Thursday, 15 September 2016

Unity: Respecting the Image & Likeness

From a homily for the Sisters of the Love of God, Fairacres, Oxford
Thursday, 15th September, 2016, 9 am

Readings: I Corinthians 12:12-26 & John 10:11-16

Unity: Respecting the Image & Likeness

+ May I speak in the Name of the Divine Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.

Despite long years of listening, reading, trying to make sense, it's only this morning that I've finally realised that Saint Paul, who generally comes over as a dry old stick, actually had a sense of humour. His imagery of a body at war with itself, of ears thinking they could do without eyes, of one part deciding it could take over the whole show, is pure comedy. It's reminiscent of Jesus's image of a man with a plank in his eye, which Eric Sykes turned into a comic silent film. I don't think it's normally considered Biblical commentary, but that's what it is.

This morning I was caught on the hop. I ought to have thought you might be keeping the feast of Unity. At vicar school in Lincoln we did this every Thursday. Very few people there would have called it a "mass of special intention", but that's what it was. So, what I had prepared to say was on readings that weren't read, and by great good fortune, I was rescued - as you may think - by a sheep from "another fold".

At 5.42 or so this morning, on Radio 4's Prayer for the Day, an imam was telling us about Sharia Law. He said at its heart is the idea of contract, and contracts are not to be broken. This means a Muslim person living in a country where Sharia is not the law of the land has a contract with that country to be a loyal citizen, and it means he cannot break that contract, even for the benefit of his fellow Muslims overseas. For a Muslim in Britain to scheme against this country, or to go abroad and plot to bring harm to us there, is to break the contract, to break Sharia.

Well, I certainly didn't know that, and I rather think a great many Muslims don't. I've heard several over the years lament at how poorly their own faith is taught. And it's not possible to hear that without thinking how poorly the Christian faith is taught, even in the ease and comfort of Christian countries. When we don't understand our own faith deeply, with its complexities, the gulf between us grows, even, eventually, to the point of extremist violence. We have seen it in our own country in Northern Ireland, where neither side in The Troubles could claim the name of "Christian".

The heart of this understanding of our living together is respect. Sharia requires Muslims to respect the law of the land in which they find themselves.

Respect is a tricky business. We can say "well, I respect your right to say ...", but do we? And does it serve any purpose to paper over the cracks of our disagreements and pretend they don't exist? That is to deny dialogue, without which there can be no communion, and even dis-communion is better than that. Can we truly respect someone's views when it is simply not possible for their views and ours to be true, or right, at the same time?

Our prayers speak often about "in the unity of the Holy Spirit". That refers most usually to the economy of the Divine Trinity, the three persons and one God who are the heart of our faith, but it also refers to the way in which, through the Holy Spirit, we become part of that Divine economy, and part of one another. It is the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, who shakes the image and likeness of God alive in us. And that image and likeness is in all created humanity, whatever bits and pieces of the Body they might happen to be.

There's a little book, accredited to Saint John of Kronstadt (although he didn't write it) called "Counsels on the Christian Priesthood". Doubtless you all have it on your shelves - heaven alone knows where I found my copy! But it's very good. It's partly good because it's little, which commends any book to me. In the chapter on confession he advises the priest that they cannot honestly and rightly take confession unless they see in the penitent a creature with all the dignity of one made in the image and likeness of God.

It is in that dignity that our respect, when all else fails, when our fury, anger, despair, hatred, fear, and loathing, of our fellow human beings, has the better of us, when we cannot respect a thing they say or do or value, must take refuge. The image and likeness of God cannot be unmade. And we cannot but respect it.

If only we dare to search it out and know it, to find the image and likeness in the other, we stand a chance of making the unity of which Jesus speaks. We might even begin to build a kingdom.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2016

Thursday, 8 September 2016

O Taste And See! - my book. Link herewith, for those who are e-book compatible.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Sister Helen Columba - Portrait of a Friendship

How did we meet? Well, I met this lady on a train coming down on the train from my first ex's family in Edinburgh. We got talking. I don't normally talk to people on trains. She said "you must know Fairacres!", and I said I didn't. She said it was about time.

It was the autumn of 1988 and I was writing a letter to the Diocesan Director of Ordinands (the guy who has to filter out the complete loonies before they ask for the bishop's permission to become priests), and I thought, well, why not? So I wrote a loony letter saying I'd met a lady on a train, and I was very happy to meet them, whoever they turned out to be.

