Word Made Flesh: Dwelling Amongst Books
5th Bunyip Lecture
Delivered at St Thomas' Bunyip
A certain philosopher questioned the Holy Antony: “How,” he said, “do you content yourself, Father, who is denied the comfort of books?” He answered, “My book, philosopher, is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind to read the words of God, it is at my hand.” Sayings of the Desert Fathers Book XXI
Today marks the beginning of Advent.
Many recent spiritual writers when reflecting on this season, offer reflections on the theme of waiting: waiting for the Word made flesh, for the Word to be born, for the coming of the Christ child. (Jane Williams / Malcolm Guite). The call to know ‘waiting’ is a very helpful tool into living these few weeks before Christmas. To consciously experience waiting steers our preoccupations away from the fast paced world of glitz and consumerism, manic busyness; it encourages us to align with something bigger, something which stills us, attunes us to the meaning of Advent.
In the Church cycle, we’re now entering the Year of Luke, and a few Saturdays ago, Melbourne theologian Dorothy Lee reminded us that praise is a keynote here; Luke’s is a ‘Gospel of messianic joy.’ Luke’s emphasis is universal salvation; it is laden with practical ethics and causes us reflection on moral living.
One way we’ve habitually come to express praise is through gift giving. In these few weeks of Advent many of us become preoccupied with ‘presents.’ What gift am I going to give someone - my husband, my daughter, family members on Christmas Day? Customers come into the Bookroom and purchase gifts, and Christmas cards, some look for a Kris Kringle gift under $10- for work breakups. Identifying persons who don’t receive gifts, the homeless, the marginalised, is another important part of our giving at Christmas.
On Christmas Eve at the 6pm St Peter’s Eastern Hill Children’s service, the church is full. There’s tons of children I’ve never seen before, except maybe last Christmas Eve. The late service is also packed with people who come annually to the parish church for that special Christmasy feel: the music and mass, for connection with the ‘real meaning of Christmas.’ Then, after a brief rest, it’s once more off into the busy Christmas Day activities - travelling between different families for dinners and present giving at several different households. The meaning of the gift giving is briefly glimpsed, perhaps idealised, then relinquished in the active festivities of the day.
So what does gift giving mean? As Christians we believe that the real gift on Christmas Day is the birth of Jesus Christ, but what is it that we are being given? And how do we live in response to this gift?
“My book, philosopher, is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind to read the words of God, it is at my hand.” For Holy Anthony, ‘the nature of all created things’ are gifted to us from God, and to know God is to live in response to this. We are invited to read the ‘words of God’ in our present lives. And, as another Early Church Father, Gregory of Nyssa tells us, we are free to be fully ourselves as we live in response to the gift of God’s love, because God ‘never enforces anything contrary to its nature.’ (see Celebrating the Seasons, p492). God, gives us capacity to reason, to discern, to imagine, to be living the mystery we call ‘being human.’ God is a life affirming source who offers us a freedom which is wholly non-competitive.
In this talk this afternoon I would like to ponder a little, three of the many gifts given to us in the birth of Christ Jesus. And they are: the gift of relationship, the gift of memory, and the gift of language.
I began as volunteer in St Peter’s Bookroom in 1992. In 1998 I had the privilege of being invited to manage the shop. In these last 20 years of ministry at St Peter’s, the volunteers and I have encountered a great diversity and colourful variety of customers.
Customers sometimes offer more to us than we seem to give to them. Especially the ones who have us feel uncomfortable. 3 customers: There’s Peter, who I suspect now lives in a van, has been an irregular customer and parishioner over a long period. Life has been very challenging for him in the last 5 years as far as I can glean - close family members have died and he is increasingly alone. He comes sporadically, four times this year. During the Book Fair in September he purchased over $100 worth of books, which is not unusual for him. But he told me that he can’t transport them. I wonder if he can’t house them anymore. They still sit on top of some cupboards in the church hall where I put them at the end of the Fair. He came in to the shop two weeks ago but hovered only near the front door; I called out hello Peter, he waved but left within a few minutes. The books remain on top of the cupboards.
Meanwhile, there’s also James who purchases armloads of carefully chosen books every Friday from the .50cent table. Sometimes he also asks me to hold on to them for him because there’s too many for him to take away at one time. I try to be patient, but I’m often not, because once more I’m having to find room to house books I’m trying to move on. James tells me that he builds tables with the books, and some stools to sit on in his flat. A volunteer in the shop wonders if he is selling them on.
And then there’s John. Or was John. About 5 years ago, this customer with a cultured English accent, but a quick violent temper, came regularly over a period of short time. He once purchased over $60 worth of books from the second-hand section. He talked to me about the authors of the books he was choosing - he clearly knew the works. Although he had some money, John was homeless. It was winter. His clothes were dirty, he smelled, and his feet were itching and swollen red with chilblains he complained as he took his shoes and socks off to rub them. His purchased load of books was bundled into a shopping trolley.
