Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Sorrow and Courage

Today happens to be the Feast of Julian of Norwich, observed in some churches. There is a lot of facile rubbish in circulation about Julian. We need to remember that it is only by 'seking to the beholding' through weal and woe that we come to the knowledge that 'all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.'
In one of those strange coincidences it is also VE Day here in the UK and all over Europe. Appropriately, the BBC is broadcasting Benjamin Britten's War Requiem this afternoon. It's a work that usually engages (no other word for it; it's not something you can listen to with any detachment) me on Good Friday, but this year, for me, Good Friday took a different form. 
VE Day is now overshadowed by Remembrance Sunday in November, but consciousness of geographical vulnerability and contingency, and the fragile nature of peace, are never far from the surface in the UK—two key elements, in my view, that make British culture at its best what it is.
But today I also want to focus on a battle, on victories and on beholding of a different sort. I don't think George Swanson would mind at all if I called him one of God's Holy Fools. It's been a privilege of mine to have known him since he was a curate in Menlo Park, California, back in the sixties. To try to summarize the life of this extraordinary man is simply beyond my capacity or, perhaps, anyone's. You can find out something about him at, but that does not begin to express the measure of this person who has spent his life in the cause of justice issues, within and without the institutional church.
In the past few years, George has suffered a number of hard blows from fate—beyond the lingering death of his first wife, who was an example of courage in her own right. First, his Significant Other (and a former schoolmate of mine) discovered that she had cancer of the jaw. Having successfully seen her through treatment and reconstructive surgery, George himself discovered he had stage 4 melanoma—even as, in his most recent burst of creative energy, he was struggling to mount an opera that describes the torture of inmates in US prisons.
Then, over this past weekend, George received the news that his son had died in a diving accident in San Francisco Bay—William was a professional diver. This is what George wrote:

"The police just notified me that my son, William Gaines Swanson. was found in the bay where he worked as a diver.
"If William had lived today he would have been feeding the poor at a shabby park in wealthy Sausalito.  He and his wife Helene led simple Agape meals for the retired law-skirting sailors who live on beat up tubs —"Anchor outs" they are derisively called, because they can not afford to rent slips,  Helene told me she will be there at 11 am to start the Agape.
"William and Helene went to India at Christmas and founded 'Katrina's Dream India' where Magda Kamble, a woman priest of the Church of North India will travel in a van across the country teaching in various Indian dioceses that men should not rape and kill women and girls but rather respect and treat them as Jesus wants us to treat others and be treated ourselves.
"At the last Lambeth Mother Magda Kamble was the Archbishop's chosen teacher of Biblical Prayer, if I remember correctly.
"May I request that somewhere in the public intention . . . William's journey home may be commemorated?
"With much love and vast gratitude to the giver of life while tears continue to come, George."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there anything we can do for George? =(

3:00 pm, May 08, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you. Aside from praying for him, please support the causes he espouses. He has good spiritual support locally, so I'm not worried at that level, but recently he had made a firm commitment to accomplish certain things before he died, and I fear this latest blow will undermine his physical strength.

3:15 pm, May 08, 2013  
Anonymous AM said...

The first prayer-blessing i handed down to my 5-year old son that he now memorizes and blesses me with in return: "The Lord bless you, the Lord keep you, the Lord will make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord will give you His light and His peace." I extend the same prayer-blessing to George and his family and to all people suffering for the cause of what is right. I have in mind in particular those who fought for the welfare of poor workers in poor countries, enslaved and strangled not only by the corrupt arms of their own leaders but also are under the greedy opportunism of capitalists from rich countries. May our prayers and beholding for the Bangladesh garment factory workers who died rise like incense into the heavens, and touch as well the hearts of the stone-hearted.

8:57 am, May 09, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy Victory Day, Maggie.

George and William are victorious because they stand witness to that 'something greater'.

Peace be with you.

9:44 am, May 09, 2013  
Anonymous MS said...

How does one balance excitement and calm so as to not desert the Now?

3:58 pm, May 09, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Let both flow past your place of peace...

5:26 pm, May 09, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

…Wow, that really helped…lots more precision in the peace. (Thanks MS for the question, Maggie for the response!)

Back to the simplicity, complexity equation - I guess Z finally whittles down to a 'place of peace', leaving you free to dog paddle around God's swimming pool?

9:03 pm, May 09, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thankyou for sharing George's story Maggie - his love is amplified in his grief - I am reminded of Job and his gift of honest humility - difficult to express my response in words but there is something here that invites a companionship in the beholding - in solitude being present with and for others in prayer - silent and spoken. And thanks to AM for the reminder of that beautiful blessing - it sings through the tears. Tessa

9:00 am, May 10, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,

What is an Agape meal?



3:25 pm, May 10, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

In the modern sense it is a para-Eucharistic meal. In my view, this is a false distinction. What we need to ask, rather, is what meal is NOT Eucharistic?

3:50 pm, May 10, 2013  
Anonymous MS said...

This discussion of the Eucharist reminds me of a novelish bio I read recently about Mary. It describes Jesus' life from her perspective - these were tumultuous times for her, especially after Joseph died.

