Stephen D’Evelyn on the Divine in the midst and Beyond Us

Recently I heard Darren Brown on the radio promoting his new book ‘Happy’ . He has discovered Stoicism. I liked what he said about the flaw in self-help today insisting on cranking everything up to 11 with self-belief and going for your goals full tilt while ignoring the way life throws stuff at you. I did wonder at his blanket statement that ‘religion’ (Christianity?) had supplanted Stoicism’s wisdom. In simplest chronological terms, this is almost true.

But for me there is much in traditional Christianity, in the Greek and Latin Church Fathers and theologians who have followed in their footsteps, that helps us remember to reserve judgement of others’ actions and beliefs, to remember our own frailties, and to be honest about the way the world throws stuff at us.

For example, the desert ascetic Moses the Black offers strong words on withholding judgement of others: ‘The monk must die to his neighbour and never judge him at all in any way whatever.’ Rowan Williams comments ”If our life and our death are with the neighbour, this spells out something of what our ‘death’ to the neighbour might mean: it is to renounce the power of judgment over someone else – a task hard enough indeed to merit being described as death’ (Silence and Honey Cakes, p. 24).

And for me traditional Christianity also reminds us of a profound truth–the self is mystery. Augustine reflects on the open-endedness of emotional complexity ‘Man is a great mystery, Lord. You even keep count of the hairs on his head and not one of them escapes your reckoning. Yet his hairs are more easily counted than his feelings.’ The way in which our feelings are beyond counting shows how we are constantly changing. We are constantly in process. We are constantly in the middle of something. The something is our identity developing.

So we continually reflect, wait, look together with our fellow beings, our fellow animals. This seems to be what St Paul is getting at when he talks about ‘how now we see as through a mirror, in darkness, but then we shall see face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I also am known’.

We find a challenge to take us beyond our assumptions about Stoic ‘knowing yourself’. We are in the middle of story that is physical and metaphysical, communal and individual.

Dwelling in this perspective in 2016 also means seeing how there are different sorts of knowledge about different parts of reality. Different sorts of enquiry bring with them their own agendas, their own mirrors for viewing life. What we see in these mirrors of course includes us. Those promoting different sorts of knowledge do not stand outside those very processes of promoting and looking. This need not be a bad thing. We are in fact not just unavoidable participants but important components of knowledge we help construct. Keeping this in mind helps us see how supposedly-subjective enquiry into theology has much to say to supposedly-objective scientific enquiry and vice versa.

It may seem easy to dismiss such pondering as untestable or as disproven by physics or psychology. To me, however, one of the great gifts of traditional Christianity is its generosity, its capacity to converse with science and psychology, as well as to bring colour and shape out in all sorts of lives. I have been continually surprised by the ways in which people attending the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults with me live out the companioning that is full of the forbearance and open-heartedness we see in the renunciation of the power of judgement over someone else. We are more than the Stoic individual defined by self-knowing. As the Church we are continuously opened by the presence of Christ in our midst. This openness is an event. The person is open to others and even constituted by others because of the divine other beyond and yet among us.

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Stephen D’Evelyn on the Distances in the Church of England

