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Annual Brothers Chapter

Sermon preached at the Eucharist of the first Order Brothers of the Society of Saint Francis by Canon Patrick Woodhouse

June 6th 2013

Luke: 12: 22 – 34

 

There is something both exhilarating and daunting about reading this gospel again. Exhilarating because it encapsulates the Franciscan vision.  Francis obeyed these words literally and his obedience took him into the radical freedom that lit up the mediaeval world.

But they are daunting too.   In a society obsessed with getting and possessing, Francis’s freedom seems impossible.  ‘Strive for God’s Kingdom’, says Jesus, and don’t give a thought to anything else. Well, we might say … anxious controllers of our worlds that we are: how can we possibly do that?

But the Gospel – in the way that Luke has written it – seems to hear our fear.   ‘Don’t be afraid little flock’, says Jesus in the very next sentence, ‘it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom’.   Actually you don’t need to strive.   It is a gift.  Just learn how – empty-handed and open-hearted – to receive it … day by day by day by day….  And that learning, of course, takes a lifetime.

But then comes what is perhaps the most intriguing verse of the whole passage:  ‘make purses for yourselves that will not wear out.’

This business of purses is quite confusing.  Earlier on he said, ‘don’t have a purse’.  ‘Carry no  bag, no purse’ is the explicit instruction.  To follow me is to give up on purses.

But now he seems to say something different.  We are told not to dispense with purses, but to make them.  Create purses for yourself that will not wear out … purses to contain the uncontainable … so that your lives carry the Kingdom within them … so that in this world obsessed with money, your lives  might offer  to all around you who are really worried about how much is in their purse … an altogether different kind of currency.

Make purses for yourselves that will not wear out.  What does he mean?

It is to do with the shape of our lives.  I am reminded of a little book by David Ford written in 1997 called ‘the Shape of Living’, in which he writes most imaginatively and suggestively about how our lives are shaped.  The challenge of the book is how to give life a distinctively Christ-like shape – and that, for us, may mean giving particular attention to particular things: the disciplines of prayer we keep, the rituals we share, the symbols we revere, the habits we form, the virtues we practice, the relationships we cherish.  It is about the rule we keep within our communities …

Make purses for yourselves that will not wear out.

Of course the purse, the rule, that has, over 1500 years done more than any other to give shape to faith and society in the western world, has been the rule of St Benedict.  I was reminded of this the other day when I came across again the book written in 1981 by the distinguished moral philosopher Alasdair Macintyre entitled ‘After Virtue’, for right at the very end of his work Macintyre beguilingly alludes to St Benedict.

The book, which was republished in 2007, is about the breakdown of the moral order in the modern world.  In particular, in the absence of any overall understanding about what life is for, about what end or purpose human life has, it is about the breakdown of any consensus as to what goodness means, about what ‘right’ behaviour is.   In the modern – or perhaps we should now say ‘the post-modern’ world – Macintyre says that ‘we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension  of morality’.   And this, he says, is a catastrophe, but one that we are very largely unaware of, though it has huge consequences.

The book – which is a long and by no means an easy read – explores how this catastrophic state of affairs has come about.  And then towards the end, in the absence of any overall consensus as to what morality is, the suggestion is that that which was regarded in the tradition of ‘The Virtues’ as a vice, ‘acquisitiveness’, or to use its Greek word ‘pleonexia’ which means greed, avarice, or covetousness, has now become a virtue, and is the central shaping force of our western world.  This leads Macintyre to suggest that we have now entered ‘a new dark ages’.  And what he says matters in this difficult and dark time is ‘the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained’.   Make purses for yourselves which will not wear out.

 ‘A new dark ages.’

Every one of us in this Chapel, living and working in our own particular contexts, will I suspect, be able to resonate with this phrase. We might want to give our own particular definition as to what it means. Perhaps we might say it is a new dark ages where Justice is denied?  Or perhaps a new dark ages where there is a gross and widening inequality between rich and poor?  Or a new dark ages where the only measure of value is that which contributes to economic growth?  Or  – and perhaps this is the most disturbing aspect of our times – a new dark ages where we still seem largely indifferent to the fate of the earth itself?

However we might phrase it, I suspect that few of us would disagree with Macintyre’s very disquieting suggestion.   But he is not without hope.  It is the ending of his book which is so suggestive.   His final sentence reads:  ‘we are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St Benedict.’

 Side by side he places the play by Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot – that perhaps most characterised the meaninglessness and despair of the twentieth century, with the figure whose rule not only was the foundation of western monasticism but offers the way to how lives may find their truest, most proper shape.  A shape in which a balance of prayer and work and rest is found;  a shape in which the virtues of wisdom, justice and compassion are fostered;  a shape which, above all, understands that the idea of being a private autonomous individual, which is axiomatic to the modern consumerist world, is a nonsense and a dangerous illusion.  We only know who we really are, will only truly find happiness, in relationships of interdependence, vulnerability and trust.  Make purses for yourselves that will not wear out.

So Macintyre ends his seminal work by placing before us St Benedict, and through him the challenge of making the right kind of purse.

However Macintyre is not the only example of a most perceptive observer of the human scene ending his work with the name of a saint and the challenge of living in another way.

At the end of his little book of poems called ‘the Book of Hours’, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke reflects on the terrible poverty and degradation that he witnessed in Paris at the very beginning of the 20th century. In his poems some of which are extraordinarily prescient of the present time, Rilke also focusses on the sickness of a society obsessed with making money, and contemptuous of the poor.  And in particular he points up the dangerous alienation of those in the cities from the world of nature.  All of these are features of our current malaise.

But what is most fascinating is that he ends his work also with a cry of longing for a saint, for a figure who can show us the way out of the darkness.

Let me read you the poem which – like Macintyre’s ending – comes as a cry of longing right at the end of Rilke’s work after he has despaired of the  condition of so many blighted lives, of the disregard in which so many are held, and of the alienation from the earth that so many exhibit.  The poem is a prayer, almost a challenge, made directly to God:

Where is he now

who leaving wealth behind

grew so bold in poverty

that he  threw off his clothes before the Bishop

and stood naked in the square?

 

The most inward and loving of all,

he came forth like a new beginning,

the brown-robed brother of your nightingales,

with his wonder and goodwill

and delight in earth …

Perhaps surprisingly for someone who spoke from outside the Christian tradition, Rilke looked to Francis of Assisi as the figure who most offered hope in a world increasingly darkening.

But, the poet asks: ‘Where is he now?’ … Where is he now, when we need him most?

To Rilke, Francis was a new kind of human.  A man who, with his embrace of poverty and vision of how all living things belong together in the great ecology of God, lived a life of such simplicity, trust and freedom that he offered a new way of being human.  ‘He came forth like a new beginning,’ he writes, ‘the brown-robed brother of your nightingales … with his wonder and goodwill and delight in earth …’

Make purses for yourselves that will not wear out.  Attend … keep attending … to the shape of your lives.  It is what will hold you.   And go on following in the joyful steps of Francis, with his wonder and goodwill and delight in earth.

Amen.

Patrick Woodhouse.
References:

The Shape of Living.   David F. Ford, (Fount Paperbacks)

After Virtue, a Study in Moral Theory, Third edition, (University of Notre Dame Press)

Rilke’s Book of Hours, Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (Riverhead Books, New York)