I got up early this morning to watch the Pope's address on the White House lawn.
I am excited about the Pope’s visit. I have to admit it, he has occupied his office in a way that I value, and so in coming to America I am interested in what he is going to say and how he is going to spark conversation and bring the idea of faith to the forefront of our national dialogue.
I have to say I don’t agree with the Pope though - on many things. I don’t agree with his views on women in authority, his views on sexuality, his views on the family. I do agree with him on many things, like climate change and the fact that our economic choices have a moral dimension to them that cannot be ignored. I don’t know what he thinks on some other issues. I am pretty sure he has a catholic view on abortion or euthenasia, but I have not heard him speak on that subject… not that he hasn’t, I just haven’t heard him speak on those subjects so I don’t know exactly what he thinks.
I am willing to listen though.
I think I am willing to listen because he says that he wants to start by listening to us, and I believe him. He has not just said it, but has assumed a posture of listening. As Pope it could be assumed that he speaks and we listen, but this Pope has not adopted that model. Some have accused him of just being interested in public relations - that he is changing tone not substance. I am pretty sure his core views on homosexuality have not changed, and being a Gay priest with a partner who was raised Roman Catholic I wish they would, but that does not mean I am unwilling to listen to him.
We have to be wary of the desire to rule someone out in any dialogue because they do not fully share our views. We will only grow as a country and a world if we are willing to do the hard work of dialogue.
Dialogue does not start with speaking, it starts with listening. It starts with abandoning our assumptions of the other and being open to who they are. I like this Pope because he shares some of my views, I am wary of him because he does not share others, I am open to him because he does not rely on the authority of his office, but is willing to be open to others with integrity and sensitivity.
As a man who also occupies a public role I am inspired by the way he occupies his - with all its limitations and expectations. I like that he breaks rules and errs on the side of compassion. I like that he breaks into the crowd and calls people up on the telephone to tell them he is praying for them.
I like that he listens. I am going to try listening more.
Regan O’Callaghan wrote this Icon (it is said that you ‘write’ an Icon – you don’t ‘paint’ it) he is a close friend of mine, an artist and a priest in the church of England. The subject is Lucy Winkett, the Rector of St James’ Piccadilly. The Icon was a gift to Lucy from a school where she served as Governor.
The Icon is in line with many Icons that Regan has written. He believes in representing the ‘sainthood’ of all believers by painting living Christians with the same care and honor that you would reserve for painting a saint. There are many such wonderful images of ordinary holiness on his web site.
In this image many of his common themes are present. The ‘sainthood’ of all believers is captured by the choice of subject herself: Lucy. Her robes contain a Koru – the coil which is representative of the fern from Regan’s native New Zealand, and a sign of the renewal of creation and creativity itself. She is dressed as a priest, and is blessing the watcher, and her face is open and beaming with the smile of a community leader, but then there is the imposing bird on her other arm which strikes a different note.
It is an Eagle, Lucy’s favorite bird, and it is majestic in its posture. In Christian mythology the Eagle is also the symbol of John’s Gospel, because it was said that John’s Gospel gives you an Eagle eyed view of the life of Jesus, and because the Eagle has such good eyesight and John’s Gospel helps us to see Jesus more clearly. The Eagle is perched on her left arm, and if you look closely enough its talons are drawing blood. This introduces some more complex themes into the piece. Initially it suggested to me that the preaching of the Gospel can draw blood: at least if done right! In speaking to Regan he told me that the blood represents the wounds of life, and I reflected back that life itself, if well lived, can be both costly, and also a sermon.
I love this painting, it is painted of a colleague by a good friend, and it also speaks volumes about the nature of the vocation to priesthood, and also to just being a Christian.
Does living the gospel sometimes cause you pain? Does living with integrity and truth feel like a challenge? Where are your sources of creativity and renewal? Are you smiling to the crowd, but also feeling pain that cannot be seen very clearly? Is there hope in your gestures?
Take a moment to contemplate this contemporary Icon. What would Regan paint in your Icon?
