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Posts Tagged "C S Lewis":

The Difference Between Love And Being In Love: C S Lewis


What we call ‘being in love’ is a glorious state, and, in several ways, good for us. It helps to make us generous and courageous, it opens our eyes not only to the beauty of the beloved but to all beauty, and it subordinates…our merely animal sexuality; in that sense, love is the great conqueror of lust. No one in his right senses would deny that being in love is far better than either common sensuality of cold self-centredness. But…the most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of our own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs.

Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing…You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling. Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last; but feelings come and go…If the old fairy-tale ending ‘They lived happily ever after’ is taken to mean ‘They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married’, then it says what probably never was nor ever would be true, and it would be highly undesirable if it were. Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years? What would become of your work, your appetite, your sleep, your friendships?

But of course, ceasing to be ‘in love’ need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense – love as distinct from ‘being in love’ – is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be ‘in love’ with someone else. ‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it…

People get from books [and the cinema] the idea that if you have married the right person you may expect to go on being ‘in love’ for ever. As a result, when they find they are not, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change – not realising that, when they have changed, the glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one. In this department of life, as in every other, thrills come at the beginning and do not last…The thrill you feel on first seeing some delightful place dies away when you really go to live there…Does this mean…that it would be better not to live in the beautiful place? By no means. …If you go through with it, the dying away of the first thrill will be compensated for by a quieter and more lasting kind of interest…it is just the people who are ready to submit to the loss of the thrill and settle down to the sober interest, who are then most likely to meet new thrills in some quite different direction…

This is, I think, one little part of what Christ meant by saying that a thing will not really live unless it first dies…Let the thrill go – let it die away- go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow – and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time. But if you decide to make thrills your regular diet and try to prolong them artificially, they will all get weaker and weaker, and fewer and fewer, and you will be …bored and disillusioned…for the rest of your life. It is because so few people understand this that you find many middle-aged men and women maundering about their lost youth, at the very age when new horizons ought to be appearing and new doors opening all around them.


C S Lewis 1898-1963

Extract from ‘Mere Christianity‘ , Chapter 6 on Christian Marriage
The image is copyright: wavebreakmedia via Shutterstock

Mercy: Thought for 19th Sunday after Trinity (Proper 23)

Job 23.1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22.1-15; Hebrews 4.12-16; Mark 10.17-31

I discussed on the intercessions page for today my reasons for thinking about this set of readings, which are about anguish,  as linked by a common plea – if unspoken – for the mercy of God. We have known since the beginning that God will have mercy:

Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.Genesis 9.16
But are we equally good at showing mercy to those who need it from us?

O Lord, our God, arise,
Scatter our enemies
And make them fall.
Confound their politics;
Frustrate their knavish tricks;
On thee our hopes we fix;
God save us all!

So goes the second verse of the UK national anthem, the one that is so politically incorrect that we are rarely allowed to sing it these days. But the sentiments are surely exactly those of our compatriots during two world wars in the last century, and it is human nature, when attacked, to concentrate on foiling one’s enemy’s (dastardly) aims rather than focusing on the need to show mercy.
‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay’, saith the Lord. Romans 12:19

Judge not, that you be not judged, for with what measure you mete it shall be measured unto you again – pressed down and running over. Matthew 7:1-2

And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.Micah 6:8
Justice and mercy are often competing goals, and Shakespeare based ‘The Merchant of Venice‘ on this moral dilemma. Portia’s speech is probably the best-known utterance on mercy except for the Bible:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronéd monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: Exactly. Or, as St Matthew put our Lord’s words: Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Matthew 5:7
Alexander Pope was inspired by this to write his ‘Universal Prayer’:

Teach me to feel another’s woe,
To hide the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me.


Sir Thomas Browne elaborates:
By compassion we make others’ misery our own, and so, by relieving them, we relieve ourselves also. 

Jeremy Taylor used the metaphor of the rainbow:
Mercy is like the rainbow, which God hath set in the clouds; it never shines after it is night. If we refuse mercy here, we shall have justice in eternity. 
Let’s give C S Lewis the last word on justice and mercy:

A busload of ghosts is making an excursion from hell up to heaven with a view to remaining there permanently. They meet the citizens of heaven and one very big ghost from hell is astonished to find there a man who, on earth, had been tried and executed for murder. ‘What I would like to know,’ he explodes, ‘is what are you doing here, you a murderer, while I, a pillar of society, a self-respecting decent citizen am forced to walk the streets down there in smoke and fumes and must live in a place like a pigsty.’ His friend from heaven tries to explain that he has been forgiven, that both he and the man he had murdered have been reunited before the judgment seat of Christ. But the big ghost from hell replies, ‘I just can’t accept that!. What about my rights!’ he keeps shouting, ‘I have got my rights, just like you!’ ‘Oh no!’ his friend from heaven keeps reassuring him, ‘It’s not as bad as all that! You don’t want your rights! Why, if I had got my rights, I would never be here. You won’t get your rights, you’ll get something far better. You will get the mercy of God.‘The Great Divorce’

When Adam in ‘Paradise Lost’ asks Michael the meaning of the “coloured streaks in Heaven,” his angelic teacher instructs him that they have been placed there to remind the sons of Adam that:

Such grace shall one just Man find in his sight,
That He relents, not to blot out mankind,
And makes a covenant never to destroy
The earth again by flood, nor rain to drown the world
With man therein or beast; but where He brings
Over the earth a cloud, with therein set
His triple-coloured bow, whereon to look
And call to mind His Covenant.