Recently I attended the service for the licensing of Lay Ministers. Those being licensed were my mates I trained with this past year. One of them had kindly invited me to sit with her family.
The cathedral was fittingly sublime, the music very beautiful, especially the congregational hymns. It was wonderful joining in the singing. The Church of England does a good show. Of course some pieces were only sung by the choir. It struck me that the choir was so far away one had a strange impression of great distance somehow without the volume and grandeur that conveys majesty.
Looking back on it, this ethereal distance seems in keeping with a tendency I noticed throughout the service; consistently the modern autonomous individual self dominated the perspective of the service. This was a church service centred on the modern self not the Rock of Ages, the Alpha and Omega, the Lord of Heaven and earth.
After the entrance hymn, the precentor of the cathedral outlined the liturgy, explaining how each piece of music and each reading would guide the individual in faith. Then in his address, the bishop described the individual candidates for licensed lay ministry and their individual journeys towards this moment.
Even the Bible readings emphasised the unique individual, for example in an account of prophetic calling which was given without the context of a God’s call in, thorough, and to the people of Israel, the community, the collective.
The sermon was given by the new warden or readers who looks after LLs. It dwelt on aspects of collaboration deemed essential to ministry
but collaboration was discussed in terms of the disciples’ being sent two by two not in terms of the body of Christ, the community of heaven and earth, the Church through the ages.
Reflecting on the service, I realise there was almost no sense of corporate, collective community and identity. Admittedly I notice all of this through sensibility sharpened by a number of weekly sessions of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the Catholic Church’s program for receiving people. I remember being surprised how the first RCIA session did not start with us as participants — who we were, what our background stories might be — in classic educational fashion, but rather with God and the Church itself.
My sense of the LLM service’s emphasis on the individual was confirmed in a final bizarre way after the LLM service. I had gone out into the afternoon sunshine to mingle and meet my former LLMs in formation. I also met the bishop whom I had encountered during LLM formation. He mentioned having tried to gesture to me as he processed in but realising it was probably out of my field of vision. He ask ed how I was and I said fine. I returned the pleasantry and he said he was always better hearing that people like me were fine. I assume he meant people who had not finished formation for ministry.
On one level this was a sensible and even sensitive expression of pastoral care. I couldn’t help feel uncomfortable, though, given the way his earlier remark about gesturing to me had reduced any contact or communication between us to my limitations as a visually-impaired person (and one defined on his terms by a medical model of disability-my eyes weren’t good enough to pick up his gesture — rather than something more nuanced– he could have done something differently to communicate.) I think that one great loss in dwelling on the atomized individual is that we lose sight of the person as open-ended — as eschatological, yes, but also as many-layered and multi-vocal. When we dwell on the atomized individual, yes we lose sight of the social contexts and focus just on an isolated story, but we also risk losing sight of a person’s capacity and ability to live out her humanity in its great variety and vivacity. In short, we wind up with a rather drab picture.
I came away with gratitude ofr my LLM friends, for the great beauty of the cathedral, and the riches of English culture and history. But I have come away too with a new awareness of the perils of atomized individuality and absolute power–Herny VIII is surely a prime example of the atomized individual seemingly freed of community—- and of what it means to be seen as made in the image of God and not quite as made in the image of God. That is worth holding on to and sharing.

Stephen D’Evelyn: On Being Present

Recently the UK government has moved to double the pentalty imposed on drivers caught using their mobile phones while driving. Commentarotrs have ben quick to observe that these penalties may mean little without increased police to catch perpetrators. The porblenm of poeple feeling they must take advantage of every seemingly spare moment to ‘do’ something — do work or connect with friends via social media–highlights again an often-highlighted problem. We are too busy.
There is another problem with using your phone while driving. Research into cognitive patterns has shown that the way we process information when someone is not physically present–say at the end of a phone instead of sitting next to us–is categorically different from the way we process information whne someone is present. This means in practice we are distracted in a unique way when we are paying attention to our mobile phones as compared with trying to hush children in the back seat or talk to someone sitting next to us.

Generally, the big problem seems to be one of distraction and abstraction, ignoring what is in front of us or beside us for somehting or somone not present. The other day I heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand again and noticed something new. When it becomes clear that the large crowd of people gathered to listen to Jesus are going to go without an evening meal, Jesus’ followers immediately think in terms of the people going away to buy food. When Jesus asks them to help the people, they again assume he means buy food.

In the end however, Jesus asks what they have already, not what they or the people can buy. And of course the five loaves and two fish somehow suffice. This seems to me to highlight the importance of paying attention to what we have–what we have been given. This is a much different impulse from our consumerist instinct to buy things–to use abstract financial power to solve a problem. Turning to what we have been given turns our attention to what is at hand. Instead of paying for things, we are paying attention. Attention is open-endeed and not bound by the demands of payback.

The problems of paying attention were at the heart of another news item this week, the canonization of Mother Teresa. Although she famously distanced herself from politics and made some dubious decisions, such as for example taking money from a Haitian dictator, she can also be credited with practising social justice in an important way that lived out a nuanced political theory.

As i understand it, Mother Teresa’s social justice theory has three major components that are all extremely important for our screen-dominated lives: these are seeing those society does not see, being present with marginalized people (as opposed to objectifying and ‘fixing’ ‘them’), and living in solidarity with them (being alongside them). As it happens, I think these three approaches are also crucial to a full social model of disability.

At its simplest, the social model of disability says that persons are disabled by the way society is organised rather than by the ways they differ from norms of able-bodiedness.
Seeing a disabled — socially marginalized — person when others do not is a key step in living out the social model of disability. When society arranges things so that those who differ from an able-bodied norm do not figure–they are kept off stage–the first step to enabling them to figure and allowing them to take centre stage is simply seeing themn, recognising them.

Being present means challenging our natural tendency to priotitize what might be possible rather than welcoming what is before us. As it happens, mindfulness–one of the recent trends in popular psychology inevitable  with both its more rigorous and its more market-driven forms–is used to help treat young people addicted to gaming in Southeast Asia. Bieng present means talking to the people next to us rather than turing away from them to stare into our phones seeking for people we may or may not know outside of cyberspace.

