Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Reading ‘John in the Spirit’

Saint John’s Church, Kilkenny, where this week’s clergy conference came to an end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

The Dublin and Glendalough Diocesan Clergy Conference came to an end this afternoon. We had been meeting since Monday afternoon in the River Court Hotel in John Street, Kilkenny, looking out on the River Nore, with Kilkenny Caste towering majestically above on the other bank of the river.

In his fourth presentation to the conference, Professor David Ford, who is Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge University, spoke to us about “John in the Spirit.”

Professor Ford is working on a major commentary on Saint John’s Gospel, began, though, by identifying three ingredients that he says are needed in the theological interpretation of Scripture:

1, Scholarship, which is at the heart of any theological interpretation of Scripture. One needs to listen to what good scholars are saying about the text. He referred to this as the “archaeology of the text.”

2, But scholarship is not enough on its own. In reading Scripture, we continue to generate new meanings and new understandings. If scholarship is the “archaeology of the text,” then hermeneutics is “the teleology of the text.” That exercise is utterly unpredictable as we are invited to constantly interpret the texts anew.

3, In the theological interpretation of Scripture, theology, we also need to be in dialogue with other disciples, including science and the arts.

He then outlined a set of maxims offered for reflection, presented within two all-encompassing maxims.

His first all-encompassing maxims is that we read Scripture for the sake of God and God’s purposes, we do things for God’s sake. “Hallowed be thy name” is the basic motive for the reading of scripture – we are “reading for God’s sake.”

He then presented these nine maxims:

1, We listen to the Bible as God’s loving cry to humanity, the cry of wisdom. God longs for us to listen attentively, and we do this through reading Scripture.

2, We must figure ourselves into God’s continuing drama. The call to follow is for us all, and we are taking part in a significant drama, in which we have responsibility for moving on to the next scene or part in that drama.

3, We read the Old Testament with the New Testament, taking it seriously.

4, We give priority to the plain sense of Scripture, and its multiple meanings, and its different levels and dimensions.

5, We learn from the many witnesses to Jesus Christ within and beyond the Bible. Unlike Muslims with the Quran, we have Four Gospels and not one text, with four different and diverse human testimonies to Christ.

6, We learn as part of the Church, which is the primary community of interpretation of the Bible. The only faith that is healthy is a faith that has been taught to think, he said, adding that an educated Church is “utterly central” for the 21st century.

7, We learn especially from wise readers of Scripture, past and present – he gave as example Jean Vanier work on Saint John’s Gospel.

8, We learn from studying with those beyond the Church, and this includes inter-faith engagement.

9, We read in the Spirit, desiring God and God’s future.

He then presented the second of his two all-encompassing maxims as his “wrapping-up maxim or principle,” which is to read in love, a love that is for God and all God’s creatures, the rule of love. Any interpretation of Scripture that goes against the love of God and the love of neighbour goes against God’s plan.

And, returning to a point he made repeatedly over the last three days, he said God is involved in such a way that evil can never have the last word.

Turning to the title of his paper, ‘John in the Spirit,’ he recalled leading a Bible study on John 20 in a prison in Louisiana, and the impact on prisoners of the account of in that chapter of Jesus appearing behind locked doors.

If John believes his own Gospel, and that he has been given the spirit, then he believes he is writing the Gospel in the Spirit, and that he is being led into all truth (John 16: 13), he said. “He is doing theology and believes he is being led into all truth.”

John has a pervading perception of being led into more and more and more truth. He is writing at the transition into the next generation, and believes greater things are going to happen.

He said every Christian community can hope for more and more in the future, rather than thinking it is facing a deterioration from the “good old days.” We must believes that the Spirit is going to lead us further into more and more truth.

John saw himself as writing Scripture, and when John interprets Genesis in the way he does in the Prologue, he is teaching us how to read him.

Turning to the story of Nicodemus in John 3, he pointed out that John does not have a birth narrative, but all the elements are here.