Isaiah reassures us that the Covenant is everlasting:
For the mountains shall depart, the hills be removed, But My kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall my covenant of peace be removed’, says the Lord, who has mercy on you. Isaiah 54:10
O Lord our God, whose power is unimaginable and whose glory is inconceivable, whose mercy is immeasurable and whose love for mankind is beyond all words, in your compassion, Lord, look down on us… and grant us… the riches of your mercy and compassion. For to you are due all glory, honour and worship…now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen From the Greek liturgy

The illustration is by Firewings via Shutterstock


The Bible As Story

If I were to say to you these days, ‘Of course the Bible is just a story’, you would probably be highly offended, thinking that I was claiming that it is untrue. ‘Don’t tell stories’, we say to a child, meaning ‘Don’t tell lies’.

But imagine yourself back in childhood for a moment. And let us assume (at least for the purposes of this post) that it was at that age, at your mother’s (or father’s!) knee,  you first learnt of God. It was also at that age you would have learnt about Father Christmas, nursery rhymes and stories of dungeons and dragons. All mythical – except the story that isn’t. And somehow over the next few years you (fairly easily) learned to distinguish between the two. But you still (again for the purposes of this post) continued to read stories, only now you called it fiction.

Why is that so? Why do people read fiction (or watch films) which they know not to be a real depiction of events? Isn’t the answer that fiction very often is true, even if it isn’t real. If you want to understand the human heart, read the novels of Dickens. Or Balzac. Or Trollope. Or…

The Bible is full of stories, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. I expect you know the hymn, ‘Tell Me the Old Old Story’, which  was written by a member of the Clapham Sect, born just before Queen Victoria came to the throne. And now I will tell you a story about that:

This ex­cel­lent hymn by Miss Hank­ey, of Lon­don, has been trans­lat­ed in­to ma­ny lang­uage­s, and has been set to sev­er­al tunes. Dr. Doane has this to say re­gard­ing the mu­sic by which it has be­come pop­u­lar, and the oc­ca­sion on which he com­posed it: “In 1867 I was at­tend­ing the In­ter­na­tion­al Con­ven­tion of the Young Men’s Christ­ian As­so­ci­a­tion, in Mont­re­al. Among those pre­sent was Ma­jor-Gen­er­al Rus­sell, then in com­mand of the Eng­lish force dur­ing the Fen­i­an ex­cite­ment. He arose in the meet­ing and re­cit­ed the words of this song from a sheet of fools­cap pa­per—tears stream­ing down his bronzed cheeks as he read. I wrote the mu­sic for the song one hot af­ter­noon while on the stage-coach be­tween the Glen Falls House and the Craw­ford House in the White Mount­ains. That even­ing we sung it in the par­lors of the ho­tel. We thought it pret­ty, al­though we scarce­ly an­ti­ci­pat­ed the pop­u­lar­i­ty which was sub­se­quent­ly ac­cord­ed it.” Sankey, pp. 256-7

Human beings love stories. Mark seems in no doubt in his gospel that he is telling us a story. He gets off to a cracking start, not with the birth of Jesus, but his baptism by John. John, as it were, is the warm-up act for Jesus, who appears in verse 9. He is baptised (v9); the Spirit descends on him like a dove (v10); a voice from heaven says ‘thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased(v11); the Spirit drives him into the wilderness (v12); he is tempted by Satan during 40 days in the wilderness (v13); he comes into Galilee and begins to preach (v14). How’s that for narrative pace!

What are the miracles if not stories? At this point I want to persuade you to read, if you have not already done so, Jeffrey John’s book ‘The Meaning in the Miracles‘, published 10 years ago. Poignantly, it was chosen as Archbishop Rowan Williams’ Lent book for 2002, when he was still in Wales.

Jeffrey John brilliantly explains the layers of meaning in the miracles in a highly readable way, a page-turner in itself. He enables us to peel off the layers, as in an onion. But a special sort of onion, as described by the faun, Mr Tumnus, in ‘The Last Battle’: “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

C S Lewis ends ‘The Last Battle’ with his idea about the story that we are all caught up in:

“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”


This post is based on a contribution as a digidisciple to the Big Bible website dated 5 October 2012, ‘Tell Me The Old Old Story’.

The main, Magritte-like, illustration is by Bruce Rolff, via Shutterstock. I chose it because of its mystery, and hint at hidden worlds yet to discover.

Thought for the 18th Sunday after Trinity (Proper 22): Faith

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 2:1

Paul the apostle famously found his faith in a blinding light on the road to Damascus, but most of us cannot claim anything so dramatic. Some days, the most any of us can manage is Lord I believe; help thou mine unbeliefMark 9:24

Matthew Arnold expressed his despair in ‘Dover Beach‘:

The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full and round earth’s shore, lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating, to the breath of the night wind down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world.
Noel Coward said Life without Faith is an arid business 
But Faith, an unswerving unshakeable faith, is sometimes difficult to find:
Our technological civilization has cushioned life on all sides, yet more than ever before, people helplessly succumb to the blows of life. This is very simply because a merely technological culture cannot give any help in the face of life’s eternal tragedy; here only an inward foundation can help. Externalized as they are, too many people today have no ideas, no strength, nothing that might enable them to master their restlessness and dividedness. They do not know what to make of trials, obstacles, or suffering—how to make something constructive of them—and perceive them only as things that oppress and irritate them and interfere with lifeF W Foerster, ‘The Cushioned Life’
But here the French come to the rescue, in the shape of Blaise Pascal.
You have to bet. It is not voluntary- you are already embarked [on life’s voyage].
And not to bet that God exists is to bet that he does not exist. Which side will you choose? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in opting for the side that God exists. If you win, you win everything. If you lose, you lose nothing. So you should wager without hesitation that he exists. I tell you that you will also win in this life; and that at every step you take along the way you will see so much certitude of winning, and so much and so much nothingness in what you are hazarding that you will know in the end that you have bet in favour of something certain and infinite. ‘Pensées’ #54
I told a Turkish friend about Pascal once, and she was deeply shocked at what she regarded as such a cynical reason for having faith in God. But Christianity allows us to use our reason as well as our emotion, and I think Pascal, whose faith was deep and genuine and who also said:
Be comforted. You would not be seeking God if you had not already found Him, was just trying to talk to the most logical people on earth in a language they could understand.
Tolstoy said:
We have one infallible guide, and only one: the Universal Spirit which inspires each and all of us, implanting in every individual a yearning for what ought to be – the same spirit which causes the tree to aspire towards the sun, which causes the flower to shed its seeds in autumn and which impels us instinctively to draw closer together.
Lucerne, 1857
Wordsworth speaks of:
one in whom persuasion and belief had ripened into faith, and faith become a passionate intuition‘The Excursion’ Book IV, line 1293
In the end, we have to be prepared to make a leap of faith.

