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Compass and Stars by Martin Smith

August 10, 2018

CASFinding our way, getting our bearings, is an image from navigation with map, compass and stars. It speaks to our feelings of confusion, loss, and failure. When we admit to God we have lost our way, we get the chance to discover that all ways belong to God – even the way of disorientation.” This collection of short, informal pieces aims to help us “get our bearings”, meditations here on lack of faith, on day planners, shopping, anxiety and healing, on mobile phones, politics, prayer

It is a collection of short pieces originally written as a column in the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (D.C.)

Formerly a member of the Society of St John the Evangelist, after 28 years in the religious life, the author ‘took my leave of it for good and found myself for the first time facing the challenge of finding my own way. No one was shaping my life for me: now to find my own bearings, in a new life and a new city, with possibilities yet unknown …’ He is currently ‘Senior Associate Rector of St Columba’s, Washington DC. (where the famous spiritual director The Rev. Margaret Guenther was associate rector.

CAS 2Quotations:

Those who had the uncanny privilege of seeing the risen Christ described a body still bearing the wounds of crucifixion: “He showed them his hands and his side” (John 20:20). Just as surely Christ’s body bore—we must say bears—the marks of the first wound that sealed him irrevocably with the sign of the covenant. And so perhaps there is a loss that can still be tragic, if we forget Jesus’ circumcision.

The only way we could possibly be transformed after our death is through Christ continuing to hold us in his heart. Only in the heart of Christ (which is where we all are through our baptism) could the departed continue to be changed into his image from one degree of glory to another. We do not pray for the dead because they aren’t (yet) united to Christ. We can pray for them because they are – and they are more
grateful than ever to have the support of our love as they open themselves to an unfolding transformation. (God knows how radical the change is we will all need to undergo after death to be whole and true and free!)

Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. That must apply to praying for the dead. Once we start being rad­’ ically inclusive, praying not only for our “loved ones” but for strangers, for suicide bombers, for the criminals we execute and their victims, for anyone and everyone, we open our­selves to a controversial and radical spirituality of inclusive hope. Prayer for all the departed implies the possibility that those who die with the hardest of hearts can be eventually melted in God’s presence, with the help of the warmth of our faith too, and those who die utterly broken and abject might be made whole in heaven, with the help of even our tentative and wavering prayers of compassion. Prayer for all the dead is a radical act. It even has political implications. In the great national service of thanksgiving in St. Paul’s Cathedral after the Falklands War, Archbishop Robert Runcie took the risk of including in the prayers for the fallen the Argentinean soldiers killed by British troops. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher found this offensive and unpatriotic.

one of Christianity’s greatest mystics, Isaac the Syrian, a seventh-century contemplative and pastor living in what is now Iraq. In his Mystical Treatises, Isaac frequently goads his readers to question whether in the light of the radical teach­ing of the gospel we should even call God just, let alone make justice our primary religious ideal. Writing about Matthew’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard, which tells how the owner paid those who had worked only a short time the same wages as those who had worked all day (20:1-16), Isaac says:

And how can you call God just when you come to the passage about the laborer’s wages? Where is God’s “justice”? … Do not call God “just,” for his justice is not made known in your affairs…. He is good, as He says, to the evil and the ungodly.

Isaac goes on to talk about God’s mercy:

Mercy and just judgment in one soul is like a man worshipping God and idols in the same house. Mercy is the opposite of just judgment. Just judgment is the equality of equal measures, for it gives to each as he deserves, without inclining to one side or another, or having respect of persons when it repays us. Mercy, however, is pity moved by grace and inclines to all in compassion; it does not requite him who deserves harsh treatment and it fills to overflowing him who deserves good. And if mercy is on the side of right­eousness, then just judgment is on the side of evil. As grass and fire cannot stay together in the same house, so neither can just judgment and mercy remain in one soul. Isaac vigorously contrasts two perspectives. One focuses on ensuring that people get what they deserve, awarding them what they are entitled to, defining what their rights are. It is about blind justice that metes out reward and pun­ishment on principle. Another perspective is opened up by the good news of Jesus, showing us a vista in which God reaches out in compassion to each and to all, repairing bro­ken relationships, restoring community, reweaving intimacy, inspiring fresh beginnings and new connections, drawing people into partnership, teaching them how to embrace the dreaded “other,” making sisterhood out of enmity and brotherhood out of alienation. All this leaves far behind the human categories of rights, entitlements, and deserts. God goes out of the way—so far out that the Beloved One meets his end on a Roman cross, “taken out” as a dangerous crim­inal—to reach out for reconciliation.

