The Reverend Margaret Legg
‘What would you say Italy is like?’ I've just spent three packed days in Sorrento: Pompeii, roman villa San Marco of the fabulously wealthy and the Versailles of Italy, the Royal Palace of Caserta outside Naples, once a private home of the Bourbon Kings and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It was great albeit brief holiday. But if you were to ask me ‘What would you say Italy is like?’ I would struggle to reply. We had been caught up in our tourist agenda to grasp the character of the people, daily living, the rhythm of the country. Only by letting go of the ‘sacred text’ and our ‘must see’ list, could we have freed our minds and hearts, and begun to embrace the new landscape.
Jesus asks the disciples a similar kind of question: ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ Had they been tourists, spending 3 days in Palestine during their tour of the Eastern rim of the Roman Empire, they might well have replied, like the crowds: ‘John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets.’
The disciples had however, spent years with Jesus, living, travelling, watching and listening. Peter nails it. ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus is recognised and named for who he really is: God who is no longer keeping himself apart, only to be encountered, as happened to Moses, when one’s face is veiled; or to be heard in the sheer sound of silence, as Elijah realised when hiding in the cave. God is revealing himself as one like us, even subject to our, human power.
For his faith Peter is given a specific role. Jesus knows him inside out, better than he knows himself and so tells him he is to become the rock, the source of strength and authority for the new community, the Church, the followers of Jesus.
Turn the question round: ‘Who does Jesus say WE are?’ In Romans, St Paul points out that we each have an individual contribution to make to the building of the kingdom. We each have particular gifts that God is calling us to use in his service. To identify them we may need to know ourselves as God knows us.
John of the Cross offers a helping hand. The 16th century Spanish friar John of the Cross, poet, mystic and mentor to St Teresa of Avila, is perhaps best known for his writing entitled’ Ascent of Mount Carmel’. At the top of the Mount lies Paradise. To reach it the climber has gradually to discard what they are metaphorically carrying with them, until they have nothing ‘nada’.
The disciples have let go of a lot. Family, occupation, home, income. They will be transformed over time, and like Peter discover the part they are called to play in spreading Christianity.
He is not suggesting we jettison everything, as the disciples did, rather that we start to live on a different plane/level from usual. To let go of living on the level of our likes and dislikes – gratification, our own pleasure, our appetites for the best, the newest, the most elegant – whatever it may be. Living like this keeps us as tourists; we are doing more and more and really, truly, experiencing less and less.
John calls this saying ‘‘no’ to your desires’ and then ‘you will discover what your heart really desires. What makes you think your longings are God’s longings?’
This saying ‘no’ can require us to pause, to stay still, not in the sense of ‘not doing anything’ but in the way of ‘staying with something, seeing it through’, rather than discarding it when I don’t like it anymore. That can take courage, especially when the going gets tough; If we can stick with it, we allow the hidden depths to be revealed.
There can be something almost addictive in constantly moving on; there can even be a fear of having to stop. It’s almost as if we can be held hostage to our own needs.
When we shift our focus away from what WE want, it can be like creating a hole, waiting to be filled with one more sensation, be it another relationship or a new project. It can feel like starving, but it allows the genuinely new to be disclosed: new aspects, hidden depths in ourselves of which we were not aware. It allows us to make space for God to enter and fill us with his Spirit; it allows us to be held in his love and to discern the gifts we have and how God is calling us to use them.
Tourism is great: new climate, new food, new sights and a return to one’s normal routine revived. Life for the permanent tourist may not be so great. People with plenty of acquaintances but no deep friendships; people who live out of a suitcase but are away from home; people who experience a million sensations, but so many they may have trouble remembering them.
This Bank Holiday weekend may give us a chance to put down ‘the sacred text’ of the tourist, freeing our hearts and minds to reflect on how we live our lives and to consider the question: Who does Jesus say YOU are?