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Nearer than breathing – Melvyn Matthews

November 5, 2015

NTBGod as love, in the Song of Songs, in the film American Beauty’, in simply breathing deeply, will not let us go. But we try to about him/her.

Melvyn distils the wisdom from those books which have inspired him over the years and which some of us have heard in his sermons.

He also shows that you can be liberal within a generous orthodoxy that challenges narrow conservatism.


Then there is the question of false pride. If you had thought that Christianity or the Christian Church had left behind all that legalism and was a superior sort of religion, then you only have to look around you and see. The debate has not gone away. There are still those within the Church who are desperate for some form of purity, and who will use the moral law to batter their congregations and their bishops with similar calls to so-called purity. They claim pure biblical teaching about sexual ethics, or pure teaching about male or clerical authority. In recent days we have seen faithful and long-serving church organists dismissed from their posts because they are not married to their long-standing partners; children refused baptism because their parents are ‘living in sin; couples refused marriage for the same reason; and bish­ops of the Church barred from their parish churches because they apparently refuse to accept pure ‘biblical’ morality. All of these instances are precisely what Jesus spoke against, namely, the use of the moral law to achieve communal purity over against others. Time and time again he witnessed against this and asked those who knew themselves to be without sin to cast the first stone. A short while ago the Bishop of Worcester — who has been prevented from administering confirmation in a parish in his diocese because of his alleged views on homosexuality — wrote in the Church Times saying that it was not part of the gospel to try to erect a ‘pure’ Church. What we should be doing is talking about the Church as a community of grace and forgiveness. So before we become too proud and talk about Christianity as having superseded the legalism of the Pharisees, let us look around us. Let us indeed look into our own hearts and ask ourselves what we are doing and saying in the Church today, for the argument is not over. Jesus’ teaching is still needed, and you do not escape merely by saying you are a Christian and Christianity has super­seded legalistic Judaism. Judaism is not legalistic in that sense and many Christians are just as pharisaical as what they presume to condemn.

The truth of the matter is that this incident in St Mark’s Gospel is not about all that. It is about being given a new heart. If we go back to basics and ask ourselves what it was that Jesus was doing, we discover that Jesus was a prophet of the end-time. He said that what we hoped for at the end of time or at the end of our lives was here, now, among us. Here, hidden in our daily lives, the kingdom, the life of God, could be found. And we could, if we wanted, turn away from our preoccupations about who was right and wrong, who was pure or not. We could, to use theological language, ‘repent’ and believe this, and find the grace and life of God being given to us now. We could enter the kingdom now. There was a realm of grace and we could live in it. This is the whole meaning of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees when they catch him and his disciples eating corn in the field on the Sabbath (Mark 2.23-30). Jesus effectively says, the Sabbath is here. The final Sabbath of love and mercy is here among us. My disci­ples are living in the end-time now. And the same answer applies when he is criticized by the Pharisaic Thought Police for healing on the Sabbath. ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘in the Sabbath of the kingdom all of us will be healed and I am living in that Sabbath now.

First, we have to recognize that a theology of the impor­tance of the feminine is not a twentieth-century invention. It formed part of the faith in the twelfth century, and was part of the great revival of faith which gave us our cathedrals.

Second, that we are still struggling to articulate and ex­press these ideas and their consequences now and we still have a long way to go before their power and creativity is recognized as authentically part of Christian thinking. I was reading only this weekend of a new episcopal appointment, a man who was inclined to believe, it was reported, that Christianity was inherently a male-dominated faith. Obviously he does not celebrate Hildegard of Bingen each September.

Third, we still need to recover a theology in which God’s word and God’s Spirit express themselves in us and in cre­ation. Neither humanity nor the rest of creation is objective or neutral as far as God is concerned. We and it are an expression of his life. We are what God says. Only such a theology will enable us to value ourselves, each other, and the world in which we live.

But lastly and most important: if we are to be true to what our cathedrals mean as we try to express their meaning and the meaning of the faith they embody in the modern world, then we must use as much imagination in our thinking and talking as those who were thinking and talking when they were built. There is plainly a challenge there for those who claim to interpret the past — for at the moment the past, especially as embodied in Hildegard, is far more imaginative and open-minded than the present.

Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet as an expression of his love for them. He asks them to do this for each other. ‘If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.’ But all this Mary has already done for him. Mary has already, in her anointing, demonstrated the dis­cipleship which he calls for from them all a week later.

She has already shown herself to be the model of disciple­ship. She is the one, not Peter, not any of the others, who demonstrates what discipleship really means.

That is the reason why John names Judas as the objector in his account. In St Mark it was simply ‘some’ who objected to this woman’s behaviour. In St Luke it is the Pharisees, but in John it is Judas, the anti-disciple, the non-disciple. John wants to draw an explicit contrast between the model discipleship of Mary and the scorn and betrayal of Judas. She is the one who knows what it really means.

But there was also an earlier incident where Mary showed herself to be the loyal disciple. She, it seems, knows the way of discipleship instinctively, for when Jesus comes to raise Lazarus from the dead she is portrayed as responding to his call before she even knows what he wants. She moves then immediately in response, just as now, in this anointing; it is not just ointment she pours over his feet, but also herself.

Discipleship is defined by acts of love and devotion. It is not defined — at least not here in this story — by choice or by particular acts of commitment. It is not an act of deliberate choice, it is an act of passion. The true disciple, John seems to be saying, is the one who, like Mary, pours themselves out in total passion for this man. In the light of this, choice, or discipleship as a chosen following, an act of the will, fades into insignificance. And it is worth noting that St John’s Gospel does not contain the same stories of ‘the Twelve’ and their following of Jesus. Indeed, ‘the Twelve’ as an ecclesias­tical grouping, with Peter at its head, very much fades into the background in John by comparison with the other Gospels. This group with Peter at its head hardly appears, and Peter is hardly a star figure. It is not Peter upon whom Christ builds his Church, but Mary. Mary is the model for what counts; and what counts, John is saying, is her capacity for passion and friendship, passionate friendship. That will carry us through death. Jesus talks about laying down his life for his friends ­not for some cause, not for something you do not know, but for the people you know and love, and here is Mary pouring her best self all over this man. Christianity is not a choice, not a reasoned faith, not a cleverness — it is a passion, and only with a passion will you be saved.

What will carry us through Holy Week and bring us out into the Garden on the other side is the passion of Mary. Her love and passion carry her through. You see, I suspect that the Church doesn’t understand passion very easily. We are ob­sessed with reconstruction and management causes of one kind or another, and while these things have their place, they will not reconstruct the Church or stop its decline. To do that we have to bear within ourselves the loving passionate friend­ship of Mary for her Lord. And that is why my friend’s book is so right — for there Mary is a disciple, the disciple, but the disciple because she loved this man and gave herself to him.

So when you think to yourself each year, ‘How shall I observe Easter?’, don’t say, ‘Do I understand the atonement?’ Don’t say to yourself, ‘Have I worked out why Jesus died? Do I believe it?’ Don’t even say to yourself, ‘Have I gone to church enough? Do I belong enough?’ Don’t ask yourself ecclesiasti­cal questions at all. Above all, don’t ask moral questions about whether you are good enough, whether you have obeyed enough. No, don’t ask those questions at Easter. Ask yourself instead whether you are a lover. Ask yourself whether you can love much. Ask yourself whether you would follow this man, pour out your nard upon him. Ask yourself whether your passion will sustain you — kill you, yes, but sustain you

But even a glance at the teaching of Jesus shows that this is not what he is saying. Jesus’ insistence is on a readiness to live with that absence or emptiness so that we can be open to what we are not. Simon Tugwell comments on the Sermon on the Mount, saying ‘All our jockeying for position, striving to get ourselves into a powerful and influential place, is the bluster which comes from a relative emptiness …‘ — or, I would add, the bluster which comes from an inability to accept emptiness and absence. He continues: ‘We must learn to be incomplete, a space within which God can act . . .‘ So the central teaching of Jesus is about the need for a self-emptying, what I would call an ascension, so that we can be filled with the creative word of God.
It is for all these reasons that Christians have to be enormously careful about what is called ‘spiritual experience’. Much of what passes for spiritual experience in the contemporary Church risks being the spiritual equivalent of Mary Magdalene’s clinging on to the Lord, a form of inability to relinquish yourself into God, a form of refusal of the ascension into the absence of God. There was a phase in Christian thinking when the Church looked back to the mystics with rose-coloured spectacles because, it was said, here was evidence of the centrality of experience of God in the life of the Church. It was felt that at least there had been something which points the way, and maybe we can find it again in our own barren age. But the evidence is that ‘experience’ of this kind is not what the mystics were talking about. What they were saying was that you have to relinquish these so-called spiritual states if you would be full of God. Indeed Meister Eckhart, the great German mystic who spent a great deal of his time as teacher of, and spiritual adviser to, the rather overheated communities of women under his care, says, ‘Then how should I love God? You should love God unspiritually, that is your soul should be unspiritual and stripped of all spirituality, for so long as your soul has a spirit’s form, it has images, and so long as it has images it has a medium, and so long as it has a medium it is not unity or simplicity.’ And a little further on he says — and this sums up so much of what I am trying to say — ‘whoever is seeking God by ways is finding ways and losing God, who in ways is hidden’.

