Holy Saturday’s Hell

Easter Hymn

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

A E Housman

I was introduced to this poem by David Brown at a training event earlier this year. David suggested this was a poem for Holy Saturday.

As it starts, it’s all about the “if”.
What if?
It’s a question that tortures us now, as it tortured Housman:

What if the very thing that Christian hope clings to – the death and resurrection of Christ – was only a death?
What if the dead man Christ knew nothing of the futility of his suffering?
What if, in death, he only added to the hatred of the world?
What if death is the end?

Housman then pivots his poem, his questions, on the “but”:
But if the tomb could not hold Christ,
But if Christ ascended into glory
But if Christ, in glory, remembers human suffering
But if Christ, in resurrection, transforms the darkness of death
Then surely he will see our pain and return to make it okay.

Housman was an agnostic, and this is an agnostic poem.

And is there a more agnostic moment, for Christians, than Holy Saturday?
Holy Saturday lies between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
It is a day of mystery and darkness.

Here is the liminal space between:
Death ………. and ………. resurrection
Darkness ………. and ………. light
Despair ………. and ………. hope
Sorrow ………. and ………. joy
Anxiety ………. and ………. reassurance
Giving up ………. and ………. starting afresh
Pain ………. and ………. healing
Hate ………. and ………. forgiveness
The ending ………. and ………. the beginning.

Housman’s poem is a poem for our agnostic self in our agnostic moments
(And – unless it’s just me – then even priests have agnostic moments!):

The moments in which God seems distant and all we have is unformed questions and silent answers.
The moments of longing that life could have been different, but of facing up to the reality of deep pain and disappointment.
The moments in which we question: Why? What for? Who cares?

Some Christian traditions hold that Holy Saturday was the day of the harrowing of Hell: a belief that Christ “descended into Hell” to liberate those held by Satan’s chains.

While Satan and Hades were thus speaking to each other, there was a great voice like thunder, saying: Lift up your gates, O ye rulers; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates; and the King of glory shall come in…

While Hades was thus discoursing to Satan, the King of glory stretched out His right hand, and took hold of our forefather Adam, and raised him. Then turning also to the rest, He said: Come all with me, as many as have died through the tree which he touched: for, behold, I again raise you all up through the tree of the cross.

The Gospel of Nicodemus

In our “if” moments, our Holy Saturday hell, I wonder if we can hear, even distantly, the voice that thunders to our despair, our hurt, our hopelessness:
“Open your gates, and let me in!”

And I wonder in what “buts” we find glimpses of Christ’s resurrection hope?
But if there can be hope…
But if this is not the end…
But if this is a beginning…

Bow hither out of Heaven and see and save.

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Hieronymus Bosch, The Harrowing of Hell

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Change and Decay: A meditation for the seasonally affected

Autumn took me by surprise this year.

Overnight, warm sun seemed to turn to cold rain. I don’t think this was just my lack of attentiveness. The seasons overlap and creep upon us and tease us as they ebb and flow before disappearing without warning. This Autumn was a poignant one for me as my oldest child started school. It hit me harder than I expected. The reality of the passing of time and of ageing; the grief at losing concentrated time with one of my soulmates; the submission to an institution and a system that I knew so little about; the change of rhythm to our days, weeks, and terms; the extra time and space it gave me to reflect back on a year of (so far) extraordinary gift and challenge – and the inner work this involved.

Autumn is a moment in which we are caught up in, taken aback by, and plunged into change, perhaps without feeling ready for it. Death and decay creep in: plants die and leaves fall.

It’s hard to think of Spring at this time of year. But I am always surprised at how quickly the decay turns again to life. What strength must lie in the earth, that it can so quickly bring to birth once more green signs of life. Winter is never death, and always gestation.

What follows is a meditation for all who have found themselves hitting October with bewilderment: where has this year gone?

It is for all who fear change, decay and death.

It is, perhaps, the song of the sunflowers. 

What makes you strong doesn’t come from outside. What makes you strong is what you carry within. In plants, strength and vitality lie dormant in winter, ready to burst through with new shoots in Spring. Autumn is a time to bed down, to reabsorb life and take it back to the innermost places, to quieten and to listen and to wait. This jars, amidst the otherwise busy-ness of this time of year.

This Autumn, may we find time to keep slow pace with the trees, and like them, store up vitality.


Our moment of parting
Was unnoticed.
How was I to know that sunset smile
Would be the last you would show me
Before the cold months of your absence?

