Relying heavily on M.L.Smith’s essay “The theological vision of Father Benson” in “Benson of Cowley” OUP 1980
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom”
One of the joys of getting older is that you forget things far more often, but I had forgotten just how miserable January can be. Days where it never quite gets light properly, where one struggles with some new variant of flu, where the problems and anxieties you left in the last year wake you in the night to remind you just what a mess you’ve made of things. Positive thinking, like the cold fog, seems next to impossible.
So maybe it wouldn’t be your first choice to come to church today to celebrate the memory of the founder of the Cowley Fathers and first Vicar of this Church, who was once described as being made of ‘cat gut and iron’, a man who inherited much of the sober austerity of his hero Edward Pusey, a man who in one version of the story made the Cowley Fathers so gloomy and life denying that they sent him off to America so others could inject a bit of joy.
If that’s how you feel then its worth remembering that we don’t come here to meet people we like, we come here to meet people we are called to love – and we might end up liking them in the process – maybe.
Benson, our first vicar, is worth spending time with because he shares so many of our hopes and fears. He once said, a very January thought I think, “Christian Dogma is often spoken of as dead and dry and indeed as men are apt to fight for it, it is dead and dry…It remains a dogma of the faith but no more like the original dogma of the faith than an empty husk that lies on the ground identical with the fruit once found upon the tree”. Benson shares our January grumpiness. He is also critical of the conventional concept of faith as an assent to propositions. The divine Mystery is not mere knowledge says Benson but ‘the continuous apprehension of a continuous realty, a living receptivity’. He goes on to say the Beatific vision will not be a stationary contemplation of a fixed form… we are called to rejoice in God’s truth as a continually progressive acquisition’.
And I hope by now you are warming to Benson, to his desire not to be static but to an elastic, and energised faith. It turns out that Benson is quite Tiggerish, and invites us to some theological tiggerishness in this dark time of the year.
And as we all know The wonderful thing about tiggers / Is tiggers are wonderful things / Their tops are made out of rubber / Their bottoms are made out of springs / They’re bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun / But the most wonderful thing about tiggers is I’m the only one / IIIII’m the only one!
Benson, like Tigger, is a man on the move, he has an ecstatic and dynamic understanding of human beings and this feeds all his writings. He bemoans those whose antagonism to faith lacks ‘the clothing, the atmosphere, the elasticity, the emotions of the divine life’. Benson is forever ‘stepping forth’, rising up or breaking bonds.
In our most gloomy January moments God seems so static, so brittle but Benson speaks of ‘the relative energy of God within himself’ – the word energy keeps coming up in his attempts to give utterance to the Divine life. In talking about God’s creative act, God’s outpouring of himself into creation he speaks of God “Having burst the bonds of his own Divine existence”. What an amazing thing to say – God bursting the bonds of his own divine existence, as if even God can’t keep God in – the creative energy bursts forth, it must be proclaimed, like a kind of undiluted joy.
At the heart of Benson’s thinking about God was a great devotion to the mysteries of the Ascension. I love reading about this because I am deeply fearful of a Christian community that has so lost its elasticity, its bounce, that it has fragmented the birth of Jesus from his death and from his resurrection and ascension. This is Benson at his most beautiful, talking about the Ascension, about Jesus’ joy in his exaltation: “His humanity rejoices to be welcomed and rewarded as the Father’s son with the infinity of eternal love flowing forth in the perfected consciousness of his human nature”.
In Baptism, in the Eucharist, in our life together in the Church we are caught up in Christ, we inhabit the space of the risen and ascended Christ. Benson writes: “We do not, I think, dwell as we ought on the present glorification of our natures, in our own persons, as the members of the glorified body of Christ”.
It is January, it is gloomy but we are here, we are members of the glorified body of Christ. As its my birthday indulge me by listening to this much over used quote from Thomas Merton when he, it seems, had a revelation of our common calling:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Benson was fascinated by the 10 days between Pentecost and the Ascension – days when Benson imagined Christ moving through the nine angelic orders in an intensifying process of glorification. Even here Benson cannot let Christ stand still, his glory is intensifying. We are singing two of Benson’s hymns today – they don’t write them like that anymore – wow, that last verse:
“Oh the depths of Joy divine
Thrilling through those orders nine
When the lost are found again
When the banished come to reign.”
On this day when we honour Fr Benson’s memory, may we too be filled with the energy, the bounce, the elasticity, the light and the Joy of the ascended Lord, with a Spirit filled faith that recognises our salvation as rooted not in personal good works but in the grace we find in the community of the Church. Angelic Light, illumination not of our own making but, in Fr Benson’s words, ‘an inherent participation in Divine self knowledge’. Amen.