But you will shake your heads and resist this as far too radical. How can we be stripped of spirituality? Is this really what the ascension of Christ means? How did we get there from a headmaster’s wife in north London?

Let me illustrate in musical terms. Those of you who worship in cathedrals regularly might know something of developments in the last hundred years in church music which are associated with the names of Langlais, Poulenc and Stravinsky. They composed some of the most terrifying settings of the mass. The effect of this music is electric. In one sense it is a great experience, but at another deeper level it is not an experience at all for such music leaves you empty, stripped out, not full of warmth or a sense of majesty, as you are, say, after listening to Stanford or Howells. After Langlais’ Messe Solennelle you are scrubbed clean, as Eckhart says, ‘without images’. And it is then at that point, when you are emptied, have relinquished all things, that you are, literally, full of joy. At that point all things resound with God. You have become a space within which God can act. Ideally that is what the whole liturgy should do — not fill you with churchy, spiritual feelings, but empty you, draw you into the reality of God so that you are then all joy, all unity, all simplicity. So that you are then ascended and ready to be Christ for all things and to find Christ in all things.

Julian of Norwich
‘The LORD has taken away the judgements against you’ (Zephaniah 3.15)
I was in a meeting recently with the representative of the company which produces cathedral guide books. The company representative was urging us to find one or two themes which might characterize our cathedral so that the guide book represented the essential nature of this building. ‘What adjectives would you use’, he asked, ‘when describing this cathedral?’ And we thought of the lightness of the stone and the joyous character of the carvings and the beauty and colour of the golden window above the quire and so on. As we talked I was reminded that there is nothing in this cathedral which speaks of judgement. There is no portrayal of Christ as Judge, there is no Last Judgement window, and the West Front of Wells Cathedral is a welcome rather than a judgement. Since that conversation I have looked and wondered whether my understanding was correct. Surely there must be a judgement scene here somewhere? But there is not. The nearest one gets to it is a wooden reredos in one of the chapels which is a harrowing of hell, where Christ releases the victims, but that is not a judgement. It has been said that the original windows of the Wells chapter house were of the Last Judgement, as befits the place where people were judged by the dean and chapter, but this is pure speculation and the only surviving windows there are of the resurrection.
So what is this place? What is this building which is completely devoid of any sense of judgement? What sort of cathedral is it whose iconography contains nothing about

