Holy Communion 4th August 2019
Salvation as Self-Reliance - Vanity, Wealth, and Isolation
Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14, 2. 18 – 23
Colossians 3. 1 – 11
Luke 12. 13 – 21
Every year I get a train from Victoria to West Malling in Kent to spend a few days alone, reading, eating and praying, on spiritual retreat. Some of you might find it difficult to imagine me not talking for a whole week. It does happen. And, even more strangely, I really enjoy it. In the rest and quiet, God gets to work.
A few minutes’ walk from the station, along a narrow street dense with trees, is a medieval gatehouse where it’s said the knights who murdered Thomas Becket sought refuge after their crime. There is a large section of what must have been a huge abbey, a garden both vast and intimate, with a labyrinth mown into it at one end, a little stream running through it, and a concrete Brutalist grey building with a large curved apse and long thin windows between the walls and the sloping ceiling, to suggest these two monumental forms are somehow floating together rather than solidly fused. The path to the concrete breezeblock chapel is curved, apparently designed by the mid-twentieth-century architect trying out a few S-formations in his car in the snow, right next to what survives of the medieval abbey. Nearby there are small, comfortable rooms overlooking the cloisters, with a tiny fountain in the middle that can be heard only if you really pay attention.
There have been nuns at Malling Abbey for centuries. When they were forced to leave during the Reformation, the property ran through a succession of families, until one, just over a century ago, chose to offer it back to a religious community. Benedictine nuns therefore returned, and these Anglican sisters offer hospitality to anyone and everyone – over a thousand people – throughout the year. Retreat is mostly silent. Conversations only happen if guests want them. Communication is via post-it notes on a bulletin board. The nuns might briefly appear with a cake or – on my most recent visit, to fix the router (Sister Anne has a doctorate in computer science). The women’s sung prayers are offered to God seven times a day, they get up at 3.30am and go to bed at 8pm, and guests are invited to pray silently with them. 5 years ago during the summer, I was welcomed into the community as a sort of lay companion, which they call a ‘Friend’ with a capital F. A bit like being a Friend of the Music or a Friend of the Drama. As a ‘Friend’, I pray for the sisters at the Abbey every day, and they pray for me. There was a short liturgy for this. I sat alone in the breezeblock guest chapel, and twelve nuns in their black and white habits came towards me in a semicircle. The Abbess, Mother Mary David, motioned for me to stand. She said ‘stay there, don’t move.’ She has the rank of a bishop, and her quiet gestures express a kind of gently fierce tenderness. The sisters sang a prayer – ‘Behold, I make all things new’ – and then returned to their seats. I sat down. I cried. It felt like a new way of coming home.
A while later, I returned to the Abbey and spoke with one of the sisters who has been there for sixty years. She had the opportunity to take a postgraduate seminar at the nearby theological college, and so she found herself as a student in a class on heresies. ‘Who would like to write about palagianism?’ asked the lecturer. The sister’s hand shot into the air. When she told me this story I was a bit confused - surely this woman who arrived in a Benedictine community over half a century ago to be with God in prayer sacrificing everything else - including her name, her social status, her wealth - wouldn’t struggle with this particular heresy. Pelagius was a fourth-century monk who taught that moral perfection and a sinless life was possible without relying on God, and that human beings didn’t need any divine support to live well or make good choices. Simply put, he believed, paradoxically, that as a Christian he and everyone else did not need God in order to be good, or even perfect. Salvation as self-reliance. This nun in a village in Kent assured me that for her, as for so many, this belief is painfully enticing. When we rely on ourselves and not on God, we are effectively claiming that we have more knowledge, more power, more understanding than God. And yet at the same time, we are not abandoning Christianity. There’s the real tension.
Being Christian on our own terms, reducing God to an accessory to our own self-interest, misaligns us with the truth of Christ’s love. Selfishness is inevitable. Pride too, certainly. But also, a profound loneliness and isolation, which accrues like so many defensive layers, as we tell ourselves that if we do, or say, or become one thing or another - acquire enough wealth, reach a dazzling level of social status, deem ourselves, finally, to be successful, whatever that might mean, then we can stop worrying and self-loathing and just relax, rest, be at peace. Is this method of anxious, lonely, acquisitive self-reliance at all peaceful? Probably not, but it can bring comfort of a kind. It feels good, doesn’t it, to have more than enough? It’s terrifying, is it not, to have less than you need. It’s understandable, certainly, to seek comfort. But what is the motivation for the comfort we seek, and what makes us comfortable, and is being comfortable the goal of a life in which, as St Paul puts it, ‘Christ is all in all’ and we are truly interconnected, interdependent, seeking the good of others instead of feathering our own nests?
‘Merest breath, merest breath. All is mere breath.’ This is how the book of Ecclesiastes opens. Breathing, repeating, meditating on the place of desire, ephemerality, and absurdity in the frailty of human life. The king in Ecclesiastes, Qoholet, amasses a spectacular fortune. More wealth than anyone, ever. And he doesn’t deny or avoid opportunities to really enjoy it. But, as we read on in Ecclesiastes: ‘I turned about in all my deeds that my hands had done and in the toil that I had toiled to do, and, look, all was mere breath and herding the wind, and there was no gain under the sun.’ Mere breath. All is breath. Breath is another translation for what many Bible versions call ‘vanity’.
A third of Jesus’ parables discuss money. Jesus knew that it’s a fundamental part of society, then and now, and chose to address it head on. In today’s Gospel, the money story is a profoundly tragic one. This man is so isolated. He has so much to give, to share, to offer - and you might want to get beyond grain and agriculture to consider other types of goods or resources. Indeed, so much that his solution is to build bigger and taller to keep everything for his own use. He hoards. He protects. He is a victim, truly, of concupiscence. This word is about overwhelming desire to centre the world on oneself, to ‘infinitely consume the finite’. The hunger is intense, constant, and without satisfaction. The theologian Paul Tillich described concupiscence as the desire to ‘cram the world into one’s own mouth’. We should notice that the story of the rich man with his giant barn doesn’t mention anyone else. Maybe he has family or friends, or enemies, but we would have to imagine them. He is, in Jesus’ parable, completely alone with his grain, his giant barn, and his endless desire for more. In his isolation, he has no means for offering, sharing, giving thanks, participating in the deeper things of life. Jesus is not rejecting wealth as such, but he is rejecting self-interested isolation and the pride of anyone who ‘stores up treasures for themselves, but are not rich towards God.’ And death comes. And what was it all for? We could return to Ecclesiastes: ‘I turned about in all my deeds that my hands had done, and in the toil that I had toiled to do, and look, all was mere breath and herding the wind.’ Amen.
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