Friday, 25 June 2010

unusual encounters

Unusual Encounters Andrew Bebb

Reading an editorial somewhere on ‘Respect difference, teach unity’ has set me thinking. Perhaps the way forward is not so much elaborately constructed formal self-conscious meetings. Maybe a more informal and unexpected encounter is more effective. It is often readily available. We do not often have to look too far to come across it.

I had been attending a Theology Conference at Ushaw College a few miles outside Durham. It was an enriching experience and also quite a nostalgic one for me, since I spent 6 years in the fifties studying there. The train journeys have on two occasions surprisingly involved unusually memorable religious encounters.
If you are familiar with travel to the North East, you will know the anxieties engendered by having to change trains at York. You sit in the train regularly checking your watch hoping that you will be on time. York Station is quite huge, with platforms almost a mile long. Usually your train arrives at one end of an enormous platform. Your connection is then due to leave at the other end. This means a gallop of two hundred yards, down to the other end with only minutes available.
On one occasion, I was starting the usual gallop pulling my bag, when suddenly beside my side a young Buddhist monk appeared clad from head to foot in saffron robes. He shouted “Come on, I’ll help” and he ran beside me pulling my case. I got the connection. Ever since I have harboured a warm affection for Buddhism.

The other occasion happened quite recently.
This time, the train from Durham was on time and I was able to board the Liverpool train in comfort. Indeed there was a surfeit of unreserved seats. I chose a window seat and waited for the carriage to fill. To my surprise and indeed delight one of the last to board was a Rabbi. He entered a little uncertainly. I suppose it was because his personal appearance was a little unfamiliar to our eyes. He clearly belonged to the Orthodox tradition in Judaism He wore a long black thick overcoat and on his head above his zucchetto, a beautiful black round homburg-type hat. The most striking part of his appearance was his long straggly beard and hair. As he approached, I patted the aisle seat beside me and invited him to take a seat. Which he did, I hope a little gratefully. What followed was for us both a most delightful experience. I have never known the journey from Durham to Manchester pass so quickly.
We began by telling each other where we were coming from and why. He told me that he had been visiting Newcastle and was on his way back to join his community at Crumpsall in North Manchester. I explained that I had been attending a Theology Conference at Ushaw. He asked me what the subject of the Conference was. I told him it was on St. Paul, which interested him. He, he told me, had been visiting the Rabbinate in Newcastle to speak to the students. He had written a book to help with their studies and was leading them through it. He asked me since I was a theologian whether I was a priest. I told him that I was but that I had been allowed to resign the active ministry in order to raise a family. He knew that Catholic priests were not normally permitted to marry and to continue in the ministry. He told me that he had 15 children so I told him that I had 9. Quite a lot between us!! We didn’t go into the issue of grandchildren in case the discussion became competitive!
He told me that his ancestors had come to England from the Ukraine at the beginning of the 20th. Century fleeing from persecution. He was grateful for the toleration which English people had shown to his community over the years.
From that point on, our conversation focussed on the scenery outside the window of the train. He was full of questions. He wished to know the names of all the Yorkshire Rivers. Fortunately I had learned them as a rhyme as a little boy at school. He was also very interested in the canal system in the North of England., especially the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. I told him off once for asking a question of which I had already given him the answer, He laughed and scolded himself. His other area of interest was the purpose of the large disused buildings in the valleys. I explained that they had been woollen mills and in Lancashire, cotton mills. He wanted to know something of the history of the woollen and cotton trades. It made me realise that much of his experience of the wider history of the North of England had been from within his own local community. He became a delightful student and the miles outside the window passed away so quickly. Soon we were approaching his destination and the time to part. He disappeared for a while and returned with a bottle of Coke and two plastic glasses. He intended to cement our newly found friendship with a toast. Which we did. As we touched our glasses, he said “cheers” and I replied “shalom”.
I was very sorry to see him go. As he left he shouted back from the open door:” Goodbye, Andrew”. I shouted back: “Goodbye, Abrahim”
A number of our fellow passengers looked a little puzzled.

continuity and change

Continuity and Change

Andrew Bebb

I had been asked some time ago to offer some personal reflections so I must apologize in
advance for the seemingly egocentric nature of this contribution. It is simply offered as a
possible source of comfort to those who may be undergoing or have undergone the bereavement of loss as they moved out of the active ministry.

