Have you ever thought of yourself as ‘holy’? Holiness is a tricky word for most of us. In my experience we don't tend to associate it with ourselves or even with the people we love. If we think of it at all, we think of holy people as being the saints, men and women before our time who don't live the sort of lives we live.
"Rejoice and be Glad". With these words Pope Francis begins his latest offering to all members of the Body of Christ, and to all people of good will. I encourage you to read it yourself. In the meantime, here are some thoughts…
In number one we read: "The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence..."
Have you heard of the Bundian way? It’s an ancient walking track linking continental Australia’s highest point with the east coast. It is considered be the world’s oldest walking track, predating by centuries the fabled spice route of the east.
At a gathering two or three years ago I listened to the Aboriginal elder, Uncle Ossie Cruse, recount the rediscovery of the track and its significance for his people. I was struck once again by the instinctive connection to the land that the Aboriginal people possess. So deep does the connection go, that when it is broken they become a people adrift…unsure of themselves…lost.
I am in the Star Wars generation. That is to say, I was a boy of 13 when the first Star Wars movie came out, and the larger than life characters and good vs evil storyline burst on to our screens. I was old enough to appreciate what I was watching, and young enough to half hope that it was all real. With the latest instalment of the franchise due to hit our theatres soon, it is on my mind.
So much has been written about this movie, and its connection to a number of the central elements of the human spiritual quest, for it to be impossible for me to do it justice here. I focus instead on one concept that has made its way into the contemporary zeitgeist: ‘may the Force be with you’.
We are almost inevitably the products of our society and our age. As such we are formed in an expectation of how things are best achieved. If we want to do something, get somewhere, or change something, we set about working out how best to bring that about. We make a decision, come up with a plan and off we go.
We tend to approach even spiritual things in this way. While that is alright as far as it goes, we need to learn pretty quickly that God cannot be managed by us in this fashion. The central task of the spiritual life is coming to terms with this fact. Until we do, our spiritual quest can be one of frustration and disappointment. In response to this frustration some simply attempt to try harder. They think of themselves as the problem. Some distance themselves from others (society, family, the Church). They think of others as the problem. Some distance themselves from God, believing that he either doesn’t care or doesn’t exist. They identify God as the problem.
We regularly witness people SHOUTING at one another on social media sites these days. It seems that in an age that prides itself on its tolerance and diversity, tolerance often only extends to those who happen to agree with us. Raise a question about what someone has written on one of these sites and watch the fireworks fly! Our tolerance is often exposed as being but a thin veneer.
The loud and insistent voices try to claim our attention. They seek to drown out the quieter, more considered and reflective voices. And they seek to stifle our own inner voice. This is a problem for, without access to these more thoughtful voices, we end up being buffeted from every side, like kites in a storm.
I was working with a group of school teachers a few months back, trying to find the words to connect with every person in the room. Sometimes it is hard to make yourself understood when talking with just one person, so how can you be sure when talking to a group of fifty? You call on your experience, you try to read the room and intuit what is going on, and you make an act of faith.
At times I can feel like a castaway on a desert island, placing messages in bottles hoping that one day someone somewhere will read one of them and may even be provoked to respond. I write my words, or I speak them out, but is anybody reading…is anybody listening? Should I write nothing? Say nothing? Would it make any difference if I did nothing at all?
Recently I was having a conversation with a young man. He was telling me that, as an atheist, even if God existed he would refuse to believe in him. He said it came down to this: God is not worth his time. He argued that even if he were to meet God face-to-face he would still say, ‘I refuse to believe’. He would not want to give God the satisfaction of having one more person believe in him.
I must admit that I found this confronting. Not for the first time it occurred to me that there is an element of choice when it comes to faith. Two people can encounter the same reality and one choose to say ‘yes’ to it, and the other choose ‘no’.
How many times have you heard a politician or journalist, whilst commenting on a national disaster, complete their commentary by adding, ‘Our prayers and thoughts are with the family and friends at this most difficult time’? Sometimes I think to myself how very nice that is, and then other times I’ll be more cynical and say, “Really, is this guy going to actually pray for the family”?
This thought crossed my mind recently when a close friend rang to say her dad was gravely ill, and the family had been advised he wouldn’t live much longer. This friend, aged in her early 40’s and with three young sons, lost her husband six years ago.
There’s a strange story in the Bible that is a favourite of mine. It concerns Jesus walking on the water and then Peter’s attempt to join him there (see Matthew 14:22-33)*.
At first reading, this story is not immediately relevant to us in our daily lives. The ability to walk on the water may be a miraculous curiosity, perhaps serving to highlight our own lack of faith, but that isn’t telling us anything new. We already know that faith can be hard to come by.
To understand this story we need first to understand that the Scriptures are primarily about who God is and who we are called to be in response to God. Through stories and events, songs and proverbs, letters and parables, God is seeking to teach us about God and about ourselves.