Fr Ken Parker invited Carol O’Connor to give the 5th Bunyip Lecture at St. Thomas', Bunyip, on Sunday the 2nd of December 2018. Here is the summary of Carol's paper, which was handed out to attendees.
A certain philosopher questioned the Holy Anthony. “How,” he said, “do you content yourself, Father, who is denied the comfort of books?” He answered, “My book, philosopher, is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind to read the words of God, it is at my hand.” Sayings of the Desert Fathers Book XXI
In the Church cycle, we’re now entering the Year of Luke: praise is a keynote of this Gospel. It’s a ‘Gospel of messianic joy.’ Luke’s emphasis is universal salvation; it is laden with practical ethics and causes us reflection on moral living. Dr Dorothy Lee, Melbourne New Testament Scholar & Anglican Priest.
What does gift giving mean? As Christians we believe that the real gift on Christmas Day is the birth of Jesus Christ, but what is it that we are being given? And how do we live in response to this gift?
Three of the many gifts given to us in the birth of Christ Jesus:
1 The gift of relationship
Spiritual and religious books are never an end in themselves - they only ever point the way towards. They point the way toward the ‘Word made flesh’, it’s up to the reader to live from the meaning discovered in the book with courage, with a willingness to risk embodying the Word in themselves.
When we are born, we are born into relationship. The primary relationship we are born into is with God. Our first human relationship is with the person or persons who are our primary care givers. Ideally they are figures of love. To grow and flourish through childhood we need the other - the one who loves us. The network extends outwards into community, between cultures. ‘We go to heaven in one another’s pockets,’ is a phrase quoted by Rowan Williams.
We take community with us wherever go because we take with us our capacity for relationship in God.
2 The gift of memory always happens from the place in which we stand in the present. It’s meaning derives from the relationship we have in God.
Good spiritual writers can give us courage to face our own terrors and examine memories that are painful. Go to the hard places, especially in your relationship with God, stand there and see what you can see. Go to the hard places with the eyes of God. Ask: what can I see or re-see in and from this challenging place?
For Miroslav Volf it’s important to remember the past rightly. Christ’s Passion and resurrection need to inform how we engage in the action of remembering.
It’s important to learn to live theology, not just read it in books. Remember God’s love in all that you do.
3 The gift of language
Good spiritual writers give us a language that can help steady our feet; words that enable us to enflesh or put form around our experience. They offer a language, a vocabulary, upon which I can invite my own experience into and hang my own thoughts upon. The gift of language can provoke our imagination; push further the boundaries of reflection. Language grows us.
Writers like Rowan Williams & Richard Rohr offer vocabularies that are living and nuanced. As they’ve drawn from other writers, through their words God speaks to us. Theirs becomes a language which I can draw from, dwell upon, and in turn hope God uses through me to speak to others. And this is a gift giving whose primary source is the Word made flesh.
Both Rowan Williams and David Adam encourage us to take the words we use in our prayer life seriously. They encourage us to find prayers to sit with, have them walk them inside us inside as a mantra. And we can only do this when we enter into ‘slow craft time.’ In his book Holy Living, Rowan Williams reminds us to stay present ‘where you are, rather than taking refuge in the infinite smallness of your fantasies.’ Expansion of the heart takes time. Williams quotes the Welsh saying: ’life is about inhabiting a great hall within narrow walls.’ P 65. For him, and so many of these writers, life is about learning to be still and listen, to ponder, to be fully present to the place you are in.
Language takes many forms. God also speaks through the expressive arts: music, poetry, dance, painting. God’s Word is found in nature and in silence and the unsaid. The grammar of God is in the nature of created things and lives inside each one of us.
If our language serves reconciliation, breaks through the illusion of separation and hate, of fear and abuse then our lives start to become aligned into the enlarging the heart of God.
I can purchase or read all the books about God I like, but if I do not live first from response to this space of Love, and if my first book is not, as Holy Anthony says, the nature of created things as seen through Love’s eyes, then what I see will be forever only an illusion.
The gift of the Word made flesh, with all its hope and beauty and pain and vulnerability, the gift of Christ who is born at Christmas, enables us to see through illusion to Reality. And that’s a Word really worth holding onto.