The Year of Prayer for Priests is also a year of prayer for those men who have left priestly ministry, according to Benedict XVI's secretary of state. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone [VATICAN CITY, AUG. 31, 2009 (]. The year is also a "renewal of contact, fraternal help, and if it is possible, a reuniting with those priests who for various reasons have left behind their priestly ministry," "Moreover, the sometimes weak fabric of dialogue between bishops and priests is being strengthened, and special attention is being given to those priests who have been put to the side in pastoral ministry." The Holy Father wants to show "special attention to priests and to priestly vocations" and to promote "a movement within the whole people of God, of a growing affection and closeness to ordained ministers.” Cardinal Bertone finally affirmed, "The holy priests who have been part of the history of the Church will not cease to protect and support this road to renewal that Benedict XVI has proposed."

Many years ago, I myself resigned from the active diocesan ministry in which I had
worked for 10 years. Although the transition from cleric to layman carried its own traumas, the most profound and the most surprising experience was, and indeed has proved continuously to be, that of a deep underlying continuity in my life. It also helps me to understand the concern of the Holy Father for the many thousands who over the years have felt that God was calling them in a new direction within the Church. A continuity, which I would like to try and explain.

I remember some time before my resignation from active ministry sharing my reflections with my brothers and friends in the priesthood during a day of recollection. I had been invited to lead the day. I chose for my theme that of the celibate life and its significance. I attempted to describe it as a gift designed to 'liberate for freedom’. A state of detachment for service in love. A state in which the priest is able to reflect back to the people of God that Word which is already present within them individually and as a community, indeed one which precedes his own coming amongst them..
Christ is present, I recalled, in his Body, the Christian community; as really
present as he is during the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Eucharist.
The priest accepts that presence from them and refocuses it only to return it. The demand is simply to become transparent to that presence, both in the proclamation of the Word and in its Eucharistic celebration. His whole purpose is to live out the grace, which has chosen him to be the medium and servant through which the Spirit of Jesus is brought into the lives of men and women.
His task is to empty himself and not get in the way. The possibility of the priest
becoming such, lay simply in the extent of his capacity for self-effacement in the power of the Spirit.
On leaving the ministerial priesthood, I was soon to discover it was not simply a gift, which was the fruit of the professional celibate clerical status, but was a continuing presence arising from the Sacrament of Order. If the institutional Church in its wisdom, chose to limit the exercise of that commitment, so be it. My subsequent responsibilities as a husband and a father and as a human being could only be to do my best to continue to exercise priesthood within the constraints and opportunities of the new life, which God had called me to. Celibacy was certainly not the indispensable condition of an existential priesthood as I came to experience it, although it clearly may be for others. The recent ordination of former Anglican clergy to the Catholic priesthood manifests this; as also does the long tradition of a married clergy in the Orthodox Churches of the East.
Married life carries with it continuous opportunities for self-sacrificing love. If we, as
incarnational Christians, are to love, serve and enjoy God in our neighbour, where else can we who are married, find him more completely than in our closest neighbour, our spouse?
What, I think, is helpful, is to convince oneself that to experience change, even a quite
profound change, is normal in human life. It is not simply something to be undergone, but is often desirable, is quite healthy, is indeed rooted in the Biblical experience. The God of
Biblical revelation is a God who calls us into newness. What is important, however, is that the change should not be dependent upon total discontinuity, a rejection of everything that has gone before. We need to build links between the 'there and then' and the 'here and now'.
Those links lie within us to discover. For some, it may lie in the exercise of leadership
through worship, spiritual direction or shared prayer; for others, it is
expressed in teaching, social service, and the caring professions. Every priest, celibate or
married, must exercise a ministry within the constraints and possibilities of
a particular life situation.
After over forty years of living out a married priesthood after resigning from the parochial ministry in which I had spent ten contented years, it may be a
help to share some of my own experiences. Like most people, I have known moments of
enormous joy and also times of deep pain and sadness. After twenty years of a contented
marriage which bore the fruit of four delightful children, my wife died of cancer after a
protracted illness. Now, I am once again happily married to Angela who herself was suddenly widowed and left with five lovely children. So there you are, this former celibate has been able to rejoice in two lovely wives and nine beautiful children! Although I do not think they would thank me for describing them as children! The youngest is now thirty and the eldest thirty-nine. I do hope it is a good sign that three of them read theology at University. The others, without exception are involved, in one form or another, of service to others: teaching, social services, nursing, and one a Policeman. Up to this date we have 14 grandchildren to rejoice in, and two more on the way..

