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An Essay on Theological Reflection: My Final Ruminations – David Calvert

August 30, 2015

DCWhen I was a student I was also a daily communicant. The Anglican Chaplaincy was just opposite the theology department and had a daily Eucharist at 1210, which was perfect for after the 1100 lecture – except on Mondays when I had a Hebrew lecture at 12. It just so happened that the MethSoc (Methodist Society) had a communion service at 1310 on Mondays. A bit of a dilemma here – as a diligent anglo-catholic, I believed that Methodist ministers were not priests in the apostolic succession so their sacraments didn’t ‘take’. But surely, I reasoned, a defective mass was better than no mass – so I started to attend. Years later, I know that the Methodists see ‘succession’ in a different way, that it’s the fault of the Anglicans that they ordained presbyters without bishops etc. Back then, I simply grew to know and like David Calvert, the Methodist chaplain, who celebrated those eucharist, who would have been aged 31 back then, and who wrote this book: a collection of reflections during his final year living with terminal cancer.

We start off with the idea, essential to those of us with university degrees on theology, that ‘every woman and man can be a reflective theologian, whether we be ‘bears of massive brain’ or ‘bears of little brain’.’

David had sat under the era’s finest theologians – Dennis Nineham, Geoffrey Parrinder and Ninian Smart.

Then ‘I knew that this was all, for me, theoretical knowledge about God, a bit like gathering material for a biography of someone you’ve never met . . . But the biographer doesn’t have to meet the subject of his study for the exercise to work . . . The theologian has to meet God for his work to work at all. The orthodox are surely right here: theology is prayer. And prayer is the only way into knowing him . . .’

Our experience, once we pass on from childish securities ‘I knew that this was all, for me, theoretical knowledge about God, a bit like gathering material for a biography of someone you’ve never met . . . But the biographer doesn’t have to meet the subject of his study for the exercise to work . . . The theologian has to meet God for his work to work at all. The orthodox are surely right here: theology is prayer. And prayer is the only way into knowing him . . .’

The trouble is that ‘When I look for him he is not there. It’s like a game of hide and seek, except that I feel as though I am playing it all on my own. . .’

Before I ever knew what the term meant, he says ‘I’ve preached a panentheistic theology all my life, God is found in everything. And now I can’t find him in anything . . .’

David had tried to read, rather than to proof-text, Mother Julian’s ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. As a spiritual director, I am supposed to know about this but I actually find it very difficult so I am full of admiration of someone who has grappled with it from a heart-level rather than from the point of view of an academic text. It’s all about love – why is love so hard for those who hide behind intellect?

There is an amazing experience of him trying to shield himself from torrential rain – unsuccessfully – behind a rock – thoughts of Elijah’s earthquake, wind and fire – ,but no still small voice of calm or of anything else.

Isn’t catholic practice tailored to our weaknesses?: ‘I walked up to Westminster Cathedral where I lit some candles and let them say my prayers for me . .’

This elusive quality called holiness – I think we know it when we encounter it – First, the search for self and the search for God are one and the same, and they become one precisely in the search for personal holiness. But, secondly, this human quest for self understanding and identity and this religious quest for reaching out for God are both self-defeating. No human search is able to achieve either objective, though our inquisitiveness obliges us to undertake the quest, even if we already know its futility. And, thirdly, the clue to this well attested and exasperating enigma lies somewhere in the theme selected for this consultation: the call to holiness. It is God’s call and God’s work within us.‘

He had ‘a reluctance to see Christian discipleship as an imitation of Jesus. Such imitation as there is must be an imitation of the life of God himself rather than its particular incarnate form in the person of a first century Jew. But in the end, it is not an imitation at all. It is much more to do with God living within us than it is to do with our striving to follow a model.’

Now that is interesting. Prof. John Tinsley, who was at Leeds at the same time, wrote a book about this and it follows the same trajectory, that of the cross, followed by resurrection as revealing our fulfilled selves.