Your whispered goodbye
Barely heard
Above the cruel, harsh winds
So quick to hurry in change
And decay.

autumn2.jpg

I still look
Still search
Still reach
For your August warmth
But you glare at me
Me, surrounded by the sodden brown carpet
That once was glorious canopy,
And you are
Taunting
Cold
And give nothing.

And so it is time for
Disengagement
Detachment
Decay
I turn in on myself
Returning withered to my roots.

And here is all I need.

Dying and gestating within me
The remnant of the goodness we had
And the promise of a Spring yet to be:
Painful memories and hopeful promises
Stored up for the life that will grow
As I wait; patiently, slowly, still.

Ebb and flow at Rievaulx 

We spent yesterday at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. The site contains the ruined remains of a Cistercian community who lived, worked and prayed in the area for over 400 years. 

The condition of the ruins, along with the thoughtfulness of the information provided by English Heritage, make it easy to imagine the Rievaulx ways of life. But, more than this, half a century of faithful prayer and simple living have left spiritual footprints on the area that are impossible to miss. 

Faced with this ruined grandeur and remnant spirituality, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if history had been kinder to Rievaulx. 

What if it hadn’t struggled so badly in the 13th Century with livestock loss and debt? 

What if it had not been pillaged by the Scots in 1322?

What if it had not been struck by the Black Death in 1348?

What if more than 15 monks (down from 650) had survived to the end of the 1380s?

What if it had not been suppressed and dismantled in 1538?

What if the dissolution of the monasteries had not taken place? 

What would Rievaulx be today? 

These questions turned naturally on their head, to the institutions and ways of life that I know and love. The ones that seem strong, and yet are as fragile as Rievaulx. 

What if the bricks in the wall of my life – the bricks that offer security and hope and a future – one day lie as ruined as this once-great abbey? 

Rievaulx’s most famous abbot was also one of its first: Aelred. As Aelred watched his community strengthen and prosper, I wonder what he knew about life’s ebb and flow? 

Did he hope that Rievaulx  would become one of the richest abbeys in England? 

Did he fear the challenges that eventuality brought it to its knees? 

Did he wonder about the imprint of holiness that his community would leave on the area for centuries after its death? 

Halfway through our visit, we set up a groundsheet on the site of one of the many chantry chapels. The significance of sitting down for a picnic where, centuries earlier and for hundreds of years, monks and locals had gathered to break bread, was not lost on us. 

And so the questions that have stayed with me – questions about me and about the institutions and ways of life that I take for granted – are these:

When I am gone and forgotten, who will picnic on the remains of my chapel? 

What spiritual footprints will I leave? 

How might my holiness (or otherwise) impact a place? 

What grandeur I see now will lie in ruins? 

What of these ruins will people wonder at? 

Rievaulx was a good reminder of life’s ebb and flow. We grow, we prosper, we struggle, we fade away; leaving only our footprints in time. 

Hineni: Here I am

I’m a bit young to know Leonard Cohen’s music well. But since his death I’ve discovered his final album, released last month and a profound insight into the wrestlings of a man staring death in the face.

Cohen was deeply spiritual, with Jewish heritage and a grasp of concepts from across different faith traditions. His final album pulls together the threads of a lifelong relationship with the spiritual, as he addresses, argues with and gives in to God, swinging like a pendulum between anger and contentment, questioning and acceptance. In the dying words of the album there is little resolution, with the wistful line, addressed to God: “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine”. Cohen’s final words after a lifetime of grappling with God through song.

This album is full of vocational darkness, which I’ve written about before. We might think of God like a fairy godmother – a myth who makes all our dreams come true and keeps us living in cloud cuckoo land. The truth is far harder.

Vocational darkness is the cloud that settles when we say “yes” to God. Becoming who we are made to be – realising our full potential – these are painful journeys. The gateways and bridges to contentment and fulfilment have names such as sacrifice, cost, grief, pain and death. There is deep joy and peace to be found with God. But not without cost.

Death is the ultimate vocational journey. None of us knows exactly what happens beyond it. But I am confident that death is transformational, redemptive and an ultimate fulfilment of who we are – somehow. Only after will we know.

Cohen puts this vocational darkness at the heart of his title track: You Want it Darker.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this a song for our time, in a 10 minute reflection well worth listening to.

Surrounded, as we are in the West, by fearful uncertainty and anguished disillusionment, here is a song of challenge and protest and prophecy.

Cohen rails against God:
Why are we so broken?
How have we, created in the image of God, become so ugly and disfigured?
God how could you let this happen?

