Exposed to view
I HAVE always enjoyed the story of the holy monk whom the demons tried hard to tempt, but never succeeded. Seeing them resting after a hard day’s work, the devil asked the demons what was up. They told him that the monk was too holy and nothing was working: alcohol, sex, gambling, money — he resisted them all.
The devil smiled, walked over to the monk, and whispered in his ear. Suddenly, the man got up, swore at heaven, pulled off his cross, ripped his prayer book, and stomped off. The demons were in awe of their master. What had he said? “Oh,” the devil replied, “I just told him his brother had been made Bishop of Alexandria.”
I suppose we all have our limits, and I’m guessing that living in a religious community with the same people, day in, day out, is a good way to discover what those limits are. The holiest person I ever met was the elderly Sister Frideswide, of Stanbrook Abbey. When I met her, I was a teenager trying to work out what vocation meant. Chatting with her made me tearful. She seemed to me to be the kindest person ever, someone “full of grace and truth”.
We wrote to each other for a few years, and then I was told that she had died peacefully. That day, the world seemed less than it had been. She drew me into loving the Benedictine tradition, and in Lent I have been re-reading St Benedict’s Rule, as well as joining an Irish abbey every evening for their streamed compline.
“The one who never stops talking cannot avoid falling into sin,” Benedict says. As my students would put it, I feel so “seen”.
WHEN I was a student, “Gay Awareness Week” was an attempt to encourage some out of their closets and to teach others that closets indeed existed, hiding genuinely fearful people. A friend of mine came into a lecture with a large badge on his lapel which asked, “Why Assume I’m Straight?” I told him I didn’t think anyone had.
Anyway, I was grateful to the Archbishop of Canterbury for his recent statement on the inappropriately terrorising language of the Nigerian Primate regarding gay Christians. I’m sure Archbishop Welby has had a few nasty notes since, probably signed “Yours in Christ”. Melissa McEwan was right, though: “There are times when you must speak, not because you are going to change the other person, but because if you don’t speak, they have changed you.”
WHILE Harry and Meghan were giving an interview in California (the place said always to border on the Pacific and sometimes on the ridiculous), so was I. I’m not sure quite as many people tuned in to hear mine.
I had joined the people of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Sacramento, online to discuss poetry and faith. The participants were invited to ask questions or name their favourite poem, on the chat facility. “What happens to a dream deferred?” one woman wrote.
A random question, not quite on topic, I thought. Then I realised: she was quoting the first line of Langston Hughes’s “Harlem”, her chosen poem. It’s a question lurking in the heart of lockdown, and it has lingered with me ever since, beguiling and haunting in equal measure.
HOW wonderful to see Dolly Parton having her Covid-19 jab and adapting one of her best-known songs, singing “Vaccine, vaccine” to the music of “Jolene” to encourage the sceptics to pull up their sleeves. This is the woman who said, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.” I think she’s priceless, and a real treasure.
AS I sit at my desk, I no longer know whether I’m working at home or living at work. Ordained life can always feel a bit like this, but it’s very much intensified at the moment. The blurring of the boundaries means that I often write emails before I brush my teeth, and attend Zoom meetings in slippers. The mind goes foggy with it all — and then Jerome K. Jerome comes to mind: “I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”
MY FRIEND Pádraig Ó Tuama says that, whatever the crucifixion of Christ means, you shouldn’t be able to write it on a fridge magnet. Hence Holy Week: the invitation to enter physically and imaginatively into those beautiful and harrowing hours in the life of Christ. Maundy Thursday takes us into the heartland of the gospel: the world looks so different from down by someone else’s foot. There, we don’t think less of ourselves; we just think of ourselves less.
Clergy and others can so wear themselves out, putting together the liturgies and journeying through the emotions of them all, that I’ve sometimes thought it should be spelled “Wholly Weak” to describe how we feel at the end of it. But it’s worth it.
All the most important things in this life need ritualising. Love needs a kiss, friendship a hug, and faith needs a drama to explore and express itself beyond the thin, horizon-free world of fact, the tomb from which we long to break free.
The Revd Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.