Wherever the churches seem to lean heavily on a short­hand secular vocabulary of “social justice”—one that some­times veers into a clunky political correctness that can provoke our skepticism or weariness—it is because we are avoiding the task of framing for ourselves a true gospel per­spective. It is seldom appropriate for Christian groups to present our theology overtly when working with others in the public, environmental, political, and civic arenas to pro­mote healthy social change, except when genuinely invited to do so. But it is essential for Christians to keep on explor­ing among ourselves what is the distinctive motive for Christian outreach. We need more theology for our out­reach, which means exploring how it is that God is shown in Jesus to be reaching out—to whom, and why. Our call to outreach can’t mean anything less than a call to act as fingers for God’s reaching out to all.

Jesus told us that  in order to break through to the sense that in God we are all together as equals and to the discovery that estrangement is illusion, we have to break free from those loyalties that fos­ter the false consciousness of us and them.

He spoke about “hating” our parents and leaving home, with the family standing for all those communities—our class, nation, denomination, or whatever—that we use to define ourselves through the exclusion of outsiders. To talk glibly about inclusiveness without going into the cost of breaking the ties that literally bind is futile. We have to practice becom­ing dissidents within our own communities whenever the loyalty they expect from us involves “hating our enemies.” Becoming practiced dissidents is not comfortable or easy. Jesus’ family once came after him, convinced that he was out of his mind. We are not rebelling against our own commu­nities, but taking a stand on our loyalty to God’s one family that includes both them and those they want us to disdain or ignore as aliens.

RECENTLY, I HAD to tell my friends that I had suffered a severe disappointment. I had been pinning my hopes on something, and now those hopes had been dashed. I was sad, but I wasn’t feeling particularly needy; my expectations of sympathy were not unduly high. But what surprised me was the consistency of the reaction. Almost everyone replied with instantaneous optimism- “Oh well, when one door shuts another is bound to open.” Even friends who are not particularly devout quickly came up with a religious inter­pretation: “God obviously has something else in mind. Just you wait and see.This is obviously ‘meant to be.” And some who are usually quite original in the way they talk came out with cliches about “clouds that have silver linings”!

In the end I couldn’t remember a single reply that was not in some form or another a changing of the subject. Under the guise of positive thinking and hope everyone had shifted the conversation away from my sadness. Of course, I had politely agreed to move on with them: “Yes, of course, when one door shuts another opens.” But later I had to admit to myself that their optimism was a symptom of their unwillingness to stay for a moment with me in my grief, just as it was. It was a failure of companionship. If companion­ship means sharing bread, the only bread I had just then was, in the old words of the Bible, the bread of affliction. It had been politely refused even by those who love me.

My experience is, of course, as old as the hills. The book of Proverbs in the Bible has a rueful verse about the way we actually make things worse for those who suffer when we try to hastily cheer them up: “Like one who takes off a gar­ment on a cold day, like vinegar on lye, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart” (25:20). Ministry and mutual care are full of these paradoxes. When we hastily prescribe a dose of “looking on the bright side” to our friends who are sad we can hurt them more than the original cause of their sad­ness. Answers that sound very spiritual and uplifting, when ill-timed, can do more harm than good.

And when the message of optimism is repeated, it can signal that feelings of sadness ought not to be expressed.

Perhaps we should be ashamed of these feelings. Next time, we will be more cautious about expressing the negative things in our lives, and we will push negative feelings down inside.Yet there they can fester as untended wounds, and the infection of resentment can follow.