Now, back to my theme. In what ways has the Sacrament of Order continued
to flourish in my own life? Sometimes it has done so in practical ways. I remember the few occasions when I was able to offer sacramental support and comfort to the seriously injured in accidents, etc. I remember the many times I was able to bring my first wife viaticum and the sacrament of the sick. I remember the blessing I was able to give to young children and to the new born. I recall the many occasions when in giving counseling, support and advice to my students in the University, I have felt the power of priesthood very close. I have been fortunate in being able to teach theology in Higher Education during all those years and it is difficult to describe the satisfaction, which that has brought. My experiences in politics standing as a candidate for election, provided many opportunities for offering Christian and priestly witness.
In some ways perhaps our state as married priests is a little like the hidden years
of Jesus' priestly life. What I want to say more than anything to those whose wounds may be still raw from experiences of rejection and shame, who perhaps also feel an emptiness in their lives deep down, is this: rejoice in your continuing priesthood and the eternal commission which Jesus gave to you through His Body, the Church. That commission is still laid upon you and its exercise will be surprisingly possible in all kinds of unexpected situations. I remember an occasion when the partner of a friend who was on the point of leaving the ministerial priesthood, said that she was dreading the day when he would say his last Mass, because it meant so much to him. My response was to say that such a day need never come. Whenever he is actively present during the celebration of the Eucharist, no matter how far down the Church he happens to be kneeling, he will be a concelebrant and offering that Eucharist as a priest. Nobody can ever take that away from him.

freedom and responsibility

Freedom and Responsibility Andrew Bebb

For many years, I have tried to sort out in my mind the precise nature of freedom. It does seem to be important since it is so closely linked to our personal responsibility for all our actions and choices. This in turn has links with the degree of personal guilt so many of us are burdened with.

Some time ago I recall listening to an unusual interview on the radio. The man being interviewed had recently been released from a prison in China. For some years he had been kept in solitary confinement because of his Christian faith and because of his attempts to evangelise
Those were difficult days in the Chinese Republic.
The interviewer asked him how he had managed to maintain his sanity for so long in a cell without a window and with a bare minimum of human contact apart from the warders.
His reply was one, which made me wonder what it is which constitutes our humanity and makes it possible for us to survive within such constraints.
He said that although the conditions under which he was being kept were so utterly restrictive and physically deprived him of any personal control, he decided that he would, by a simple act of his will transform them into an internal act of free choice. He chose to be where he was and internally and freely accepted his condition each morning. So he kept his sanity and perplexed his captors by his cheerfulness.

