Monday, October 17, 2011

playing in the dust

Children run out of the temple and play in the dust.
God watches them and forgets the priests.
(Rabindranth Tagore)
16 oct, 2011, cricklade

Matt Rees of the Stillpoint Center picked me up at the Abbey yesterday afternoon. We had met briefly last year when I was doing the program at the Abbey and so we barely knew each other. We had a good conversation on the way to Oxford, in which I found out that he was actually an Anglican priest. He gave me a lot more background about Stillpoint too, and told me that they had also Richard Rohr and Martin Laird (author of that wondeful book "Into the Silent Land" that Sr Barbara introduced us to) here in the past year. Pretty good company! They don't actually have a center; events are held at various locations, including the Abbey. When we got to Oxford, Matt walked me over to the convent of the Sisters of the Love of God, an Anglican contemplative community, where I was to stay the night, right around the corner from Matt's house and St Alban's where the evenint event was to take place. The prioress, Sr Catherine, met us and led us over to a separate building where there was a "flat" that where I was to stay. She explained that their Sr Benedicta had lived there for some time, but had recently moved back to the convent with the rest of the community. As we walked in I immediately noticed a nameplate on the wall: Sr Benedicta Ward. I said, "What?! Is that THE Sr Benedicta Ward?!" Now, that may not be a familiar name to many of you, but she is one of the world's experts on the desert monastic tradition, and is famous in the monastic circles for having compiled the authoratative collections of the sayings and lives of the desert fathers and mothers. I've read many of her works. She had been a lecturer at Oxford for years and I believe also did work with Bishop Kallistos Ware. Really the flat was like a little urban hermitage, very simple (at least now; "Sr Benedicta had so many books!" Sr Catherine said.) So I was pretty honored and happy to be staying there. It's actually a bustling little neighborhood, surrounded by student housing. I was told there are more than 30,000 students in Oxford during the term. As a matter of fact there was a crowd of loud Oxfordians right outside my window until quite late last night. I was wondering how patient Sr Benedicta was with that.

I got myself out for a little walk of the neighborhood, down to the Thames and winding up at a pub on the corner called the Magdalen Arms. Now, again, this may not mean much to you, but we were on Magdalen Road right down the street from Magdalen College (pronounced "maudlin," by the way), the college where CS Lewis and Bede met and tutored. As I sat at the Magdalen Arms and had afternoon tea, I imagined the two of them knocking back a pint right there discussing some of the finer points of Greek tragedy. Matt picked me up accompanied by Ian, another Anglican priest and his partner in Stillpoint. I swear, if I hadn't known better I would have taken the two of them to be just two working class guys, maybe a bass player and guitarist for a rock band after a hard day's night, not as two Anglican priests. My own prejudice, I'm sure, (I hope they won't mind this characterization, if they are reading...) but they've got more the faded jeans-rumpled hair look than the stiff-collared image I had of Anglican clergy. We were met also by Ian's wife, Gail, and they took me back for a light dinner before the evening event. And of course we swapped all kinds of stories. Both Ian and Matt have been involved with experimental communities; that's how they first hooked up. When they started Stillpoint they simply decided to invite anyone they themselves would want to spend an evening with. It's worked so far. They both have a great love for the arts, and Matt has a great fondness for the Beat poets, with a picture of Alan Ginsberg on the wallpaper of his mobile phone. Ian also has been deeply involved in the "new monastic" movement, which also of course got us into another deep discussion. Needless to say, I was pretty fired up by the time we got to the evening event.

It went quite well, I thought. I used the regular prayer service as the format, with the addition of a bit more music than usual. As a matter of fact, I sat down to play some music as people were came in, as I would normally do in the States as well, to quiet people down as they gathered. The difference between here and there is, last night they actually did quiet down! They were listening very attentively, so much so that I finally spoke to them and explained the piece I was going to play and sang a bit too. It was a great setting in the nave of the church and a sweet acoustic. And folks were very responsive and kind afterward.

This morning was the whole other end of the spectrum. Beth, one of the parishioners of St Alban's, kindly drove me from Oxford across the Cotswold to the town of Cirencester, where I was to preach at the Cirencster Parish Center. It is a grand old church, the largest parish in Gloucester county, I was told. Really it's a combination of three churches/congregations. There are six priests, but I once I got to the vestry I couldn't tell who was clergy and who wasn't because there were so many people in clerical blacks, cassocks, and surplices. Three ordained besides me were part of the service, Rev Janet Williams, who had invited me, another woman priest and the vicar himself who had a red sash around his cassock. I thought perhaps a cardnial had slipped in (!) but he put on a dalmatic and served as deacon. I had to laugh at myself. I'm used to being a wandering preacher, but it is rare that I actually show up at a the door of a church carrying my backpack and guitar, not to mention highly underdressed. Anyway, after asking several people how long one preaches at an Anglican service, I had scrupulously timed my homily at 15 minutes and told the congregation that I had and that they could check their watches. This was to break the spell of my own nervousness and to let them get used to my American accent. I think it went pretty well. Folks here are not at all as responsive as we are in the States, and I've gotten used to that. Afterward that I had several good conversations with folks who had obviously been very attentive. One guy, who had been one of the liturgical ministers, surprised me by asking me afterward, "Fancy going out for a pint later on?" I stammered that I didn't actually drink and I wasn't sure if where I was staying was anywhere close, but if we could work something out. It didn't, but I appreciated the offer to see a little local color.

Anyway, I'm gonna post the homily in a few parts upcoming... It's mostly based on James Carroll's book "Jerusalem, Jerusalem" (all unattributed quotes will be from there, mainly pages 58-64, and 302-302) where he introduced me to a deeper understanding of the oneness of God, and on Karen Armstrong's book "Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths." These are the two books we've been studying in prepartion for our trip to Palestine. Plus my host and old friend here in Cricklade, Patrick Eastman, loaned me a controversial book by the Spanish theologian Jose Pagola called "Jesus: An Historical Approximation," that added a few insights as well. What I'm posting here is about three times as long as the sermon; I got so caught up in the topic I couldn't stop writing while I was at the Abbey.