The New Testament ethic summed up as “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15) may seem simple, but it epitomizes an entire spirituality with demanding disciplines and skills that most of us have difficulty learning. In fact, a great deal of ministry requires the spirit that the Chinese know as wu-wei, which means “non-action.” It is a matter of not acting out our desire to fix something or somebody. It means neither try­ing to control, nor giving in to, our discomfort at the prox­imity of suffering. Non-action accepts our urge to “change

the subject” from the other’s pain, but doesn’t implement it. It involves humility, letting the sufferer be the one who knows when to move on, not ourselves. It is the sufferer’s pain, and she has the right to hold the note of grieving in her song for as long as she needs.

AS A CHILD, I couldn’t figure out why so many other people couldn’t detect all sorts of scents that I picked up. Eventually, I realized that the powerful sense of smell that both my grandmother and I were endowed with was quite exceptional. (The latest research has confirmed that the sense of smell in some people can be as much as eighty times stronger than the norm.) Perhaps this is why I natu­rally respond to the imagery of aroma in the scriptures, which is often overlooked.The Easter stories themselves are suffused with olfactory memories. Jesus was buried with a fantastically extravagant quantity of spices—a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes—and even this hadn’t seemed enough to the women who had prepared his body, and who were intent on returning after the Sabbath with yet more. I think of the beloved disciple crouching in the tomb to ver­ify the stunning news that the body was missing, and then turning to look out at the rising sun. The perfume of the spices he was crunching underfoot must have been over­powering. The aroma would have been pouring out from the tomb into the dawn air.

The gospels tell us that there was something about Jesus that made people go completely overboard with perfume. The astrologers who tracked him down to Bethlehem in the first weeks of his life left him their entire supply of myrrh and incense, with gold to buy more when that ran out. The woman who was so desperate to demonstrate her gratitude to Jesus for his message of forgiveness gate-crashed Simon the Pharisee’s private dinner party and poured a year’s sup­ply of imported perfume onto Jesus’ feet.When Lazarus and Martha entertained Jesus to dinner before the final Passover they must have thought “It’s deja vu all over again” when Mary anointed Jesus with an entire jar full of Indian perfume. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the per­fume.” But it made Judas Iscariot sick to his stomach with resentment. He just couldn’t hold back from trying to can­cel out the exaltation and beauty of her gesture with moral­ism: “Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:3-6; Mark 14:3-9).

In answering Judas, Jesus made a promise: “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” The promise has come true. The pouring out of per­fume in a gesture of reckless love has itself become part of the good news as an image of what has happened through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. God has released into the world the only thing that can ultimately win us. Even God cannot win us by coercion. We can only be won by attraction, by love. The myrrh and the aloes of the Easter tomb, the ointment of nard poured over Jesus, the frankin­cense left at his cradle—all these are specifically mentioned in the Song of Songs, the book of scripture that most revels in the erotic splendors of scent and which was read as an allegory of the ultimate love affair, the Creator’s ardent courtship of the human race and of each and every human being.

I suspect that the apostle Paul had a good nose, apprecia­tive of the incense used in outdoor processions and of the perfumes sold in the bazaars. Perhaps like me in airport duty-free shops, he couldn’t always resist the free samples of colognes at the perfumers’ stalls. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he gets us to imagine ourselves as God’s incredibly attractive aroma.

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. (2 Cor. 2:14-16)

It is an extraordinary image for everyday evangelism. Evangelism is spreading “in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.” We are the “aroma of Christ.” The power of the risen Christ is the power to attract, and by knowing him ourselves, by following our attraction, we acquire and transmit his allure. As members of his body, we exert his attractiveness in the world. We don’t hear this imagery preached very often. Passionate it is, but not senti­mental. Paul knows full well that many people think the gospel of a crucified Messiah stinks as a message and by
association we will stink as well. In holding their noses at the gospel and at us, they will become even more set in their ways. To those we are “a fragrance from death to death.”

