I heard him laughing, joking, teasing his friends, making simple gestures, like sitting down on the ground, with a minimal amount of affectation… And I began to conceive a mixture of friendship of admiration for him, as the historian’s impertinence and distance in time allowed him to forget his position.” (pp. 726-727)

As a Frenchman, LeGoff has a particular interest in Louis’ nation-building; however, for me, as a Christian, the strength of the book was in the sympathy with which LeGoff explores the details of the Saint’s life. Some aspects make us cringe because we live in a different world. Some, like his indifference to his wife, make us cringe in any era.

So while the “real” Louis IX may not have been a Franciscan tertiary, his emphasis on peace and justice and his adaption of the values of poverty and joy make him an appropriate Franciscan patron. Jacques LeGoff has given us a clear and complex portrait of a man of his time authentically living out his vocation. As Franciscans, we may not be able to claim Saint Louis as one of “ours” in any tribal sense, but as a Christian learning from Saint Francis and living a complex life, Louis can be for us a paradigm of embodied Christian living in all its richness and ambiguity.

Beach Walk — Haiku


Our “Good mornings” thrown
jauntily into the air
like brightly coloured frisbees.

Ted Witham, September 1, 2013

 

Jesus Aviator


Translation from the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Forthcoming in Ezra: An Online journal of translation. Apollinaire, of Belarussian background, was a contemporary of Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Eric Satie. 

Christ (not the Wright Brothers) was “First in Flight”,
Ascended like a rocket to a record height.

Apple Christ of the eye
Twentieth favourite of the centuries he flies comprehending,
This century like Jesus has changed into a bird ascending.
The devils in the abyss lift their heads to see him dash.
They said he was imitating Simon Magus wanting cash
They shout that if he is so light he can steal into the sky, they must have caught him stealing.
The angels dance around the dancer’s dizzy wheeling
Icarus, Enoch, Elijah, Apollonius from Thyana’s philosophy scene
Float weightless around this first flying machine
They spread out from time to time to let those go past
Who get carried away by the Holy Eucharist
These priests who go up eternally elevating the bread
The plane alights at last its wings wide spread
Then the sky is full of millions of swallows
Swiftly the crows the falcons the owls all follow
From Africa arrive the ibis the flamingos the marabou storks, all sky-dwellers,
The Roc bird celebrated in talks by poets and story-tellers
Held flat in the greenhouses Adam’s skull the first head
The eagle from far-flung horizon shrieks to wake the dead
And from America are with wings blurred
macaws roadrunners little hummingbirds
From China the Pihi birds long and supple
Who have only one wing each and fly as a couple
Now watch the immaculate spirit-dove advise
As it is escorted by the lyre-bird and the peacock full of eyes,
The phoenix this flaming pyre which is of itself begotten
In an instant all his burning cinders fall forgotten
Sirens leaving the dangerous straits and dire
All three arriving singing beautifully in choir
And eagle phoenix Chinese Pihi all remain
To fraternise with this fascinating aeroplane.

Guillaume Apollinaire – Alcools – extrait de “Zone”

C’est le Christ qui monte au ciel mieux que les aviateurs
Il détient le record du monde pour la hauteur

Pupille Christ de l’oeil
Vingtième pupille des siècles il sait y faire
Et changé en oiseau ce siècle comme Jésus monte dans l’air
Les diables dans les abîmes lèvent la tête pour le regarder
Ils disent qu’il imite Simon Mage en Judée
Ils crient s’il sait voler qu’on l’appelle voleur
Les anges voltigent autour du joli voltigeur
Icare Enoch Elie Apollonius de Thyane
Flottent autour du premier aéroplane
Ils s’écartent parfois pour laisser passer ceux que transporte la Sainte-Eucharistie
Ces prêtres qui montent éternellement élevant l’hostie
L’avion se pose enfin sans refermer les ailes
Le ciel s’emplit alors de millions d’hirondelles
À tire-d’aile viennent les corbeaux les faucons les hiboux
D’Afrique arrivent les ibis les flamants les marabouts
L’oiseau Roc célébré par les conteurs et les poètes
Plane tenant dans les serres le crâne d’Adam la première tête
L’aigle fond de l’horizon en poussant un grand cri
Et d’Amérique vient le petit colibri
De Chine sont venus les pihis longs et souples
Qui n’ont qu’une seule aile et qui volent par couples
Puis voici la colombe esprit immaculé
Qu’escortent l’oiseau-lyre et le paon ocellé
Le phénix ce bûcher qui soi-même s’engendre
Un instant voile tout de son ardente cendre
Les sirènes laissant les périlleux détroits
Arrivent en chantant bellement toutes trois
Et tous aigle phénix et pihis de la Chine
Fraternisent avec la volante machine

