Nature – to have and to hold

(no homily, just wild thoughts on this past week and today’s gospel – Matthew 18: -35)

Mother Mary, full or grace, awaken,
All our homes are gone, our loved ones taken,
Taken by the sea,

Mother Mary calm our fears, have mercy,
Drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy,
Hear our mournful plea,

Our world has been shaken,
We wander our homelands forsaken,
In the dark night of the soul bring some comfort to us all,
O mother Mary come and carry us in your embrace,
That our sorrows may be faced

-Words from Eliza Gilkyson’s ‘Requiem’, which the amazing Elizabeth Singers sang for us in S. David’s this week.

Elizabeth (Preece) and her singers dedicated a whole concert to raising money for our work with refugees and asylum seekers, and this was one of the many beautiful pieces they performed.   Gilkyson’s Requiem is about the 2006 Tsunami, but Elizabeth said that it spoke so clearly and powerfully to them of all that’s happened in the lives of our Syrian friends.

This weekend, a bomb ripped through a train in London, injuring many people.  These last few weeks, hurricanes have been ripping through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, breaking apart homes and lives.   It’s always the poorest and the most vulnerable – those whose homes are built with the flimsiest of materials – who are hit the hardest by these events.

Man-made disasters make a kind of wretched sense to us – they’re a failure of humanity.     But with the natural ones, like the hurricanes of this week, we’re left with a whole different set of questions.

When Cardinal Hume was asked about this kind of thing, he used to respond by saying, ‘I have no answers, only compassion’.

(Late one rain-lashed night, the politician Shirley Williams was trying to get into her door and the key just wouldn’t work.    So much else in her life at this time was going wrong, and this challenge was the last straw.  As she struggled, she heard a voice behind her coming from the street.  ‘Is everything alright, do you need help?’  She turned around and saw an elderly man accompanied by two younger priests.   Recognising the face and the voice, Williams replied, ‘I’m fine, Cardinal Hume, but what are you doing out on a night like this?’.  ‘Oh’ came the wearied reply from one of the priests, ‘he insists on walking the streets for an hour or so before going to his own bed, in case there’s anyone who might need some help’).

I have no answers, only compassion.

…And music.

From Syria

St Isaac of Syria
St Isaac of Syria

The heart of today’s gospel is all about forgiveness.   Jesus calls, in responding to Peter, for a  stance of wild mercy, impossible compassion.   It’s not a natural attitude or virtue that Jesus describes:  it’s beyond us, it’s not natural, it’s super-natural – within this world, but welling up from a source that’s beyond it.

I love that the word we translate from the Greek when we say that God is ‘Almighty’ – Pantokrator – could also be translated as ‘one who holds all things’.   That makes so much more sense to me:  God – not some almighty coercive force,  but Almighty Compassion,  holding all things, sunsets and volcanoes, light and dark, joy and pain.

We know that human beings are beautiful and wondrous and astonishing….and  also in need of so much grace and forgiveness.  Holding these two things together is called maturity.

Maybe nature is also like that.  Its ravishing beauty, its luminosity, its sunsets and seascapes co-exist with cancer cells, Tsunamis, predation and so much pain.   Nature needs our pity and forgiveness too.

-Crazy?  Of course!

Some of the ancient Christian writers said all that exists in our world – including us humanoids, including ‘nature’ – the seas, plants and animals – is in need of mercy, is in need of a  Love that can hold the fractures and contradictions.   It’s the only thing that can give us hope.

One of those ancient writers was S. Isaac of Syria  (Syria!).  He describes the wild mercy of one whose heart has been touched by God’s limitless, all-holding/all-healing compassion.

“What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.

“The person who lives in love reaps the fruit of life from God, and while yet in this world, even now breathes the air of the resurrection.

“In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the One who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised”.

Isaac senses that, like humanity, nature is beautiful yet broken, wondrous yet wounded to the core.  Nature is not all that it can be or will be, and until it shall be, it, like us, needs care and mercy.

In our world, what gives hope is not always the person with all the right answers, but the one who can hold what is in front of her just as it is, with all of its scars and frailty and incompleteness.

Often, we have no answers, but we can always have compassion.

And music.

Some more words from Gilkyson’s Requiem, addressed to Mary, Mother of the compassionate One:

 Mary fill the glass to overflowing,
Illuminate the path where we are going,
Have mercy on us all,
In funeral fires burning,
Each flame to your mystery returning,

In the dark night of the soul your shattered dreamers,
Make them whole,
O Mother Mary find us where we’ve fallen out of grace,
Lead us to a higher place

The Elizabeth Singers, S. David’s, Ely, September 2017




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