Earlier this year I read the biography of a fascinating, unusual and complex artist. Hannah Gluckstein, who insisted on being known throughout her life as Gluck, both personally and professionally, was born into a Jewish family in London in 1895. She was an astonishingly gifted and dedicated painter, but one of the really sad features of her artistic life was that she became locked in a running battle with manufacturers of art materials, which she complained were substandard and regarded as unacceptable– which meant that for years and years she effectively stopped work altogether. Her obsession with the tools of her craft blocked her vocation as an artist, and so her creativity ceased. And the artistic world is a great deal poorer as a result.
Now, although I don’t doubt for a moment that artists need good materials – of course they do – there is a really important underlying issue here, which is true of many kinds of human life and human activity – not merely painting – which is how we retain an appropriate sense of balance. How do we keep our priorities in the right order? Because whatever our calling we can all be at risk of allowing things to become distorted. It is as if we have lost sight of the actual destination of a particular journey we are making, because we have become so distracted and irritated by the quality of the paving stones along the way. So we stop travelling.
And that is certainly true in relation to religion. Writing back in the 1590s, Richard Hooker, one of the great founding fathers of Anglican tradition and former Master of the Temple Church next door to us here, observed astutely that the Church is at one and the same time, both divine and human: yes, it is an authentic vehicle for the love and grace of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit; but it is also, inevitably, a human institution that will as a result be vulnerable to human failings. (Which incidentally is why the Church of England has never regarded itself as the only true Church, nor its leaders as infallible.)
That is also why, when potential candidates for ministry are sent for me to interview, as happens from time to time, one of the things I look for is a person who loves the Church enough – but not too much. By which I mean this: you have to love the Church enough to survive within it as one of its ordained representatives, despite its failings and weaknesses. But conversely, if you love the Church too much, you will risk losing sight of what the Church is actually there for, because you will very easily become too bound up in its trappings and its trivia – or to switch back to our previous image, to become more interested in the colour of the paving stones than the destination to which the path leads.
And Jesus was himself acutely aware of this very danger. He made it very clear that he wasn’t in the business of dismantling the structures of his religious tradition – he said specifically that he had not come to do away with the law and the prophets. But at the same time, it is obvious that he reserves his toughest critique for the religious authorities of his day – authorities who are so committed to ensuring that the details of the Jewish law are all observed to the letter … that they have lost sight of what the law is there for in the first place. Hence his saying that ‘The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’
And more importantly still, when our observance of the external trappings of religion becomes an end in itself, we are at risk of delude ourselves that our conduct is above reproach because we tick the boxes of ritual observance – when in terms of our conduct and what is written in our hearts, we could not be further from the kingdom of God.
A member of my extended family, who is now long deceased, was a committed member of her church – she was there every Sunday – and she also served on its parochial church council. So I was absolutely staggered to discover in conversation with her one day, that she didn’t actually believe in God. So why on earth did she go to church?
Her answer astonished me even more: because it turned out that the reason she went to church was because she wanted to set an example of good conduct to everyone else in the village. In short it was entirely to do with her status in the local community. It is interesting to reflect that she was also one of the most unpleasant human beings I have ever had to deal with, her actions amounting to cruelty on some occasions – though of course she was highly adept at reinterpreting the things that she said and did, to ensure that everyone else was always at fault.
But perhaps most revealingly, she let slip one day that she used to experience the same recurring nightmare in her sleep. She dreamt that she was the owner of a huge and impressive mansion, and she was proudly trying to show a group of guests around it – but to her mounting horror, far from impressing her visitors, each door she opened revealed a room that was more dark and dank and desolate and abandoned than the last; the whole place swathed in cobwebs of a scale worthy of Miss Haversham’s stately home.
Now it may well sound like cod psychology, but it seems pretty clear to me that her subconscious was actually bringing to light her obsession with show, and with impressing other people – and that at some deep level she feared that the opposite was the case – because all there really was inside was darkness and shame. For all the power she exercised during her lifetime, these days I look back at her as someone who was basically insecure and deluded and, actually, rather pathetic.
All this ties in very directly with the first part of our Gospel reading this morning. As usual, Jesus and his disciples are in deep trouble with the Pharisees, the guardians of religious observance, who policed the people to ensure that their religious practices were observed to the letter. On this occasion the Pharisees are condemning them for not cleansing their hands before they eat – by which they mean ritual ablutions rather than basic hygiene.
And it is this that has Jesus pointing out that the Pharisees really have lost sight of the point of it all – because the cleanliness that truly matters to God is not the observance of a ritual involving water – but the cleanliness within. Hence, as Jesus says – ‘it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out … for out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.’ If those are the thoughts that are written in your heart, then no amount of ritual handwashing is going to make things OK with God – however much you might convince yourself that they do.
And this same truth is also beautifully expressed by Jesus in the way he lived out his ministry – because he routinely takes to his heart the very people whom the religious authorities of his day rejected and cast out as unclean: lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes; the dregs of society.
That is what is so beautiful and so challenging about the Christian Gospel – it subverts everything. It exposes the way in which we try to delude ourselves that what we strive to present on the outside is a true reflection of what is going on inside, when nothing could be further from the truth. Fascinating that so many of the individuals whom the Church now recognises as saints were those who during their lives were most acutely aware of their own failings: because that ability and readiness to look honestly at who and what we really are is the mark of a true disciple. The process of growing closer to God has far less to do with our achievements than what is written in our hearts – and that involves the shedding of delusions.
There is a remarkable prayer dating back to the American Civil war, which adds another dimension to all of this, because it opens our eyes to the true nature of prayer in informing and shaping what it is that we strive for. Many of you will be familiar with this already, but it really does bear repeating. It is sometimes called the Confederate soldier’s prayer:
I asked for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I had asked for,
but everything that I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered,
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.