This morning at my daily practice of Centering Prayer I was besieged by distractions. They included creative thoughts about writing this post. I was tempted to go and note them down in case I forgot them. I tried to let go of the temptation. Then I was besieged by worries about dementia. If you practice this form of prayer you will recognize what I am describing! The Silence within us is often drowned out by noisy thoughts, even good creative ones. We so easily lose touch with that Presence we call God.
Here is the idea I had while praying. (See, I didn’t forget it!) My purpose in this blog is to recover more of Jesus the wisdom teacher. I began it back in 2013 with this quote:
“Then came Jesus, whose distinctive, original voice I have argued can still be heard through the conversations of his followers which have shaped the Gospel text.” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Silence: a Christian History’ page 219)
Sometimes the conversations of the followers of Jesus are in danger of drowning out his distinctive, original voice. They can even do so with beautiful, creative parables like the nativity stories of Luke and Matthew. For example, the author of Matthew’s gospel has Jewish Christians in mind and his aim is to relate Jesus to Jewish history and tradition. He does it in ways that are sometimes obscure to us. He presents Jesus as a second (better?) Moses. He is very fond of relating his Jesus story to passages in what we Christians call the Old Testament.
Now I have to confess that the idea of Jesus as a second Moses and the details of Jesus birth and childhood are a bit like those distractions I experience in prayer. They can drown out that distinctive voice whose message resonates with 21st century people for whom traditional religion is off-putting. I am pretty familiar with the Bible and it is helpful to see how Jesus uses scriptures he was familiar with. But is not essential for me. I find much more help and inspiration in modern writers and speakers, for example Eckhart Tolle, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr and many, many more who point out to me the Way I should follow. We are in the midst of a profound shift in religious and spiritual consciousness. The miracle is that the teaching of Jesus still has the power to enable that shift to continue. The miracle was that the Gospel writers had collections of the sayings of Jesus to work with and modern scholarship is a great help in discerning when they are using those sources. My purpose in this blog is cautiously to sift out the teaching of Jesus from the ways in which those earliest Christians encoded it. Ultimately (and paradoxically) what can be drowned out is the sound of silence. Within that silence is the Silence of true Being. I believe Jesus was continually pointing to that silent Presence, inviting us to enter into it, there to discover who we truly are.
I’ll continue my sifting of Matthew’s gospel in my next post. Happy New Year.
Beware of false prophets….you will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles. (Matthew chapter 7 verses15-20)
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matthew chapter 7 verses 21- 23)
I find Roman Catholic imagery and worship off-putting so I was unsettled when one of my children married a Roman Catholic and became one also. But they and their two children are the most wonderful loving family and I love to spend time in their presence. Then again there are atheists and agnostics who exhibit the loving presence that I aspire to. And of course the same is true of Buddhists, Muslims and any other religious practice you can think of. As Brother Roger of Taize said, “Nothing is really serious except the loss of love.” So the message for me is, don’t judge the contents of the tin by its label. Incidentally, I owe a great deal to Roman Catholic writers, who have opened up for me the path of contemplative prayer and living. I ‘know them by their fruits’.
Reader, if you care to go back to the very first post of this blog you will find there the principles on which I approach the Gospels, especially this from Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch: “Then came Jesus, whose distinctive, original voice I have argued can still be heard through the conversations of his followers which have shaped the Gospel text.” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Silence: a Christian History’ page 219). Suddenly, at the end of today’s two passages you get a sense of the way in which the distinctive original voice of Jesus has been overlaid by the kind of conversation that produced Matthew’s Gospel: “Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you: go away from me you evildoers’.” Here the immediacy of Jesus’ message has been exchanged for a future event called the Kingdom of God from which some people will then be excluded.
It has taken me years to accept that the first Christians were not a perfect bunch! True, they were part of an astonishing transformation of human society. It is also true that, just like us, they struggled to hear and understand the truth that Jesus taught. That is why the Gospels reflect that struggle; sometimes faithfully recording words that Jesus spoke; sometimes making assumptions that have shaped Christian history so that we too can find ourselves struggling to understand. The blog http://earliestchristianity.wordpress.com sheds light on that struggle and is worth looking at if you fancy a more scholarly approach to these questions than I am capable of.
Richard Rohr, one of those Roman Catholic writers I have found helpful, puts these words into the mouth of Jesus, “Don’t worship me. Follow me!” Now there’s a bright light to shine into the mysteries of the New Testament.
St Mark’s gospel chapter 9
“Then came Jesus, whose distinctive, original voice I have argued can still be heard through the conversations of his followers which have shaped the Gospel text.” (Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Silence: a Christian History’ page 219)
But sometimes those conversations become so loud that the voice of Jesus is drowned out. Biblical scholars can interpret the conversations for us but when they have done their work we are left with the challenge: how much of it is relevant for me here in the 21st century? What resonates with my experience now? How can I respond from the heart?’ In 1963 a couple of Jews turned Christians published a book with the startling title, ‘God Is No More’. (A phrase, by the way, from a William Blake poem). Introducing it they wrote:
“At such a time, when the centre of life has been evacuated for its suburbs and the father’s furniture moved into the spare room, we become free – for better, for worse – for a new beginning…..we could once again listen attentively and without prejudice to the words of and about the man Jesus of Nazareth. We are no longer tempted to fit those words into a system – there are no systems left, except in the spare room. We need not try to fit them into the religious thought forms of our age – there is little religion left except in the suburbs. Today we could be met by the simple, ‘naked’, ‘untheologised’ words of Jesus, and if we are lucky they will disturb, frighten, shock and puzzle us – as life itself…..Now the words concerning Jesus consist of words about him and of words alleged to have been spoken by him. It is not easy to draw the line between these two kinds of words. ….But I believe that in most instances the imaginative ear can still pick out the sound of an intensely personal, hopeful and human voice.” (Werner & Lotte Pelz, ‘God Is No More’ page 12/13)
“…an intensely personal, hopeful and human voice” the Pelz’s wrote. It’s the consistent message of this blog that to discover and hear echoes of that voice is to receive a message which resonates with the spiritual longing of increasingly large numbers of people. It’s a message with echoes in Buddhism, and some aspects of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and elsewhere. Tomorrow I’ll listen for echoes of that voice in chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel.