Friday, February 27, 2015

Into The Wilderness : Lent 2015 : Part 2

The wilderness is a place of open-handed vulnerability.

Today, the Judean wilderness is semi-desert. But this is misleading, as four-thousand years of climate changes, deforestation, and, more recently, vastly more intensive water use separate us from Abraham. When he entered the land, the wilderness was, well, wilderness. Much of the land was forested. Bronze Age people had cleared a wide strip along the flat top of the spine of the Judean hills, creating a line of settlements defended by mud walls, along a trade route. Successive generations built literally on top of the previous generation, so that proto-towns rose from the ground. To the west, they had started to deforest the slopes that roll gently to the sea, developing arable farming alongside livestock. To the east, the land falls away into the rift valley – also farmable – dropping away with too much topography in too little space for farming. And so this remained wilderness: untamed.

Abraham enters the land God has told him that he will be a stranger and a guest in, but which his descendants will inherit, from the north. As he moves southward, he does so keeping to the east of the settlements. Abraham is making it very clear that he is not a threat, that he has no intention of competing with the inhabitants of the hill country. He comes in peace, looking to befriend; not in hostility. He retains a nomadic life: his flocks graze back (at least the edge of) the forest, and then he moves them on, to graze another sector and allow new growth in their wake; in this way, nomadic farming manages wilderness, as opposed to destroying it. In contrast, his nephew Lot chooses to live among a people who won’t share or welcome, and who use violence to keep what they have to themselves.

Since Abraham, we have continued to build layer upon layer of urban civilisation, our tell settlements transformed into cathedrals and tower blocks, our cities of ever-increasing complexity. And, to meet the needs of these cities, we have extended the deforestation of the wilderness – even if we know that National Parks, and even neighbourhood parks, are good for us. But this external progression is mirrored by an internal one: an ever-increasing organisational complexity, and the erosion of the untamed spaces within us.

The wilderness touches settled community, even if it lies on the more ‘marginal’ side of that life. Here is to be found solitude, the place of being alone at the edge of society. Solitude contrasts with isolation, that sense of being alone even in the midst of society; and while isolation is bad for our psychological wellbeing, some degree of solitude is in fact necessary, even essential to psychological wellbeing.

There are the ordered, domesticated, architectural internal places. And these are good: I am not advocating a return to the Bronze Age! But they come with the pressure to compete for, and then defend, resources and territory recognised as our own. And then there are the wild internal places: and finding ourselves of vulnerable psychological wellbeing may be an invitation into these places. Places that, it turns out, are not marginal for life, but life-renewing.

Strictly speaking, solitude is not so much about being alone as about being with ourselves, getting lost in our internal wilderness, that place within us that remains wild and untameable because we are created in the likeness of a wild and untameable Creator God (even if God willingly takes on certain restrictions to his freedom in order to come near to us). I am untameable, at least in part; and in this sense must stop trying to control myself, which is to do violence against myself (while recognising that if God willingly takes on certain constraints for the sake of relationship, so must I).

In the internal wilderness, we might discover that God’s grace is sufficient; and that this enables us to be generous, not only with what we have but in our attitude towards others, not needing to compete; trusting that God will work the fulfilment of his promises, of his call. Here we might discover how to live secure lives without defensive walls; that a fragile security, which invites friendship, might be more secure than a robust one, which invites combat.

And here we might begin to discover what it looks like to ‘have dominion over’ the external and internal world, exercising God’s will. For God operates through blessing, not imposing; and when we stretch out an open hand in blessing, we reflect God’s rule. Abraham blessed the wilderness, by managing it through his herds rather than sacrificing it for his herds. We bless the wilderness by choosing to see it not as curse, but gift: embracing vulnerability in ourselves, respecting it in others.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Into The Wilderness : Lent 2015 : Part 1

Between my first and second years at theological college, I had the opportunity to go on a study trip to the Holy Land.

The wilderness is a significant physical and psychological reality in the biblical tradition. It is both an external and an internal geography; a place in which you can be lost, and found, and a metaphor for life. At first glance, the wilderness is barren, lifeless. A closer look, a longer more patient look, reveals that it is a place of life, home to plants and animals – and, indeed, human beings – alike.