This chapter provides the last time the “Kingdom of God” is mentioned in Saint John’s Gospel, and he then switches to talking about “eternal life.”

The stairs inside Saint John’s Church Kilkenny ... what does Saint John mean by being born from above? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

In John 3, the elements of that we find that are in the nativity narratives in the other Gospels include the dark night, the birth, the mother’s womb, the Spirit above and the question ‘How can these things be?’ (John 3: 9), which echoes Mary’s question to the angel: ‘How can this be?’ (Luke 1: 34.)

He asked what it means when John says: “so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3: 21). He put this within the context of the invitation to indwelling. John is inviting us to inhabit a place, and to inhabit it above all in prayer.

He closed by inviting us to meditate on the verse: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth ...” (John 16: 13).

After a morning of Johannine studies, it was appropriate that the conference came to an end with a celebration of the Eucharist in Saint John’s Church, which is just a short walk from the River Court Hotel.

Time for prayer and poetry in Kilkenny

The former Kilkenny College reflected in the waters of the River Nore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Our two principal speakers at the Dublin and Glendalough Clergy Conference this afternoon [Tuesday 7 February 2012] were Professor David Ford of Cambridge and the poet Micheal O Siadhail.

David Ford, who spoke about ‘Theology and Poetry in the Drama of Living,’ spoke of those cries that are central to our Christian faith. The Psalms remind us constantly that “I cry aloud to God, and he will hear me,” while we are told constantly that “Wisdom cries out ...”

We emit cries and are cried to, and there are key cries. Wisdom is worked out in the heat and the intensity of life, and wisdom is the discernment of cries. Even in politics, governments try to respond to multiple cries. Wise living is a test of wisdom, of how we discern our own responsibilities and priorities in relation to the cries that come to us from many quarters.

He asked: what is the wise way to live our faith in this world? And he identified the cries that set up the dynamic of Christian living:

1, “The Lord is God”, to which the response is : “Allelulia, praise the Lord” – in which ia or “I am” speaks of God.

2, “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.” The response: is: “Come Lord Jesus.”

3, Receive the Holy Spirit. The response is: “Come, Holy Spirit.” All we have to do is ask and it shall be given.

He then spoke of four further cries:

4, “Beloved let us love one another.” Response: “Let everyone who is thirsty come.”

5, The cry of the world. The response is “Your kingdom come.”

6, “Hear instruction and be wise.” Response: “But where shall wisdom be found?”

7, The call to each of us by name, to which the response is: “Here I am.”

Turning to the ending of Saint John’s Gospel, he said that in response to “Follow me” in the drama of living, we only know your own story in that following of the living Jesus through the rest of our life, in the drama of loving.

These are Intensities that are also expressed in poetry. Professor Ellen Dais of Duke University points out that Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs are poetry. So too is most of the Book of Job.

He spoke too of his work with the poet Micheal O Siadhail and how it has had an impact on how he writes theology, and introduced us to the Biblical prayer, “Hallowed be thy name,” and the rabbinical concept, expressed in the Talmud of Kiddush hashem, the concept of martyrdom as hallowing the name of God.

He asked us how we can live with joy after the Holocaust, for if we do not live a vibrant life Hitler wins.

Speaking out of his experiences of meeting survivors of genocide in Rwanda, he hoped that evil does not have the last word, yet recognised the reality of genocide, and spoke of the need to hold together the Cross and the Resurrection.

As he spoke of Patrick Kavanagh as “the poet is a theologian,” and how he speaks openly in his Self-Portrait (1962) that “the poet is a theologian,” I was reminded how John Jordan sp0eaks of Kavanagh as “an instinctive theologian.”

But he regretted how s often the Old Testament is ignored in liturgy and in preaching. In Saint Bene’t’s, Cambridge, the tradition is one of preaching on all three readings. And he reminded us of how as Anglicans so many of us have been shaped spiritually and theologically by the canticles in Saint Luke’s Gospel: Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79) and Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32).