But it ends with Mary eating bread and drinking wine with the disciples after the Easter story - whenever they do this she can feel Jesus more than she ever could while He was 'alive'. Finally, she has a sense of Peace because she starts to understand the 'Why?'.

5:15 pm, May 10, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Lately I've been toying with John 17:20-24: 'As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.'

This seems to me to be a theologically expanded re-statement of the Great Commandment: to love God, neighbour and self with a single love that is 'the mind of Christ'. The Eucharist might be thought of as a manifestation of this, a 'touchstone' if you like, a nexus for the perichoresis (circulation, dance) of relationship. As I've written elsewhere ('Sexuality, Otherness and the Truth of the Self') the unknowability of God is the same unknowability of the other and of the truth of our town selves, and it is focused/found in the still centre of the fragmented Host.

5:24 pm, May 10, 2013  
Anonymous MS said...

Yeah, that's a good one. This from the BCP helps put things in perspective for me as well:

Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name.

5:49 pm, May 10, 2013  
Anonymous Matthew Carlisle said...

After reading your last comment Maggie I was holding my 9 month old little girl in front of the mirror and it struck me how different it is to look at her directly as opposed to looking at her through a mirror. Even when you make eye contact through a mirror it is a very 'dim' encounter as opposed to a direct three dimensional eye-to-eye encounter and that made me think about a number of things:
1)The Eucharist, surely this is an encounter with the other who always relates to us directly over the table.
2) The Liturgy, your grief about the flattening of the liturgy seems to be about a) the liturgy acting like a mirror that reflects ourselves back to ourselves or b)is hijacked so that all people can see is an idol and they never get chance to see that the mirror is supposed to be pointing to another Reality, or c) the liturgy turns a three dimensional encounter with God into a distorted two-dimensional reflection/representation of God.
3)Shared Meals - When we share a meal with someone we usually look at them directly and communicate with them either verbally or non verbally, and that part of sharing a meal with others is that somehow our looking and sharing and communicating transfigures us in the process - love somehow gets through and transfigures (we know not how). There is all the difference in the world between a shared meal and a group of people sat in front of the TV with food on their laps. In a similar way there is all the difference in the world between really sharing the eucharist in the liturgy and distorting it into a)another experience that reflects myself back to myself, b)an ego trip for someone, c)an idol that forgets its purpose is to help us encounter God. At worst the eucharist becomes the equivalent of watching TV with food on our laps or sitting in front of the mirror admiring ourselves. At best the eucharist, wherever it is celebrated, leads us into the mystery of love, of agape, of relational love.
I realise that these thoughts are not all that clear but I needed to get them down because they seem to relate to your friend and his son William - by God's grace they beheld the other directly, whether that was God or people other's had written off. How we look at God and how we look or don't look at one another really is a matter of life and death for someone somewhere - whether it's Bangladesh or the person sat next to us watching TV.
Hope this helps - if not ignore it.

7:59 pm, May 10, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you, Matthew, for your deeply moving comment.

8:19 pm, May 10, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"How we look at God and how we look or don't look at one another really is a matter of life and death for someone somewhere - whether it's Bangladesh or the person sat next to us watching TV." <-- That is a very powerful thought, thank you.

Jesus talked about us needing to love like a child/look at God like a child. It's reciprocal I think because when I feel the closest to God is when I can see God REALLY happy about doing fun stuff for me. God gets really excited sometimes! (Actually, we know that God is a constant but grows in relative value…)

8:39 pm, May 10, 2013  
Anonymous Al Mozol said...

@ Matthew Carlisle - this is beautifully moving, how you weave Eucharist and beholding! The line "somehow our looking and sharing and communicating transfigures us in the process - love somehow gets through and transfigures (we know not how)" cuts through the power of silent beholding, not knowing/counting how much/many slips into the beholding, the "return of investment". Yes, parents have their ways of beholding this silent, transfiguring love with their sons and daughters, Eucharistic in some sense. More than parents' and their children's uniqueness, it is this potent, silent, transfiguring love that bonds them in a very Eucharistic way - parents who believe they can infinitely pass on a vision that their lives are anchored on to their children while learning from them, being blessed by them, believing that they can bless the world in their own mysterious ways. There is reciprocal beholding, both transfiguring beyond knowledge as you have noted. This goes without denying however that this reciprocal beholding passes through human limitations - my limitation as a father, my son's limitation in the area for example of his growing brain. As Maggie says - the locale of beholding is in between the fragmented Host. But the Center's fiery, transfigurative power is always more humble than the fragmentation of the human hubris. This I believe is the ground for hoping. The very "nature" of creation is Eucharistic, infinitely giving despite and through fragmentations. And it's wisdom and shalom that passes human understanding. I tiptoe most of the time in my loving. Or at least I try "knowing" that the ground i stand on is Holy.

4:09 am, May 11, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Message for Anonymous: think again. As J.B. Phillips entitled his book, 'Your god is too small'.

9:24 pm, May 11, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tessa -

Can you elaborate on the reciprocal nature of your vows?

Thanks, Amber

7:03 pm, May 12, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

message for Amber from Tessa

An interesting question - though I'd find it helpful if you could unpack it a bit? Which vows?


