Opening Address of Welcome to Second National Gathering

24 April 2009, Philip Carter, Chairperson AECSD

Theodore Zeldin, a social commentator, who has written a book called An Intimate History of Humanity, says that “humanity is a family which has hardly met”, which highlights both the long slow evolutionary story of human becoming as well as the fundamental importance for human beings to interact or relate as social beings. But, as the English novelist Ian McEwan says: “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality.”

Bill Vanstone was an Anglican priest in UK – who shunned academic life in post-war England – and became a parish priest for all his working life. In his book Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, he wrote:

If God is love, and if the universe is His creation, then for the being of the universe God is totally expended in precarious endeavour, of which the issue, as triumph or tragedy, has passed from his hands… God waits upon the response of his creation. He waits as the artist or as the lover waits having given all… Always, for the richness of creation, God is made poor: and for its fullness God is made empty.

It’s not difficult to see then the particular charism of what we mean by spiritual direction. The image of artist or lover – with the expenditure or cost of waiting, or being so poised “like the pointer of a balance” as Ignatius suggests – so that “the issue, as triumph or tragedy, has passed from [our] hands” – captures something of our high calling, our sacred trust – and plunges us into the very heart of who God is.

Put another way, Cardinal Walter Kasper talks of “the absoluteness of the gospel [which] has to do with the unconditional nature of love, which neither casts aside nor absorbs the other, but rather withdraws, makes room for the other and this acknowledges his/her identity and enriches him/her”.

So what we do – in spiritual direction – is not something merely functional. It goes to the very heart of who God is, and what it means to be human. It opens us to the very heart and mystery of existence.

When we read a text – when we are present to someone else – when we are engaged in spiritual direction – when we pray or gather up our lives in the Eucharist – our being present requires or demands a “de-selfing” – a “dispossession” – something like the kenotic self-emptying St Paul speaks of in his letter to the Philippians, the providing of space for an other, for the Other. And this space – where we confront otherness and difference – is about a fullness, a plenitude, a generosity.

Knowing the other as other dominates what we call post modern thinking. The grand or meta-narrative – including the Christian grand narrative is, if not disallowed, certainly treated with suspicion. And yet, whatever view we have about what is post-modern, Philip Sheldrake suggests that “though Christianity has a distinctive wisdom, it is not a “grand narrative” and does not contain all the answers. Christian commitment must be tentative, open-ended, ready to be transformed through ongoing encounter and experience”, and I would add, conversation.

I like that – for its modesty, its humility, its vulnerability, its transparency, its openness. For this is our vocation: presence without privilege, dialogue without arrogance, ministry without domination. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was hanged only a few days before the end of World War II suggests in his book Ethics an attitude for our pastoral practice which he calls “the penultimate attitude”. “When I am with someone who has suffered a bereavement, I often decide to adopt a ‘penultimate’ attitude – remaining silent as a sign that I share in the bereaved man’s helplessness… and not speaking the biblical words of comfort which are, in fact, known to me and available to me.” He goes on to ask: “Does not this mean that, over and over again, the penultimate will be what commends itself precisely for the sake of the ultimate….?” Such kenosis, such self-emptying, creates space – to share in the paschal sufferings of Jesus – and such self-emptying affirms and renews this deep truth about ourselves: that we are at one with God and with each other. “We were all once one”: this unity we seek already exists in the divine intent. Our learning to offer space for the other is the affirmation and renewal and healing of that “original unity” which is our gift and our task.

The Australian theologian Terry Veling says: “Every face we encounter is a face of otherness. Every face says, ‘I am other to you.’ Every face says ‘I am not you.’ This other calls out from us a response, ‘commands my attention, refuses to be ignored, makes a claim on my existence, tells me I am responsible. And this always. I will never be freed from the other.”

This is true not just of our friends, not just of strangers, but of enemies. And not just of other people – but of the whole community of creation. Contemplative practice which requires “selfless attention, unwearying patience, passionate commitment, honesty of purpose, hunger for truth” renders what is too often unheard, heard, too often invisible, visible. With such costly contemplation, with “a severer listening” as an American poet suggests, by “wearing our eyes out as others their knees” as R S Thomas suggests, we may begin to hear another voice, see another person or creature or thing as they are, inviting us to live into another way.

John Paul II in a Christmas homily at the beginning of the new millennium spoke about Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. “Between the finger of God and the finger of man stretching out to each other and almost touching, there seems to leap an invisible spark. God communicates to [the human person] a tremor of his own life, creating him in his image and likeness. That divine breath is the origin of the unique dignity of every human being, of humanity’s boundless yearning for the infinite.”