And they turned out to be Sister Helen Columba.

Back then, she must have been about 60, a nun for perhaps fifteen years, a Glaswegian Scot, of short stature, and with shiny, bright intelligent eyes, and eyebrows above that rose and fell with the occasion. We only ever met, as one might say "at her place", and she was always in uniform (brown habit and scapula, black veil, and in those early days, white wimple), except at the very end when I visited her in the infirmary and she was bludgeoned out of bed in her nightgown.

My situation back then was that being with my first partner, and harsh things having been said about gay people at the 1987 General Synod, I was not immensely hopeful. At Fairacres, I was welcomed wholeheartedly.

We never used the words "spiritual director", but that's what she became. Some people find it an odd idea, rather archaic, and redolent of the controlling sado-masochism of a certain kind of Christianity which thinks of "priestly formation" in terms of breaking the person you were before, and telling you what to do next. But she never told me what to do, on the contrary her wisdom and her ideas and her receptiveness to the new, made my world so much bigger, and safer, and more exciting. It was a relationship in which it really was "all about me", so I gleaned relatively little about Helen Columba herself - she wouldn't have thought herself a very interesting subject - but over 27 years, you do hear, and remember a thing or two.

She'd never had the chance to go to university - her mother was poorly, and she had to look after her younger siblings, and I doubt her family was the sort that sent children to university anyway, even in erudite Scotland. Nonetheless, she was an avid reader, and a self-taught theologian, and that is perhaps where we clicked, because we were both eccentric and eclectic in our interests. She, of course, knew much more than me, and two wonderful worlds of knowledge she introduced me to were the works of Carl Jung, and the Russian theologians. "Answer to Job" (C G Jung) and "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church" (Vladimir Lossky) I read at her advice, and they were life-changing books. Both focus on how we are, more than how we got to be that way, and tell their stories as they happened, not as the church would prefer them to have happened. That was a key things for us - truth-telling. Because I told the truth about being gay, my admission to the selection process for the C of E ministry was delayed for five years. But also because I told the truth, when the selectors eventually turned me down, the bishop discarded their advice, and sent me to start training. I have been a priest now for twenty years, and without Helen Columba's prayers, I strongly doubt it would have happened at all. Her dedication was "of the Holy Spirit".

The monastic life fascinated me - and she did wonder whether it might be my own calling in the end "a lot of gay priests end up called by the cloister" - and coming on retreat was an amazing new experience. We guests sat in the visitors' chapel while the sisters - round the corner, we couldn't really see them - sung the psalms to us, and back in those days really quite poorly sisters with dementia would be in the chapel too, muttering, and humming away, during the services. Then we ate our meals in silence together in the refectory, out of wooden bowls, with a spoon. And if you didn't finish your first course, your pudding would arrive on top of the leftovers! Lunch was called "Dinner" and after Vespers we went for "High Tea", which was a cafeteria-style help-yourself system in the kitchen, but also eaten in silence, except for the occasional mewing of the convent cat, which made everyone laugh. Helen Columba told me that the sisters were not permitted to hurry, because the rule required them to manage their time, nor to discuss their health because "imagine! a community of women at all times of life - we'd never stop!".

We talked sometimes of marriage and family life, which she said she'd always expected and hoped for for herself, "but now, I have more sons and daughters then I could ever have had as a married woman in Glasgow". I had become one of them. She might have seen my rather chequered lovelife over the years as a sign of a calling eventually to be a monk, and it's a shame that her last, frailer, years, coincided with my time of happiness, and getting it right with Ricardo. He was the only partner, now husband, of mine she met, briefly, at a Fairacres garden party open day one summer.

She followed my career with interest, and, as it had more downs than ups, with concern. One time I was struggling with colleagues, one of whom feuded with me about praying for the dead, and the other, about the role of Mary. "If they argue with you about those things, no good will come out of that place", she said. For me, none did, so I moved on.