Bieng present also means not creating an aritifical distance between ourselves and those next to us by treting them as problems to be solved, as objects to be gazed at, analaysed, and changed. Instead, living beside them means relinquishing our desire to be more powerful or to dominate. We can simply sit quietly next to someone at the bus stop. We can share a universal observation about the September sunshine. This is not revolutionary. But it is significant, turning ourselves back out towards our fellow human beings and that generous sun shining on us all.

 

Stephen D’Evelyn: Goodbye! Hello!

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey, they say..
Having trouble walking, finding your way around, or driving makes it harder to say that. When you depend on undependable busses or getting up from your chair hurts, you may have a different view of destinations and journeys. Maybe getting there with grit and some good humour really is the point when you are not quite what the world expects.

Friday was our Ruthie’s last day–last afternoon–at nursery. I was there at Trinity College library looking out at the sunlit lawn. Nursery is just down the slope out of view. It is very strange to know that the five years of our children’s care here has almost finished, strange to think of Ruth going off to school. I try to remind myself this is another moment of passing time, another experience of passage, another in-between moment in the flow.

It is hard not to feel a bit sad, a bit wistful for the children as smaller as they grow up and we see them pass milestones. But then listening to them brings you round. When I reminded Ruthie it was her last day at nursery today, she instantly replied with that unique twinkly sing-song ‘But I get to go to SCHOOL!’ Life goes on!
Eventually those few minutes of reverie in front of the library window passed and I went off to collect Ruthie. As we stood at the bus stop having said goodbye to all her friends and Jackie the lovely older nursery worker who had come back to the nursery after retiring, and who reminisced with us about Ruth as a two-year-old climbing to the top of a green slide clutching her bus-ticket, Ruth remarked, ‘I won’t come to this bus stop again’. I protested. But Ruth was just observing a moment.

The sun shone as the bus swung round the corner into view. We arrived home in our way–Ruth full of bounce, me full of memories and questions.

It was good to be home.

Stephen D’Evelyn on the Church of England and Human Realism

Recently, the Conservative government has decided to cut Employment and Support Allowance for new claimants. (See: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/mar/29/employment-and-support-allowance-the-disability-benefit-cuts-you-have-not-heard-about). ESA is a state benefit which some disabled people receive to help level the playing-field when it comes to income. There is widespread statistical evidence that being disabled also means being financially disempowered. So the proposed changes should again bring to the fore questions about employment in the broad sense of what we as disabled people do with o9ur time.

In speaking of employment–‘vocation’ and the processes by which people become ministers, the Church of England is not always transparent, and certainly not always inclined to promote disenfranchised people actively. The actual procedure by which people are selected and then trained for ministry are in fact mysterious and often shrouded in mystery. God may move in mysterious ways, but when it comes to acting as an employer, the church should not.

My own encounter with ordination brought me to a meeting with a bishop who asked if I would contribute a statement warning disabled people about the rigours of ministerial formation. This is objectionable on the grounds of legal principles of discrimination, since broadly speaking it is not lawful to discourage employees or would-be employees on the grounds of age, being or becoming a transsexual person, being married or in a civil partnership, being pregnant or on maternity leave, being disabled, race (including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin), religion, belief or lack of religion/belief, sex, or sexual orientation.

This is not a mere problem of employment law which the Church can choose to ignore. (A recent Employment Tribunal ruling involving a gay would-be NHS chaplain found in favour of the Church and ruled that it has the authority to enforce what would otehrwise be discriminatory views.) History may make some cautious about opening the Church to government intervention. Yet there are fundamental theological questions at stake which employment law approaches from a different angle: What is the human being (in relation to–in the image of–God) and how should human beings therefore relate to each other?

Scriptural accounts and their ethical interpretrations seem to point to the human being as worthy of the same kind of treatment wherever she finds herself. Yet those training for ministry in one place may be treated quite differently from those in another–and certainly we find nothing close to a clear and thoroughly thought-through approach to equality.

Or again the Bible seems to say that being ourselves as God made us is a matter of kindness and generosity–of trying to do the right thing but also of being in the middle of life as a divine gift. This means not just trying to live up to precepts–error, reconciliation, and forgiveness–but also communal and mystical transformation, often by way of mistakes and weaknesses transforming earthly popwer. Those training for ministry, however, are not informed that if they are on placement in a different church or in a hospital or school chaplaincy to gain experience of ministry in different contexts this is not a neutral environment such as a classroom where making mistakes in order to learn is encouraged, but rather they will be observed and judged.

