Posts Tagged ‘Augustine’

Midnight Mass at Chilcomb – for the Hampshire Chronicle

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

I love Midnight Mass; it’s when poetry, drama and worship collide. For us, the celebration does not begin with the usual recognition of God’s presence, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”, but with a gathering together in the warmth and fellowship of our Rectory before beginning the night walk across fields to Chilcomb Church. Neither does the celebration end the wishing of a “Merry Christmas” after the blessing. God’s presence continues to be felt in the warmth of mulled wine and mince pies, and the tired dark trek back across fields. On this night, our worship overflows both the opening and closing of our liturgy. I’m reminded of The Fragment by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney; “Since when,” he asked,/ “Are the first line and last line of any poem/ Where the poem begins and ends?” Midnight Mass is unbounded faith breaching its beginning and ending. Our unrestrained God is sung in Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter, “Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain”. In the harsh darkness of this season, the overflowing nature of God is discovered.


I also love the idea that we encounter God in the midst of darkness, in the middle of one of our longest nights. This is an ancient tradition. Moses had to journey from an initial (naïve?) vision of God as light, in a burning bush; to mystically (mature?) encountering of God in darkness in the enfolding clouds of Mount Sinai. Faith is mystery not rational proof and the God whom we worship in the depths of darkness will always remain hidden. “If you can understand, then it’s not God”, said the influential theologian Augustine.


The hidden nature of Midnight Mass is a warning against certainty and how certitude can close our minds to the new opportunities and insights offered by, what St. Paul calls, being “In Christ”. In Christ, our social categories break down, there is no male and female. In Christ, the finality of death is destroyed. In Christ, the reassurance offered by following a set law is undermined. Everything is redefined in that most inexpressible of emotions, love; the emotion that can only be expressed in the fluid language of poetry or song, or the symbolism of gift or touch.


The contemporary Irish poet, Pádraig Ó Tuama, writes in his poem The Creed, “I once was wrong/ because I thought I was right.” Clinging to certainty, to the bright revealing light of day and its clinical observations, can make us feel that we have the right answers when we have yet to properly explore the questions. Midnight Mass with its archaic language, traditional hymns and ancient setting engages our emotions and insight; raising questions prompted by darkness and mystery. The emotion of faith is engaged by the surrounding darkness. God is heard in the silence of the night. A child is worshiped in absolute vulnerability. The human condition is reborn.


Wishing you all a joyful and reflective Christmas night.

Reflecting on Terry Pratchett

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

“The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it”, wrote the late humanist author Terry Pratchett. This brilliantly acknowledges the human experience of searching and frustration with those who derail that search with strident truth claims. I, as a Christian priest, feel drawn towards the seeking mind of Terry Pratchett more than the overly confident claims of some of my co-religionists. Let me try and unpack this.

There is much in the Christian tradition which celebrates doubt and uncertainty including the cry of Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The Catholic writer GK Chesterton, likened this anguished cry to God becoming an atheist. A faith which leaves God more hidden than revealed can be traced to our Jewish heritage where Moses only receives the 10 commandments by entering the thick darkness of the cloud on Mount Sinai and Elijah encounters God in the “sound of sheer silence”. Tellingly, our hymn writers could not countenance a God who is silent and replaced silence with the “still small voice of calm.”

The former bishop, Richard Holloway, wrote, “The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty” and it may be that clear revelation and certainty evolve into doubt and struggle as faith matures. You may recall that Moses’ first Godly revelation was the bright and obvious burning bush, in contrast to his later faith journey groping in the darkness of the thick cloud. This journey into doubt is often referred to as apophatic, from the Greek “to deny”, which claims that we can only describe God by what he is not; all that God is is beyond our comprehension. So, for example, when we use the term Father of God it is only partially true because he is so beyond our experience of fatherhood.

Meister Eckart’s apophatic approach led him to say, “I pray to God to rid me of God” acknowledging that all his preconceptions of divinity were inadequate and potentially idolatrous. A more mainstream approach was taken by the theologian Augustine who said, “To reach God in any measure by the mind is a great blessedness; but to comprehend his is altogether impossible.” So yes we have partial understanding of God through the scriptures, the experience of loving and of worship. However, we can never fully comprehend the mystery at the root of our lives, the restless heart within us.

November Magazine

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything

Abba Moses

I write this as many of the clergy in Winchester are preparing to go on retreat; with some of the time spent in silence. From the earliest times, retreat has been an important part of the Christian life. It is an opportunity to withdraw from the usual round of tasks and the familiar environment, to spend time in contemplation and reflection. It is a sort of spiritual 10,000 mile service.

Withdrawing to find time in prayer and solitude was the pattern modeled by Jesus and sometimes followed in extreme ways by his early followers. Simeon Stylites spent 37 years living alone on the top of a pillar! There was a tradition of desert mothers and fathers who renounced everyday comfort to live in harsh conditions but who also received visitors and shared insights into the spiritual life. Abba Moses, quoted above, was a desert father who reminded people not to rush around looking for answers but to slow down and become rooted in one place, where a new perspective can be granted.

A desert mother, Amma Syncletia, shows the struggle of persevering in a relationship with God. She likens this to starting a fire, “If you want to light a fire you are troubled at first by smoke, and your eyes pour water. But in the end you achieve your aim. Now it is written: ‘Our God is a consuming fire.’ So we must light the divine fire within us with tears and struggle.”

It is a privilege to have both the time and a good leader for retreat. However, retreat is not the same as escape or withdrawal. It is about finding time to engage more deeply with God and God’s purposes in the world. In this sense, I hope that many of you find time for retreat. Time for a few hours of solitude where you can engage with purpose and meaning both for your life and the lives of those around us. For a person of faith, purpose and meaning are found in God and the words of St. Augustine ring true, “You created us for yourselves O God and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”.

With love and prayers Paul


Friday, August 27th, 2010

The Northumbria Community celebrates Pelagius tomorrow rather than his adversary St. Augustine. Augustine was the champion of original sin, the doctrine that we inherit sin along with our conception, thus making sex a polluting activity! Original sin has come to us from Adam’s fall through Eve. Pelagius has a more rounded view of humanity in that all creation is inherently good and God breathed. Pelagius held that we need God’s grace to inform and motivate us on the path of salvation. Conversely, Augustine further emphasized God’s grace, thus heightening the role of Jesus Christ in our salvation. However, Augustine also underplays our own role in working out salvation and fails to recognize our own inherently good nature.

The attraction of the Celtic monk Pelagius can be seen in his view of creation, “There is no creature on Earth in whom God is absent… When God pronounced that his creation was good, it was not only that his hand had fashioned every creature: it was that his breath had brought every creature to life”, and “narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth”.

The western church, under Augustine’s influence condemned him. Without the insights of Pelagius many Christian traditions still deny the goodness of creation, the place of women and the giftedness of sex.