Did Jesus live? And did he really say
The burning words that banish mortal fear?…
Between the probable and the proved there yawns
A gap. Afraid to jump, we stand absurd,
Then see behind us sink the ground and, worse,
Our very standpoint crumbling. Desperate dawns
Our only hope: to leap into the word
That opens up the shattered universe.

Sheldon Vanauken‘A Severe Mercy’1
Professor Vanauken was a friend of C S Lewis, who describes how he finally took this leap:
You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed …I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought or great emotion. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake. ‘Surprised by Joy’
We started this thought with our bad days, when our faith wobbles. But let us not forget our good days, when we can echo with feeling the words of Job,9:25 set so marvellously to music in Handel’s Messiah that I challenge you to say them without your spine tingling:
‘I Know that My Redeemer Liveth!’

Finally, I end with the same thought as the passage from Hebrews with which this post began, the strapline from June Butler’s blog:

Faith is not certainty so much as it is acting-as-if in great hope.



If my selection of singer for ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ is not classical enough for you, I suggest you follow the hyperlink instead, which leads you to a rendition  by Isobel Baillie. The reason I chose this one is that I was left in no doubt whatsoever that the singer does indeed have faith.

1 I am unfortunately unable to quote the poem in full for reasons of copyright but you can read it if you follow the hyperlink.

The illustration is by Tim Pillinger – view my workCeltic Cross Abstract Acrylic in Red Gold Black & Blue. A canvas showing a cross. On the cross is a knot pattern based upon a three point grid. Each has a different function, but without all three it would not work. Sound like anything?


Wisdom: Thought for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14, Ephesians 5.15-20,  John 6.51-58, Psalm 111

Part of the first reading in today’s lectionary is the following:

1 Kings 3.3-14

Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt-offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’ And Solomon said, ‘You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’  It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honour all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.’


The price of wisdom is, as we know, above rubies Job 28:18 and even Bob Marley sang:

Don’t gain the world and lose your soul; wisdom is better than silver or gold.


But what is it, and how are we to get it? I use the word ‘get’ because the book of Proverbs does, and because it makes the process of acquiring wisdom sound like a lifelong search for buried treasure, which perhaps it is.


As I suspect the recommendation of early to bed, early to rise will not in itself make you wise, let us begin by agreeing with Clifford Stoll what wisdom is not.

Data is not information,
Information is not knowledge,
Knowledge is not understanding,
Understanding is not wisdom.

Data on its own is certainly not the answer, although the teacher Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ would disagree with me:

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. And then there was his colleague Mr. M’Choakumchild: Orthography, etymology, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and levelling… were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers… If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!


Rachel Carson said:

If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow, and it was three wise men, not three know-alls, whom God sent to visit Jesus in the manger.


King Solomon knew the importance of wisdom, as well as knowledge of the law, in attempting to rule his people, and the difference between knowledge and wisdom is of more than academic interest, as Professor Sir Roy Calne pointed out in his ‘Creator’s Testament to Modern Man’:

God speaks: I have given you DNA programmed by evolution through millions of years…many of the secrets of nature are now revealed to you by your probing curiosity and rational analysis. This knowledge can be used for good or evil. The legend of the serpent who gave Eve the fruit of knowledge is a terrible warning…you will have many hard decisions to make but I have given you the ability to choose…I hope you become Homo Sapiens; the alternative is Homo Extinctus.

There is a very real danger that our thirst for knowledge may lead us after years of hard work to a wise conclusion already reached by God, and freely available to any onlooker who cares to observe: (‘Green Blackboards’ by Michel Quoist)

The school is up to date. Proudly the principal tells of all the improvements. The finest discovery, Lord, is the green blackboard. The scientists have studied long, they have made experiments. We now know that green is the ideal colour, that it doesn’t tire the eyes, that it is quieting and relaxing. It has occurred to me, Lord, that you didn’t wait so long to paint the trees and meadows green. ..thank you, Lord, for being the good Father who gives his children the joy of discovering by themselves the treasures of his intelligence and love. But keep us from believing that – by ourselves- we have invented anything at all.


Wisdom, in fact, has little to do with IQ. As Groucho Marx said:

A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.


You don’t even have to be human, as the following piece on dog wisdom by Anon. points out (cat lovers are free to substitute their own version):

If your dog were your teacher, you would learn stuff like…
Be loyal. When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by and nuzzle them gently.
Take naps and stretch before rising. Delight in the simple joys of a long walk.
When it’s in your best interest – practice obedience.
Tolerate cats – humans love that. Avoid biting, when a simple growl will do.
If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it, wherever that leads you.
In fact:
If you can start the day without caffeine;
If you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains;
If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles;
If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it;
If you can take criticism and blame without resentment;
If you can face the world without lies and deceit;
If you can relax without alcohol and sleep without drugs;
If you can honestly say you have no prejudice against anyone based on their creed, colour, or politics…
then, my friends, you are ALMOST as wise as your dog.


It was Cicero who pointed out the moral dimension: the function of wisdom is to discriminate between good and evil.

And for Saint-Exupéry’s ‘Little Prince’ the secret was very simple:

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.