For myself, this led to some deep thoughts about the nature of freedom.
Freedom cannot really be defined simply by our ability to choose between alternatives. An example of freedom is not typified by a trip around the shelves in a supermarket choosing this brand of cornflakes rather than that. Can a choice be a free choice even when no alternative is actually contemplated? Of course it can.
The Carthusian in his cell in the medieval monastery at Mount Grace in Yorkshire only leaving it to join in communal services in the chapel; the young woman who has had no previous boyfriends yet walks happily to the altar to meet her groom; the old man who throughout a long life has not once set foot outside the village into which he was born. All can live happily and fully and freely in the choice that they had made. Those corrosive words ‘if only’ never entering their heads.
All of this helped me to understand how the God who has given me the sublime gift of freedom; the ability to take possession of my life-choices and be responsible for them, could Himself be free. God is free in His continuing holding of the world in existence. He does so not because He has chosen to do so from a list of possible alternatives, but simply because it was the consequence of His act of deliberate personal love. It is totally and entirely His act. In other words, He is under no constraints internally or externally.
Freedom seems to me to consist in the conscious and willing control I decide to exercise over my decision. This conclusion seems to have some serious implications for the degree of guilt or indeed of praise I might attribute to myself as the agent of an action.
Sometimes each of us can feel depressed and guilt ridden over the decisions, choices and actions that we have made in our past lives. Yet on reflection it may be that we were not completely free in our decisions and actions. It could be that the pressures internally from habits, addictions, mental illness, fear, etc may diminish or even remove responsibility for our actions. External pressures from peer groups or a morbid fear of consequences may limit the degree to which an action is truly our own. I remember our Moral Theology Professor saying with a slight smile that it was considered that getting drunk for the first time could not be a mortal sin since we were unaware of our limits!
How sad it is that often in its history that the simple message of love and forgiveness in the Gospel seems to have been obscured. Some of us may be able to reflect back to those days before Vatican II when serious debates would occur as to whether knitting could be regarded as ‘servile work’ on a Sunday or whether swallowing a little toothpaste accidentally might preclude us from receiving Holy Communion; those days when knowledge of the Catechism seemed to take precedence over its practice; those days when our female sisters were forbidden to enter the Sanctuary during sacred ceremonies for fear of polluting it by their presence.
However those days are thankfully past.

To reflect back on the theme of personal freedom during this period of Lent and Easter, I am sure that the most ultimate example of personal and internal freedom occurred during those last days, which culminated in Jesus stumbling up the hill on His way to his execution. As the soldiers whipped him, mocked him and put a crown of thorns on his head, and finally nailed Him to the scaffold, his submission to their cruel treatment was total. That submission and acceptance he converted into a sublime act of love. In His freedom He gathered together the whole of His life and death into one simple act of personal love:

“Into your hands, I commend my spirit.”