I am writing this in the Season of Lent, a season of invitation to withdraw from certain aspects of everyday life in order to rediscover the God who gives us life in the first place. I am also writing from a place of vulnerable psychological wellbeing. This is not my permanent nor even primary address, but it is a place I am familiar with. Indeed, it is a place I believe so many of us are familiar with that I could not be fully human without such familiarity. We have a tendency to consider the experience of vulnerable psychological wellbeing in negative terms: as a problem to be fixed – or, better still, pro-actively avoided – or a reason to judge others or indeed ourselves harshly; as failing at life, rather than part of life. We are all vulnerable persons at certain times in our lives. But what if vulnerable psychological wellbeing might be understood as experience of the wilderness? And what if being in the wilderness was a risky, demanding, but potentially positive thing?

I want to go on a journey into the wilderness, taking that closer look. In particular, I want to suggest that:

the wilderness is a place of open-handed vulnerability;

the wilderness is a place of refuge; and that

the wilderness is a place of prayer.

Welcoming The Stranger

At Sunderland Minster, we host a cycle of art exhibitions throughout the year. The latest was installed last Wednesday. ‘Nomads’ is a set of ten very large (5’x3’) oil portraits of homeless men. They are painted predominantly in monochrome, blacks and greys: such people fade into the background. In each painting, a few elements are depicted in colour, a choice that emphasises rather than distracts from the monochrome nature of the work. In each portrait, the eyes are in vivid colour, catching and holding our gaze, demanding that we do what on the street we work hard not to do: to look this person in the eye, to recognise ourselves in them, to see them as a human being.

The artist, Simon A. Yorke, is a devout Buddhist. You might not know that from his painting, but you will certainly discover this from listening to him speak about attitudes towards homeless people and the motivation for his art. In listening to him speak, I find significant common ground, expressed in different language, and significant disagreement.

The paintings went in on Ash Wednesday, a day when we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. All of us: those we consider dirt beneath our feet, those we consider trample others under their feet, those who walk lightly but nonetheless leave an imprint. A day when we are confronted with our common fragility; and invited to turn away from all that separates us from God and neighbour; and to follow Jesus in whom Christians believe that those made of dust are, and will be, remade.

At our Ash Wednesday Sung Eucharist with the imposition of ashes, Simon received the sign of the cross on his forehead in ash, but did not take Communion. Sharing the bread and wine of communion is a deeply political act by which we place ourselves under the lordship of Jesus Christ, the Son of God – in continuity with the God who delivered his people from slavery to the divine-human Pharaoh within the Egyptian empire; and in defiance of the claims of the Roman Empire to bring peace through the divine-human emperor, and any claims of political salvation made in our own day – and as such identify ourselves as Christian. But you don’t have to be a Christian to recognise your embodied-ness, your shared frail humanity; to determine to turn away from that which comes between us; and to seek to follow after Jesus as one who lived such a life, even if one cannot accept Christianity. As such, I have no problem with a Buddhist, or adherent to any faith or none, journeying with us into our Christian tradition of Lent.

But this engages with a wider issue than the important issue of homelessness. It touches the very heart of our attitude towards one another.

We want to open our building to the contribution of people of other faiths, because we believe that they have a contribution to make to the shaping of a good society. Indeed, that we can only have a healthy society if we allow room for the contribution of others – those we disagree with as well as those who share our views. And we believe that we can benefit from the insights of others: for me, as a Christian, if I cannot see Jesus in the face of Simon’s paintings, and indeed in Simon’s face, I will not find Jesus in the bread and the wine.

This does not mean that we hold all views as being of equal merit, but that we are confident enough to speak well of, be challenged by, and appropriately partner with others.

We live in a society with a strong and insidious rhetoric of polarisation. If we believe that in and through Christ, God is reconciling all, we must live counter-culturally in this regard.