The language of divine purpose and mysterious calling to ministry serves to create an aura for those who would be included in ministry–an aura that may also hide the tendencies to over-work those actually in ministry. I think it does more than conceal unfairness or even self-obsession on the part of the institution and many of its leaders. I think it also shows a theologically threadbare vision of reality. If you can allow the language of divinity to obscure inequity, you do not really believe in God or at least not in a loving and just God.

It seems to me the Church needs a strong dose of theological realism and a reminder of theological realism’s three main claims: that God exists independently of human beings, that God can be ‘known’, and that God may be spoken about truthfully. Such a reminder might help bring its practices into line with its precepts.

And the Church needs a complementary dose of human realism – training to sensitise the whole ‘people of God’ to implicit bias and indirect discrimination and to the value and profound religious implications of speaking of those who differ from the white male norm not in terms of otherness (‘those heroic women…’) but in terms of solidarity (we are all ‘heroic’ in various ways and are called to help each other.) This could lay the groundwork for the much-needed thoroughgoing revamp of its procedures, especially when it comes to equality and diversity. The Church might then be better able to live up to the high calling of its potential- a full theologically rigorous vision of the human being which could help transform the world.

Stephen D’Evelyn– On Ableism and Praying Patrick’s Lorica

Several years ago my former line manager – a fellow parishioner and a great Augustine scholar, as it happens–observed that I often looked at opportunities in terms of why I couldn’t do something instead of why I could. She was mystified by this.

There may be psychological reasons for this I have not unearthed yet. But one of them is quite simply that I, like most disabled people to varying degrees, have internalised an ableist outlook. By this I mean I ‘naturally’ look at what I am doing and am not doing against a set of expectations. Those expectations are set by societal norms and are thus based on what ‘fully functioning’ ‘able-bodied (and minded)’ people do.
I have come to realize a much more appropriate standpoint or starting-point is what I am being and doing in themselves and as they connect with others. That is, I take away the metre-sticks, the key performance indicators, the milestones and millstones along the road of midlife crisis. One way I do that is by starting the day with the Lorica or Breastplate prayer attributed to St Patrick. It begins:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

This prayer thus establishes what I am in terms of praise and prayer–a calling out, invocation. Invocation is open-ended. It is something I do but not something I achieve. And the invocation of the Trinity sets me in the midst of the truth of Christian reality, the tension and dimensions of infinite love within God as Trinity and of God for the world as creature. As a disabled person, a visually-impaired person, a partially-sighted person, I am fully part of that creation, tension, truth, and beauty. It is not my goal , but I can then look at challenges and opportunities in the round and not simply as impossibilities–in the round because these opportunities are part of that open whole of creative love flowing from the Trinity.

Stephen D’Evelyn on Human Perfection and the Church

In Confessions, Augustine describes how God calls to us. Fragrance, taste, and desire orient us:

‘Come, O Lord, and stir our hearts. Call us back to yourself… Let us scent your fragrance and taste your sweetness. Let us love you and hasten to your side.’
(Penguin Classics ed., p. 163).

I have a clerical friend who works  to normalize the sorts of difference the Church often struggles with. Today he wrote to me about more general questions of vocation. He noted, seemingly without irony, that the church has very high demands of ministers and that spreadsheets, social media, confidence, and punctuality seem at least as important as prayer and spirituality.

This took me back to a time a few months ago when I felt rather stuck spiritually. I kept running into an tension between spirituality (in the sense of prayer practices and participation in the life of God) and class: if one believes in the validity of ritual and matter as conduits for grace, it is too easy to get sucked into a kind of perfectionism thinking that the SORTS of matter and ritual must approximate the divine—be humanly perfect, or as close as possible—to be effective. This misses a crucial point, that God is working through matter and ritual.
Disability brings this into focus since disabled people deviate from the artificial norm of human perfection constructed by ‘perfect’ (‘able-bodied-and minded’ people) and do things in ways that draw attention to that difference.

To me this is exactly why disabled people ought to be ministers of the sacraments. They are visibly broken open to grace and can incarnate Christ’s alternative to the will to power. It could be argued that able-bodied priests run the risk of perpetuating that will to power by seeming hierarchically, socially, and ontologically superior to the laity.

In fact it seems to me that the understanding of the sacraments, as in Thomas, lets us see how there must always be a tension and never a simple superiority, a tension that can lead to a kind of attentive mindfulness and dwelling in the midst of God’s glory.  All the varieties of how we experience our minds and bodies in relation to society — designed and maintained by people with normative minds and bodies  — help us be more fully aware of all human being in the middle. Disability especially so. Paying attention to differences we then become more sensitive to the scent, taste, and love of God in the world.