2:28 pm, May 13, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I first remember reading about your vows in this comment:

Dear Maggie - Following your latest really helpful posting and the ongoing comments may I tell a little of my story? For the last 5 years I have been holding together my priestly orders with a deepening practice of silence and solitude. I am not in parish ministry, but have general license given to enable me to do just this. I have no local status or role and am self-supporting. Stability - staying put - and uselessness are constant companions - along with the inner cry which I have learned is as much God's cry for me as mine for God. Slowly, from within a very hidden life, opportunities have grown, one of which is to lead monthly sessions of silent prayer at the local church as well as the Service of Silence and Beholding which you helped me shape. There is also the nagging voice that tells me I am naive to even try to follow in this way and yet despite all the difficulties the idea of renouncing my vows doesn't feel life-giving. This Christ-path is one of kenosis - and I am encouraged in the midst of doubt by what feels like a shared struggle to, as you say 'realise our spiritual maturity, and our divinity.' Thankyou to all - with love and prayer

And then you spoke of this:

Time and again I have asked, cried into the dark and silence, how is it possible to stay, to hold to the path of priestly vows without becoming bitter and giving in to the pressure to conform to the 'convention of consolation'. I know for myself, having let go of so much (and this is ongoing work), that it is in silence and beholding that God's work of transfiguration occurs - turning becomes seeing, seeing becomes being and in being there is FIRE!

But one of my favorite things you've said was this on Good Friday:

'You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves ...'

Thank you for helping. Yours, Amber

5:27 pm, May 13, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Tessa writes:

Thoughts in response to Amber’s question: ‘Can you elaborate on the reciprocal nature of your vows?’

My immediate response is – no, I’m not sure I can, but I would like to be able to do so. To be honest, I am puzzled by the suggestion of reciprocity; but here are some thoughts…

• I entered into this public ministry responding to a heartfelt call to witness to and serve Christ – it was a tough journey made with the full support of family and friends and in the face of institutional opposition to women priests. I made vows sincerely before God and the people.

• However, no matter how sincerely held, my perspective now is that priesthood is the construct of institutional control. Baptism is the priesting of the people – and where this is taken seriously the gifts of the people are set free – mutually empowered to live the ‘eternal now’ of the kingdom. A hierarchy of priesthood (which by its nature controls) militates against this.

• From this perspective –
o I am reminded of the way in which snakes shed their skin in order to grow – there is something of that for me – of being called to shed the which constricts and prevents growth – stepping away from parish ministry is enabling this process of growth into a new way of kenosis in Christ – poured out in prayer and beholding.

o Solitude, silence and beholding bring me into community – to be ‘in Christ’ is to be immersed in the passion and compassion of God, flowing in and through all.

o Beholding is mutual – ‘I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine’ (Song of Songs 6:3).Within this embrace, the grasping of power or control has no power or place.

o Beholding is something we do together, not me for you or you for me. There is certainly no hierarchy of expertise! Together. Mutually. In Christ. Such is the path of transfiguration.

o Jesus said – ‘Love one another’ – this command to reciprocal living requires mutual commitment – not hierarchy.

• We are called to each bring all of ourselves – gifts and weaknesses, all that we are and all that we are not, into the arena of grace to seek the face of God and together to ‘behold the beauty of the Lord’ (Psalm 27:4).

• The poem beginning ‘You do not have to be good’ is by Mary Oliver entitled Wild Geese. See

• Maggie’s book, Pillars of Flame: power, priesthood and spiritual maturity is very helpful!

Peace be with you

1:16 pm, May 14, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I've traveled down the path of kenosis - the Christ path, I've come across 'desert days' and 'transfiguration days'. (Sometimes in my morning prayers I ask for transfiguration days! =)))))))

But on the desert days I've gotten into the habit of asking myself: Is there is somewhere/something/someone I would rather be/doing/with?

Profoundly, I can never think of an affirmative response. If I were on a beach, eating my favorite meal, with my best friend, but God wasn't there and just as excited about it as I was - then it sounds more like hell than heaven.

So far the 'shedding of my skin' through kenosis has been the process of learning that God is the source of all things, how to cling to God during rough patches, solace that God knows the Truth about who I am (He knew it before I was born!), and that Love and God are Realities. Freedom. Hope. Love always wins. It is a blessed privilege to stand witness to that 'something greater'. A relief that I don't have to be perfect. An adventure. A water slide. Laughter. Facing the storm. Opening my mind. Not accepting doubt as an option. Understanding that fear is a very real temptation that must be identified and conquered. Hugs. Tears. Openness. Vulnerability. Excitement. Pain. Rest. Calm. Peace.

5:02 pm, May 14, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Message to Tessa from Amber:

Thank you so very much for taking the time to work with me on this. I'll not use too many words, but I will say that I feel a real sense of forward progress.

7:55 pm, May 14, 2013  
Anonymous MS said...


Yes, one's focus must always be on the Kingdom of God.

3:01 pm, May 15, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Catherine,

I didn't post your comment as it was too personal, but thank you, and I will look forward to what you do.



6:09 pm, June 03, 2013  

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