I know that last week in Sunderland Minster the Holy Spirit brought about a work of conversion – of change of perspective, of movement closer to Jesus; conversion being the work of the Holy Spirit, and not the Church – in at least one Buddhist (possibly more than one), several Christians, some agnostics and even atheists. I expect the Holy Spirit to do more of the same for the duration of the ‘Nomads’ exhibition, and beyond.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

More Parables

In Matthew 24, Jesus is engaged in a conversation concerning the coming of the Son of Man. He concludes with a parable, in which a master goes away leaving a servant in charge of his household. Two scenarios unfold: one in which the servant is faithful to his master, and is rewarded; another in which the servant is ‘wicked,’ mistreating his fellow slaves, and associating with drunkards. The master returns at an unexpected hour, and has the servant punished by being cut into pieces and assigned a place with the hypocrites, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

When we read parables such as this one, we tend to assume that the principle character – often a king or wealthy master – is God, and that the parables tell us something about what God is like. Here, God will reward good behaviour and punish wicked behaviour. But it is not the characters in Jesus’ stories that more-fully reveal what God is like to us: it is Jesus himself who reveals to us what God is like. God, Jesus himself, and others might turn up in Jesus’ stories, in a variety of roles in different parables.

Jesus was repeatedly accused of being wicked, of misleading the people, of hostility towards the righteous. And at the coming of the Son of Man – no-one knows the hour, but it is approaching, and will come in darkness – Jesus will be cut in pieces (in fulfilment of prophecy), and assigned a grave with the wicked (in fulfilment of prophecy); sent to the realm of the dead, while his friends are left to weep in despair.

This is not a parable to show us what God is like, but to show us how the world works – its system of reward and punishment – and what it will do to Jesus. It is a story about the coming of the Son of Man, not as angry master but as (one who knows that he will soon be the) victim of violence.

In the following chapter, Jesus tells three more parables. In the first, five wise bridesmaids refuse to enter-into a relationship defined by the debt-system with five foolish bridesmaids. This is a parable that contrasts choices that result in ‘life’ or in ‘death.’ Choosing to place yourself in debt to another – or, indeed, placing others in debt to you – results in being shut out from life. Here we need to remind ourselves of the context in which Jesus is telling these parables: the coming of the Son of Man, which will not only be at an unexpected hour, but also in an unexpected way. If the bridegroom in this parable – like the wicked servant in the previous parable – is a veiled reference to himself, then his coming will be his coming death. But Jesus approaches that moment neither indebted to anyone not holding anyone in debt, and therefore even death will no shut him out from life, despite its best efforts, despite delaying him. And he urges his listeners to do likewise.

In the second, Jesus again tells of a powerful man who goes away, entrusting money to three servants. As the story unfolds, we discover that the man is a harsh man, who takes for himself what belongs to others. Two of his servants act in accordance with the master’s values, and are rewarded. One tries to distance himself from his master, and is punished. The point of the parable is not to show us what God is truly like – unjust, prone to rage – but to point out to us how the world works. To those who have, more keeps being added. Those who already have little, even what they have is taken from them. Kings reward their servants and citizens for reflecting the values of the king. If a ruler whose empire is built on the exploitation of others rewards actions consistent with the empire he is building, what sort of behaviour will a righteous king reward? When we look at Jesus himself, we have to conclude that the investment and reward of the kingdom of heaven is the investment and reward of forgiveness.

(This parable is even more striking in the account of Luke 19, where the powerful man, who has had himself declared king, has those who refuse to recognise him slaughtered in his presence. In the following verse, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem, where he will be slaughtered.)

In the third parable, Jesus contrasts ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’ – those who live counter-culturally to a dent-system, self-giving with no hope of reward; and those who live in accordance with a debt-system, giving nothing where there is no hope of a return. The sheep are rewarded – the rewards of forgiveness, the benefits of the cancellation of every debt. The goats are punished. Surely here is evidence of God adopting a retributive or punitive justice? Yet the question remains: is this a punishment determined by God, or a punishment determined by another, a punishment chosen by the refusal to reject the divine plea to reject the debt-system? Giving us free choice limits God’s own freedom; and yet God uses his freedom relentlessly to call us.

These, then, are not simply parables about the kingdom of heaven, but parables that point to the stark contrast between two kingdoms, as we move inevitably towards the crucifixion.

Monday, February 16, 2015


I have suggested that we ought to differentiate between divine justice, which I propose is always restorative in nature, seeking the reconciliation of enemies into friends; and satanic justice, which is retributive or punitive in nature, demanding the imposition of a penalty.

This fits with the claim of Jesus – the one in whom God is perfectly revealed to us, showing us what God is like – that he has come that we might have life in the fullest sense; whereas the thief comes to kill and steal and destroy.