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Dark Matter

Dark Matter Andrew Bebb

I remember an occasion when I was giving a lecture in Bradford to a large audience of teachers and others interested in the communication of the Christian faith in a secular and often sceptical world..At the time I had been made responsible for Religious Education in the Diocese. Someone among the listeners subsequently reported me to my Bishop for teaching heresy. I must confess that I was a little anxious when I was summoned to the Bisop’s House to explain.
I had suggested that anyone who understood the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven as some form of early space exploration was being a little naïve and incredulous. It was the time of the early excursions to the Moon by space rocket. In any case, I suggested, given the size of the cosmos and its almost infinite dimension, the Lord would be still on his way. After all, his post resurection body was corporeal able to be touched and to eat and drink. Recall the incident at the lakeside as he prepared breakfast for his friends., and earlier his apearances in the upper room.
Any way the Bishop simply smiled and said ‘of course, you’re right, don’t worry about it.’
However I was still a bit bemused by the problem. What was the relationship between this corporeal world which we could feel , touch, taste and fall in love with for its beauty, and the world which Jesus pointed us towards. The world which eye had not yet seen, which would fulfil our wildest dreams. The world which God had prepared for those who love him.
After all, my earliest induction into Higher Education had involved the study of Structural Design and Engineering which included the study of Pure and Applied Mathematics. Areas which had tended towards a pragmatic and materialist frame of mind.. Theology and its related disciplines came much later as I discovered within myself a new direction in life.
The problem still troubled me. How was it possible to understand how the corporeal body of Jesus and of course of Mary, who had been assumed body and soul into Heaven break through into this world of materiality and to be seen and touched and spoken to?
A variety of new possibilities began to open up as I struggled with the problem..
The majority of us have five bodily senses through which we are able to explore the limited environment in which we live. Hence all of our knowledge of the world is interpretive. It is conditioned by the limits of our sense experience. Someone born blind or deaf has a different conception of the world surrounding him. Could it be that were it possible for us to be able to get beyond these limited sense instruments which we possess and to encounter the world as it really is, might we be astonished at what we might find.? Perhaps this is the task of the poet, the artist, the musician. To open up the wonder of this world beyond our limited sense experience. Is this perhaps the very nature of the Christian Sacraments where the real presence of the Divine is mediated .
As St.. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his beautiful hymn: Adoro te devote, “Seeing, touching. tasting are in thee deceived…. What God’s son hath told me, take for truth I do: Truth himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.
Recently, at least to my mind, astro-physicists have begun to uncover dimensions to this cosmos, which surrounds us, with new mysteries. It seems that the universe which we are able to explore with our limited instruments consists of a very small portion of what there is out there. Les than five or six per cent in fact.The universe is not simply collections of stars and galaxies seperated by empty space. The vast majority of the matter in the universe is beyond our exploration. We only know of it by inference, by the effects it has on the objects that we can identify. They call it ‘dark matter’. They continue to speculate on precisely what it is and what its function might be. For them, it is an humiliating realisation. It appears that everything around us and within us, is permeated by this mysterious element. Perhaps for believers it would be no more or less than the loving creative presence of the incomprehensible God who holds all things in existence.
The other day I read an article in the Guardian on the recent deliberations of a group of astro- physicists meeting in conference at Durham University.
“James Wells, a tall, softly-spoken 44-year-old from Tampa Bay, Florida, begins with an uncomfortable home truth. Particle physicists have a problem, he says. They are an anthropocentric bunch, too preoccupied with the particles and forces that impinge on humanity. They have spent so much time unravelling mysteries such as the structure of atoms and why the sun shines that they have neglected other avenues of inquiry. They need to broaden their horizons, Wells says. To think beyond the world we see and touch.
If that was the stick, next came the carrot. Our knowledge of the cosmos tells us that the stuff around us, from plants and people to stars and planets, is made from just a handful of elementary particles. On top of these, there is a small number of forces that make nature run smoothly, doing things like keeping planets in their orbits and ensuring everyday objects don't suddenly collapse into a pile of atoms. But how do we know, asks Wells, that there isn't much more going on than this? Our knowledge of nature and how it works is based on observations. What if we can't see everything? What might we be missing out on? There could be a "hidden world" out there, Wells says, where particles and forces are busily at work, all around us, but beyond the realm of our senses.
The phrase "hidden world" sounds like a science-fiction cliche, but it simply means that there may be more particles and forces at work in the world – and the cosmos at large – than those we see when we look around. They are so aloof, so hidden from our daily experience, that they go completely unnoticed.
"It would be strange if we were so special that we could feel and observe everything that is going on out there," says Wells, who is one of a growing number of physicists working on the hidden worlds idea. "We are lumps of clay swirling on a little blue marble in an overwhelming vastness of universe. We have to envision that there is more going on. There really should be additional particles and forces," he says.”
And so maybe it is not so difficult to envisage the border between the world of material sensuality and that other world of Divine Love as thinner than we might have anticipated
And so that bursting in of the Divine Reality which we celebrate as we recall the stable at Bethlehem is indeed the message of eternal life.
As Gerard Manley Hopwind wrote with such sublime sensitivity::
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oilCrushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;And wears man's smudge & shares man's smell: the soilIs bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.And for all this, nature is never spent;There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;And though the last lights off the black West wentOh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --Because the Holy Ghost over the bentWorld broods with warm breast & with ah! bright wings.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010