Great St. Mary’s
A Sermon preached at GREAT ST. MARY’S The University Church CAMBRIDGE
AGAINST THE STREAM - TIME - ENEMY OR ALLY
The Very Rev Antony Bridge May, 1973
That great atheist humanist of the nineteenth century, Winwood Reade, once said this.
“Once religious superstition has been destroyed by science, not by idle prayers and supplications, but by efforts of man himself….Food will then be manufactured in unlimited quantities at trifling expense, and the earth will be a garden…. Governments will be conducted with the quietude and regularity of club committees…. Luxuries will be eheapened and made common to all; none will be rich, and none poor. Not only will man subdue the forces of evil that are without; he will also subdue those that are within. He will repress the base instincts and propensities which he has inhereited from the animals below….Man will then be perfect.”
That was in 1872. A hundred years later, what strikes one is the almost uncanny accuracy of some of Winwood Reade’s prophecy and the tragic error of the rest. He was right to believe that science would give us the power to create the almost unlimited wealth necessary to banish poverty - anyway in the West - on anything like a Victorian scale; but he was desperately wrong in imagining that thereby the forces of evil, as he called them, either without or within would be banished too. Nor did he forsee that, in order to create the wealth to banish poverty, we should also have to create a life-style which is, in itself, a new problem facing mankind: the lifestyle of industrial cities in an industrial civilisation. Of that life style, Conrad Lorens - the great ethologist - has said in his book On Augression.
“It may prove to be an evolutionary blind alley which may easily result in our destruction….. The rushed existence into which industrialised, commercialised man has precipitated himself is actually a good example of an inexpedient development (in natural selection) caused entirely by competition between members of the same species. Human beings of today are attacked by so-called managerial diseases, high blood pressure, renal atrophy, gastric ulcers, and torturing neuroses; they succumb to barbarianism because they have no more time for cultural interests.”
No more we - that is the crux of what I want to talk about this evening. After all, each of us has a strictly limited amount of time available to him before he dies. It is, perhaps, the most precious commodity of them all; God’s greatest gift to us. What do we do with it? We are forced by the social and economic conditions of our day - most of us at any rate - to live in cities. Very few of us can opt for a latter-day William-Morrisish life of old world peace in an idyllic Sussex Village on unspoiled downs. Thus we haye noise, pollution, crowds, and bustle forced upon us, whether we like it or not. We scurry about like demented ants earning a living, helping to increase productivity by ï¬ve per cent per annum, enlarging the gross national product by a similar amount, reading two or even three newspapers a day, gossiping, over-eating, watching telly, drinking, smoking our heads off to keep going, producing ever bigger and better coronorary thromboses, flying to Majorca for a rest among the honky-tonks or the Costa Brave for a change amongst the ï¬sh and chip shops, until one day, with nothing much accomplished, greatly surprised, we die.
Meanwhile, what does the Church do about it? In an over-aetive world, we all decide to be really up-to-date and cure the world’s ills by becoming ever-more active ourselves in God’s service. Involvement - social involvement - becomes the watchword 0f the day. We organise like mad, set up diocesan and parochial committees, plan missionary campaigns - People Next Door, Call to the North, Mission Unlimited; you name it, we’ve got it - dedicate ourselves to good works of all kinds - Christian Stewardship, Christian action, group dynamics, and practical commitment to the Welfare Services as an ecclesiastical annexe. Prayer we regard with some suspicion unless it is prayer as encounter with the neighbour. Religionless Christianity, practised preferably anywhere except in church buildings - which it is fashionable to call ecclesiastical ghettos and to regard as the source of all our ills - is all the rage; and if we must have a bit of religion, then it should be couched in British Railways Prose, Series 8, 9, or 10. “The Lord be with you,” you may cry; and back will come this great response, “Ditto, ditto, mate!”
