Soho Mass, October 4 2009: 27th Sunday of the Year, B.
Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16
‘A man must leave his father and mother and join himself to his wife.’ The relationship between today’s scripture and the lived experience of this congregation is … well, interesting. I am not going to duck the challenge of addressing that issue, but I am going to start somewhere else.
‘Let the little children come to me’ ‘Anyone who does not welcome the Kingdom of God as a little child will not enter it at all.’ In passing, it’s worth noting that the image of Jesus putting his arms round children is as jarring to contemporary sensibilities as anything Jesus says about divorce; even with a CRB check you can’t do that sort of thing any more. And however necessary the precautions, they indicate a tragedy—life is the poorer for them.
But to the point: this image of the child, the non-person, receiving the Kingdom of God as a gift. It’s an image associated with St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast the Church celebrated this week, and whose relics are currently on a triumphant tour through the land. I happened to be talking this week with someone from the Portsmouth diocese where she had made her first stop. He did not strike me as one of nature’s devotees to the Little Flower, but he had clearly been impressed. ‘It shows you what the Church is really about: not discipline, not teaching, not organization, but people in need finding something very simple in their religion, something that gives them hope, something that helps them struggle on.’ Quite simply, they find love. He might have been echoing Thérèse’s own phrase: ‘love at the heart of the Church’.
Thérèse, for me as an academic interested in spirituality, is a quite fascinating figure. I don’t think we can just ignore the critical, even cynical, comments that have been made about her cult. But one cannot deny its power. Her autobiographical manuscripts—suitably or unsuitably sanitised by her bossy big sister—appeared in the first decade of the last century. If you go to her sanctuary at Lisieux, what is just obvious from the votive stones is how this story of a psychologically damaged child facing an early painful death, and undergoing powerful experiences of abandonment and loss of faith—this story somehow helped French soldiers who had to struggle with the horror of World War I; more generally, she seems to have touched into the experiences of poor Catholics in the workforce of an industrial society of Northern Europe that could often be brutal and insecure. Thérèse’s centenary in 1997 came a month after the death of Princess Diana; and maybe the Diana phenomenon helps us understand Thérèse. Both are vulnerable young women, making lots of mistakes, dying young and tragically—both tap into realities normally hidden within our collective psyche, and provoke it into expression. This expression takes forms that are sometimes disconcerting, sometimes conflicting—the symbols of Thérèse and Diana are used by different people promoting different sets of agenda. In both cults, flowers figure large; there are elements of kitsch, vulgarity, tastelessness. But something important is happening when Thérèse and Diana are evoked. Realities often buried and overlooked, and which because they are unacknowledged are often doing us damage—these come to the surface, in however distorted a form. And we are better off because we have been allowed, however temporarily, however incompletely, to access them.
I can never make up my mind whether Thérèse is a genuine theologian or the fabrication of a successful piety industry, but I am prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt—after all, she has been proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. The problem with her writing is that its doctrinal ideas have been so successful and influential within twentieth-century Christianity that we no longer recognise that they were once new and surprising. In the middle of the century, our mainstream church understanding of grace changed, so that what Thérèse was on about no longer seems a big deal. My current research on Gerard Manley Hopkins has led me to think about what Catholic spiritual life was like in the nineteenth century. The dangers of caricature are considerable; but you cannot avoid the impression that at very deep levels the religious enterprise was set up so that you could only fail at it; and the religious apparatus available to the average Catholic was largely concerned with the negotiation of guilt. In this world, Thérèse saw something new. You can leave all the concerns with rules aside. You can just let God be with you in your weakness and failure, and love you; you can just let that love supply for all your needs. She advocates the so-called Little Way. There are paths to heaven that involve steep climbs; but then there’s this new route which just gets you there in a flash—like these strange new machines called elevators that they have in New York and about which we’ve read newspaper articles even here in dozy Lisieux. The way of love: love at the heart of the Church; love available to all, no matter what the failures they are having to live with, no matter what the burdens they are carrying.
Which brings me, at last, to Jesus’s teaching on marriage and divorce, and the incongruity of such heterosexist talk with the experience of a congregation such as this. And the move I am going to make is an obvious one. Jesus states some rules, but then something else happens: the children come, the bossy disciples want to shoo them away, but Jesus overrules them, takes the children, the non-persons, into his arms and blesses them. The rules of the Church are there, ultimately, because we care about the value of each human being. They are necessary; they have their place. But, for all their divine warrant, they are human creations as well, articulated in corrupt and fallible human language. They cannot fit everyone. You have to read them for what they are trying to do, not for what they actually do to people already hurt—for the good that they are seeking to promote, however imperfectly, rather than the problems they create. At the heart of the Church is not the strict rule, the exceptionless moral norm, but love: love that we only receive in our weakness, in our unpersonhood, as a gift.
Now, it’s important that we not get too complacent here. Catholicism—perhaps unlike Protestantism—has spiritual safety-valves built into its symbolic structures, and this is part of its genius. The figure of Mary meets some of our need for a female element in our imaging of God and salvation; and the figure of Thérèse in early twentieth-century Catholic spirituality relieved the rigorism of a more official, more theological Catholicism all too reflective of the harsh economic conditions under which poor believers struggled. And safety valves are a mixed blessing. They’re like painkillers; they remove the immediate indicator of dysfunction, and perhaps they are a necessary precondition for any serious healing to be attempted. But the danger is that we just stop there, and leave the underlying problem unaddressed.
Marian piety is no substitute for serious work on the structural sexisms of our Church and society; and a pilgrimage to Thérèse’s bones is far short of the Kingdom of God for which we long, for the ultimate transformation of the oppression that Thérèse shared with so many. There is a danger that religion becomes just a painkiller. There are powerful criticisms of Christianity and Catholicism to this effect, and they are not to be written off. But suspicion need not, must not be our only attitude. We can, we should, also be prepared to think positively. The Thérèses and the Dianas of our symbolic world can serve as an inspiration really to change things, or rather to let them be changed. The heart of the Church lies not in its rules or its theologies or its structures, but in openness to love and to being loved, the openness of the child: openness to a love that raises the lowly, taking them up the elevator in a trice. It’s that subversive power that is at the heart of the Church: the power of the leader who, Hebrews said, became through suffering like his sisters and brothers in every respect, dying a death of ritual impurity, under a curse—and who from that condition invites to come to him outside the camp in order that from there we might share his resurrection.
Much remains to be done and suffered. The Kingdom of God is not yet here. But as we hear the gospel rules that we cannot even begin to keep, we are also given the gospel symbol of the poor child, the unperson, embraced by Jesus. Even now this symbol puts the rules in their proper place, and assures us that in the end the fullness of love, the kingdom of God, will truly become a reality. And perhaps we can use our spiritual imaginations when we hear Thérèse. ‘After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses’, she is supposed to have said. Her images may be tacky and girlish, but she was saying something important about a hope will not deceive. For God has called us, and God is faithful.