Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Solemn March

~Jeff pointed me to this sermon by Abbot Hugh Gilbert, who is a rumored front-runner as the next Archbishop of Westminster.
'So, my brothers and sisters, our whole business in this life...' After the question of meaning comes the question of purpose, of action. After the revelation of God's business comes the revelation of my own. After disclosure of the Father and the Son comes the work of the Holy Spirit. After sight of the secret movement in history's heart comes the drawing into it of the sedentary beggar. It's as if a dilapidated truck abandoned in a lay-by suddenly spurts into life and finds the motorway. For the Fathers, once again, every detail is significant: his being named, being blind, a beggar, sitting, hearing, shouting out, the words, 'Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!', the protests of the crowd, his unstoppable, louder cry, the pausing of Christ, 'Call him here', the throwing off of the cloak, the springing up, the coming to Jesus. Physical gestures, but charged with spiritual and sacramental sense. 'What do you want me to do for you? 'Rabbouni, let me see again,' 'Go; your faith has made you well.' 'Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way'. For the Fathers, seeing the whole in the part, the whole of that personal, sacramental process by which we connect to Christ and live as a member of his Body is summarised here. After all, wasn't enlightenment, illumination, an early Christian word for baptism?

First, there is God's business: the solemn march at the heart of things. And then there is our own, our connection, our taking part, our movement into the movement of God, the work of the Holy Spirit. But if there is, in Bartimaeus, one particularity the Fathers see, one lesson peculiarly his own, it is the place in this for persevering prayer. He's an icon of it, for St. John Chrysostom. 'Son of David, have mercy on me!' It is all but the Jesus Prayer. For St Gregory the Great: 'Let us hear what the blind man, still unenlightened, did'. He cried out all the more. In proportion to the tumult of our unspiritual thoughts must be our eagerness to persist in prayer. The crowd opposes our crying out' frequently we endure the images of our sins even in prayer. But the more harshly our heart's voice is repressed, the more firmly it must persist'. I believe that everyone observes what I am saying in him or herself. When we turn our minds from this world to God in prayer, when we are converted to the work of prayer, what we once enjoyed doing we endure in our prayer as demanding and burdensome. Holy desire only with difficulty banishes the recollection of them from our hearts; the sorrows of repentance scarcely overcome their images. But when we persist ardently in our prayer, we fix Jesus to our hearts as he passes by. So Jesus stopped and ordered him to be brought to him. You see how one who was passing by stopped. While we are still suffering the crowds of images in our prayer, we realize that Jesus is in some sense passing by; but when we persist ardently in prayer, Jesus stops. He revives the light, because God is fixed to our hearts, and the light we have lost is restored' (St Gregory the Great, Homilies on the Gospel, 13).

What is really going on? God is at work in the world, the Father is always about his gracious, mysterious endeavour of bringing his exiled sons and daughters back to their home in the crucified and risen Son. And the Holy Spirit, completing the work from within, is forever inspiring what he inspired in Bartimaeus: desire, faith, prayer, a coming to Christ and a life in him. What is really going on is this work of the Three in One. The vision of faith is a vision of the Holy Trinity, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And our whole business in this life, in and beyond any particular, honourable businesses that occupy us, is, in faith and prayer, to see this work of God and, in hope and love, to take our place within it. Everything pales before this, everything is illumined by this. It is the healing of the eye of the heart, that eye with which God is seen.

I hope to show, said Eric Mascall once, introducing a course of lectures, that the Faith which the Church has proclaimed throughout the ages is fuller, more interesting, more comprehensive, more demanding, more liberating, more satisfying, that it synthesizes a wider range of human thought, embraces and coordinates a wider range of human experience, opens up more possibilities of human living and offers in the end a deeper and richer ecstasy of fulfilment than any alternative way of life and thought; that it is in every way grander, more inspiring and more fruitful (The Christian Universe, p. 11). May such a vision and such a life be ours!

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