An achievable perfection

Agnes and Ronald in Avignon 2007
Yesterday I conducted the memorial service of two of my good friends, Agnes and Ronald Gabriel. In that service, along with a couple of other people, I made a few reflective comments in remembrance of them.

These comments preceded a short ceremony involving the lighting of candles. I began by lighting a tall candle to represent life itself and, as light begets light, from it I lit a slightly smaller candle that stood for Agnes' and Ronald's lives. From their candle Ronald's son, Stephen, then lit four more standing for the love and compassion Agnes and Ronald shared and gave to each other, their families, friends and colleagues; for their healing work as doctors with children and with adults; for their creativity as artists, writers, teachers and academics; for their generous spirit of adventure which encouraged all of us to live life to the full. And then, in the spirit of love I extinguished Agnes' and Ronald's candle saying that as we did this we could see that the Candle of Life still burnt as did the candles of love, healing, creativity and adventure that had been lit from their flame.

We used this ceremony at both their individual funerals (they died only six months apart) and during them the candle I lit after the Candle of Life had been for Agnes and Ronald as individuals. But I knew them only as a couple (they had got together in the very early seventies) and so, in this memorial service, before scattering their ashes in our memorial garden behind the church, it seemed highly appropriate to reunite them in the symbolism of a single flame.

Candles for Agnes and Ronald after the service
This reminded me of something I often say at the end of marriage services, words which are connected with the lighting of a single candle. At the beginning of the service the couple individually light the two outside candles of a three pronged candelabra. Then, after the promises have been exchanged and before I pronounce the couple married, together, they light the middle candle and I say some words uttered by the Baal Shem Tov:

From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together, and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being.

I have long loved this image and am happy to keep using it in certain contexts - especially when you are lighting candles - but I'm aware that the mention of the words 'light' and 'heaven' leads many people when they hear this story to start thinking metaphysically and theologically of a world beyond and behind our own. As you know, I'm trying to encourage people to think differently about this and to see what we call the Divine as being very much part of this natural world. So, today, - to keep the latent metaphysics in check - I want to link this admittedly attractive and alluring image of a united, heavenward streaming flame with another illustration which keeps us very much down to earth. What this illustration is I'll tell you in a moment but as I re-explore it today I want to take the opportunity to pull it into close proximity with some of the thinking of the anthropologist Tim Ingold that we have explored in a couple of ways over the past few weeks.

It is important also to reveal at the outset that throughout this address I'm holding together in my mind the word 'God' and 'Life'. This has a powerful resonance in the immediate context because when Ronald died and Agnes, Stephen (Ronald's son) and I were preparing the service we decided to use the words which begin all our services here: Divinity is present everywhere. The whole world is filled with God. But, in certain places and at certain times, we feel a specialty of presence. May this be such a place and such a time. Late in the evening the day before the funeral Agnes suddenly said to me 'I don't want you to say God I want you to say Spirit of Life.' She surprised herself here because she had always been quite happy with the word God but at that moment, all of a sudden, she strongly felt it was the wrong word. The word God was used elsewhere in the service but she was adamant that it should not be used here. I want to follow her intuition a little further today.

Before coming to my illustration I want firstly to consider one of Jesus' most problematic, difficult, and even impossible, calls is found in the Gospel according to Matthew where he calls us "to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

This is a teaching that has had the potential to cause a lot of angst and it is perhaps why Luke early on nudged the teaching in a different way. In his gospel he changed 'perfection' to the slightly more achievable - though still very hard - "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36).

Everything hinges, of course, on what is meant by that word 'perfection.' One of the major problems here is that we, i.e. huge swathes of humankind - following Plato - has tended to interpret the word to be speaking of some kind of absolute  state of being rather than as gesturing towards a dynamic and open-ended way of being.

Our human conception of in what consists the Father's, that is to say God's, perfection was, in part, arrived at by taking what human beings believed were the best human characteristics/feelings and then expanding them out to infinity. So right from the start there existed a strand within human thinking that placed perfection infinitely beyond our reach. Then, and utterly insanely, those who held to such a view continued to encourage people to try to achieve it. Complete madness.

This later meaning isn't helped by the fact that the Greek word which underlies our English word is 'telios' which means 'end' or 'purpose'. We preserve this Greek word in our language in the technical philosophical/theological term 'teleology'. In theological circles the teleological argument, sometimes known as the argument from design, holds that there exists an order and direction in nature and that this shows in some way the existence of God - a God who is perfect, static, immutable and wholly complete. The most famous current and deeply problematic version of this argument in our culture, as many of you will know, is known as "intelligent design". In this view God's plan is perfect and so the world is playing out wholly to this same plan and will do so until it reaches completion, i.e. God's perfection. So perfection at the beginning, a perfect unfolding, a perfect end. As the book of Revelation puts it: God is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last (1:8, 1:11, 21:6 and 22:13).

