Writing in the Sand

Kenneth Leech, whose life we will celebrate in a day conference in Liverpool on 20 May, believed above all in two things: in the struggle for justice and in the life of prayer.  As a Christian, and as a priest in the Catholic tradition of Anglicanism, he saw them as inextricably linked.

SAM_9668.jpgHe would have agreed with Conrad Noel, the ‘Red Vicar’ of Thaxted, who proclaimed ‘the Mass as prelude to the New World Order in which all would be justly produced and equally distributed.’  And with Stewart Headlam, the radical priest who worked in East London at the turn of the last century, who described the Eucharist as ‘the weekly meeting of rebels against a mammon-worshipping society.’

Ken wrote The Sky is Red twenty years ago, after nearly twenty years of an aggressively right-wing government in Britain, and just at the moment when Tony Blair was poised, not to bring the new socialist paradise for which many hoped, but to entrench Thatcherite neoliberalism for another twenty years. Now all looks set for an even more extreme version (although the polls can be, and often have been, wrong).

What can Christians who believe this would be a terrible mistake, do to resist?  On one level of course, we can and must campaign for different policies, and vote for the candidates who promise to implement them. But at a deeper level we need to worship the God of justice, to pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

And what would this worship look like? What is the function of liturgy, and a liturgical church, in working for a more just society? One answer is suggested by the liturgists and hymn-writers associated with the Iona Community, such as John Bell. It’s hard to quibble with words like

‘Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by endless pain,

aware of God’s own bias, we ask him once again:

How long must some folk suffer? How long can few folk mind?

How long dare vain self-int’rest turn prayer and pity blind?’

(John Bell, Iona Community 1987)

Much as I admire the sentiments, I doubt if I am the only person to feel slightly uneasy while singing them in church. I have sung them, and will no doubt do so again, but I’m not sure that they really belong in liturgy. In the Eucharist, the regular celebration of the Easter victory, ‘heaven is joined to earth and all creation reconciled to [God].’ So although all human need, all our temporary concerns, are brought to God, the liturgy itself is timeless and not tied to our limited perspective.

This of course means that individualist escapism expressed in ‘Jesus and me’ type choruses is equally out of place, if not more so. So are the sort of intercessions which consist of excerpts from Guardian leaders (or worse, Daily Mail headlines) interspersed with ‘Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer.’

Worship as sloganising, worship as soothing syrup, worship as education – this is not the liturgy as the tradition of the Church has understood it. The Church, in its members and leaders, should and will continue to stand up and speak out for the needy and for the values of God’s Kingdom. But in its worship, just as in individual prayer, it should not preach to God, should not imply that it knows how God should act.

In a world broken apart by human sin, the Church comes together as an assembly of sinful humans not to insist, pharisaically, on our righteousness but to contemplate God’s holiness. I’m sure that Ken Leech would have agreed. He writes:

“Like poetry, all [liturgy] can do politically in the direct sense is to write in the sand, and yet this may well prove to be a powerful activity.”   (The Sky is Red, page 165)

The allusion of course is to Jesus’s action in the incident interpolated into the text of St John’s gospel at chapter 8 vv 1-12. As the woman accused of adultery is brought to Jesus for his judgment, he bends down and writes on the ground. After saying ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’, he continues to write while one by one her accusers slink away.

We don’t know what he was writing. I like to think he was writing all the various commandments of the Law concerning adultery – Holy Tradition. He was not in the business of contradicting tradition, even less of sloganising. He was allowing the space, the silence, the timelessness to allow that tradition to find its level, its rightful context, and to be transformed by a new and deeper understanding. And that understanding would remain while the temporary, limited understanding of the Law would find its own level as the writing in the sand would be eroded by the wind.

Leech, in referring to this passage, also mentions the following comment on the same story by Seamus Heaney:

‘The drawing of those characters is like poetry, a break with the usual life but not an absconding from it. Poetry, like the writing, is arbitrary and marks time in every possible sense of that phrase. It does not say to the accusing crowd or to the helpless accused, “Now a solution will take place”, it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.’ (The Government of the Tongue, Faber 1988, page 107)

The poetry of the Mass does not rest in the beauty (or otherwise) of the language, but because it is doing just that, functioning ‘not as distraction but as pure concentration’. As T S Eliot observed of Little Gidding, the end of his pilgrimage,

‘You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid….

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always.’

(Four Quartets, Little Gidding lines 43-46, 52-53)

The same is true of the liturgy. We enter into the deep ongoing tradition of prayer, worship, and openness to the Kingdom of God. In the eucharistic prayer the priest recites, on our behalf, the whole of salvation history. Gesture and vesture, music and movement, reinforce the same tradition. There are many parts of that tradition that make little sense to us today, that if applied literally would be often pointless, sometimes wrong. But ‘this is our story’, it’s our poetry, our writing in the sand.

SAM_9245.jpgThomas Merton said that our aim in Christian prayer is to be ‘simplified out’. We might, and maybe should, come to church carrying protest banners. We certainly bring our political convictions and prejudices. We can’t pretend that we would be better Christians if we were apolitical or unconcerned about our neighbour. But we leave the banners in the church porch. We mentally set aside our campaigning and preoccupations, and let God deal with them.

Another image to do with sand is one that is often acted out in retreats or quiet days. You have a large transparent container of water, into which participants are invited to throw handfuls of sand, representing all their concerns. Then you sit in silent contemplation around this, as gradually the sand sinks to the bottom of the jar and the water clears. This is what Merton means by being ‘simplified out.’

St Teresa of Avila expresses it like this:

‘Let nothing disturb you, let nothing dismay you,
All thing pass, God never changes.
Patience attains all.
He who has God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.’

[Nada te turbe, nada te espante;
todo se pasa, Dios no se muda.
La pacientia todo lo alcanza.
Quien a Dios tiene nada la falta:

solo Dios basta.]

This is easily confused with quietism and escapism. St Teresa was not guilty of that, nor was Ken Leech, and nor should any of us be who, in the words of the hymn, ‘for that country must yearn and must sigh.’

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3 thoughts on “Writing in the Sand

  1. Dave, I’d like to add an element to the important thing you are saying here. As you know I have dabbled in party politics from time to time. What you get there is people who feel strongly that they have to persuade people to joint their cause or at least vote for it. What they don’t do is sit down with campaigners for the other parties, listen to them, and try to understand their values. In other words, we’re a culture where every individual is over-confident that they know the right answers. Prayer at its best is the opposite of telling God what to do: it’s recognising that our understanding is limited, and giving God time to fill our minds with godly values.

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