A different view

“An old silent pond . . .

Into the pond a frog jumps.

Splash! Silence again.”

It is perhaps the best known of all Japanese haiku. (A haiku is an unrhymed poem consisting of 17 syllables arranged in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively.)

No subject could be more humdrum.

No language could be more pedestrian.

Basho, the poet, makes no comment on what he is describing. He implies no meaning, message, or metaphor. He simply invites our attention to no more and no less than just this: the old pond in its watery stillness, the kerplunk of the frog, the gradual return of the stillness.

The poet invites us to stop, look, and listen – to pay attention.

The painter does the same thing, of course.

Rembrandt puts a frame around an old woman’s face. It is seamed with wrinkles.

The upper lip is sunken in, the skin waxy and pale.

It is not a remarkable face.

You would not look twice at the old woman if you found her sitting across the aisle from you on a bus.

But it is a face so remarkably seen that it forces you to see it remarkably, just as Cezanne makes you see a bowl of apples or Andrew Wyeth a muslin curtain blowing in at an open window. It is a face, unlike any other face in all the world.

All the faces in the world are in this one old face.

Literature, painting, music—the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot.

In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things.

I had the good fortune to visit recently the exhibition named “Michelangelo A Different View. Under the license of the Vatican Museums, this exhibit offers the most complete and authentic reproductions of Michelangelo’s magnificent ceiling frescoes.

What struck me most immediately was not the paintings, rather that the room was silent.

In accord with the current Covid rules, there would have been 100 persons inside the exhibit at a time, and no one was speaking.

The majesty of Michelangelo’s craftmanship indeed had people stopping, looking, and listening.

How can you listen to a piece of art you might well ask?

My reply – step outside for a moment and what do you hear?

A bird in a tree, wind through branches, the sea lapping the shoreline, a hammer hitting a nail, a vehicle changing gear as it climbs a hill!

And, if we stop, look, and listen long enough we may well see and hear new sights and sounds.

On the fresco titled “The Fall and Expulsion From Paradise” Michelangelo combines two successive scenes; the Fall is shown on the left half of the picture, and on the right is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden.

However, when I stopped and looked Michelangelo has Eve taking the fruit of knowledge from the serpent, and has Adam also reaching for fruit from the tree.

Now I am listening!

Look again and the serpent/snake’s upper torso is human!!

Now, I have really stopped and am really looking and endeavouring to stop myself from listening to that small insistent voice inside me saying, “is the tempter inside of you?”

“Oh, go away, don’t be so silly!” So why did I stop, look and listen at that group of paintings the longest?!

Is it too much to say that to stop, look, and listen is also the most basic lesson that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches us?

Listen to history, is the cry of the ancient prophets of Israel.

Listen to social injustice, says Amos; to head-in-the-sand religiosity, says Jeremiah; to international treacheries and power plays, says Isaiah; because it is precisely through them that God speaks his word of judgment and command.

And when Jesus comes along saying that the greatest command of all is to love God and to love our neighbour, he too is asking us to pay attention. If we are to love God, we must first stop, look, and listen for God.

4th Week Ordinary Time – Year C

The famous saying “He loves me … he loves me not” comes from one of the oldest and most loved classical ballets, Giselle.

In a scene from the 1841 ballet Giselle, a peasant girl, is presented with a daisy by her love Albrecht, a duke. Albrecht and Giselle dance and she plucks the petals from a daisy to divine his sincerity.

The result is of course with all the plucking the flower is destroyed!

When attempting to make any comment on the second reading from this Sunday’s liturgy, 1Corinthians 13: 1 – 13, which is headlined ‘The Gift of Love’, I feel somewhat like Giselle – too much plucking and the entire flower is destroyed.

Apparently, the Inuit language has thirty words for snow.

This reflects the need for clarity in the culture’s complex relationship to snow. Sanskrit, the basis for most East Indian languages, has ninety-six terms for love.

Ancient Persian has eighty; Greek has four, English only one.

English does not have the breadth, scope, and differentiation for the feeling experience of love like Sanskrit and Persian.