And within his anger is disillusionment about his own place in the world:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame.
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame.

How many times have these prayers been cried out in the privacy of our hearts?
God, am I in or not?
Do you want me, or not?
Am I willing, or not?
Why don’t you answer me, heal me, glorify me?

If we have asked these dark questions, then we’re not alone. Through scripture and tradition, good and holy men and women have wrestled with the same doubts. Cohen is the latest in a long line of those who wrestle with God.

And then comes his response to God. Hineni, he says. A Hebrew word owned by Moses and Abraham and Samuel and Isaiah. All responding to their own vocational darkness.

Here I am.
I’m ready.
I don’t understand or I don’t agree or I don’t know… but I’m ready.
Here I am.
Choose me.

Cohen gives us glimpses of the invitation to respond to God. Hineni, he challenges us to say.

It’s a tough word. A mirror. It draws our questions and doubts away from God and back to ourselves. It is not God who is responsible for the terror of our world. It’s us. We might do it in God’s name but it’s still we who do it.

A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame.

How could we let this happen?

There is an antidote to the world’s suffering. It’s the work of good, compassionate, courageous men and women who are committed to responding to their own vocational darkness and bringing about change. The hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Frankly, it’s easier to ask the questions without being bothered to find the answer.

The answer, Cohen says, is hineni. Here I am. I’m ready. Use me.

On darkness

This morning I preached at our joint All Age service about darkness. This afternoon I was heartened to read this, by James Martin SJ, about newly-canonised Mother Teresa and her own battle with spiritual darkness.

What follows are some improvisations on the words I shared today.


I’m afraid – not of the dark – but of darkness.
This darkness is difficult to describe.
It is…

The darkness of depression and anxiety that creeps up on me sometimes.
The darkness of knowing that I might fail: in my parenting, in my ministry, or some other area.
The darkness of a fear that grips when I hear of more violence, more hate, more terror in the world around.
The darkness of thinking that this might be all that there is.
The darkness of a world without life, a tragedy without hope, a death without resurrection.

It is the darkness that lurks, as Doctor Who warns Amy Pond,

Exactly where you don’t want to look. Where you never want to look. The corner of your eye.

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It is a darkness described by Mother Teresa:

In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing.

This darkness is very real and frightening.

Anyone who has wrestled with God – or God’s absence – in the long hours of night will know the suffocating, crushing, oppressive feeling of being surrounded by a darkness that is more than an absence of light.

This darkness is not right.
This darkness is not peaceable or calm.
This darkness is not harmless.

There is something in this darkness that is a theology without a language.
We barely talk about it, maybe because we are scared or embarrassed, or possibly because we don’t need to give it attention beyond that which it demands.

This is the darkness of spiritual warfare, spiritual battle, spiritual oppression.
It chokes, it robs us of life, it cuts us off from all that is holy.
It tells us of God’s absence, of love’s failure, of hope’s flight.

And yet, paradoxically, it is a darkness that I know more deeply the nearer I draw to God.
In this way, spiritual darkness is vocational.

With each glimpse of God, another small part of his kingdom is illuminated.
We see the good, and the bad.
The redeemed, and the not yet.
The light, and the darkness.

With each whisper from the Holy Spirit, we hear a little of her wordless groaning of intercession.
We hear cries of joy and pain.
Of laughter and sorrow.
Of relief and grief.

Perhaps only in the darkness do we see how much we need the light of Christ.
Perhaps only in the darkness do we come to know prayer as throwing ourselves on the mercy of God and saying I cannot live this life alone. I need God to get me through.
Perhaps only in the darkness do we feel most deeply the pain of those around us, and find the resources and compassion to bring light to the darkness of another.

This darkness is not from God.
It is more than God’s absence.
Yet with God’s presence, it flees.

Perhaps this darkness is always there, always threatening, always looming, but never victorious.

The closer we draw to God, the more we know love, light and hope.
Yet the more we know these things, the more we are called to journey through the darkness that they will one day defeat.

If you’re in darkness, hang in there. Shout prayers and scripture and the name of Christ at whatever lurks in the corner of your eye, right where you never want to look, and it will flee.

 St Patrick’s Breastplate
Christ be with me, Christ within me
Christ behind me, Christ before me
Christ beside me, Christ to win me
Christ to comfort me and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mouth of friend or stranger.

In quietness and trust: Tell stories

This is the third in a series of posts on nurturing the inner life alongside young children. You may like to read this brief introduction to the series before continuing.