Of course, I’ve changed the names of these three customers. I’ve given them here the names of 3 of the disciples. This is because as I was writing this talk, I reflected on how they remind me about something to do with being a disciple of Jesus Christ. If we believe that to be a disciple means a vocation and a calling from God, and that the body of Christ really does include everybody, then Peter, James and John confront me. Here are three customers who make me feel uncomfortable because they remind me of an uncomfortable truth about myself. Their desire to purchase so many Christian books in one go despite not be able to house them, transport them, or properly read them, reveals to me the face of my own need. I see in their actions my own susceptibility to becoming terribly stuck at some point in my own quest for the Word made flesh. The Word when acquired only as the bounded black letters contained in the pages of a book, is a very poor substitute for the living relationship they hunger for. Peter, James and John reveal to me my own need for the gift of relationship.
Spiritual and religious books are never an end in themselves - they only ever point the way towards. They point the way toward the ‘Word made flesh’, it’s up to the reader to live from the meaning discovered in the book with courage, with a willingness to risk embodying the Word in themselves. Good religious and spiritual writers, and booksellers, know this truth about their books.
When we are born, we are born into relationship. The primary relationship we are born into is with God. Our first human relationship is with the person or persons who are our primary care givers. Ideally they are figures of love. To grow and flourish through childhood we need the other - the one who loves us. The network extends outwards into community, between cultures. ‘We go to heaven in one another’s pockets,’ is a phrase quoted by Rowan Williams.
A book I have found resonance with recently is Outspoken by Rod Bower, the Anglican priest from Gosford whose post on social media, and on the sign board outside his church in 2013: Some people are gay. Get over it. Love God. caused an overwhelmingly mixed response. Until then he had a Facebook following of 150, but this post came to be viewed over 70 million times, and had1,000s of shares. With his wife Kerry, he’s gone to post many other social justice statements: Islamophobia, we must be better than this; Boat number ‘ZEB037’ is no name for a child. His posts have come at a cost, with death threats and hate mail, and at times the protection of the police with a personal body guard.
But it is another story of Rod Bower’s that captured my attention in contemplating the challenge of living relationally. In 2001, as Archdeacon of the Central Coast, he was working long hours and felt his ‘career was definitely on its way.’ One night he received a call from the Assistant Bishop: he was to meet with senior staff, 9am the next day at Bishopscourt. It transpired that the Registrar of the Diocese who was responsible for finances, had stolen a large sum of money. ‘This man had been my friend and colleague for 20 years, best man at our wedding. I really did not know how to respond,’ he writes. (p109). But he did respond. When at Diocesan Council the following week the Bishop instructed no-one on the council to have anything more to do with the Registrar, and if they thought they would they must leave the meeting: Rod Bower, in a state of terrible inner conflict and turmoil, left the meeting. He writes, ‘I knew if I walked out of the meeting it would the the end of my career, but what was the point of being a priest if I couldn’t well, actually be a priest?’ (p109). This was an action which led to a period of great anxiety and depression, in which he confesses without his wife and family he felt he would have suicided.
Loving God; being in relationship; living the Word made Flesh, can be really hard. But, as well as one’s closest friends and family, the gift of memory can also help us here.
Initially it was the liturgy of the Mass that I sought out and needed most when I first started attending St Peter’s in the late 1980s. Affirmation from and creative connection with each vicar has also been vital for my spiritual growth. But, each time I reflect back upon my time in this parish, I seem to remember the parish and parishioners a little differently. In my first 15-20 years I found St Peter’s comprised many cliques; it seemed like one had to first find a club in order to then ‘belong’ to the parish. I felt an outsider to all these little guilds, some of which had strong fortresses and seemed to have been set up and capably operated since the very foundation of the church in 1846. When I first started as a volunteer the Bookroom was located in a little corridor leading into what was then called the Guild Room. It was very small and had an ‘Old Curiosity Shop’ feel about it to me. It needed volunteers to stay open during the week.
One advantage in the reduction in numbers of parishioners over the last 30 years is that the walls of these small clubs have necessarily loosened. Guilds have to have members. Their foundation of straw is only revealed when they dissolve; then we see and freshly re-understand what it means to have our foundation on Christ. But even then, living in any community is challenging. This is because being human is to be a flawed mystery, and in coming together we fail, I fail, so often to be whom I can be best. And it’s only after being at St Peters now for just on 30 years that I can look back and recognise this a little better.
During my early years at St Peter’s there was so much I couldn’t see, being preoccupied with the longing to belong. But once I began to understand that I belong really only in and with God, I have begun to re-see the nature of community. We take community with us wherever go because we take with us our capacity for relationship in God. Letting go and re-seeing, re-membering, means the ability to move on, to grow, to be free. And freedom in God means in 10 years time I may see and understand the St Peter’s community differently again.
So the gift of memory always happens from the place in which we stand in the present moment. It’s meaning derives from this relationship we have in God. Writers like Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General of the United Nations from 1951-57, and Miroslav Volf, contemporary Croatian theologian, have taught me: go to the hard places, especially in your relationship with God, stand there and see what you can see. Hammarskjold’s private journal Markings, reveals a sensitive, deeply reflective, spiritually attuned man whose spiritual quest was mirrored by his action of seeking to build bridges between tense nations during the Cold War. For Miroslav Volf it’s important to remember the past rightly. Christ’s Passion and resurrection needs to inform how we engage in the action of remembering. Both these men know the importance of living theology. Both, like Rod Bower, passionate regarding issues of social justice in the world; justice through reconciliation, through ‘embrace.’ Remember God’s love in all that you do.