Seeing, even if through a glass darkly, to the essence of things, is an important part of wisdom, as we learn in C S Lewis’s ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader‘.

In our world, said Eustace, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas. Even in your world, my son [said Aslan], that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.


So how are we, then, to get wisdom? According to Proverbs again, it is easy enough to give the appearance of wisdom:

even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise:17:28 and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.


But if only the real thing will do, Confucius, of course, had the answer:

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.


It may be bitter, but as Proust said:

we don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.


And Herman Hesse added, in Siddhartha:

knowledge can be communicated, but wisdom cannot. A man can find it, he can live it, he can be filled and sustained by it, but he cannot utter or teach it.


Nevertheless, the hope of learning wisdom from others, whether a hermit in a cave in Tibet or, more likely, the man next door, is universal. Did you see the 1979 film, ‘Being There’, in which Peter Sellers played the part of Chance, the gardener or, as he was understood to say, Chauncey Gardiner? His simplistic responses (usually related to his gardening experience) to the most difficult questions are interpreted as pearls of wisdom. On the vagaries of the stock market:
first comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
On economics: In a garden, growth has its season…as long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well in the garden.
By reflecting the forgotten truths of nature, Chance is hailed as a hero and introduced to the president who, impressed by his political analysis, quotes Chance as his guru and turns him into a national prophet.


Let’s leave the last word to Piet Hein‘Grooks’:

The road to wisdom? –
Well, it’s plain,
And simple to express:
Err and err and err again,
but less and less and less.


Both illustrations are taken from murals in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. They are by Robert Lewis Reid. The top one is of  Understanding, captioned  ‘Wisdom is the principal thing. Therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting get understanding‘ (Proverbs 4.7). The bottom on is Wisdom, annotated ‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers’.

Christianity & Sexuality: Communication, Grace & Love – Taylor Carey

After reading several wonderful pieces by Chris Fewings – particularly ‘Love Divine, All Loves Embracing’ (15th July 2012) – and stumbling across an online reproduction of The Body’s Grace (1989), I’ve been sufficiently inspired to sketch out a few thoughts on Christianity and sexuality. These are nothing more than foundational ideas. Nonetheless I hope, in the context of various contemporary debates on sexuality, gender and the Church, to offer a fresh perspective from the vantage point of that most terrifying demographic: the teenage student.

 Does Christianity ‘do’ sex?

Christianity is all about repression and guilt,’ someone once charged me over an otherwise amicable (and relaxed) lunch, ‘which is why it’s all no sex!’ This was at university, where I was aware that the crucifix on my desk was far too much for most people’s conscience to handle when paying me a visit ‘this morning, after what happened last night…didn’t you hear about it?’ Guilt! The conversation at lunch seemed to crystallise this hostility towards religion as the opponent of freedom, the oppressor of life and the preventer of joy. The ferocity of their argument was troubling, and gave me reason to ponder.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t think Christianity is inherently repressive: it is, as C.S. Lewis reminds us in Narnia, very much a liberating faith, in which ‘Divine anarchy’ overturns our own ‘ordered sin’. Nonetheless, as Chris Fewings has highlighted, we have separated our notions of desire – the erotic, in its widest sense – from our understanding of piety. We long for God, but we banish sexuality. This stems, I think, from a misunderstanding of sexuality itself. Certainly, organised religion shares its guilt in this respect – particularly when the fronds of sexual identity and social order have been precariously intertwined – but I’m certain that a misunderstanding and distortion of sexual desire is commonplace in today’s secular world too.

‘Sex sells’, runs the familiar commercial aphorism, but in all its manifestations – eroticism in advertising, clothing and film, and the increased availability of pornography – there is, to echo both Nagel and Williams, an asymmetric frustration. Simple sexual lust is egotistical; desire, properly understood, involves the trust of and commitment to perception by another. For the physical body to be the cause of my joy, it must be unreservedly there for another, or, as Williams puts it, ‘given over to the creation of joy in that other’. Asymmetric sexual relationships (within which I would categorise pornography and perhaps some fleeting sexual encounters) are ‘perverse’ in that they put one party in control of that interaction, with the inevitability of its distortion. I don’t think this precludes meaningful sexual relationships from being somewhat transitory; rather, I think this approach suggests in what ‘mode’ our sexual partnerships become authentic vehicles of meaning and purpose.

Sexuality, then, morally speaking, is centred on communication, and the use of our bodies in the wider project of conveying human meaning. Certain sexual modes tend to narrow the possibilities of this communication, whilst others can enlarge them. Ultimately, this reasoning is predicated on an acceptance of the inherent dignity of the body, as part of that meaning-seeking and meaningful state of existence which we call human life. Even scrubbed of religious language, that notion – widely held by secular liberalism since at least the Enlightenment – comes tantalisingly close to what Christians would label grace. Grace is fundamentally a matter of being desired; a ‘transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted’. And any notion of the ‘body’s grace’ – subsuming secular notions of fundamental rights and inherent dignity – only makes sense within a language of grace itself, a language of ‘creation and redemption’. We are an object for the unceasing, unconditional, boundless love and delight of God; we enter into communication with that Divine other through our incorporation into His community. That, to crudely pinch what has elsewhere been eloquently penned, means that the Church stands astride some of the most erotic language we could possibly muster.


Hang on a minute: what about fertility?