She was possessed of an intense spiritual sensitivity, something which I recognised, without sharing, and it caused her to contact me one time about an interesting pastoral matter. Ostensibly, she was after my genealogical understanding, because there was a couple she knew for whom there was a background of abuse and unkindness, and the perpetrators were dead, so unable to repent, or be forgiven, in person. So she asked if I would celebrate Holy Communion with a special intention for Reconciliation, in the family's new home. I did as I was bidden, amongst the boxes and jumble of a recent move. We had candles but not, I think, incense. Maybe holy water. I never concentrated more in my life, on the words, the prayers, the people, the names. When it was done, Helen Columba said she had seen figures walking out of darkness into light. This was about the time that she was going through a mystical period of her own - "seeing the reality of things, seeing the Holy Spirit". A sceptical reverend mother said "we've got a leak in the laundry room, see if you can see that". And she did. I have no deep spiritual aspect to my soul, thank God, but I have no reason to question what she saw at those times. She was a great enthusiast for the Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov, who from time to time showed in himself the signs of transfiguration. I think it gave her a great sensitivity to the light of Christ in this world.

My life in ministry was as much a struggle as my journey to get ordained, and we sometimes spoke in - I think - the Prioress's office, where on the wall was a carved wooden Christ crucified. No cross, just the body. It was a most impelling image, and we fell to talking about it. She spoke of the cross as the point of meeting, and of tension, between God and man (she had no time for inclusive language), between heaven and earth, life and death, hope and despair. That carved figure now presides over the refectory, much more fittingly, under the word "sitio" ("I thirst", in Latin, one of the last words from the cross). Sometimes its eyes seem to look up at you, with arms outstretched, and ask "will you hug me?"

She loved music, and was an accomplished singer, and tried her best to teach me to sing when I was ordained. I couldn't do it then, but a little later, under other pressure, I did learn, my teacher building on the foundations she'd laid. Mind you, the chosen song for my first lesson with her was "You've got to Accentuate the Positive!" She did not confine herself to plainchant and Latin introits. She had worked for Scottish Opera years before, and when she worked at Iona, sometimes she would go out and sit on a rock and sing to the seals. In a hazy time, towards the end of her life, she mentioned this and her carers thought she'd lost the plot. But no, it was a fond memory coming back, of a place she'd loved deeply.

We shared an interest in, and awareness of, the created world. I'm a bird nerd, and would often arrive to see her with reports of the wildlife I'd seen on the way. One time it was goldfinches - "a symbol of the Holy Trinity". I'd seen three of them - "a trinity of trinities!". And the wren. This one she had to look up, but it turns out the wren is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, maybe because you hardly notice it's there, and then its voice is louder than any other. My contribution one time was a homily at the morning mass about the kingfisher as an icon of Mary, adorned with the glorious blue of heaven, over the russet of the earth.

She fell ill at some point in her late sixties, and told me with relish that her doctor had only given her five or six years to live. I obviously looked aghast, and she said "but it's the whole point of this life, getting rid of this old crock" (the body) "and starting again". At first she resisted the relatively simple heart operation that would ameliorate the problem, thinking, and hoping, that she'd have a nice tidy heart attack and die in the night. But she didn't - people seldom do in such circumstances - so she accepted the operation, recovered from it, more or less, and that gave her another decade or so which the rest of us perhaps enjoyed rather more than she did.

As she was ebbing away on the Friday night before she died, we said the Jesus Prayer together. A staple of the Orthodox tradition, I'd never have known it without her. Maybe her hand responded to mine as I said the words, I don't know. But I do know that that prayer, and breathing as you pray, and praying as you walk, are gifts I owe to her. The first time I tried breathing the Jesus Prayer in and out, within a month my asthma was conspicuously better. Since walking and praying, my black dog depression is at bay.

What do I have to show for these 27 years? An exquisite little book about the Jesus Prayer by Mother Maria, an icon of the Trinity, by Rublev, and another icon of the life of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, her tchotki (prayer rope, like a rosary, given by Sister Eve), a piece of Iona marble ("carry it, and you won't ever drown" - and I do, all the time) her morning oblation, written in her own hand, and given to me by the Warden, many letters and cards over the years, but, most of all, the sheer fun and joy of having known her, memories which will never fade, and words she said to me one dismal time "nothing is lost". And nor is she, nor I, nor our friendship, which, as she has exchanged time for eternity, is marked forever on eternity's map.

Sister Helen Columba - Saint Andrew's Day 1927 to Saint Bernard's Day 2016

Rest eternal grant unto her, O Lord
And may light perpetual shine upon her
May she rest in peace
And rise in glory

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2016

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

A Little Quiz of Englishness ...