These disturbing metaphors can help us to refocus our expectations about how discipleship actually works out in real life. Our calling is to express in our everyday behavior the attractiveness of a compassionate God. If we do, we will play a part in drawing some people to a new life in Christ. And yet if we are being true to the Christ who was cruci­fied, we will also provoke incomprehension, condescension, and outright anger in others.

God is like the patient master trying to get the dog to drop the bone on which it has clenched its jaws, urging us to “drop it.”We can’t take in the nourishment we need if our jaws are locked on a worry. Indeed, the word worry itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for an animal shaking – the prey it has in its teeth.

A list of contents in a book of poems. A friend once handed me a little book of poetry, Elizabeth Barrett BroWnMg’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. After reading a page, I corn­mented,”The language is lovely, but I can’t quite grasp what she is trying to say in this sonnet.” The friend snatched the book back and exclaimed at once, “You didn’t read one of the sonnets.You read the list of contents—all the first lines!” Embarrassing, but a pointer to what the creeds re havllae y liattlre.

They are lists of first lines, chapter headings. nothing e
meaning in and of themselves. It means virtually nothing to say, “He ascended into heaven.” That is just the agenda item of a deep discussion about who Christ is, how Christ in present in the world today, how Christ’s sovereignty is expressed. The creeds point us to the activity of exploring the meaning of our faith in cornmunity.We can’t expect the chapter headings of the creed to have much me if we won’t join in the exploration and discussion cry out for interpretation.

impressions we receive while reading can be very fleeting, so I decided to adopt a remedy that goes back to ancient times. The Greeks and Romans thought of memory in terms of places in the mind in which data was stored thematically. (The Greek for place is topos and that’s why we speak of “topics.”) Disciplined readers memorized by copying down extracts from the books they read. The notebooks into which they copied the quotations were called “com­monplace books” because they could always consult these notebooks to find apt quotations that had the same theme in common. The result was a copious or fluent style of speaking and writing. (From this usage, we get the English word “copy”; if you wanted to learn how to speak copiously, you needed first to copy down writing that had meant some­thing to you.)

The trick is not to self-consciously “take notes” from a book, but simply to trust impulse and intuition. Whenever you read something that strikes you, copy it down in your own handwriting into a notebook exclusively dedicated to this purpose Imagine a journal in which you don’t write your own musings, but you do copy down quotations from any and every source as you read. Don’t even analyze why you think it is striking. Don’t censor yourself. Write one line or three pages, whatever it calls for. And don’t be afraid to mix your sources up. I can open my notebooks and on two facing pages there might be a poem of Emily Dickinson, a graffito copied from an underpass wall, a few lines from a review of an exhibition of German drawings from a dis­carded newspaper I picked up in the train, a quotation from a Zen master, and some lines from one of Saint Augustine’s sermons.

The act of copying these quotations in your own handwrit­ing is a way of making them your own. In this labor of love, you are preparing them as ingredients in the recipes of your own soul work. This method soon reveals to us how active our soul is during our reading. At every stage of our life, month by month, our hearts and souls are hungry for nour­ishment and illumination. Subconsciously we know what we need, even if consciously we are not fully aware of it. So as we read—whether it is a novel, the Bible, the newspaper, a book on prayer—our hearts are scanning the pages more avidly than our conscious minds. When we have an “aha!” moment and conscientiously copy down the passage that has triggered it, we are responding to our own interior needs.

Now I can turn back to these notebooks and find all sorts of riches clustered together. In retrospect I can tell why they resonated at that time. See how I was struggling with the challenges of being emotionally honest; half the quota­tions I noted down at this time speak to that theme. In another time, I now realize how much my heart was pick­ing up from my reading about loneliness, and at another about letting go. In some ways these notebooks throw more light on the unfolding of my inner life than any journal I might have written. And they keep alive in my memory lit­erally hundreds and hundreds of books that I have read over the years, and enable me to feed again from their wisdom and pass it on to others.

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