Tell stories!

Stories can start anywhere.

“Mummy – what does that sign say on that bench?”
“It says it’s there to remember someone who died”
“Who died?”
“I don’t know – just somebody who liked this place”
“Do we know somebody who died?”
“Yes. Grandma died, just before you were born…”

And so I tell Ben the story of his Grandma. I tell him what she was like, and how much she would have loved him. About how I promised to tell him all about her. I show him photos. We talk about Heaven and Jesus and how many cats Daddy and Grandma had when Daddy was a little boy. And what their names were. And are there cats in Heaven? (My answer is yes). And can Ben have a cat at home? (My answer is no).

Stories tell us who we are.
They tell us where we have come from.
They might hint at where we’re going.

Kids love stories. So do adults – we just forget that we like them so much.

Stories make great prayers for kids. Not just reading the Bible together, or retelling faith stories. We find God in all sorts of stories. God is there in Stick Man and Dear Zoo. God is found in Sarah and Duck, and Peppa Pig. Everywhere we hear stories of love and laughter, of loyalty and trust, of hope and generosity – there God is to be found.

Just as we know ourselves by our stories, so we know God by his stories. The stories we tell to make sense of the world, and to process life. These stories all tell us a little bit more about who God is, and why he is, and how and where and what he is. This stuff – identity, security, revelation, thanksgiving, hope – is the stuff of prayer.

I try to tell stories to my kids. We read picture books; watch films; make things up. I tell them where they have come from – and what is important and why?

And I try to listen. I listen to their own fantasies and dreams and anecdotes. We explore and adventure together through story, and offer it all to God as prayer.

When we lose our stories, we lose our lives. But wherever there are stories, there is God.

(And while we’re on it, check out the brilliant Storytime Service website!)

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Thin Places: A poem for the Transfiguration

You know a thin place when you pass through one. Somewhere in which people have prayed for a long time. Somewhere with a sense of perfect stillness. You might feel like you’re in a thin place when you visit a big church or cathedral, or the ruins of a monastery or other holy site. The atmosphere of a thin place is difficult to describe, and overwhelming to experience.

The story of a rabbi standing on a mountain top with his friends, and in a single moment being transformed by brilliant light, is a thin place story. It leaves me wondering whether thin places have a particular geography, or whether our lives are actually full of the potential of these moments, wherever we happen to be, as Heaven touches Earth?

Perhaps we are never far from a thin place.
Perhaps thin places are just longing for our attention.
Perhaps we need only to give them space, and they will find us.

This poem is an exploration of thin places: of their fragility and strength. I believe they are there to be inhabited, for a time, if only we stop and notice them.


Thin Places

The sun-bleached rainbow framed by heavy cloud.

A fleeting, fragile moment
That lifts eyes from Earth to Heaven beyond.
In an instant her curtain is drawn back
And she is stripped bare in brilliant light:
A glimmer of the promise
We heard whispered long ago.

The kindness of a stranger’s gentle smile.

It is good for us to be here,
Sheltered from death’s dark shadow
And the sting of dread that wakes us each new day.
Here, we are as we are:
Alive to Earth’s brilliant goodness;
Eyewitnesses to Heaven’s majesty.

The crash of waves along deserted sand.

This place is not for now:
The bubble bursts,
The curtain drops,
The moment fades.
This is a home too perfect; unready yet to hold
The fullness and frailty of all we must become.

The peace of death as pulse and breath are stilled.

We do not leave unchanged
If change is to become ourselves.
Ahead: a thousand moments of transfiguration,
Each one a death – and resurrection – in itself,
As we are both transformed and transform,
Sacred moment by sacred moment.

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Sunrise over Lake Galilee: a thin place.


I took some inspiration for this from Pablo Neruda’s poem Keeping Quiet. It’s worth spending some time with. Here’s a glimpse…

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

…and a victory of hope

It was the women who went to deal with his body. Early, at dawn. Few would see them. They wouldn’t make much fuss.

They would nurture him in death as they had tended him in life. Washing him with tears and anointing him with oil. Grieving, broken, empty.

But then everything changed.

An empty tomb.
A panic.
An earthquake.
A bright light.
An angel.
A cry.

A greeting.

A RESURRECTION!

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A revolution beyond all expectations.
A victory greater than political autonomy.
A liberation more eternal than simple Earthly freedom.

The victory of Easter is a different sort of victory.
It is a victory that points all of our struggles towards a greater whole.
It is a victory that shines the most brilliant of lights into the darkest of our experiences.