All of what I have said above deals with the joy of sexual communication – as it were, a further means of expressing ourselves, through our material physicality. Again, look to C.S. Lewis and Aslan’s sensuousness, ‘on the knife edge of erotic’ as Williams put it. Quite clearly, sexuality has much to do with fecundity – from the biological perspective, it’s purely instrumental – and yet, equally clearly, this seems less about sexuality and more about sex. A heterosexual couple might, in this regard, have more ‘justification’ for sexual communication – but an acknowledged importance of fertility (theologically as well as biologically) need not preclude an understanding of sexual communication that bestows equal integrity and intrinsic worth on a similarly meaningful homosexual relationship. Indeed, as The Body’s Grace asks, is it perhaps because homosexuality prompts us to think far more directly and extensively about ‘desire’ and less about functionality that so many Christians have felt threatened by it? If this is the case, given the case sketched above, shouldn’t we be rejoicing in homosexuality for enabling contemplation of a far more complete picture of desire – and how our own sexual communication might fit into a narrative of grace, love and meaning that unites us more fully with God?

Much, much more needs to be said on this: nonetheless I wish to focus on just one more area in this article. I hope perhaps to return to the preceding paragraph and deal with it at length in subsequent writing.

Institutionalisation, sex and the Church

The Church blesses marriages – not yet homosexual ones, but, in time, I hope they will be similarly included – as a matter of faith. We are so thoroughly acquainted with this concept that perhaps we have forgotten what this really means. Misunderstood, a blessed partnership becomes a legalistic compact – precisely the aversion of the true risk of sexuality and desire – which all too often hides behind the ‘justification’ of child-bearing. This has never been what Christian marriage truly involves. Rather, the institutionalisation of a partnership is the construction of a sanctuary of space and time, after the public proclamation of faith, trust and love, to let that relationship, in its fullest and most physical sense, truly find its existence. It gives, amidst the pressures of our contingent world, some refuge for that vulnerability of desire which partners – be they heterosexual or homosexual – must explore and realise. Marriage ought to be the soundproof room amidst the din of worldly chaos – a space and time where communication can really be heard. And of course, that communication includes sexuality – and not just sexual intimacy, but that broadest meaning of desire – and yet is not dominated by it. Marriage as an institution helps remind us that sexual mutuality cannot be a totality and an end in itself – at least if we are to avoid a wholly Freudian reality.

Indeed, it is precisely this need for perspective that, somewhat paradoxically, makes the celibate life such an important part of witness within the Church. Those called to the celibate life, particularly as part of the vocation to the religious life, remind us that sex itself is not the god we worship, but that it can form part of the range of communication which unites us with others and God. The ‘desire’ of celibates is not repressed, but rather committed totally to God, rather than focused on one other human being. This is in a very real sense ‘risky’. It cannot be seen as simply ‘fleeing’ from the risk of desire in the same way as rampant promiscuity arguably can. Of course, it must be said that celibacy approached without due discernment can clearly be dangerous and tragic; it can become a perverse license for the very worst of asymmetrical frustrations, which have historically caused unspeakable harm to vulnerable humanity. Yet, it seems undeniable that those who properly embrace the celibate life are often those who are most familiar with the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of our own bodies, and the erroneous paths our desires – and our misreading of them – can easily lead us down. Read Thomas Merton or Teresa of Avila, and there you will find an absence of self-deceit quite breathtaking in its clarity.


These brief sketches are neither original nor adequate explorations of very complex positions. Yet, hopefully, they provide something of a foundation for our thinking about what sexuality means to Christianity. As I hope is clear, whilst the answer to the charge ‘Christianity is all about repression and doesn’t ‘do’ sex!’ might concede that, historically, the answer has sometimes been ‘yes’; the Christian understanding of sexuality, it can be argued, is a unique framework that bestows on our physicality and the whole range of our communicative media the appropriate dignity, respect and meaning. It is ultimately the search as meaning-seeking beings, for a meaningful relationship with that unconditional desirer that is God that should enable us as Christians to be unafraid of broadening our horizons and embracing the infinitely bigger, broader and better world to which Jesus Christ shows the way.


All quotes, unless otherwise stated, from The Body’s Grace, a lecture by Rowan Williams, delivered in 1989 as the 10th Michael Harding Memorial Address to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM).

The illustrations are both by Nina Aldin Thune and are downloaded from Wikimedia under licence. This statue of St Theresa’s Ecstasy is in the Cornaro chapel of the Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome and is of course by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).

An Archbishop Ventures Into Narnia: Taylor Carey


‘The Lion’s World’

In his last literary endeavour while Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams explores the central themes of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia with characteristic eloquence, enthusiasm and intellect. The Lion’s World is a must-read for anyone seeking reflections on our own quest to be surprised by the joy of the Christian faith.

‘I can only confess’, writes Rowan Williams, ‘to being repeatedly humbled and reconverted by Lewis in a way that is true of few other modern Christian writers’. This is a serious statement, not least from an Archbishop who speaks and writes eleven languages, and who is also a world-renowned theologian and accomplished literary critic and poet. As ever, Williams acknowledges his opposition: ‘Not every reader has been charmed by C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories’. But here, in The Lion’s World, is Williams’ gallant and supremely eloquent defence of their author, as a believer, a writer and a modern-day literary apostle.

Williams notes that he ‘came late to Narnia’, even with his own ‘obsessively bookish childhood’. Before he had walked through the Wardrobe or sailed in the Dawn Treader, he had read many of Lewis’ apologetic works – Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and Miracles – alongside his other notable works of fiction. For this, we must be grateful: Williams’ narrative is enriched with a majestically broad understanding of Narnia’s context within the wider themes that echo across Lewis’ work, and which, at their best, convey ‘a simple intensity of feeling about God’. The Lion’s World is not a systemic guide to interpretation – Williams is happy to leave such a task to the likes of Michael Ward, whose excellent book Planet Narnia is reverently referenced – but rather a series of reflections on Lewis’ central themes: the exhilaration of an encounter with the Divine ‘other’, the avoidance of self-delusion, and the joy of the surprising discovery of God.

