Vicar's Musings for New Guinea Martyrs' Day
1 September, 2013
My sermon last week was based around Jesus' words from Luke 13:24, "Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able." After mass, at morning tea, a parishioner gave me some helpful feedback: "I loved your sermon Fr Hugh, but you didn't tell us how to enter through the narrow door." My first thought was "yes I did" but I took the critique on board (I much prefer critical engagement with a sermon to the non-descript "nice sermon vicar"). Looking at the sermon again when I got home, I began to justify myself. Surely the sermon had a clear and practical resolution: I strive to enter the narrow door through life-style choice, by always choosing "a more difficult path"; by serving, by loving, by giving. September is Stewardship month, and in my sermon I laid out a number of ways to enter the "narrow door": supporting overseas mission, financial giving, offering of your time and skills to the parish. But the question wouldn't leave me. It started to feel like a bit of a pat answer to a much more profound question.
Then on Monday my doctor diagnosed bronchitis and an ear infection, put me on antibiotics, and told me to take a week's bed rest. As a self-confessed workaholic this is something I find very hard to do, and yet as a lover of the mystics it shouldn't. Intentional rest from activity is an ideal that lies at the very heart of contemplative theology, an approach to life and faith that I value greatly. In the medieval period another name for contemplatives, those professionally called into a life of prayer, was "sitters and resters." In today's world it is generally an insult to define someone as a "sitter" or a "rester" — you are a couch potato, you sit around all day doing nothing, you rest on your laurels, or in other words you are lazy. Clearly the contemplative calling is unique, and very different from slouching in front of the television, but linguistically and practically modern society has almost lost comprehension of what was once considered the highest Christian calling. We no longer value intentional sitting and resting, and generally don't teach people how to do it properly. It is a discipline, a hard thing, a valuable thing, to truly sit and rest in God's presence.
I once overheard a parishioner describing his vicar as lazy because he was sitting in the garden one weekday afternoon with his eyes closed and a book on his lap. Admittedly there may have been unanswered e-mails, parishioners to visit, rosters overdue, and an important meeting to prepare for. Was he being lazy, or in the midst of a busy life was he prioritising the Christian imperative to sit and rest? We are not all called to be professional contemplatives, but as Christians I believe we are all called to pursue a mixed life of action and contemplation. This is a hard mix, especially in our modern materialistic society, which sees such pursuits as unproductive and wasteful. Our smart-phones chime day and night with ever-so-urgent e-mails, texts, Facebook messages, twitter feeds, not to mention phone calls and answer messages. The unceasing electronic chatter evokes stress and anxiety, propelling us into an ever-increasing spiral of activity. Instead of saying the office of Compline before bed, many of us will just take one last peek at the e-mails or Facebook, and then complain of the insomnia that follows. But that is really no excuse. The phone can easily be silenced at 8pm and not looked at until 8am after our morning prayer. A virtuous parishioner should probably be pleased to see his Vicar in deep contemplation while reading Augustine's Confessions at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and even be inspired to make space in his busy life to do likewise.
So, back to my dear friend the sermon critic. Maybe striving to enter by the narrow way is not so much about "what can I do?" as "how can I be?" It is perhaps about learning the discipline of sitting and resting in the manner of the great contemplatives. It may have something to do with a letting go of our avaricious drive to achieve and possess, materially as well as spiritually, and out of the simplicity of emptiness and silence to truly open our hearts and lives to God's mysterious spirit of love. My guess is that this is a truth the New Guinea Martyrs were familiar with; they undoubtedly strove to enter the narrow door, and probably succeeded. It is certainly something we should all aspire to as Anglo-Catholic Christians.
The Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster
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