One of the great questions that has been pushed back at me is, how does the account of God destroying Sodom and Gomorrah fit with my claim?

First, we ought to remember that this is a story. By that, I am not dismissing the historicity of events, but pointing out, for example, that the account is not a full transcript of the conversation. (We know this, though we sometimes forget. In shaping their narrative, the Gospel writers, for example, spend as much time recounting one week of Jesus’ life as they do the previous three years.)

Second, we ought to remind ourselves of the principle characters in the story. ‘The Lord’ has come to visit his friend, Abraham. It is three people who come, and it is not clear exactly who these characters are. At least two are angelic visitors, and while traditional Jewish interpretation has all three to be angels, an alternative interpretation suggests that the plainest sense of the narrative is God accompanied by two angels. Christian tradition interprets the three as a ‘type’ for the Trinity – just as Moses is seen as a ‘type’ for Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel – or even as the Trinity. But if the two ‘men’ who go on to Sodom, while the Lord continues conversing with Abraham, are ‘angels,’ this opens up another alternative: that, having been brought a report against the city, the Lord sends an angel to compile the case for the defence and an angel to compile the case for the prosecution, evidence the Lord will weigh as judge before passing verdict.

Third, to help us understand this story we might draw on another story in the Bible, set in a similar world but of an even older time, the account of Job. Here we learn that among the court of heaven, there is one known as the satan – the accuser – who has been wandering the earth, with the intention, it would seem, of bringing unfavourable reports before God. God turns their conversation to Job, a man God believes lives a righteous life. Satan insists that this is motivated by self-interest and indeed fear, not offered freely. God then allows satan to exercise his own freedom against Job, but sets clear limits on how far satan can go.

Let us, then, return to the story at hand. As Abraham’s three guests prepare to go on their way, it would appear that they have been discussing the nearby Cities of the Plain, though we are not party to their conversation. The Lord decides to share his intention with his friend, Abraham. The intention that he reveals is that, having heard an outcry against the cities – a charge, a complaint brought to him – he intends to go and see for himself. There is no mention of what he will do, how he will rule on the matter.

Abraham’s response suggests that a proposal has been presented – by whom? – that the cities be destroyed; but is eloquent in its rejection of a punitive justice that is unworthy of God, that would not reflect God’s intention. Abraham himself is able to imagine a scenario where punitive justice is not pursued, pushing his own limits from a scenario where fifty righteous people can be found right down to where five righteous people can be found.

At this point, Abraham steps back from pushing his imagination any further – to conceiving a point where no righteous people can be found, and yet restorative justice might be pursued – at least attempted – between people all of whom were in some way guilty of living in impaired relationship. And the Lord, who has chosen to involve his friend in determining how he himself will rule in this situation, accepts the limits of Abraham’s imagination.

(This raises another question, regarding the omnipotence of the Creator and the free will of the creature. If God knows a totally fixed future, he already knows that Abraham has not gone far enough. If God knows all possible futures, and how to respond within each possibility to bring out the best outcome, perhaps God hopes that five righteous people might be found.)

The people of Sodom demonstrate that the outcry against them is legitimate, by seeking to exercise dominance over the angelic visitors through gang rape – a tactic still used today. By taking people’s dignity, we enslave them in a debt to us they cannot repay. Abraham’s nephew Lot demonstrates his own complicity within this sin/debt system by trying to broker sexual violence against his daughters in exchange for sexual violence against his guests. In the city, five righteous people cannot be found. But it is Abraham who has sealed the fate of the city – not the Lord, who demonstrates his own will for sinners by attempting to have Lot’s family rescued.

In such a reading, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah does not return the world closer to God’s will, but is, rather, a defeat for God, a set-back in his purposes. Not something that will permanently frustrate his will, but something that genuinely frustrates it nonetheless.

Of course, this raises the question, why would a God who is both truly good and truly powerful (powerful enough to create worlds) allow god-self to bow before the will of creatures who are neither as good nor as powerful?

And this, too, brings us back to God’s being wholly committed to the restorative justice of reconciliation between agents who act in free will – the freedom each has, constraining the freedom of every other agent. To an utter commitment to our coming together, by degrees; facing up to the consequences of our actions – the costly consequence of righteous Abraham’s decisions, as well as the decisions of the unrighteous citizens of Sodom – and to forgiving one another and asking for forgiveness from one another. To the cancellation of debt; the setting-free from sin.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sin, Sinners, And Jesus

What comes to mind when you hear the words ‘sin’ or ‘sinners’?