When I first started purchasing books from the Bookroom my favourite spiritual authors, who have withstood the test of time, include Esther de Waal, Gerard Hughes, John O’Donohue. Over time, new authors came into my landscape - you’ll never hear a talk of mine without mentioning Rowan Williams. Celtic prayer writer, David Adam has been until recently stage left, his writing and prayers have influenced me much more this year. The works of Joan Chittister I have read a lot. There are writers whose books spiritually nourish other readers in significant ways but can’t quite ever seem to speak to me: Tom Wright is one such very significant author. And in the Bookroom itself, at one point many years ago, I had a whole shelf of books by writers who had been banned from the Roman Catholic Bookshop - I called that our Pell shelf: books by Richard Rohr, Joan Chittister, Paul Collins, Michael Moorwood. One year it seemed to just keep growing! In more recent times I’ve explored works by Mystics, carefully fostered at St Peter’s by Fr Hugh’s Mystic Anonymous group which meets every Wednesday - open to everyone. And there are many other very good spiritual writers represented here today.
Good spiritual writers can give us courage to face our own terrors and examine memories that are painful. They help us go to the hard places with the eyes of God. They prompt us to ask: what can I see or re-see in and from this challenging place? And good writers, I think, also give us a language that can help steady our feet; words that enable us to enflesh or put form around our spiritual experience.
There are books written and addresses given by Rowan Williams, that I read or listen to again and again. His language, his discourse, moves across many disciplines. Some of his books are much more abstract and conceptual than others - On Augustine and The Edge of Words, and recently Christ - I confess I struggle in reading these. But he has published shorter works, some more recently based on reflection groups he has led. Here the language is much more accessible whilst equally dynamic and engaging: Being Disciples, Being Human, Being Christian.
Both Rowan Williams and David Adam encourage us to take the words we use in our prayer life seriously. They encourage us to find prayers to sit with, have them walk them inside us inside as a mantra. And we can only do this when we enter into ‘slow craft time.’ In his book Holy Living, Rowan Williams reminds us to stay present ‘where you are, rather than taking refuge in the infinite smallness of your fantasies.’ Expansion of the heart takes time, and evocatively Williams quotes the Welsh saying: ’life is about inhabiting a great hall within narrow walls.’ (p65). For him, and so many of these writers, life is about learning to be still and listen, to ponder, to be fully present to the place you are in.
Language is a vehicle for passing on experienced knowledge. But also, for me, reading or listening to a good theologian offers a language, a vocabulary, upon which I can invite my own experience into and hang my own thoughts upon. I don’t mean here being brainwashed, or unthinking appropriation. The gift of language can provoke our imagination; push further the boundaries of reflection. Language grows us. We can recognise our relationship in God, have courage to go to hard places, but without this growth in God which language offers we risk fossilising, remaining unrealised.
Writers like Rowan Williams, Gillian Rose, Richard Rohr offer vocabularies that are living and nuanced. Their works help me understand the power of a word, remind me how full of care I need to be when I speak to others. They draw upon the ‘language’ of other writers; and through their words God speaks to me. And in turn, after my own reflections, hopefully God uses me to speak to others, to you. This talk I’m giving this afternoon is peppered with a vocabulary I have been gifted from the many spiritual writers I have read, which they in turn have been gifted from others. And this is a gift giving whose primary source is the Word made flesh. Christ’s own self living in us.
Finally, language itself, of course, takes many forms. Here, I only refer to books, but the language of God speaks through the expressive Arts: music, poetry, dance, painting. God’s Word is found in nature and in silence and the unsaid. The grammar of God is in the nature of created things and lives inside each one of us.
All these gifts: language, memory and relationship - involve an-other. We can only speak truthfully, remember rightly, be in health giving relationships, if our words come from an embodied place of Love. If I can begin to see my customers, Peter, James and John, not as alien other but as brothers, which I so often fail to do, then I am starting to know something about the Word made flesh. If our language serves reconciliation, breaks through the illusion of separation and hate, of fear and abuse then our lives start to become aligned into the enlarging the heart of God. I can purchase or read all the books about God I like, but if I do not live first from response to this space of Love, and if my first book is not, as Holy Anthony says, the nature of created things as seen through Love’s eyes, then what I see will be forever only an illusion.
We sell Holding Crosses in the Bookroom. Many Carols sung during the Christmas season offer a resonance between the birth and death of Jesus - ‘he bears a bondman’s doom,’ the cheerful Charles Coffin writes. A number of chaplains purchase these Holding Crosses to offer to people in care or in hospital, to hold onto. The gift of the Word made flesh, with all its hope and beauty and pain and vulnerability, the gift of Christ who is born at Christmas, enables us to see through illusion to Reality. And that’s something really worth holding onto.