Sunday, 21 July 2013

Through the Study Window

In 1996, the Reverend Tony Keogh wrote an occasional series of articles in the monthly magazine "The Pilot" which he called "Through the Study Window". Here is one on mobility and the idea of life as pilgrimage, and how the nomadic ideal is important even if we don't physically move.
My late partner Annie Parmeter spent a good deal of her twenties on the road in England, living with traveller and Romany communities, doing odd jobs, gathering scrap metal for sale. Despite the fact that these communities were mostly law abiding, they were often harassed by the law as if they were law breakers.
And there are people in Jersey who live in vans, often moving from one location to another. They may have odd jobs, but owning (as for most locals) is probably out of their reach, and they prefer this lifestyle to renting. Sometimes there is a "clampdown" and the police move them on. I visited some with Annie, as she had friends there. I'm not going to mention some of the places they resided, for obvious reasons.
It is very hard for a settled society to come to terms with the nomad, something Tony Keogh brings across very well. And yet the great Jewish leaders - Abraham, Moses - lived nomadic lives. The fragment we have of Jesus life just before his death was out "on the road", an itinerant ministry.
The nomad life is sign of the ephemeral nature of existence and for Christians, a signpost for life as pilgrimage and not to become settled and complacent (as the Israelites so often did), for humanists, a cautionary note that every day is precious, for every day could be the last.
Through the Study Window by Tony Keogh
Through the window, the sun is pleasantly warm; outside, the east wind makes it feel like winter. At this moment, 2.20 in the afternoon, the church is obliterated by a large marquee on the Rectory lawn as Alison, our elder daughter, is celebrating her 30th birthday with a mega party tonight.
Overhead in the clear blue sky, I can see the vapour trail of a jet and I can hear an aeroplane taking off from the airport. Along the road, I can hear the traffic - cars, lorries and motorcycles. Who said that this was a quiet country parish?
I sometimes think that everyone is on the move: some societies find that mobility is disconcerting and that stability is every-thing; other societies take mobility for granted. The American Dream, for example, started with the covered wagon and recent censuses show that more than 43 million Americans move house each year.
This is an annual migration roughly equivalent to the entire population (men, women and children) of England and Wales relocating themselves every year and it all seems to pass unnoticed except, apparently, for the large number of entries in the Yellow Pages for truck rental companies!
I suppose that it would be a nightmare scenario if everyone in Jersey moved home each and every year yet the Christian church is meant to be a community on the move; we are a pilgrim people. We are reminded that we are like the great Jewish patriarchs of old. "They only saw them [that is, God's promises] from afar off, and they admitted that they were strangers and pilgrims upon the earth (Hebrews 11:13).
None of the great Jewish patriarchs entered into the full possession of the promises which God had made to Abraham. To the end of their days, they were nomads and they never lived settled lives in a settled land, they were forever moving on and were to live as strangers in a strange land.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews used certain vivid Greek words about them. He called them "xenoi." "Xenos" is a Greek word for a stranger and a foreigner. In the ancient world, the fate of the stranger was hard; he was regarded with hatred, suspicion and contempt. In Sparta, "xenos" was the equivalent of "barbarous" and the stranger and the barbarian were one and the same thing. A man wrote, complaining that he was despised "because I am a 'xenos', a foreigner." Another man wrote that, however poor a home was, it was better to live at home that 'epi xenes', in a foreign country. When communities sat down for a common meal, those who sat down to it were divided into members and 'xenoi - members and outsiders. This word could even mean a refugee and, all their lives, the patriarchs were foreigners and pilgrims in a land which was never their own.
At any time and in any place, it can be an unhappy thing to be a stranger and a pilgrim in a strange land but in ancient times, there was added to that natural unhappiness the bitterness of humiliation. That picture of the pilgrim and the stranger became the picture of the Christian life. Tertullian said of the Christian, "He knows that on earth he has a pilgrimage, but that his dignity is in heaven." Clement of
Alexandria said, "We have no fatherland on earth." Augustine said, "We are pilgrims exiled from our fatherland."
It is not that Christians should be foolishly other-worldly, it is not that we should detach ourselves from the life and work of the world, but that we should remember that we are on our way. There is an unwritten saying of Jesus, "The world is a bridge. The wise man will pass over it but will not build his house upon it." The Christian is a pilgrim of eternity.
It is now 3.30 pm. The sun still shines and the traffic still trundles. The tent, the symbol of the nomad, is still on the lawn. Alison is thirty. This year sees the anniversary of my thirty years of full-time ministry and twenty years of Rector of Trinity. We have travelled a long way and not just physically. I hope that you will enjoy the rest of the trip to heaven.

1 comment:

James said...

I think that the comment about Moses and Abraham is not an entirely fair comparison. Both were travellers, but the Biblical narrative indicates that there was always an end in view - the Promised Land, where God would say, "OK, stop, you've arrived".

A conventional Christian would transfer that physical stop-point into a metaphorical one (call it heaven if you like), but I rather doubt that the Romany/Traveller communities you and Annie experienced would even have a metaphorical stop-point beyond life's end.

(Remind me: was it you that did a series of postings on Romany burial customs?)