I woke up on Monday the 31st August, backsore, still tired, hungry and with the sound of rain hitting the tent bringing me down. “What was I thinking” I asked myself as I wrestled with the crumpled clothes to get dressed so that I might find a portable rest room. I got out of the tent knowing I would probably have to stand in line in the rain. I was already thinking about having to pack up the tent in the pouring rain before heading to the last part of vacation and my aches and pains turned into a full on grump… Martín laughed at me as I apparently said: lets get out of this godforsaken place.
Going to Greenbelt had been the cornerstone of my vacation plan. A festival of arts, faith and justice in the English countryside that is held every year over the last weekend in August (the English “Bank Holiday Weekend” - like our Laborday but a week earlier). Martín decided to come with me, rather than stay with friends in London, and we agreed to camp. I was convinced it was going to be an adventure and part of the rich experience of the long weekend.
It was for two full days… until it started raining.
We got there, after a whirlwind tour of London, Porstmouth and Seaford (to see friends, family and be tourists), got our festival programs and found a place to set up our tent. I was overjoyed when I realized what the theme for the weekend was. I had read the title on the web site of course, but I had not connected it to its source material. The weekend was entitled: "This Bright Field”
It is the title of a poem by RS Thomas, one of my favorite poets of the 20th Century, a welsh priest who was grumpy and irascible but managed to capture moments of sublime beauty in amongst the harshness of life:
This Bright Field
By RS Thomas
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
I read the poem, a particular favorite, and it made complete sense that I was here. I had been rushing through a program year that was really quite full of transitions and challenges at Transfig and I was tired, possibly exhausted. So when I decided to go to Greenbelt I must have subconsciously been wanting to slow down and experience the kind of moment of insight that Thomas describes.
I am grateful to John Tornquist and Matt Longnecker for understanding that and for helping me make the trip possible.
So here we were, in a field, contemplating the beauty of creation in the grounds of an English country house. The weekend unfolded with drama, art, worship and thoughtful talks. At some points it almost seemed overwhelming as there was so much to process, but I also met with old friends and made new ones and had an experience that people often describe in relation to Greenbelt, which was being able to talk through what was happening each night with other festival goers at the greenbelt ‘pub’ - which was really just a tent with a bar.
Those conversations fed me and helped me sort out what I was feeling about my experience of the festival. I caught up with Peterson Toscano, an old friend who was performing at Greenbelt, Louis Darrant another old friend and a priest in the Church of England, my English Colleague group and new friends including Ben and Rich (who had met and started a romance at Greenbelt ten years earlier and were still coming back years later, now married).
The bright field really was a time to turn aside from the hurry of life and take time to be in the present.
Being in the present can be challenging though. All kinds of feelings surface when you slow down and pay attention. I have alluded to it already but I have to admit to the last year has been tough. It has been tough due to some of my own longstanding underlying emotional and spiritual topography, and there was also the transitions in parish life at Transfig. Past history and present tiredness combined with my existential questions as I sat on the grass and listened to John Bell talking about the darkness in the Psalms.
I realized back in June that I had needed a moment to pause and look at both my life and God’s bright field from a new perspective, so I had decided to open up some space to think and pray, take proper time off and reflect on where I was. Before I went the Vestry and I talked creatively and and I also talked to my Spiritual Advisor, then on my vacation I had some good conversations with my partner, my family and friends. Now here I was, in the moment of reflection, thinking about darkness and the bright presence of God in this strange context in a field. What did I find?
Well, firstly I found that when you go away to a camp site in England over the August Bank Holiday weekend it may be sunny for a while but it will inevitably rain eventually. I found that rain and mud and sleeping on the ground could be uncomfortable and make me grumpy. And of course I found that experiences of spiritual searching include dark challenges as much as bright insights.
But I also realized that a loving God is moving in my life and in our world. I remembered that I am a beloved child of that loving God. I am part of a community at Transfiguration where people wrestle daily with symptoms of burn out and exhaustion but it is also a community that has depth, compassion and vision in abundance. I realize I face darkness in my own life and in ministry, but in facing it I find in it shoots of new growth and hope right there in the darkness. I know I can step out into my day and my calling with joy, hope and courage. I realized that spiritual growth is only achieved when darkness is confronted. So basically, I realized that the bright field and the muddy field are one and the same, and that I need both to grow.
From the UK, Matthew loved US culture from the first time he picked up a Fantastic Four Comic when he was 12.