If it did then we would have a specific word to use in our appreciation of mother, father, husband, wife, lover, sunset, house, or God.

St Paul wrote in Greek, so there may be value in a very brief look at the four words used in Greek.

The first Greek word is ‘storge’ which may best be described as ‘affection’; the second Greek word is ‘philia’ or ‘friendship’; the third word is ‘eros’, or ‘romantic’, and the fourth is ‘agape’, or ‘selfless’.

It is this fourth word ‘agape’ that St Paul uses in his description of love in Chapter 13.

I have attempted to illustrate by a diagram – the four-leaf clover.

Each leaf holds one of the energies of love, and each is critical to the formation and structure of the leaf, as each is critical to the formation of the human person.

Pluck/remove one and there is no longer a four-leaf clover.

Each of these elements we carry as a human person, made in the image and likeness of our God (Imago Dei), and at certain circumstances in our life, one of these energies will be activated either by myself, by another, or by a situation I encounter.

When I live out of (and perhaps live into) love I am showing my God to my world.

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

A maiden speech is the first speech given by a newly elected or appointed member of a legislature or parliament.

The maiden speech is an opportunity for new MPs to make a strong start and set the tone for their time in Parliament.

It’s an important speech.

New MPs get 15 minutes for their maiden speech.

This gives them time to cover a range of topics.

Typically, MPs talk about their hopes and aspirations for their time in Parliament and what they hope to achieve.

Maiden speeches usually have a deeply personal element, with MPs mentioning their upbringing, the beliefs and values that prompted them to enter Parliament, and the character of the community they represent.

You’ll see some MPs wear cultural dress or other items of personal significance to reflect their background.

This Sunday’s First Reading (Nehemiah 8: 2 – 6, 8 – 10) and Gospel (Luke 1: 1 – 4; 4: 14 – 21), has the sense of a “maiden speech” about each.

Two men unroll parchment scrolls, and each read to the people. Their proclamations signal the beginning of a vast new era. One man is Ezra the scribe, and the other is Jesus of Nazareth. Four centuries separate their readings.

The scribe Ezra, in the First Reading is in Jerusalem after the return of the Jewish exiles from captivity in Babylon.

Ancient Israel was captured by the Babylonian empire 586 years before Christ. They took Jerusalem itself. They demolished the great temple built by Solomon centuries before and deported all productive citizens to Babylon, leaving peasants to run the holy city, if they could.

After fifty years or so of their captivity, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia (now Iran), came into possession of Babylon and he let the captives go. Many had switched their faith by this time in favour of foreign gods and customs, but the remainder, perhaps 5000, made ready to return home. By this time a lot of them had never even seen Jerusalem.

They arrived to find Jerusalem a ruined city with widespread moral decay.

Reconstruction of an urban centre is immensely difficult, as we know from our own day. Ezra worked long and hard to bring back the ecclesiastical and civil fibre of Jerusalem and the nation.

At last, a new temple was finished in 516 BC, and the ruined city walls were rebuilt.

At this point, Ezra stood upon a high wooden platform built for the occasion so he could be heard and seen, and he “read plainly” from the scroll that held “the book of the law.” He started reading at daybreak and continued until midday!

Not only did they have their city again, but also, they now had heard the Word of God again. And finally, there was again a temple where they could worship.

Their new era had begun!

Four centuries later Jesus of Nazareth made a similar return. He is going back to Galilee, the region where he grew up (Lk. 4: 14 – 21). He has been baptized and has spent time in the desert. His trip is now “in the power of the Spirit,” Luke says, and it takes him to his hometown of Nazareth. Like Ezra, he takes up a scroll, this one containing the book of Isaiah—much of which, coincidentally, had been written during the Jewish exile.

He reads the passage, which says that the Spirit of the Lord has sent him to “bring glad tidings to the poor, … to let the oppressed go free,” to proclaim a time of favour from the Lord ( Is. 61:1 – 2). This is what Ezra had done centuries before the proclamation by Jesus.

Each proclaimed a new era.

