Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Cross Stands While the World Turns

Jean de Beaumetz
ca. 1335- 1396
Christ on the Cross with a Praying Carthusian Monk
Tempera on wood, 56 x 45,6 cm
Museum of Art, Cleveland

The picture is one of the 26 panels that once adorned the cells of the Carthusian monastery at Champmol near Dijon

A Carthusian monk is praying below the cross of Christ. St John the Evangelist is standing behind him, wringing his hands in sorrow, his head falling to one side in the same way as Christ's head. On the other side of the cross, to the right of Christ, the holy women are supporting the fainting Virgin

Anton Woensam von Worms
(before 1500 - before 1541)
Christ on the Cross with Carthusian Saints
Oak, 67 x 86,5 cm
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

Canon Petrus Blomevenna, prior of the Cologne Carthusians, is kneeling at the foot of the Cross with members of the Order at his side. The panel comes from the Carthusian monastery of St Barbara in Cologne.

Overshadowed by the British General Election and its aftermath,on Tuesday 4th May 2010, there was an ecumenical service held at Charterhouse, London, to commemorate the 475th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of St John Houghton and his companions.

In attendance were the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who delivered a sermon at the service to commemorate the Carthusian Martyrs. Also present was the Rt Revd George Stack, Auxiliary Bishop for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster; and the Revd Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, Superintendent Minister.

The Archbishop of Canterbury gave a sermon which was preceded by a Service of Solemn Vespers sung by Choristers of Westminster Cathedral in the Chapel at Sutton's Hospital in Charterhouse with Bishop George Stack as officiant

The full text of the Archbishop's sermon is below:

"In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis: 'The cross stands while the world turns' - The motto of the Carthusian Order, familiar to many people in this Chapel this evening, and a phrase which has many levels of meaning, many levels which, as we reflect on the meanings of martyrdom, we may begin to penetrate more deeply.

The cross stands while the world turns. So long as the world turns the cross is there.

In the words of Pascal "Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world, we must not sleep during that time." As long as the world is there, there is suffering, there is injustice, there is butchery.

The horrors inflicted on John Houghton and the martyrs of this house are horrors that human sin makes possible in every age, past, present and to come. And faced with that awareness that Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world, it is a very strong spirit that is not at some level alarmed, even cowed.

In one of the great historical novels of the twentieth century, Hilda Prescott's 'The Man on a Donkey' we follow the events around the Pilgrimage of Grace, events around the time, of course, of the martyrdoms we commemorate today.

And towards the end of that extraordinary novel, we watch and listen to Robert Aske, the leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace, in his last anguished moments, hanging in chains from the Keep of the Castle in York: "God did not now nor would in any furthest future prevail. Once he had come and died. If he came again, again he would die, and again and so forever, by his own will, rendered powerless against the free and evil wills of men. Then Aske met the full assault of darkness without reprieve of hoped for light, for God ultimately vanquished was no God at all. But yet, though God was not God, as the head of the dung worm turns, so his spirit turned blindly, gropingly, hopelessly loyal, towards that good, that holy, that merciful - which though not God, though vanquished - was still the last dear love of a vanquished and tortured man."

The cross stands while the world turns. If Christ came again so would his cross. Because that evil, that passionate commitment as it so often seems, to destroy and undermine the good, is written into the experience of fallen humanity. There is no shortcut, there is no happy ending, in any ordinary sense. The dying martyr in that passage can only turn to what he does not know; and what he does not know is very distant from, and very different from, the God who is a God of happy endings and solutions.

But the cross that stands while the world turns is the cross of God: and so we are taken to a second level, where we realise what it is that is being transacted in the cross of Christ, and what it is that is transacted in every moment of reckless, generous, terrible suffering for the sake of God's truth. Aske turns to what is still 'the last dear love of a vanquished and tortured man'.

In darkness and in torture, men and women throughout the centuries have turned to the crucified Christ; they have addressed the crucified Christ with the last calling of their lips and the last movement of their hearts, as did John Houghton. They know that whatever else may disappear, there is something on which they may call - and it is Christ crucified.

The God who has, it seems, been vanquished, is yet a God who cannot be abolished. In many ages and many places, authorities even more appalling than Henry VIII have believed that they could abolish God and the cross of God; and they have had to discover that while they may vanquish, they cannot destroy.

That which is the last hope, the last longing of the condemned and tortured, remains. The cross stands while the world turns. And whatever human power and human injustice can achieve and effect, the hanged God, the failed God, remains a sign forever.

The cross stands while the world turns: the sign of our terrible human failure, the sign that God is not to be abolished, that justice cannot be extinguished forever; that the voice of the poor and the lost and the tormented cannot finally be silenced - not by any power that the universe can show, because it is rooted in what does not change.

The cross stands and the world turns. The world changes, the world comes and goes - powers rise and fall, fashions come and go - sometimes the Christian faith looks attractive and fashionable in the world, and sometimes it looks stupid and marginal. And always it is what it is because the cross stands.

The Christian who knows his or her business is the Christian who has the freedom to return again and again into that silent unchanging presence - the hanged God, whose love, whose generosity, springs out of depths we can never imagine. It is the sounding of those depths that is the heart of the contemplative life - that life lived in such an exemplary way by the Carthusians then and now, lived by so many others in our world over the centuries, lived, we hope and pray, for many centuries and millennia to come.

We treasure with perhaps a particular intensity the martyrdom of the contemplative, because the contemplative who knows how to enter into the silence and stillness of things is, above all, the one who knows how to resist to resist fashion and power, to stand in God while the world turns.

In that discovery of stillness lies all our hope of reconciliation, the reconciliation of which John Houghton spoke in this place, this place where we are met to worship, before the community gave its answer to the King's agents. A reconciliation of which he spoke (as do so many martyrs) on the scaffold, a reconciliation which is not vanquished, defeated, or rendered meaningless by any level of suffering or death.

If Henry VIII is saved (an open question perhaps) it will be at the prayers of John Houghton.

If any persecutor is saved it is at the prayers of their victim. If humanity is saved, it is by the grace of the cross of Jesus Christ and all those martyrs who have followed in his path.

Robert Aske hangs in chains still, but (as Hilda Prescott Prescott's novel portrays it) a discovery has been made as he falls from level to level of despair and desire 'For now, yet with no greater fissure between then and now, and as a man's eyes are aware where no star was of the first star of night, now he was aware of One, vanquished God, Saviour who could as little save others as himself. But now, beside him and beyond, was nothing - and he was silence and light.'

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."