A NINETY YEAR OLD LADY gazed tenderly straight into my eyes this morning – others too, of both sexes, and of all ages. Communion. Connectedness. Shared vocation. Eucharist. And I was so, so glad that I’m not the pastor of one of those Cathedrals (in Maggi’s “April Fool” – thank God!) planning to up their charges – even to those arriving for worship, to around £15 a visit. For, as Maggi suggests, there’s a note of truth to be heard in the voice of the Fool, and for all that I love churches and cathedrals, some of them with a passion, it’s time to take stock, and perhaps to have a rethink.
There’s a movement in the Church, right here in England, that’s pure madness. Paying the “parish share” to keep stones in place produces a stream of interminable “action plans” that are draining the Church of her proper essence and energy, both of these vitally necessary for her proper, mothering, task – shaping “living temples to God’s glory”. Something of the ancient edifice is going to have to give way, in this 21st century, to the saner voice of God’s Spirit within. “Hush the noise”, she whispers, “and hear the angels sing.”
What, and Who is the Church for?
Cynthia Bourgeault writes movingly in Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God, of a brief encounter in New York, in 1973, with Brother Roger of Taizé:
So moved was I by his beautiful, simple words of prayer that at the end of his talk, in spite of myself, I found myself joining the throng swelling forward to meet him.
As the wave of people carried me steadily toward him, my panic increased. What would I say when I actually got there? Would I try to tell him all about myself in thirty seconds? Or the opposite – would I just stand there flustered and tongue-tied, wasting his time?
The line lurched forward and I was suddenly dumped into his presence. And there something happened that I would never have expected, and that changed my life forever. He simply looked at me, his beautifully gentle blue eyes right on me, and asked with tenderness, “What is your name?”
“Cynthia”, I said.
“Oh, it is a lovely name,” he said, and he looked deeply into me and through me into depths I never even knew were there. For the next thirty seconds, I had his full attention – perhaps the first time this had ever happened to me in my life, the first time I had ever experienced what it means to be unconditionally loved. I left that encounter with my heart overflowing with hope; by the following year I was baptized. And it was nothing he said – just the power of the way he was present, his complete transparency to love. The Community of Taizé may be a miracle, but there is no secret behind the miracle: in the heart of its founder, deep prayer and compassionate action have become fused as one.
What, and Who is the Church for?
Deep prayer and compassionate action, tenderness for the whole world, in the pastorate, the priesthood, of a humane humanity. The one defines the other.
Roger lived and loved like Jesus, who required no church or cathedral. Like Jesus, who spent more time encouraging people to slow down, and to take peace into homes and villages, than in encouraging religious people to run faster (and/or more expensively, with new-every-morning-novelty, and louder). Like Jesus, who – like Brother Roger – made no charge. How, anyway, could I attach a price to the tender gaze, this morning, in Eucharist, of a ninety year old lady? Better to gaze gratefully – eucharistically – back. Or to put it another way, and wondrously quietly, to contemplate. God help us go tenderly.