This, of course, is not fair. There is very much good in the Church’s dedication to works of all kinds. At its best, it is an attempt to take seriously Christ’s saying that “not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven but he who does the will of my father who is in heaven.” But I can’t help thinking that even if there have been many times in the history of the Church when Christians have badly needed reminding that they should do something, today is not a day when anyone needs reminding that they should be active and busy about all things like Martha; for like her we are all distracted with much serving. What we all need reminding of is Mary’s part, not Martha’s. A whole tradition of Christian discipleship was based, in the past, on not doing things; on watching. “Watch therefore for you do not know the hour when the master of the house will come, in the evening or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.â€ It was acontemplative, sometimes monastic, sometimes eremitic, sometimes silent tradition of prayer and watching: of waiting on God because you never know when he would come to you, but you did know that the one thing that mattered was that he should come and invade your inner being and make it his dwelling there.
As a tradition it is unfashionable today for various reasons. It is remembered more for its abuses, which were many, than for its virtues for one thing. In countries which are heirs of the Reformation, we have all been nurtured on stories of nuns and monks who were lazy, ignorant, fat, rich, and either immoral or perverted; and doubtless some of them were all these things from time to time. But, for another thing, in a post-Freudian age, many people tend to suspect that even the best of those who, in the past, felt themselves to be called to be monastics or hermits were probably abnormal psychologically, and once again there probably were such people. Simon Stylites became an anchorite at the age of sixteen, and then years later climbed to the top of a pillar forty cubits high, and remained there until he died, lovingly picking up the maggots which fell from his festering sores and putting them back with the injunction to eat what God had provided for them, does not commend itself to us; though he was venerated to an extraordinary degree in his own day. Even such a remarkably gifted and practical person as Teresa of Avila tends to make us reach for our-paper back copies of The Psychopathology Of Everyday Life when she begins to talk of her ‘spiritual marriage’ to Christ in language which is overtly sexual.
But, be all that as it may, I must avow that the few unfashionable people, whom I have known, who have watched and prayed a good deal have had a kind of depth to them which I sometimes think that most of us, who are too busy ever to penetrate an inch below the glossy surface of consciousness, lack. Why, otherwise do so many people of your generation, when in search of some sort of life of the spirit, avoid us, and turn Eastwards instead, looking for help in the mystical traditions of Buddhism or Hinduism, and even following the hippy trail to Nepal in pursuit of their aim? Of course, when they get there, many of them are disappointed and disillusioned; for the Kingdom of God is not in Nepal. Nor is it in the monasteries of Sinai or Mount Athos, for that matter, or by no means exclusively so. The Kingdom of God is to be found wherever God has chosen to dwell; that is to say, in whatever house to which the master has come and found the servant of the house watching.
Here for many people the images begin to break down. They are not enough, and the twentieth century mind has to ask, at this point, what reality underlies them: what we mean by them. However inadequate analytical words may he, as compared with evocative images, at denoting that reality - and I believe them to be very inadequate indeed - we must try to use them here. For with the image of the master coming to his house and ï¬nding his servants watching or not watching, as the case may be, we get as near as any image can take us, both to the heart of Christian belief, and to the heart of Christian experience; and the world wants to know what the heart of both is. The belief is easy to describe. Just as it was God who took the initiative in Christ - God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, and came to his own, so it is still God who takes the initiative, comes to men, and dwells with them. Advent is for ever. The Gospel is good news precisely because it is about the coming of God to man, not about men climbing up to God by their own efforts.
Christian experience is more difï¬cult to describe, however; for it is the experience of the self-disclosure of him who, in his unlimited fredom, can disclose himself to whom he will, but whose self-disclosure transcends the normal limits of verbal description and disclosure available to men. Many people have tried to describe it. His coming is like an opening of the mind, so that both the self and the world appear transformed; like an invason of the soul by divine light, by darkness, by love; like a sudden getting of the point of the equation of all things; like an eeounter with the heart of reality, the fount of your own life, with God himself. Described like that it sounds so strange as to be suitable material for a treatise on the psychopathology - not of everday life this time - but of religious hysteria; and, of course, often it is strange.
“I know a man in Christ who, fourteen years ago, was caught up to the third heaven: whether in the body or out of the body, I know not: God knows.” Paul on the Damascus Road.