God’s condemnation of sin? Hadn’t the master mason read his Bible? Had he not gone to church in Advent and hea rd sermons about the axe being laid at the root of the tree and the bad trees being thrown into the fire? Did he and his colleagues deliberately ignore all that? Did they ignore all that about winnowing and the burning of chaff?
Well, I don’t know what they knew or what they had read, but what is clear is that the masons of Wells were not the on’y ones to affirm that there is no wrath in God. Some hundred and fifty years or more after this cathedral was dedicated, a woman recluse in East Anglia, whose name we do not know, but who has been called Julian because of the Church she inhabited, came to the same conclusions — that when we look at God we can see no wrath in him. There is no judgement in him, the only judgement is his love.
I was reminded of Dame Julian of Norwich during our conversation with the guide-book representative but I thought I had better check my facts. So I opened Julian’s book of Revelations and there it was: ‘I saw truly that our Lord was never angry, and never will be … God is that goodness which cannot be angry, for God is nothing but goodness. Our soul is united to him who is unchangeable goodness … and between our soul and God there is no wrath . .
She doesn’t say there is no sin. She doesn’t say that human beings do not need repentance and forgiveness. Indeed, in the very same paragraph in which these words occur there is the explicit affirmation ‘it seemed to me that it was necessary to know that we are sinners and commit many evil deeds … so that we deserve pain, blame and wrath’ — but the statement still stands, that in God there is no wrath
A little later in her book Julian tells a parable. She says she saw in her mind’s eye a Lord and his servant. The Lord was sitting in state with the servant ready before him, and the Lord sends the servant away on an errand. The servant ‘dashes off and runs at great speed, loving to do his Lord’s will’, he is so enthusiastic he falls into a ditch and finds himself all in difficulty and apparently without any assistance. Julian says several things about the servant in the ditch.
She says that he is so preoccupied with his own condition that he cannot see his loving Lord who is very close to him.
She also says that she looked carefully to see if she could detect any fault in the servant, or if the Lord would impute to him any kind of blame, ‘and truly none was seen, for the only cause of his falling was his goodwill and his great desire’.
The reason we fall out of God’s sight, Julian implies, is nothing to do with God, whose gaze is constant, but to do with our preoccupation with our task. We become, she says, blinded in our reason and perplexed in our mind ‘so that we had almost forgotten our own love’. So we become disordered and forget our reason for being and the true object of our lives. ‘We had almost forgotten our own love’ is a very telling phrase. But the fact of our preoccupation, the reality of our forgetfulness, does not alter the truth that our Lord constantly stands next to us and, as she says, ‘looks on us most tenderly’.
Julian goes on to say that there is a moment of wakefulness, a moment when what she calls our ‘spiritual eye’ will be opened. There will be a return when we will turn and see and acknowledge our haste and preoccupation with achievement, our foolishness, and come to see that the Lord was always standing there looking at us tenderly. Indeed, a few pages later in the book she goes so far as to say that in this wakeful moment we will see not just that the Lord is standing next to us, but that he is seated within us. ‘He sits there erect in the soul, in peace and rest, and he rules and guards heaven and earth and everything that is.’
And before you dismiss this, as one Anglican bishop did, as ‘the fantastic tittle-tattle of a hysterical woman’, it might be worth reflecting that there are a number of contemporary theologians who come to similar conclusions although their language is different. They don’t talk of ditches or of running in haste, but they do talk about a form of self-preoccupation which cuts us off from the recognition of God. One of these2 talks about our preoccupation with imitating others, our rush to be like the latest shiny person. He says we always rush to copy, and so are locked into competitive desires and so produce inevitably conflictual living. We cannot, it seems, be content with who we are, that seems to be a form of pain, and so we set off to alleviate that pain by imitation and so conflict and violence. But, he says, this does not exist in God. In God there is no rush to imitate, no conflictual violence. This life, found in Jesus, is always his parallel to our own, always, in Julian’s terms, stands next to us. The moment of grace occurs when we allow ourselves to dispense with copying, when we are enabled, by the witness of the gospel story lying parallel to our conflictual society, to drop the competition and be content to be who it is that God has made us.
Up until then it is we who have to run the world, but there comes a point when we know we do not have to do that because we know that our Lord is near. ‘Nearer than breathing, closer than hands and feet.’ This moment of disclosure is the Advent of our peace.
Such a theology, cast in both psychological and social terms by a modern theologian, is not so very different from that of Julian of Norwich. For both, the judgement is not in God, but in us and in our condition. As Julian says, ‘Only our pain blames and punishes.’
Some time ago I was being interviewed on a television programme about Wells Cathedral. It was one of those programmes which tell you what there is to see in Somerset. We were standing on the Cathedral Green on a summer’s day and the interviewer said, ‘Well, here we are at Wells Cathedral where the West Front represents the Last Judgement …‘ I’ve thought about that since and believe that is how people see God. They automatically, for some reason, assume there must be a judgement upon them. From the outside it seems as if he will judge, but it is not so, for the closer we come and the more we cast off our preoccupation with our painful condition, the more we will see that in God there is no wrath. For, as Julian says, ‘For I saw no wrath except on man’s side, and he forgives that in us, for wrath is nothing else but a perversity.’ Or, as the prophet Zephaniah said some many hundreds of years earlier ‘The Lord has taken away the judgements against you.’ And that is a terrifying thought.

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