For all the uplifting grand narrative, Williams does not ignore the thorny issues with which readers of Lewis must contend.  In Narnia, so clearly a book ‘latent with Christianity’, there are considerable leaks in a supposedly watertight world. Fruit and vegetables grow in the depths of winter; all inhabitants seemingly speak the same language despite obvious cultural contrasts; Narnian ‘history’ is only casually dealt with on a few occasions. Tolkien was famously horrified at his friend’s conflation of European and Classical mythology; the addition of Father Christmas was more than a bridge too far. Theological concerns remain, too: Lewis has been harshly criticised for an excessively liberal doctrine of salvation espoused in The Last Battle; he is also frequently ambiguous when doctrinal themes emerge – sometimes portraying Aslan as the second person of the Trinity, yet in one memorable passage in The Horse and His Boy apparently presenting him as the complete Trinity itself. The White Witch’s usurpation of Aslan (the ‘son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea’) is obviously theologically problematic, as is the obvious lack of any representative of the Holy Spirit throughout most of the stories. Perhaps most serious are the charges of racism and misogyny frequently levelled at Lewis: Susan’s famous banishment from Narnia has been seen by many as damnation for discovering sexual maturity, whilst The Horse and its Boy is frighteningly evocative of a crusade against blatantly Arabic Calormenes.

Williams deftly addresses each line of attack, and, whilst not excusing Lewis’ own shortcomings, provides a key to understanding them in context. Crucially, Narnia was not Tolkien’s Middle Earth. To demand such internal consistency would be to miss its raison d’être as a landscape for the imagination. Similarly, hammering home orthodox objections to Narnia’s doctrinal implications misses the central thrust of Lewis’ work: some issues are better served by narrative than by systematisation.  Lewis was not simply mapping his stories onto a ‘theological grid’; his narratives and characters possessed their own integrity, and perhaps the most enduring testament to this is the many secular readers who have enjoyed Narnia at face value. Lewis was, clearly, ‘a writer of his time’; yet, at least in part, he has suffered from misreading. Susan’s exile from Narnia is undoubtedly linked to her ‘growing up’, yet it is unfair to portray this as a reactionary swipe against female independence. Rather, it is Susan’s wilful forgetting of what she knows deep down to be true that is the cause of her alienation from Aslan’s world. Similarly, much of Lewis’ ‘racism’ can actually be seen as a parody of the dominant orientalism present in so much of the writing of his day. As Williams puts it, the key question ‘is not how Lewis reflects the views of an era but how he qualifies or undercuts them in obedience to…a spiritual imperative’.

Williams’ own writing is lucid and inviting, and consistently echoes the same ‘almost unbearable longing’ for the radiance of God, so present in Lewis’ own work. Speaking of what motivated Lewis to write, Williams slips easily back into the pulpit, and the familiar Welsh-tinted sonorous voice leaps out of the pages and embraces us: ‘Sharing the good news is not so much a matter of telling people what they have never heard as of persuading them that there are things they haven’t heard when they think they have’. This is Williams the spiritual leader at his very best: utterly captivating, majestic and inspiring, delivering a soaring proclamation of the joy of knowing Christ whilst also serving up critics of Christianity, who have often used Lewis’ writings selectively, a gratifyingly eloquent broadside. It is in the last chapter that Williams claims the summit, expertly revealing within Lewis’ narrative a theme close to the Archbishop’s own heart: enlarging the world through faith, and enlarging our own lives through the dynamic encounter with the Divine. ‘The familiar world has to be broken open by the life it contains in order for joy to be full’.

In his conclusion, Williams offers us a wonderful summary of Narnia’s central themes, which, far from being closed systems, are springboards for imaginative leaps of faith and expansions of our Christian lives. In Lewis’ narrative, we, as Christians, are rebels, agents of ‘Divine anarchy’ overturning ordered sin and evil, restriction and death. Yet we are also rebelling against ourselves – it is we who are the oppressors, guilty of self-delusion – for which we must turn to God for help. Finally, as we enter a meaningful relationship with the Divine, we are torn free from our shackles, and we begin a ceaseless journey of joy, in which each of us discovers a new depth of existence rooted in the sustaining power of God. Certainly, Lewis’ narrative offers just such an opportunity to be ‘surprised by joy’ and discover afresh the exhilaration of the Christian faith; yet Williams, with a characteristic edge of humour, implores us to benefit from Narnia by simply ‘letting down the guard of our imagination from time to time’. In other words, says our Archbishop and rightly revered spiritual leader, just get on and read it.


The main illustration is by Eric Isselee, downloaded under licence from Shutterstock.

Temptation: Thought for the First Sunday in Lent

 The collect for today is:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Temptation, like the teenage term of approval ‘wicked’, gets rather a good press these days – if you put the word in your internet search engine, you will get page after page offering you the delights of assorted temptations. The process of overcoming your misgivings to yield to the seven deadly sins of anger, avarice, envy, gluttony, lust, sloth, and pride is presented as at least as enjoyable as the ‘sinful’ (term of approval again) pleasure itself. Advertisers capitalise on this trend to market everything from fast cars to chocolate.

All of the deadly sins (with the notable exception of envy) give at least momentary pleasure when merely sipped, as it were, and in homeopathic quantities could scarcely be described as sinful (no doubt the Archbishop of Canterbury himself is occasionally tempted by a teeny- weeny glass of sherry or a spoonful of chocolate mousse and he is obviously neither a drunk nor a glutton). And without a modicum of lust, the human race would be extinct.


The risk is the one taken by the young lady in the limerick:

There was a young lady of Riga
Who went for a ride on a tiger.
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And a smile on the face of the tiger.

Mick Jagger summed it up:
It’s all right letting yourself go, as long as you can get yourself back.
In other words, who is in control: the temptee or the tempter?

In the words of Thomas JeffersonDo not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it.

Or, as we read in the first letter of St Peter: Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.