It might conjure to mind the image of a hypocrite passing judgement and pronouncing a sentence of disapproval over other people. It might conjure to mind a libertine, revelling in the very behaviours that would draw the disapproval of the hypocrites. It might conjure to mind the image of an allowance of certain treats within a dieting plan. It might not conjure to mind any image at all.

In the Gospels, one of the essential differences between Jesus and his critics is their views on how to respond to sin and sinners. Jesus’ view is extremely positive.

First, we need to note that within the understanding of both Jesus and his critics, sin is primarily concerned with being in debt; sinners, therefore, being those who are in debt. The old term ‘publicans and tax-collectors’ refers to public contractors, to speculators who invested in supplying the needs of the occupying Roman army or in the Roman ‘tax farming’ scheme. (Tax farming is a means by which governments can turn future and uncertain revenue into fixed rents over a certain period, by auctioning the rights to collect tax within a particular area. The money paid for those rights is seen as a loan to the government, which might be paid back with interest depending on the uncertain future going well. In addition, any tax collected in addition to the original bid for rights is counted as pure profit. In this system, the speculator carries almost all of the risk.)

The ‘sinners’ in the Gospels are those who are in debt. They are in social debt, traitors to the community, ritually defiled by their daily contact with Gentiles. They are likely in financial debt, having made a speculative outlay in the hope of a future return. They are in moral debt, resorting to extortion and other forms of corrupt practice in order to maximise their return on their investment. Prostitutes are also considered among the ‘sinners’, and they too are steeped in a debt system, sex slaves.

It seems to me that an understanding of sin and sinners describing a social system built on and sustained by speculative debt and holding one another in debt is absolutely current as a description of the society I live in and am bound-up in. But why would I state that Jesus’ view is extremely positive?

Jesus consistently associates with ‘sinners’. When he is challenged on this, by those who believe that it is God’s will that ‘sinners’ be punished and who punish them by ostracising them, Jesus’ response is that it is the sinners he has come to call. It is as if Jesus befriends those who have felt that they have no option but to go to a loan shark … but also befriends the loan sharks, who are just as caught up in the system … and the bankers – we, too, might want to challenge him on this!

In contrast to his critics, Jesus’ view of ‘sin’ is that it is something to be forgiven – that debts are to be written off, cancelled – that ‘sinners’ are to be shown mercy, not punishment (Matthew 9//Mark 2//Luke 5). Forgiveness breaks down the entire system – which is what makes Jesus so dangerous.

Where Jesus speaks ‘hard words’ about sin, he does so:

to convey the need to do whatever you can to not get into debt (if your eye or your hand causes you to sin – is leading you into debt – cut it out of your body, Matthew 5:29, 30);

to promise that one day God will remove all causes of debt (Matthew 13:41);

to starkly contrast the system of speculating for profit with an approach of giving where there is no hope of return (Luke 6);

to spell out that if the people will not listen to him they will die in their sins, enslaved by systemic debt, destroying themselves (John 8).

Jesus’ message in relation to sin is entirely one of setting sinners free. Nowhere does Jesus claim that sin is something for which God demands a punishment to be paid.

Nowhere? What about his parables? What about the parable of the king who writes off the ridiculously unpayable debt of a servant but then throws that servant in prison for refusing to write-off the small debt of another servant? Or the parable of the king who has a guest thrown out of the wedding banquet he is throwing for his son, because they are inappropriately dressed?

These are stories, and must be understood in the context of their telling. They are both stories of throwing the king’s generosity back in his face, in the one case by insisting on the restoration of a debt-system the king has just acted to dismantle, and in the other making an explicit political statement against the king (‘you cannot buy me with an invitation to your table!’) through deliberately dressing in a disrespectful and utterly inappropriate manner. These are stories that highlight the distance between God’s approach and ours. These are stories to encourage the hearer to respond to God’s mercy by stepping out of the system of indebtedness, of any outstanding debt other than a debt of love towards one another. I would suggest that the point of the stories is not to tell us that God will respond in the way that the king in the stories responds at the end; but, rather, to pose the question of us: ‘Would you rather that God respond in this way? Really?