It is a victory that hears our emptiness and brokenness, our failures and frustrations, our disappointment and fear, our dying dreams and our misplaced expectation, and says…

these things do not have the last word.

Easter day is a triumph of:

Joy
over
sorrow

Peace
over
turmoil

Reconciliation
over
conflict

Reunion
over
grief

Good
over
evil

Rest
over
pain

Stillness
over
anxiety

Love
over
hatred

Life
over
death

Light the fireworks!
Uncork the champagne!
Laugh and sing and marvel in awesome wonder!

Today we know not how our story ends, but that our story doesn’t end.
Today is simply the beginning of the eternity of our lives.
Today we mock and laugh at Death himself, knowing that although we bear his scars, he will never again defeat us.

Some questions to enrich, embolden, renew, and restore:

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What new dreams are gestating within you?
What flickers of hope can you see in the darkness?
Where are the safe places emerging in which you can put trust?
Which of your frustrations is opening a door to new, surprising opportunities?

Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O grave, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

 

The death of a dream…

How many of your dreams have died?

The friends of Jesus had a big dream. Political autonomy, religious freedom, an established kingdom. They were planning for revolution.

Everything had pointed towards it. Miracles and healings. Visions and voices from the sky. A herald in the wilderness. Challenges to authority. And a leader who was determined, radical, and not quite of this world.

The tension was mounting. Talk of signs and swords. Decisions of ‘in’ or ‘out’. Predictions of denial and betrayal. Declarations of loyalty. A meal, a prayer, a confrontation…

24 hours later, their revolutionary leader was dead.20160324_155808

How could they have got it so wrong?
Didn’t they see his power?
Didn’t they hear his words?

This was his moment: why didn’t he fight?
They had planned for God’s Kingdom.
All they were left with was a dead body.

Their great leader had failed.
His friends had misplaced their trust.
The dream was dead.

They’d have to watch their backs now too. Rome wasn’t kind to trouble makers. And the Temple authorities had flexed their muscles. Pilate and Herod had shaken hands under a banner of hate. At best, Jesus’ friends would be laughing stocks. The mugs who had fallen for the latest self-styled messiah. At worst, they’d be dead by the end of the week.

Some questions to unsettle:

How many of your dreams have died?
Which of your hopes remain unrealised?
In what or who have you (mis)placed your faith and trust?
Are you carrying frustrated expectations?

This is not the end

Into the Ashes

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

On Ash Wednesday, are we concerned with our beginning or our ending?

We are at the beginning of Lent: forty days of fasting and devotion lie ahead of us.
We are perhaps considering beginning something new: a spiritual discipline, new habit, or acts of kindness.
We are reminded, as the cross of ash dusts our faces, of the new beginnings we have in Christ.

And Ash Wednesday is about our ending too.
We might be committing ourselves to ending bad habits, or denying ourselves something for a season.
We are invited to confront our mortality: to dust you will return.
We are marked with ash: the bleak nothingness that is left after glowing embers have died cold.

Ash Wednesday is a beginning and an ending.
Ash Wednesday is a liturgical staging post, encouraging us to take a moment, step out of our tired routines, and pause.
Ash Wednesday is a turning circle: an opportunity to look back, look ahead, put down, pick up, re-evaluate, take stock, change direction, and carry on.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we have the courage to face our ending.
Into the ashes we go, as we put on the symbol of all that threatens our wellbeing and happiness.
Ash Wednesday is the day when we can wear death on our face and say that this is not the end.

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The ash that we wear is not a smudge, but a cross.
A reminder of the instrument of destruction that brought an end to death.
A statement that we find our beginning in Christ’s ending.

On Ash Wednesday, we are called again to faithfulness.
The crossed ash is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to us: the once-for-all act that has put an end to death and destruction so that we can face all our endings with courage and hope.
As we stop at the staging post, turn around in the turning circle, we do so confident of God’s unending love for us.

The ash that we wear today is not a curse, but a blessing.

Over two millennia ago, God was calling his people back to him through the words of the prophet Joel.
God is still calling.
Ash Wednesday is a day to hear the distant voice of our God, ever-patient, ever-loving, as he calls us back again to his mercy.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing. 
(Joel 2:12-13)

This Lent, what do you want to turn from and to?
This Lent, what do you want to put down or pick up?
Is there “bleak nothingness” in your life?
What would transform this nothingness into a new start?
What signs can you see around you of God’s faithfulness to you?
Is God calling you to something?