Post-modernity insists we find meaning “within the very structure of human, embodied experience”. So “Every ‘other’ is a new face of the hidden God, a new incarnation of the Christ we seek, a new manifestation of divine creativity. The stranger is a bearer of truth that might not otherwise have been received.”

President John F Kennedy said that “if we cannot end our differences at least we can make the world safe for diversity.” But we are called beyond this. We are summoned – as Jonathan Sacks, the Commonwealth Chief Rabbi says – “by God to see in the human other a trace of the divine other.” He goes on to talk of the real test of faith: – words which are crucial for us in our world at present: where we are so easily tempted to create divisions or perpetuate ancient hostilities, to speak in terms of “them” and “us” in order to shore up our identity or security, make scapegoats or invent conspiracy theories, to inculcate and increase fear, to speak of an axis of evil, and so on:

Can we make space for difference? Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger?

But if we are stardust – that part of creation come to self consciousness – what space will we allow for the whole created order? Our sacramental theology tells us to see the face of God – to hear God – in the otherness of creation; but has it made any real difference to the way we treat creation? As Thomas Berry says, “to wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice.”

We are not being asked to be trapped in sameness or conformity; we are being invited into our openness, which is the midwife of faith, and away from the closed mind, the hard heart. We are being asked beyond labels and boxes – beyond the divisiveness of “them” and “us” – we are being asked to discover liberation in difference, where we are enlarged and not diminished by such difference.

This is our second National Gathering. Our theme is Communion and Difference. Pat Fox will help us reflect theologically – helping us plunge a little into the depths of God – of who God is – and into a Christian anthropology that makes sense of our experience and provide an anchored presence in our ministry of spiritual direction. Just as God embraces otherness – just as communion thrives on difference – so from John Seed we will begin to hear something of the universal religious spirit of which all of us are heirs – that before we formed a religious thought or aspiration we were “otherwise engaged in spirit”. Anne Boyd will help us listen to the voice of the earth – for too long held out there as a mere backdrop to the “human” drama of salvation – and Brendan McKeague will challenge us with the way of Jesus – the way of non-violence where we can appreciate more fully difference and otherness – and live towards the vision – that imaginative, alternative vision of reality, the Kingdom, or Reign of God and all this to ask ourselves: what are the implications of our reflections on communion and difference for our practice of spiritual direction?

Without this vision – of human dignity and of a common humanity and of a realization that we are purely and simply part of nature, though the part which has the capacity to recognize God – we could not see or hear each other, or even want to. But with this vision we will be energized, even in seemingly desperate circumstances, to live and work with hope so that we come to reflect something of that unity and diversity of our God-in-community – in whose image we have been made. I said to the Formators who met yesterday and today that I have a vision of a Council where we move from the language of law and boundaries to the language of horizons and possibilities. This vision is one of generosity and inclusivity, in our practice as well as our belief. David Tracy says that “conversation is our only hope”. This Council and this Gathering are about creating a culture of conversation – not mere communication – but an experience of a deeper communion.

Our vision of working ecumenically must be of the highest priority. It is a vision that takes us beyond inter-Christian exchange, into a deeper ecumenism. It is not about clearing things up, but making things a little clearer – and it will always mean becoming a little closer. It remains for all of us deeply sad – and profoundly challenging – that we cannot and will not be celebrating Eucharist together. But as the liberation theologian Gustav Gutierrez says: “Rediscovering the other means entering his own world. It also means a break with ours. To enter the world of the other… with the actual demands involved… is to begin… a process of conversion.”

Let me end this evening’s proceedings with a bedtime story from Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet:

One time, investigating in the backyard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and miniscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared – a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvellous white sheep.

The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pinecone, opened, full of odour and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.I never saw either the hand or the boy again.

And I have never again seen a sheep like that either. The toy I lost finally in a fire. But even now, in 1954, almost fifty years old, whenever I pass a toy shop, I look furtively into the window, but it’s no use. They don’t make sheep like that anymore.

I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvellous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses – that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together. That experience came to me again much later; this time it stood out strikingly against a background of trouble and persecution.

It won’t surprise you then that I attempted to give something resiny, earthlike and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood. Just as I once left the pinecone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.That is the great lesson I learned in my childhood, in the backyard of a lonely house. Maybe it was nothing but a game two boys played who didn’t know each other and wanted to pass to the other some good things of life. Yet maybe this small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.