Year C, Proper 12 - 28 July 2013

Gen 18.20-32; Col 2.6-15; Luke 11.1-13

The Lord’s prayer is something of a mousetrap for the unwary: all the obvious things are true - we receive it from the Lord’s own teaching; it connects us to the heart of the faith and to all who have prayed it over the centuries; it recalls us to the fundamental shape of our Christian pilgrimage. All this is true and obvious. However, it can work to other ends too. Inevitably, praying these words not just daily - but at least four times daily - increases familiarity and with familiarity comes a curious kind of paradoxical knowledge. Curious because there is often a profound sense in us of how little we understand what it really means. What will it be like when the kingdom comes? What is really involved in hallowing the Lord’s name? Despite that, there can also be a growing sense that what we are longing for and what the prayer asks for are somehow coming together, fusing into one.

If we needed reminding of the dangers, Abraham’s conversation with the Lord which we heard at Mattins does the job admirably. Here is a rather strange, even audacious bit of pressuring of Yahweh by the excellent Abraham. The cautious, yet firm, approach seems to have worked. If there are even ten righteous people in Sodom the city will be spared - and surely it is not possible for there to be a city without at least ten righteous people. Yet, as we know very well, in the very next chapter fire and brimstone descend and the city is wiped out - and Abraham’s family is caught up in the disaster in that Lot’s wife was foolish enough to look over her shoulder. Everything seemed fine. Abraham and God were getting on really well; indeed Abraham was sufficiently confident to put a bit of pressure on God. He must have felt duly satisfied with the conversation. How devastated he must subsequently have been - and how his picture of God must have been challenged.

Now, Claudio and Hero may be the central pair of lovers in Shakespeare’s Much ado about nothing but Benedick and Beatrice are much more than a sideshow. From their first barbed encounter (“I wonder that you still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.” “What, my dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?”), we are captivated by the speed and brilliance with which they hurl words at one another. However, the familiarity with such a way of being and speaking becomes a snare that threatens to imprison them. The danger is that the fiction they have created becomes the only truth they can know. Only with the help of friends, who plant the seeds of another truth, can they escape. The final truth is all the richer in that the wit and the sparkle is not lost when, almost at the end of the play, Benedick says “A miracle! Here's our own hands against our hearts. Come, I will have thee but, by this light, I take thee for pity.”  Beatrice replies, “I would not deny you but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption.” “Peace! I will stop your mouth”, Benedick says - and kisses her!

Shakespeare was, of course, well aware that the name Benedick (or Benedict), though translated as ‘Blessed’, derives from the two words dicere (to speak) and bene (well) and has the basic meaning “Well said!” This enables us to appreciate afresh how appropriate it is that the author of the Rule is called Benedict, for he has indeed spoken well and commended to us a pattern of living which provides the helps, the checks and balances, which foster good living and good speaking - with ourselves, with others and with God. The labour of obedience which lies at the heart is not some theoretical, abstract discipline but a description of what it means to take up the offer of life and relationship with Christ, to be his disciple, to pattern our lives on his, to learn his way of preferring nothing to the will of the Father.  

In such a context, - enfolded in the constant nearness of the risen Christ, supported by the community and held in a seamless conversation with the word of God - our daily praying “Your will be done” is rescued from the snare of our own illusions and grounded again and again in the divine reality (that divinising light Benedict talks of in the Prologue). 

It doesn’t, of course, provide the complete insurance against all hazards. The ecology of monastic life is very fragile: one minute it all looks fine but isn’t; the next moment it all feels decidedly off but, strangely, seems to be doing well. In other words, it is almost never possible to pronounce on the health or otherwise of a community. That would be to have the sort of false confidence which Abraham had that the cities of the plain could be saved. This is not usually about deliberate subverting of the goals. We don’t imagine for a moment that the Church Commissioners had deliberately decided to invest (albeit indirectly) in the Wonga pay-day loan company and we feel for the Archbishop in the resulting embarrassment and apparent contradicting of his intention to see such companies put out of business. 

What really matters is that we, drawn by the light of the Gospel, give ourselves once again to a life of speaking well: saying what we mean and meaning what we say - and that in actions even more than in words. The reading from Colossians could hardly be a better summary of the Christian life in general and the monastic life in particular: “continue to live your lives in Christ Jesus, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving”. The rest of the passage was, of course, a spelling out of what St Benedict has in mind when he sees the monastery as the place of encounter with the risen Christ - for, as the letter to the Colossians has it, “in Christ the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily and you have come to fullness in him”.

Perhaps we now have a picture which draws on the whole of the Gospel pericope - the Lord’s prayer, the strange night-time conversation asking for bread for some unexpected visitors and the final injunction to ‘ask’, to ‘search’, and to ‘knock’. The middle section of the pericope sits awkwardly. It resonates more with the tangled, compromised ways of the world. The context for the request is only partly right. There is a basis in friendship but that friendship is here distorted by the inopportune moment. Even though the friend does comply it is, we are told because of the persistence, not friendship. The kind of asking and searching we are to do is, then, such as belongs within the context of praying the prayer of the Lord. It is the fundamental asking and searching which makes sense of our lives: ‘My brother, what do you seek?’ The mercy of God and a share in the life of this community, this manifestation of the body of the risen Christ, where we may be enfolded by the Spirit into the very life of Christ our God.

 

Peter Allan CR