Not that the Devil has it all his own way, as Hilaire Belloc tells us. Sometimes he too is in the position of the lady from Riga:

The Devil, having nothing else to do,
Went off to tempt My Lady Poltagrue.
My Lady, tempted by a private whim,
To his extreme annoyance, tempted him’

The Bible repeatedly warns us of the dangers:

Let no one say when he is tempted ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death. James 1:13-15

The problem is the relative strength of the temptation concerned versus our consciences. As La Rochefoucauld said:

If we resist our passions, it is more because of their weakness than because of our strength.

Edmund Cooke warns us:

So you tell yourself you are pretty fine clay,
To have tricked temptation and turned it away.
But wait, my friend, for a different day;
Wait till you want to want to!

If we repeatedly overrule our conscience when it pricks, it will eventually wither away, like a muscle that is never used. Books of quotations are full of one-liners on this subject. Some recommend giving in at the first hurdle:

I can resist anything except temptation Oscar Wilde;


I deal with temptation by yielding to it.  Mark Twain

Or you can regard all attempts as doomed in advance:

Temptation is an irresistible force at work on a moveable body : H L Mencken.

Just saying ‘no’ may be difficult, but it is not impossible:

I count he who overcomes his desires braver than he who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is the victory over self : Aristotle.

Or this, by C S Lewis:

A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is….A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in.

Mere Christianity Book 3 Chapter 21

The corollary is that each successful attempt at overcoming temptation strengthens the sinews:

Every conquering temptation represents a new fund of moral energy. Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before.
William Butler Yeats

John Bunyan makes a similar point:

Temptations, when we meet them at first, are as the lion that roared upon Samson; but if we overcome them, the next time we see them we shall find a nest of honey within them.

Of course, what makes resisting temptation difficult for many people is they don’t want to discourage it completely. As St Augustine of Hippo famously said:

Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.

Franklin P Jones suggests: 

Nothing makes it easier to resist temptation than a proper up-bringing, a sound set of values – and witnesses


But, joking apart, being in the grip of temptation, unable to resist, is no laughing matter, as Danzae Pace knew:

Being out of control is one of the worst feelings in the world, sometimes even worse than pain. It is its own kind of pain.

Clarissa Dickson Wright describes the searing pain of the alcoholic, trying to climb back to the light after having descended into the pit:

After my father’s retirement from hospital, there was a huge upsurge of violence. From then onwards my mother and I… were bashed about on a weekly basis, sometimes just bruises, sometimes broken or cracked ribs, and always verbal abuse…when my father had gone it was as if a gale had stopped blowing or a great black cloud had passed away…sometimes people for various reasons, particularly grief, will drink heavily for a while, but then come to their senses and stop. This is not the way for us alcoholics: once the illness has kicked in there is no way we can go back to controlling our drinking. …there is a saying that religion is for those who don’t want to go to hell, spirituality is for those who have been there. The (AA) steps are all designed to focus on a power greater than yourself, whether it is God or the power of the group…just so long as it isn’t you.
‘Spilling the Beans’

But the most tempting temptation of all must be the one that appears to Christ: to do something that is in the interests of those he came to save:

After forty days in the desert, Christ is first tempted with bread. To use his divine power to satisfy extreme hunger seems reasonable enough. What use will he be in God’s service if he is physically weak? The second temptation sees the tempter…turning the words of scripture back upon him. ‘It is written…’ so surely it must carry divine approval if he demonstrates his confidence in God’s protection? The third temptation is also carefully angled. Surely it is in the interests of those he came to save that he should control the world as soon as possible? Each temptation seeks to justify the means by the end. Jesus’ rejection of these temptations commits him to a life of hardship and self-denial, to patient trust in his heavenly Father’s care and to achieving God’s mission by God’s means. 
‘The Ministry of the Word’, by the Rt Revd David Stancliffe

O Lord, we have no strength against those multitudes of temptations that daily assault us: be thou pleased either to restrain them or to assist us, and in thy faithfulness suffer us not to be tempted above that we are able to overcome. Amen.
Prayer of Richard Allestree

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊


The illustration is a photograph taken by masyras and downloaded from wikimedia under CCL of ‘Temptation of Christ and Satan in the desert’ at Chora Church in Istanbul.

All We, Like Sheep? (Easter 4)

Sometimes we have to look long and hard at the lectionary to work out a theme. But the readings for this Fourth Sunday of Easter (Gospel: John 10:1-10; Psalm: 23 and even the Epistle: 1 Peter 2.19-25) are all about sheep and Our Lord as the Good Shepherd.

In the 21st century, in a society where very few of us are personally involved in the care of sheep, most of us nevertheless welcome the spring for its associated vision of lambs gambolling on the hillside, though we barely pause for breath before debating whether to eat them with mint sauce or redcurrant jelly. This apparent dichotomy seems to worry most of us not at all, but it does vividly illustrate some of the contradictions inherent in our relationship with the animal kingdom:

The fool said to the animals:
‘You are merely my chattels,
With one lesson to learn –
What happens to you is not your concern
But mine; for God has set
You on earth for my profit.’
The animals answered the fool
Nothing at all,
But for a single moment
Turned on him their wild, true, innocent
Eyes, where an Angel of the Lord
Holds Eden’s flaming sword.

Frances Bellerby, ‘The Exile’1

In ‘The remarkable story of the humble animal that built the modern world’, Alan Butler argues that:

“the most important step in civilization was when we began capturing wild sheep, domesticating and breeding them. Sheep were the mainstay of ancient cultures, by far the most important of the domesticated animals: they provided not just milk and meat, but warm clothing. This is why so many of the earliest gods and their myths are sheep-related. Sheep-farming also underpinned the growth of international trade and European nation states. In effect, sheep ‘built’ the modern world. The demands of the woollen textile industry both drove and financed the Industrial Revolution. The British Empire was founded on wool (think of the Woolsack). With over a billion sheep in the world today, the humanity-sheep relationship represents the most successful example of mammalian symbiosis on the planet. The story of sheep ‘is’ the story of humanity.