An interesting detail is that we leave Ezra standing on a high platform” the scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose . . . , he opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above the people.” (8:  4 – 6). Jesus, on the other hand, having stood and proclaimed, sat down, “ he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.” (v. 20) He sits down, now,, at the same level as the people, and from there states, “today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” (v. 21)

His mission is to rebuild their hearts, not just their city, to return them to God, who is their real home. That rebuild begins with Jesus sitting among the people.

I am reminded of the words of Pope Francis during his homily at the Mass of Chrism on March 28, 2013, in St Peter’s Basilica. While the Pope was addressing priests in particular, his words may be of value to each of us.

“This is what I am asking you,” he said with emphasis, looking up from his prepared text, “be shepherds with the smell of sheep,” so that people can sense the priest is not just concerned with his own congregation, but is also a fisher of [men].” Maybe, as our dioceses begin work on the Synod, they might well imagine a new definition of synodality  – that definition being, for one and all members of the Body of Christ, “ be shepherds with the smell of sheep.”




Baptism of the Lord

There is and has been for many generations, an intriguing custom among families when a parent or parents bring their new- born child home. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, great aunts and granduncles, nephews and nieces all gather to cast an eye over the new-born. Then, the helpless, innocent new- born is taken apart:

“Look she has eyes just like grandma Molly”;

“His ears stick out like Uncle Joe’s”;

“With those hands, he is bound to end up a blacksmith like great granddad Mick”,

“Look that little smile is just like Carrie when she was new-born” (Carrie, now turning sixteen, does not want to be reminded of how she looked as a baby, thank you!);

And the photo albums and shoeboxes from under the bed are brought out with family photos going back generations and photos selected that show similarities, some quite uncanny! The new-born is suddenly an amalgam of family members spread over several generations. While there is fun and laughter and much storytelling in this custom, I believe at its heart is what I would call “a ritual of belonging” – you are one of us and a member of our family, whom we take pride in and responsibility for. And, in fact, parenting is shared; advice on how to get the young one to sleep, when to introduce the bottle (and you know the heat is just right when you can pour a drop or two of the milk onto the back of your hand without it burning!), how best to deal with teething troubles or a slight skin rash; babysitting duties are shared to enable the parents some time for themselves. “You belong to us.

The Rite of Baptism in the Christian Church is at heart a “ritual of belonging” – the community gathers and through a variety of symbols, the signing with the Cross, the pouring of water, the anointing with oil, the dressing in a baptismal robe, the lighting of a candle – each of these signs is saying to the one who has been brought for Baptism, “you belong”, “you are a member of our family,” “ we will take responsibility for you as you grow in faith.

Unfortunately, many Christians and Christian communities severely limit this ritual by linking it almost exclusively to the “removal of original sin.” This idea was put forth by St. Augustine in the fifth century but never mentioned in the Bible. We are usually taught that human beings were born into “sin” because Adam and Eve “offended God” by eating from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” As punishment, God cast them out of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:22–23). We typically think of sin as a matter of personal responsibility and culpability, yet original sin wasn’t something we did at all. It was something that was done to us (“passed down from Adam and Eve”). Yet historically, the teaching of original sin started us off on the wrong foot—with a no instead of a yes, with mistrust instead of trust. With the idea that we are “born stained!” Personally, I consider a much truer description of Adam and Eve’s experience would be “original shame.” They hide when God comes looking for them, and when God asks why they say they feel naked. Then God asks Adam and Eve, “Who told you that you were naked?” The implication is, “I sure didn’t.” A few verses later, we see a very nurturing image of God as a seamstress, sewing garments and covering the two humans to protect them from their shame, “the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21). [Come on now how many of you reading this were aware that it was Yahweh God at the sewing machine? In their shame and nakedness Yahweh God is close at hand!] How different than the much later and opposite notion of God shaming people for all eternity in hell. The older tradition reveals the deep mystery of transformation: God even uses our shame and pain to lead us closer to God’s loving heart.

The illustration is by the Italian sculptor Alessandro Algardi (1598 – 1654). Titled“The Baptism of Christ” it was sculpted between 1645 – 1646. There is a piece in the Cleveland Museum of Art – whether it is the original or not I am unable to determine.