This is why Jesus is relentless in calling for forgiveness. If someone wrongs me, I place them in debt to me. By refusing to forgive them, I raise a compound interest that guarantees they will never get out of debt to me. By choosing to forgive, I dismiss any claim to repayment, but also any claim to hold them in debt (which is what the debt system really relies on).

There is one place where Jesus links his death with ‘sin’ and that is in offering his blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28).

This leads some to believe that God requires a punishment to be paid for sin – and, in Jesus, takes that punishment upon himself (Jesus being in very nature God). My problem with this view is that it is fundamentally opposed to anything Jesus has to say about sin or God’s intention towards sinners or how sin must be dealt with. Forgiveness does not require punishment. God certainly disciplines us, but that is not the same as punishment: when I require of my children that they keep their room tidy, it is not a punishment. Jesus certainly says, repent, change, go and sin no more; but that is not a punishment.

Some argue that the injustice of sin in all its forms calls for justice – and I agree: love and justice are certainly not opposed. However, there is more than one kind of justice. There is retributive or punitive justice, that imposes a penalty; and there is restorative justice, that brings enemies together, confronting them with the consequences of their actions, with the intention of making friends. I would suggest that satan, the accuser, always calls for retributive or punitive justice; and that Jesus, the one in whom God is perfectly revealed and in and through whom God is reconciling all things, always calls for restorative justice – as embodied in the response of the tax-collector Zacchaeus to make right what he had extorted.

Here is how debt works: it extends the promise of life, only to deliver death. It entices us in, only to demand a cost we cannot repay. Borrow more to consume more, and never be satisfied. And we are all caught up in the system of debt: every last one of us.

Through his death, Jesus fatally wounds the whole system of indentured slavery. He becomes, to all appearances, a ‘publican’ – a sinner – by taking on the liability for our debts, offered by the Prince of this World. Except that the debt-system knows it will never deliver … and Jesus knows that too: this is not speculation in the hope of profit, but a self-giving with no hope or expectation of return. This is not telling people not to gamble and then putting every penny on a horse because you are feeling lucky, or have some inside knowledge. Nor is it simply transferring our indebtedness from a satanic creditor to a divine one, leaving us still in debt. This is giving of yourself, because self-giving is the antithesis of the debt-system.

The ‘problem’ for the debt-system is this: forgiveness cancels debt, sets both the one who is forgiven and the one who forgives free from the debt-system. Life freely given for the forgiveness of sins – Life that refuses to hold anyone in its debt – puts an end to sin and death, and opens the door for life.

The parables still stand. I can conclude that God is merely attempting to buy me (in which case, integrity would demand that I rebel, by any and every means). I can insist on rebuilding a system that continues to hurt everyone. Or I can claim that I am a sinner who has been forgiven, and instructed to do the same for others.

I can recognise the extent to which I am complicit, can seek forgiveness, can extend forgiveness, and call on others to do likewise. And in so doing, I participate in the ongoing restorative justice executed at the cross …

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Two Films About Living And Dying

In the person of Jesus Christ, the God who created and sustains the universe has become fully human. Under-stated, largely unnoticed, Monday just gone was the pivot-point between Christmas, where God submits God-self to our birth; and Easter, where God submits God-self to our death. Known to some as Candlemas, it is the day on which church candles are blessed – the pliable substance of the wax; the fragile wick – and we are reminded of the call of flesh-and-blood, in our fragility, to be trimmed in the course of every-day life in order that we might be, together, lights in the sometime darkness of our world.

For several converging pastoral reasons, I’ve been attending to – seeking to notice – life and death recently. As part of learning to do that better, I’ve watched two films: Of Gods and Men, and Calvary. Both are exceptional examples of cinematic storytelling (though, health-warning: both are harrowing viewing, 15 Certificate).