Religious symbolism and ritual involving sheep began very early: Skulls of rams occupied a central place in shrines dating from 8,000 BC, and since then, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Babylonians and Greeks have all accorded sheep a central part in their worship. Pliny the Elder, in his ‘Natural History’, declares:

“Many thanks, too, do we owe to the sheep, both for appeasing the gods, and for giving us the use of its fleece.”

Sheep are the first animals mentioned in the Old Testament and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and King David were all shepherds.

So, Jesus knew that not only were his listeners familiar with sheep as actual pastoral animals, they would also have been aware of their symbolic and religious significance over the centuries as animals of religious sacrifice. Still, it is quite a leap to go from that to describing his followers as sheep, as Chaplain Helen Roenfeldt comments:

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus compares man to sheep, and that’s not a compliment. Sheep are very weak animals. A sheep is not very clever either: you may see a trained elephant, horse, or dog, but not a trained sheep. A sheep is defenceless: a horse can run; a wolf can bite; and a cat can scratch; but a sheep cannot defend itself.2

As our own shepherd and pastor, David Sullivan, ruefully says: Sheep are always thinking of new ways to die.

Tom Fath ponders:

Christianity is a dynamic, challenging, and difficult way of life. It is not a religion for the sheepish. Yet Our Saviour more than once drew parallels between His followers and the four-footed woolly ruminants of the genus ‘Ovis’. Speaking for myself, I am not aware of possessing any particularly sheepish characteristics. I ruminate – but only my thoughts, not my food. I eat greens, but never grass. I feel no need to be dipped or shorn.
‘Lost Shepherds, Vulnerable Sheep’ 3

People who are easily led are often compared to sheep. In fact, perhaps the least flattering aspect of the comparison is the idea that, herded together, all we, like sheep can be bent to our Shepherd’s will in a moment. In fact it is at this point that the metaphor breaks down as, unlike sheep, we know that we have free will. So what should we read into the parallel? First of all, perhaps, a sense of humility as we recognise our place in the scheme of things – the city whizz kids who claim hubristically to be masters of the universe may be in for a shock as they, along with the rest of us, discover we are not required as strategic managers, but vulnerable children needing to be protected and guided. Secondly, although Jesus stresses in this morning’s reading that he knows us all by name, we have value not just as individuals but as part of a community. And thirdly, I think, he wanted to offer us reassurance, a feeling of being protected in a safe haven. After all, Arcadia always included sheep and, as J S Bach’s aria puts it, sheep can safely graze where a good shepherd watches over them. This image retains its ancient power to sustain us through the darkest of times.

The fourth Sunday of Easter is often called Good Shepherd Sunday because the readings for each of the three years in the cycle are parables about sheep. The emphasis this year is on our Shepherd as the Gate, as Tim Owens explains:

The shepherd built a temporary sheep pen. He left an opening where the sheep could come and go. Here they would be safe. All that remained was to close the door, but there was no door. The good shepherd simply lay down across the small opening. The shepherd became the door, and in this way the sheep remained inside and the wild beasts remained outside. Because the shepherd had become the door, there was nothing for the sheep to fear. Their protector and provider had guaranteed their protection. A true shepherd literally lays his life down for his sheep.

Jesus said, I am the gate for the sheep…If you will enter through Me, you can come in and go out and find pasture. Again, not only would the pastoral background have been familiar to his listeners, but in ancient times the gates to settlements were closed at night, even as recently as the 1970s in Oman.

In ‘The Wardrobe as Christian Metaphor’, Dr. Don King looks at the extended exploration of this metaphor by the writer C S Lewis:

References are made to ‘striving to enter [heaven] by the narrow door’, to ‘the door of faith’. Jesus Himself is often associated with a door: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me’.

In Lewis’s Narnia stories:
Literally, the doors function to take the children out of their real world and into a new other world; that is, the doors serve to move them from a mundane, everyday experience to a new world, a new reality, a new life. More importantly, however, the doors inexorably lead to Aslan, Lewis’ Christ figure, who offers the children an additional ‘new life’ experience. In ‘The Silver Chair’ Eustace and Jill only think they are calling Aslan; actually, He has called them. Aslan says: You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you. Lewis is paralleling here the Biblical notion of God calling to Himself all those who are willing to come to Him as outlined in John 10. In ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ Digory is called into Narnia so that he can be the agent of both death and life… Lewis again alludes to the John 10 passage, for when Digory approaches the place where the tree is, he encounters a high wall and door. Above the door is the following inscription:

‘Come in by the gold gate or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forbear.
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.’

In his sermon ‘The Weight of Glory’, Lewis employs this same metaphor:

The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last… Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.4

And finally, this is how the chapter from this morning’s reading from St John ends:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father who has given them to me is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.
John 10:27-30

Almighty God, allow us, the least of all your saints, to keep a door in Paradise; even the smallest door, the furthest, darkest, coldest door, the door that is least used, the stiffest door. If so it be in thine house, O God, if so it be that we can see thy glory even afar, and hear thy voice, and know that we are with thee, O God. Amen.
After a prayer by St Columba

1 ‘The Exile’ by Frances Bellerby. Taken from the anthology ‘Lion Christian Poetry Collection’ Selected poems, David Higham Associates. Dur: 36&
2 Grateful thanks to Chaplain Helen Roenfeldt, a source of inspiration, for permission to quote from her © article above.
3. This article originally appeared in the May 1999 issue of the New Oxford Review, and is reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1999 New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706, U.S.A.,
4. Grateful thanks to Dr Don King, whose article ‘The Wardrobe as Christian Metaphor’ © first appeared in Mythlove 14, Autumn 1987 for permission to quote him as above.

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