Wisdom from the past ... Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Later, Professor Micheal O Siadhail, the poet and author who was speaking on ‘Talking in tongues,’ talked of how he and David Ford had been friends for over 46 years, and how each had been the other’s first reader.

He spoke of the knot-tiers who knot together the strands of the story, including those who are living, such as Jean Vanier and Nelson Mandela, and figures from the past, including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

He told the story of how Karl Barth had once preached a university sermon. Afterwards, an astronomer approached him and said he knew little about theology but said all religion could be summarised in the words: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Barth, with typical humour, replied that he was only a theologian and knew nothing about astronomy, but thought it could be summarised ih the words: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.”

A glimpse into the past ... Rothe House in Parliament Street, Kilkenny, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

During a break in the conference this afternoon, I took a stroll through the streets Kilkenny, dropping into the bookshops and into Rothe House, the Tudor merchant house that serves as the offices, museum and library of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society.

Kilkenny is so rich in architectural heritage that it is difficult to pick and choose which buildings to visit in such a short time.

On my way to Rothe House, I stopped briefly at the Langton House, which had been home to a few generations of the Comerford family in the 18th and 19th centuries. Over the last few decades it has changed hands as a restaurant, and in recent years it has been Colosseum, an Italian restaurant, but it was difficult to know this afternoon whether it is still open.

From Rothe House, I walked back along High Street again, stopping here and there to photograph buildings, and then made my way up Patrick Street and turned onto Ormonde Road to photograph Saint Kieran’s College, one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Kilkenny.

The Parade, Kilkenny ... repaved in recent month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Parade has been pleasantly repaved in the last two years or so, and I stopped briefly to look in at Kilkenny Castle, which I have mentioned in my current columns in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).

Back in Rose Inn Street, in a small antique shop opposite Shee’s Almshouse, I bought a home communion set that one of my colleagues had spotted in the shop window. We then went for a walk along the banks of the River Nore, beneath the castle ramparts, as far as the junction of the river and the old canal.

On the other bank of the River Nore, the River Court Hotel, where I am staying, spread out beside us, and then beside the hotel, the former premises of Kilkenny, just where the river cascades over a weir on its way down to Inistioge and New Ross.

Kilkenny College traces its history back to a college of vicars’ choral in Saint Canice’s Cathedral that existed from the 13th century. In 1538, Piers Butler, Earl of Ormonde, and his wife, Margaret, founded a school to the west of the Cathedral, where the library now stands. So, when James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, founded Kilkenny College in John Street ca1666, he was following the Butler tradition of promoting education in the city. The school motto, Comme je trouve, comes from the Ormonde Butler coat-of-arms.

Kilkenny College soon became a famous school, and during the reign of James II in the 1680s the college had a short-lived status as a university. In the 1780s, a new college was built on the same site overlooking the River Nore.

The long list of famous past pupils includes Jonathan Swift, the author and satirist, who was Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and Bishop George Berkeley, the philosopher and Bishop of Cloyne, who gave his name to the university city of Berkeley in California. Others include William Congreve and George Farqhuar, both Restoration playwrights, John Banim, Thomas Prior, founder of the Royal Dublin Society, and David Beatty, first Sea Lord at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

At the end of the 19th century, the College was reduced to one pupil, and an amalgamation with the nearby Pococke School was its saving. In 1973, Kilkenny College and the Collegiate School, Celbridge, were amalgamated, and Kilkenny College became co-educational. In 1985, the college moved to a green-field site on Castlecomer Road.

The Georgian school building, with its elegant facade, now houses the offices of Kilkenny County Council.

Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, before the Conference Eucharist this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From my room looking out onto the River Nore and across to Kilkenny Castle, I walked up to Saint Canice’s Cathedral this evening for our Eucharist. After a reception in the Old Palace, we returned to the River Court Hotel for dinner. Tomorrow, David Ford talks about “John in the Spirit” before we leave Kilkenny and return to our parishes and our work and commitments.