A bit of fun for HL, in his temporary exile in Brasil:

1. Where, or what, is Ulster?

2, Who was the last British monarch to claim to be monarch of France?

3. Who were the first, and last, Empresses, of India?

4. The British Cabinet has three "chancellors". What are their full titles?

5. What is a quart?

6. What is a pre-lactarian?

7. Who founded the Church of England?

8. What are the Queen's other names?

9. Who is the Heir Presumptive?

10. What is the wife of an earl called?

11. Name three London Underground lines.

12. Name three "national treasures".

13. Where are the Crown Jewels kept?

14. When is tea served?

15. "Sofa" or "settee"?

16. What is a "closed season"?

17. What is haggis made from?

18. What is "the West Country"?

19. What is "the Black Country"?

20. What is Blackpool famous for?

21. What's the nickname for people from Liverpool?

22. England has two ancient universities (Scotland has four) - which is the older?

23. How old do you need to be before you can apply for a car driving licence?

24. When was the NHS founded?

25. Who is the third most senior bishop in England? (two answers will do, double points for explaining why)

26. Which of these are part of the United Kingdom - The Channel Islands, Wales, the Isle of Man, the Falklands, Gibraltar, The Isle of Wight, Lancashire, the Isle of Man?

27. Who, in literature, and song, made the aspidistra famous in the 20th century?

28. By treaty, which country is England's oldest ally?

29. What are "the Home Counties"?

30. In which fictional village is "The Archers" set? (extra points for fictional county)

31. What is "toad-in-the-hole"?

32. Where do the Crown Jewels live? And what unusual birds guard them?

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Some thoughts on eternity, in answer to a kindly Sister

Your thoughts raise echoes in the sounding chamber of my own empty head! I use the phrase - nicked from a memorial tablet in Ely Cathedral (just on the right, as you go into the Lady Chapel) - "exchanged time for eternity". And in some of our conversation, especially to do with Jung, and collective consciousness, and praying for the dead, I think Helen Columba and I explored that a little together.

Every moment is eternal. All that will be always has been. We glimpse - as you say - the eternal fleetingly now, because more than that would overwhelm us. It's like a kind of map - the geography lies under, but from the surface, we can't always see it. And the space is as eternal as the moment. We locate ourselves in the eternal geography of time.

I've never found the words to say these things well, and they have eluded me yet again, but maybe there's some glimmer in there.

I do wish people didn't have to die, but sometimes you look at them and you know it is right. Another thing Helen Columba said to me - often, when I was whinging about some wasted disastrous part of my life! - "nothing is lost". And this is why.

Maybe God is like a kind of roadsweeper, tidying up the dust and ashes of our broken lives, but instead of consigning them to landfill, taking them home and weaving them back into the glorious tapestry of life for which we were always meant?

Or, I might be bonkers!

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2016

Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Transfiguration - a snapshot of light from 6 years ago

Some thoughts on the Feast of the Transfiguration
9th August 2010

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-8

“This is my beloved son, in whom I take delight”

In the Orthodox churches, the Transfiguration is one of the great feasts of the year. Bafflingly, our Anglican reformers left this utterly Biblical occasion out of the Book of Common Prayer, until it was put right in the rejected Prayerbook of 1928.

On Friday morning I went down to Fairacres to celebrate the feast with the Sisters of the Love of God. I was sitting in the visitors’ chapel, and a priest I have known for many years was the celebrant. It was bright, and sunny, and all was well with the world … until my mobile ‘phone rang. After years of telling people at weddings and funerals to turn their ‘phones off - lest it seems in the first case as if someone has thought of a “just cause or impediment”, and in the second as if the dear departed has thought of a loophole and wants to appeal – I was finally hoist by my own petard. But worse, much worse, was the ringtone that His Lordship has put on the telephone, and which I can’t shift. It says “pick up, bitch, pick up, bitch”. Fairacres chapel has the most amazing acoustic, and I was most amazingly embarrassed. I ran for the door at a most unusual speed, and wouldn’t have returned if I hadn’t left my hat behind. A very naughty friend said that the suave thing to do would have been to hand the ‘phone to the nearest Sister and say “I think it’s for you”.

