Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

May 30, 2011, 3:15 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , ,

Sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday 29th May 2011

One of the losses from the new Calendar is that of the old names for certain Sundays: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima, or (today) Rogation Sunday. In fact, the Rogation days were days of prayer and fasting for a good harvest later in the year- on April 25th (not connected with the Feast of St Mark, but earlier than that feast), and on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension. Interestingly, these pre-Ascension rogations originated in processions ordered by St Mamertus of Vienne around 450AD, when his diocese was troubled by volcanic eruptions. So there is good precedent for praying for deliverance from ash clouds from Iceland!

Writing in the early thirteenth century, St Anthony of Padua devoted his Rogation-tide sermon to the Gospel passage in St Luke in which our Lord tells us to be confident in prayer. Suppose we have a friend, he says, and late one night we go to him because we have a domestic emergency. Another friend has arrived unexpectedly, and we haven’t any food for him. Could the first friend please help out? At first, the response is grudging. It’s too late, everyone is in bed, can’t it wait? But, says our Lord, even a grudging friend will give in if you keep on asking.

Who is our true friend? asks Anthony. “The friend, ‘guardian of the soul’, is Jesus Christ. Unless he keep the soul, he labours in vain who keeps it.” He quotes  Ecclesiasticus:

A faithful friend is a strong defence: and he that hath found him hath found a treasure. Nothing can be compared to a faithful friend: and no weight of gold and silver is able to countervail the goodness of his fidelity. [Ecclus 6.14-15]

“Our true friend,” he goes on, “is Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he delivered his life for us. O how faithful would be your friend, if, when you were at the point of death, he offered himself for you, and freely took upon himself your sickness and death!”

What about the night, when the other friend arrives? We should understand this of a spiritual darkness, a time of temptation or trial. We sometimes feel very alone, very lost. This is the time when we need to go to our true friend Jesus, and ask him to help us.

In the parable, the request was for the loan of three loaves. When we ask God for a “loan”, we are acknowledging that all good things belong to him, and come from him, and we are bound to make him a return for whatever he gives us- lends to us. And what three things do we most stand in need of? Before considering that, let us ask who may be the “friend from a journey” who has turned up so unexpectedly and found us at a loss, unequipped to welcome him.

“The friend who has come from a journey is the mind which departs from us as often as it wanders off to look for temporal things. It returns when it thinks of higher things and desires to be refreshed with heavenly food. He has nothing to set before it, because a benighted soul sighing for God cannot think, speak or gaze on anything but him.” Our mind, our soul, has wandered off like the prodigal son. In this image, the soul is as it were split in two, divided. Part is still “at home”, but part is very far away and in danger of losing itself. But (again like the prodigal), we must imagine that at some point the wandering mind “comes to itself”, remembering what it really needs and wants: spiritual refreshment. But this is precisely what it cannot find from its own resources!

Ultimately, the only thing that can satisfy the hungry soul is “the joy of the Trinity, which is also represented by the three-fold bread, and which the soul begins to recognise again and strive to see more fully and attain.” Also represented, because before we can enjoy this we need three preparatory gifts: self-knowledge, repentance and confidence in God’s goodness.

It occurs to me at this point that Anthony’s approach to petitionary prayer is very different from our own. I think it would be fair to say that, for many people, the point of prayer is to get from God something we want– not necessarily in a selfish way, it may be entirely motivated by concern for others. Anthony seems more concerned with how we may learn to want what God wishes to give us. He is concerned with how we may purify our hearts and minds, as a preparation for union with God. We need to reflect on our spiritual poverty, and by contrast on the infinite generosity of the Creator. “You are poor,” he says, “and have not the bread of compunction: ask your friend to lend it to you, so that you may return to him what you have received from him.”

But often God does not seem to answer! We are like the man in the parable, knocking at a closed door, a darkened house. “ There follows: And he from within should answer and say: Trouble me not; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. He, our friend, is ‘within’, and we poor wretches are still standing outside, because we are cast out from his countenance in our present miserable exile. We stand outside, and have to cry out: Friend, lend me three loaves. He asks the loan of three loaves, suffering many inconveniences. See: he stands outside, in the middle of the night and in such need of bread! At a closed door he cries out, and hears these words: Trouble me not (that is, I must not be disturbed by your prayers), because the door is shut.”

Alluding to a passage in Deuteronomy, he continues: “The door is shut, the heavens are brass, when the ray of divine grace does not illuminate the human mind, and his prayer does not penetrate the heaven of brass. It is said: Thou hast set a cloud, that our prayer may not pass through. If the sky were brass, the sun would not shine and the rain would not fall; and men would remain in darkness and perish in drought. So, when the door or sky of heavenly grace is shut, the sinner remains in darkness of conscience, and lacks the rain of compunction. The ‘ground he treads on’ (the active life), and over which he sweats, becomes ‘of iron’, and from it he can receive no fruit of consolation, only coldness and hardness of heart. Iron is cold and hard. The land is given dust instead of rain, when, instead of an abundance of tears, the wretched soul is given the dust of the most trivial thoughts, which dry it up. Ashes come down on it, when it looks for mortal and fallen things which beat it and afflict it. See how great is the sorrow and anguish! There is no sweetness in the contemplative life, no comfort in the active life, blindness of mind in prayer, aimless wandering among temporalities.”

“But should he despair?” Anthony asks. “Should he give up praying? Of course not! Even if the door of heavenly grace is shut, either because of our sins or to make us more fervent to pray and beseech. Even if the ‘children’ (the angelic spirits through whom God infuses his gifts of grace, and gives comfort in tribulation) are with him ‘in bed’, that is, in eternal rest, and will not come out to minister to us…. Even so, should one cease to ask for bread?”

Anthony makes use of the Commentary on the Scriptures known as the Gloss. “He says, I cannot rise and give thee,  but the Gloss says here, ‘He does not take away the hope of praying, he more vehemently inflames the desire to pray, having shown the difficulty of gaining what one wants.’ Yet, if he shall continue knocking, I say to you, etc. The Gloss says, ‘If a human friend rises and gives, not from friendship but compelled by weariness, how much more will God give, who without weariness gives abundantly what is asked? Lest our mind, converted from the vanity of error, waste away any longer for want of its spiritual desire, we ask for bread, we ask our friend to give us, we knock at the door where what we cannot see is kept. He gives us great hope, who does not deceive with his promises.’ Because of his importunity, he will rise, for unremitting effort conquers all, and by the inspiration of his grace he will give him all he needs, even if it is not all he sometimes wants.

There is a whole lot more in St Anthony’s sermon for Rogationtide, on our Lord’s exhortation to be persistent in prayer, and on his assurance that God is far more ready to give than we to ask, and so on. But this must do for now.


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