Fr. Harry Williams, CR, wrote a profound book and David echoes it, knowingly or not, ‘The wilderness experience and the temptation stories which belong to it are focused around the question of identity. `Who am I?’ was the central question for Jesus in the wilderness. But he did not discover the answer there, but only m the living out of his search for God in the course of his ministry. This search for God’s will is seen in his praying and his journeying. His praying is to do God’s will; his journeying arises out of his call to set his face towards Jerusalem. His search for God led him to suffering and crucifixion. And then, lust as it seemed that he was achieving God’s will and fulfilling his own destiny, he lost his sense of God’s presence and the assurance of his own purpose. ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me’, is a derelict cry expressing the failure of his search for self and for God. Yet in the midst of this failure there is God finding him and enabling him to be his true resurrection self. It is in the broad pattern of the spiritual journey that we seek-to have the mind of him who though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.

Since the 1960s, we have avoided all talk of ‘judgement’ and out liturgies put brackets round the cursing bits on the psalms. This meant that our prayers became less than honest. David grasped this when he wrote ‘when we omit such unworthy verses of the psalm we endanger its spiritual integrity. For hatred is a human characteristic, and expression of our hatred is an essential element in our search for holiness. Without such recognition there is a blockage in the path towards God, for the search for self and the search for God tread the same road. It is characteristic of religion that our hatred of our enemies is expressed as our hatred of what God hates!’

He writes about Merton’s abandonment of intellectual of even spiritual images. Had avid lived longer, he might have revised this a bit in the light of ‘The true self lies beneath the level of consciousness but can surface at times when the external self comes to rest and lets God take over. …..Merton failed to reflect thoroughly on the relationship between the false self, the true self and the healthy ego that develops a responsible moral stance. Making such distinctions would have brought him into psychology and even theology, and he was not a systematic thinker. His primary purpose was to create for himself a view of the ground of integrity which would be incomprehensible unless it was rooted in God. He suggests that in his own life integrity and authenticity must be won again and again….. The contemplative has nothing to tell you except to reassure you and say that if you dare to penetrate your own silence and dare to advance without fear into the solitude of your own heart, and risk the sharing of that solitude with the lonely other who seeks God through you and with you, then you will truly recover the light and the capacity to understand what is beyond words and beyond explanations. Jane Kopas in The Way April 2015

 I didn’t know that his PhD was on Tillich – he was al the rage back then. ‘ Perhaps we should not so much seek the companionship of God as learn to allow God to transform the loneliness into solitude, to echo the phrase of Tillich’s finest sermons.’

And I also didn’t know that St Augustine also wrote: unto Him who is everywhere, we come by love and not by navigation’.

Please tell the know-it-all evangelicals who are perverting our Church of England: and our self-understanding. There is simply no other way. And this creates no problem, until someone decides to claim an absoluteness for their small glimpse of some small part of the mosaic.

There’s a section on the empty tomb which starts off ominously, seemingly with circular arguments reminiscent of Frak. Morrison’s ‘Who Moved the Stone?’ But it moves into a profound meditation on the absence of God and of darkness – the latter would have delighted the late John Hull who, as a blind man, railed against unthinking use of darkness to signify evil.

David quotes, with approval, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book on silence.

There’s a somewhat disappointing chapter about Jesus, surveying the quest for the historical Jesus and so on but it does end with the useful reminder that there is more to God than can be known in Jesus.

In a rather good section about prayer, he quotes Rowan Williams: ‘God cannot speak to ; you if you are not actually there’ and Thomas Merton:`The praying person searches not only his own heart, but he `plunges’ deep into the heart of the world in order to listen more intently to the deepest and most neglected voices that proceed from its inner depths.’

He also mentions Mother Mary Clare from Fairacres, whom quality clergypeople rate and also the three hour long film ‘Into the Great Silence’ about which I read a long article in a Jesuit jourmal on the same day as I read this chapter.

I am not sure that he is right about Richard Holloway being hesitant to say that ‘God’ is a human invention, but then Holloway seems to say different things at different times.

At the end of the day, David agrees withy The Cloud of Unknowing: “By love God may be gotten and holden, but by thought of understanding, never.” And comes to the conclusion, with John Tinsley, that preachers have to ‘tell it slant’.

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