But the idea, that life is "a movement towards terminal closure" (Tim Ingold, "Being Alive - Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description", p. 3) is one that you will remember Tim Ingold - and I for that matter - wants strongly to challenge. Ingold (and I) wants to encourage us to replace the idea that life or the life-process is ends driven with, " . . . a recognition of life's capacity continually to overtake the destinations that are thrown up in its course" and he noted that:

"It is of the essence of life that it does not begin here or end there, or connect to a point of origin with a final destination, but rather that it keeps on going, finding a way through the myriad of things that form, persist and break up in its currents. Life, in short, is a movement of opening, not of closure" (Tim Ingold, "Being Alive - Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description", p. 3-4).

I think there is good reason to think that Jesus understood his own way of being-in-the-world in a similar fashion and I think this because his teaching's overall weight isn't one which seems to be encouraging anyone follow a life tending towards closure but, instead, continually to have life and hope and to have it abundantly. So, at this point I'd like to suggest that we may better understand the teaching to be perfect 'as your heavenly Father is perfect' as a call to be 'perfect as life is perfect' in its continual movement of opening not closure. Perhaps this is what Agnes had intuited when she wanted to speak of God as the Spirit of Life.

OK, with that thought in mind we can turn to the illustration I referred to at the beginning of this address. Some of you may remember it - it is 'lichen' and why it connects with my close friends will quickly become clear in a moment.

Lichens are fascinating composite organisms consisting of a symbiotic association of, on the one hand a fungus and, on the other, some kind of photosynthetic partner which is usually either a green alga or cyanobacterium. Now I'm not a biologist and so cannot speak in any meaningful way about the important scientific issues involved in this. No, what fascinates me as a minister of religion is how it seems that the two partners involved in this living symbiotic relationship appear to have got involved with each other *after* they had achieved a certain kind of perfection as separate organisms. Indeed the individual organism still exist and thrive apart from each other.

Now Agnes and Ronald were just such individuals - both achieved success as senior consultant psychiatrists in the NHS during the 1960s and then in later decades in Canada. They both individually had lively social and artistic interests and successes. Then one day they met each other and the perfection of their individual lives - a perfection remember which is tied to openness not closure - was itself the very possibility of their having an ongoing perfection as a symbiotic organism. They were individually alga and fungus with their own distinct kinds of perfect flourishing. But, together, they became lichen and in this new form they also flourished in a new kind of perfect way - a way that helped them continually to overtake the destinations that were thrown up in the course of their collective life.

But, in keeping with the trajectory of this address, please remember that Agnes' and Ronald's perfection did not consist in achieving some absolute moral or physical state - they were not some holy or saintly couple - God Lord, no, they were as prone to the same failings and foibles as any of us. Instead their perfection as a couple was not a trajectory of a single light streaming heavenward towards a static absolute perfection but one which is better thought of as a 'horizontal', plural and symbiotic streaming into or, perhaps better, a comminglement with the world.

What was wonderful about them was that in the eleven years that I knew them at no point, even during very serious illness and then eventual death, was there ever a sense that they were somehow converging on a moment of closure. And, because they were not converging on closure but instead were continually commingling with the world overtaking the destinations that were thrown up before them we who knew them were encouraged to live likewise.

It seems to me that we as a religious community must learn from this. Churches often understand themselves as coming from something perfect (God - Alpha) and as a body which should be seeking to *restore* this same perfection in a New Heaven and a New Earth (Omega). Indeed the image of the spark of perfect light existing within us (as individuals and as a community) is, thanks to our culture, very strong and we can see why it is tempting to talk about those sparks re-uniting as a single pure flame to stream back heavenward into God's perfection. But I'd quite like to encourage us to see the world differently - including flame and light - and, though not as glamorous as light, the image of lichen can help.

It helps us understand our life together (our symbiosis) not as occurring between Alpha and Omega, converging on closure on a single perfection but as Alga and Fungus - a plural, commingled life which continually (and 'horizontally') overtakes the destinations which are thrown up before us. To be people of Life, light and lichen.

So, I say again, perhaps something like this was what Agnes suddenly saw when she insisted on speaking of God as the Spirit of Life. I am happy to have been able to accede to her request, not least of all because of the fruit it has born in my own life.


Harvey said…
Hi Andrew: Thanks for your weekly blog. I read it regularly here in the US. I have found very helpful your referring to Ingold's "lines of becoming" in the last month. I am leading a discussion group here which is using Thich Nhat Hanh's Living Buddha, Living Christ" and Paul Knitter's "Without Buddha I could not be a Christian" and I find echoes of their use of the term "interbeing" and Ingold's "lines of becoming." Be well, Harvey Noordsy
Maisie said…
I find your address quite moving. You have explored in a sensitive yet profound way the common humanity and eternal spark shared by us all as we commingle with the world. Your choice of metaphors is interesting. There is a lot here upon which to ponder. Thank you Andrew.