11 Oct Sermon: 19th after Trinity (Year B)
Long before I entered Community one of my American cousins sent me a calendar of cartoons by Gary Larson. One of them, very characteristic of his dry witty way of looking at nature, inspired the story with which I will begin.
High up in the leaf canopy of a tropical forest lived two caterpillars. They lived very busy, but contented lives, as they chomped their way through one leaf after another. The world for them was food, food and more food – neither noticed much else. Life was one long meal apart from the inconvenience of having to remove themselves every few days from their skins which had become too tight. One day, as they rested on a leaf together after splitting out of their old skins, a magnificent butterfly flitted past them; one gazed in wonder at this beautiful thing but the other just looking said “You’ll never catch me going up in one of those.”
Longer ago than I dare to remember I spent a week as a volunteer warden on Ramsey Island off the coast of Wales. One day the warden took me over to the west of the island and pointed down to the beach, the only one on the whole island. He asked me to clear up all the plastic flotsam and jetsam which had accumulated in the winter storms. At the time we were standing on the top of a cliff, almost sheer for 80 meters, next to a battered old sign saying ‘DANGER do not go beyond this point!’ “Er, excuse me, how do we get down there?” “Oh! no problem – use the path.” “Which path?” “That one.” The warden pointed over the edge and leaning forward I could see he was indicating a line of rickety posts zig-zagging down the cliff side. “You must be joking!” ” Oh no! – it’s OK, just be careful and on your way back bring up the posts – they’re rotten anyway – rather dangerous.” I hesitated as my insides clutched themselves and with a pitying look the warden said “OK I’ll go first,” and was over the edge before I could draw breath. There was a path; only one boot wide and rather slippery. By the time I got to the bottom I was blob of jelly. It wasn’t quite what I had anticipated when I volunteered as a warden for a week.
Let me quote from a sermon given by our former Visitor Bishop James Thompson at a Solemn Profession. “The conversion of a life is a process towards abundant life – if we allow the love of Christ to banish our fear of what we have lost – or what we have given away by the choices we have made. We learn to swim by learning to put away our fear of surrendering ourselves into the embrace of the water – we learn to parachute when we can launch ourselves out into the deep without fear, or more accurately without being crippled by fear, in the trust that the chute will open and bring us safely to earth”.
Indeed so – but it’s easier said than done. To live out the conversion of life is to be on the receiving end all the time, and that’s not how most of us like to be. But the Rule begins with the word ‘Listen’ and there is a sense of urgency right through. Humility involves us in some very painful learning and growth – perhaps the most difficult part is the realisation that we cannot dictate the process. The grace to continue is given when we acknowledge our weakness. St Benedict uses the model of a ladder; but we progress by climbing down it. It has nothing to do with scoring points for self-imposed ascetic prowess or with being ever so humble. To quote André Louf “we must learn to live out of our deepest longings, our deepest needs and our deepest troubles. To live out of our weakness is to live by grace. ‘When I am weak, then I am strong’. “
Let’s go back to the caterpillars. The time will come when they undergo a metamorphosis and pupate, becoming blobs of jelly inside their chrysalises. Unseen and unfelt, the complex chemicals they accumulated as they fed are transformed into butterflies, which, when ready, will break out and fly free in the sunlight. And here we’re back to conversion of life – the potential for the butterfly is there, however ugly the caterpillars may be. We like to think we are butterflies already, or more likely, some superior kind of caterpillar which can do very well on its own thank you – Super-grub. True – the discerning observer can detect some indications of the butterfly in the skin and pupal case, the potential is there but it is only realised in the risk of giving up our very selves.
In the Prologue to the Rule there is a quotation from the Prophecy of Isaiah. This phrase occurs twice, either form can be used to translate St Benedict’s quotation. “Even before you call to me I shall say ‘Here I am’ ” or ‘Before they call I shall answer’. This has fascinated me for a long time but I’m sure it is something to do with why we persist in our sense of vocation, with all it means in terms of loss of status, home, family or country. Even more it is something to do with our prayer, or rather with God’s prayer since it is the Spirit who prays us. The Humility of prayer is our listening, the silence and waiting until we can hear the answer ‘Here I am.’
God is calling us out of ourselves – He wants us so much He answers “yes” before we even dare ask. The technical term for the final stage of a butterfly is IMAGO. For me this is a powerful symbol. We are created in the image of God in order to be in relationship with him. We are being called out of ourselves so that He can reveal His Glory in us. ‘Be holy, for I am Holy’. St Irenaeus was the first of the fathers to plumb the depths of the creation story in Genesis where man is created in the image and likeness of God, imago Dei, although it is rarely given in full: gloria enim Dei vivens homo; vita autem hominis visio Dei. The glory of God is a human being; and the life of humankind is the vision of God.
Our life in community is our way of receiving that vision and the seeking of it brings us again and again to the edge whence we must launch out in faith and trust and love.