-          Guillaume Apollinaire, France 1880-1918, Alcools : poèmes, Gallimard 1944, pages 8-9

Midwifing the Faith


First published on the Patheos website.

“Passing on the Faith” as a phrase evokes different images: for some passing the treasure of faith is like runners in a relay passing the baton to their successor; for others, it evokes a teacher standing before a group of learners and explaining Christian faith to them.
I started my working life as a school-teacher, and the image of a teacher and a class has been dominant for my ministry. I was never happier than in front of a class of a children, or teaching ministry students.
But all the teaching activity in the world doesn’t add up to “passing on the faith”. In the contemporary church teaching is not up to the exciting task of the church making our Lord known and loved by succeeding generations.
The National Church Life Survey of 27 denominations found in Australia in 2001 that average congregations had between 60 and 70 people , and in the US one-fifth of adults who attend worship services told the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that they attend a “small congregation with a membership of less than 100.”
This means that the vast majority of congregations are “small congregations”. Fewer members mean fewer resources for teaching. In Australia, more so than in the United States, “younger generations are missing” from attendance at these small churches.
The limitations of overall numbers and the absence of children indicate the stark reality that passing the faith by teaching is failing. And yet, God is not about to desert God’s church. The task of passing on the faith will continue. What this vital activity needs is a better image with the power to change the way congregations do things.
Internationally-respected scholar of social learning theory Etienne Wenger  originated the term ‘community of practice’. Wenger asserts that a community can be defined by the things that it does and by passing on its practice by a combination of talking about it and allowing new members of the community to gradually take up the practices under some form of mentorship.
Apprentice butchers learn their trade this way. They watch the journeymen butchers, get caught up in their talk about butchering, and, moving upward from passing the boss a knife to cutting up a carcass, they gradually gain in competence. In traditional villages midwives select young girls to succeed them. The girls run messages for the midwife, watch her bring the village babies in the world, hear them talk with other midwives about their tasks, and slowly begin to take on more complex tasks until they are ready to deliver babies themselves.
Communities of butchers and midwives have a shared way of doing their defining tasks, and they pass on their common practices by inviting new members to learn by doing and talking about what they are doing.
Christians accustomed to see faith primarily in terms of right belief may need to re-shape their theology of church. The church as a community of practice has a theological focus on vocation, that is, the call of Holy Spirit on our lives to love God and neighbor spotlighting what we do in the name of Christ. God calls us to pass on this active faith, so we talk about what we are called to do and invite new members – new adults or children of current members – to gradually take up small tasks of ministry.
Two things become vital:

° the quality of the congregation’s conversation, and

° the understanding that discipleship is expressed in service to the poor, in loving the unloved.

Congregational leaders invite people into formal and informal conversations about living the faith, from sermons to coffee hour. They are intentional in mentoring new members. They put into words their enthusiasm for the tasks of ministry and invite these ‘new Christians’ to undertake small acts of service, and gradually allow them to develop their own practice.
For example, the manager of the church’s charity shop or food ministry first invites a new member to undertake a few hours’ serving the needy, all the time talking about how it is an expression of faith. As the months pass, this new member may be called to give more time or shoulder more responsibility in the ministry. She will become an enmeshed part of the ‘community of practice’, and be filled with the desire to pass on the faith in the way she received it.
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Ted Witham is a retired priest of the Anglican Church of Australia who has taught Religious Education to children and to adults preparing for ministry or teaching. He studied at Duke University in North Carolina under John H. Westerhoff III. He is Immediate Past President and a Life Member of the Australian Association for Religious Education, and a member of the North American Religious Education Association.

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