But I’m very glad I did return. Something happened at The Peace, which transfigured my experience, and, I’m sure, that of many others there. They say of the saints, and of the dying, and even the dead, that sometimes they are transfigured. The great Russian mystic, Saint Seraphim, is perhaps the most famous. They say he often glowed with the mystic light of God, in the same way that Jesus did in our story in the Gospels. More prosaically, when my godfather died, and it was a hard dying, nobly borne, his wife said “he looked so peaceful, you couldn’t wish him back”. She was lost without him, and that was a sacrificial thing to say. Without knowing it, she’d hit on what transfiguration is all about – peace.

Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid. Fear corrupts us, but love casts it out. And when love is allowed in, peace prevails. Love, of course, is hard work. When we look to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, or the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, peace has been made by hard work, by self-sacrifice, by forcing ourselves to see the face of God in our former enemy, by committing ourselves to the welfare of our brothers and sisters now, rather than harking on about the injustices of the past.

We find it in our own lives, too. In domesticity, with partners, or children, we can choose to fight a battle, or choose to let things go. We can let peace in. My mother always says that with children it is far better to distract than to confront. They’re behaving badly – of course they are, that’s what children are for – but face them head-on and they will transfer their anger to you, and peace becomes impossible. Of course, some instances need to be addressed directly, but most don’t, and the awful task of the parent is to tell the difference. The wonder is not that so many get it wrong, but that so many get it right. And the parent is the midwife of the child’s transfiguration to adulthood.

And every so often we do get it right. We sit on the sofa with a lovingly-made meal (or even at the table if we have space for such luxuries), and “dinner’s at seven, and God’s in his heaven, and everything’s right with the world”, as Joyce Grenfell joyfully sung.

And that is peace. And it transfigures us.

There is a better prayer than this, but what I can remember is “God, give us your peace, in the world, in our nation, in our homes and families, and in our hearts, now, and always. Amen.”

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

A Homily for the Curé d'Ars, patron saint of parish priests

A Homily for the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres, Oxford
4th August 2010, 9 a.m.

Feast Day of Saint John Vianney, the Cure d’Ars

Imagine my delight after pondering how to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the birth of the late-lamented Queen Mother, as well as the 96th anniversary of the even-more-lamented outbreak of the Great War, to discover, on consulting my e-mails at 5.30 this morning that you were keeping the feast of the Cure d’Ars, patron saint of parish priests.

I’d heard of him, read quotations either by or about him, but never really paid any attention. I was a know-nothing. So, of course, to the Incomparable Betsy, the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christ Church, quite the best reference work in the world. And so, I had a thought.

Maybe you too have had the experience, at a time of spiritual fervour, of wishing you could become a saint? To convert multitudes by the brilliance of your preaching, the humility of your life, the wisdom of your spiritual advice, the gentleness with which you deal with the poor, the sick, and the dying? Fortunately, it wears off, and you spend the rest of your life wondering where it has gone. Reading Saint John Vianney’s story makes me realise why. He was said to have seen up to 20,000 people a year. That’s 55 a day. I get exhausted when someone comes to the front door with a questionnaire. He spent 16-18 hours a day listening to people in the confessional – and he must have been good, because the multitudes kept coming. I spent five hours taking dictation from horse dressage show judges on Sunday, and by the end was fit for the knacker’s yard myself. Maybe I don’t really want to be a saint after all – it’s too much like hard work.

Saint John was of course a Roman Catholic. You know he can’t have been an Anglican because if he was, he’d probably have been married, and an irate wife would have dragged him out of the confessional to go shopping. And I wonder if communities, friends, partners, families, children, are all given to us by God to save us from becoming saints? Of course, in all those relationships we can, and do, exercise our sainthood in different, more low-key ways.

And do parish clergy need a patron saint? Do they know “trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity”? All of us here know that they do. I think it might be the loneliest job in the world. You can’t talk to the laity for fear of gossip, you can’t talk to the archdeacon and the bishop for fear of kyboshing your next job. You have to love everyone, but also challenge and innovate, and everyone hates change apart from THEIR change. You must be “all things to all people”, and be seen as a hypocrite. So, the parish clergy need the prayers of Saint John Vianney, and if he could deal with 20,000 a year in this world, imagine what he is achieving in the next! But they also need our prayers, our ears, our help, our love.

Let us close with a prayer:

Gracious God, guard and guide the guardians of your flock; give them humble and noble hearts, fortitude, compassion, inspiration, and love; and inspire all of us to be good friends to them in times of joy and times of trouble, so that in the fullness of time, we may all be celebrated as saints in your eternal kingdom. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
August 2010