Of Gods and Men (dialogue in French and Arabic, with English sub-titles) is inspired by the true events concerning a group of Trappist Cistercian monks living in Algeria in the 1990s. They farm their land, selling produce at the local market, contributing to the local economy. One of their number is a doctor, providing primary healthcare for the villagers. They celebrate, lament, puzzle over, and wrestle with life – and, inevitably, death – with their Muslim neighbours. (Apart from anything else, this is a beautiful example of shared life and deep affection between Muslims and Christians; a story that needs to be both told and modelled.) Their nights and days are punctuated with communal prayer. As terrorist activity threatens the community, they wrestle with the decision whether to return to France or stay with their neighbours. Choosing to remain eventually costs seven of their number their lives.

In one scene, set in the chapel, the monks chant:

‘Because he is with us in this time of violence | Let us not dream that he is everywhere | Other than where we die | Let us make haste | Let us draw patience from him | Let us turn to the Man of Sorrows | Who beckons us from the cross …’

This is a slow, deliberate, and touching film – because only by living slowly and deliberately enough can we see God hiding in plain view, can we see Christ in the face of our neighbour. Only by daring to enter into life – knowing that it will cost us everything because it will open us up to death – and only by daring to enter into death in the footsteps of the Man of Sorrows, can we meet the God who submitted God-self to our birth and our death, that in our living and our dying we might be held fast in Love. This is mystery.

Calvary is a work of fiction, a ‘dark comedy,’ full of both cynical and ironic humour but also insightful in its observation of people and profound in its humanity. It opens in the confessional, where Father James Lavelle is given notice that he will be murdered in a week’s time – time sympathetically, apologetically, given to put his affairs in order. A young boy was sexually abused by another since-dead Catholic priest; now, as an adult, he will kill a ‘good priest,’ an innocent man, as carefully considered response to this moral outrage that cannot be put right – a response so shocking that it might just purge that which no one is willing or able to face.

On the face of it, Father James walks through his final days no different from those that would have come before: walking slowly and deliberately through his parish, alongside his parishioners, with tenderness and sadness, puzzlement and wonder – deliberating when to listen, when to speak out, when to walk away in such a way that opens a way back for others if they will take it, even if he does not have all the time in the world; for his choice not to abandon his community is, paradoxically, a choice to leave them – as himself – in God’s hands. He makes peace with his daughter, who had felt that she had lost her father to the priesthood having already lost her mother to cancer; makes peace with himself (something that is neither easy, nor linear), and encourages others to do likewise (at times, through confrontation he has previously avoided).

In their last and most honest conversation, he tells his daughter: ‘I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues.’ Fiona Lavelle: ‘What would be your number one?’ Father James: ‘I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.’ There lies the key to making peace with oneself, to pursuing peace with others (and most of the characters wrestle with one or the other, or both).

In one scene, Father James sits in the hospital chapel with the French widow of a tourist killed in a car crash which left her physically unscathed; the tone of their conversation is thoughtful and compassionate, lacking any cynicism or malice:

Father James: ‘Everybody knows it’s coming …
… It is never easy. More understandable [when the elderly die], let’s say. Less unfair … Situations like this one, people are shocked, the randomness of it. They curse God, curse their fellow man; they lose their faith in some cases.’

Theresa: ‘They lose their faith … It must not have been much of a faith to begin with, if it is so easy for them to lose it.’

Father James: ‘Yes. But what is faith? For most people, it is the fear of death, nothing more than that. If that is all it is, it’s very easy to lose.
‘He was a good man, your husband?’

Theresa: ‘Yes. He was a good man. We had a very good life together. We loved each other very much. And now, he has gone. And that is not unfair. That is just what happened. But many people don’t live good lives; they don’t feel love. That is what is unfair … I feel sorry for them.’

Their response is to pray together, with shared words that remind those who pray them that our living and our dying is bound-together with the God who submits God-self to the same. Again, this is mystery. And again, like the rhythm of communal prayer in the monastery Notre-Dame de l’Atlas, Tibhirine, what is rehearsed in the light hours of the inherent, God-gifted goodness of life – rehearsed, through disciplines of prayer, of thankfulness, of giving of ourselves and beholding others with delight – keeps the wax and wick of our lives trimmed ready for the inevitable dark hours.

I am not a Roman Catholic. But, in needing to learn to slow down, in needing to attend to what I so easily fail to notice – in needing not only to attend to life and death, but in needing to attend life and death, to participate – in needing to respond to the invitation to become more fully human, I am nonetheless gratefully indebted to that tradition of the Church, both lived and given expression through fiction.