Meditations from Westcott’s Quiet Day – Lent Term

Tuesday March 15 was the final Quiet Day for the Lent Term at Westcott. Instead of addresses, the community was invited to meditate on 5 poems by Michael Justin Davis, four of which came in the voices of Simon of Cyrene and Mary Magdalene. The poems are posted below. 

All have come from Michael Justin Davis, To the Cross. All images from Wikipedia Commons.

Mosaic in Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. Christ led to Calvary

                                                           SIMON OF CYRENE – 1

It was the wailing cry made me turn:
Up the road
A group of mourning women were lamenting,
But there was no corpse.
Only, between the Roman shields and red cloaks
A bent figure – stumbling under 
A baulk of wood – 
Staggered down the hill.

He fell three times before he reached me.
The women wailed louder at every collapse
And the soldiers
In their slow march
Grew more impatient.
‘Here, come here, you black oaf!’
(Their commander was calling me)
‘Come and carry this cross-beam
Or we`ll never get to the north gate:
Come on, pick it up!
Heave it up on your shoulder, man: move!’

I cringed away.
It was abhorrent to me.
I had never before
Touched any Roman instrument of torture,
Though of course I had seen –
As soon as we came to Jerusalem
For our first Passover
Since leaving Cyrene – 
The upright posts
Standing ready day and night,
For the next wretches to be crucified.
I had shunned Golgotha after that.
I hate all violence. I always have.
We lamp-makers are peace-loving men;
And I was brought up
In a more civilised city,
Elegant, prosperous Cyrene.
There, the Romans hardly ever crucified
Anyone. But in Jerusalem
They compelled me to carry that cross-beam.

As I heaved it up
From their exhausted prisoner
Lying in the road,
The women wailed again and
The doomed man whispered to me: very quietly.
I could scarcely hear him
And his lips were as white as a shroud:
He asked me my name.
He thanked me.
He blessed me.

When I think that I have helped,
Even a very little,
To relieve the pain of my tormented 
I give thanks.
That cross-beam was heavy, even for me,
And I am quite strong.

His blood, that had oozed
Through his clothes onto the rough wood
From his flayed shoulders,
Anointed my shoulders.
His sweat, that had poured onto the plank
From his head and neck,
Baptised me.

When I remember that I obeyed
His murderers
And did not protest
At the ritual
Of his killing,
I am anguished and distraught.

Warendorfer Passionaltar, detail (full image here)

                                                 MARY OF MAGDALA – 1

At first the soldiers would not let us come 
Near to the cross.
‘Get back!’ they shouted, jabbed their spears,
Hustled us down the slope again.

‘Keep away!’ they jeered, ‘Your king is too busy
To see you.
Obstinate bitches: go back!’

The soldiers let other people get near
To the crosses, to jeer and spit
And make vile gestures.
All we could do was wait.

His mother gazed and gazed at him
But we doubt whether she saw
Anything at all
Through her dazed, stricken eyes.
I saw little myself of the taut,
Stretched-out limbs.

My eyes were seeing the past:
His gentle hands moving – 
Practical, consoling – 
And his eyes looking at me
With grave attention,
Years ago in Magdala … that day
When all my jerky, aching bones,
That I’d never been able to keep still
Or to move as I wanted,
Suddenly attained peace,
Moved together in
As a little girl I had been laughed at,
Left out, ignored.
Nobody would play with me.
I was never wanted.
As a young woman,
If you can’t walk properly, but jerk about
And spill your food
And smear it on your face, of course
Nobody wants to look at you,
Nobody wants to talk to you.
Jesus looked at me,
Spoke to me, 
Touched me,
Soothed me and healed me.
Years ago, at home.
How can anyone want to hurt his hands?
How can anyone want to kill his eyes?

No longer attracted by the pain
Of the men on the crosses,
The bored crowd
Wandered off home and the jeering
Faded. Then the soldiers didn’t bother
Any more to stop us coming close
To the foot of the cross.

We have already waited an eternity
For him
To die.
How can she find the strength,
His mother?
Bewildered, she crouches here in my arms,
Waiting, waiting without any hope.

I do not think she has ever believed
In her son as the Christ,
Any more than her other children have believed
In him. Brothers, sisters, all of them shrug
Him off as odd, weird, mad.
But she loves him,
Loves him without understanding:
Her strange son.
That’s what she calls him:
‘My strange son. My strange son.’

But I?
I call him my Saviour.
Of course I don’t understand him
Any more than she does.
But I know he is my Saviour.
I love him.

So we wait together, his mother and I.


Mary Magdalene — Robert Lentz, OFM


When the soldier said:
‘He’s finished. So be off with you, women.
He’s dead, I tell you. He’s had it.
There’s nothing you can do. Go home,’
We were so tired that all we could do
Was to stumble a few paces and crouch down
Among the rocks.

I cradled his mother in my arms.
Our grief was dry.
There were no friends, no disciples,
Only us desolate women
Keeping watch again.
I tried not to think
Of the corpses of criminals
Piled up together
In one of the communal tombs,
Where I knew the Romans
Would fling all that was left
Of him.

An old women passed by
And offered us a little bread.
We hadn’t eaten for hours.
We accepted it gratefully.

Then a strange man, much agitated,
A wealthy Israelite, Joseph from Arimathea,
Came to ask if he could see about
A burial for Jesus.
Our anxious relief came in
An outburst of weeping.
When he had gone,
We huddled together again.
We dozed, and eventually slept.

We woke to see a group of five men
Swiftly carrying the body
Still nailed to the cross-beam.
This Joseph from Arimathea,
This highly respected councillor,
Must be a courageous man
To have braved the Romans.
We agreed that Joanna and I would come
At dawn, with all we would need
When the Sabbath ended,
To prepare the body for 
Its true burial.
Then I went home with Jesus’ mother.
She slept. For a long time we could not.
But I have no memory of that Sabbath.
It was still dark
When we got up and prepared
Ointment of aloes, yellow resin of myrrh.
Sponges and cloths and flasks of olive oil.
I packed the long-necked jars in my basket,
While Joanna heated the water.
When it was warm enough
We took our pitchers, and with Mary,
As dawn was breaking,
We walked through the north gate.
Golgotha was deserted: a grove
Of gaunt, bare posts in the misty dawn.
All three cross-beams had gone.

We made our way among the tombs,
Every one blocked with its massive stone,
Some squared, some rounded. We hoped we wouldn’t
Have to wait long for Joseph’s men
To arrive at the tomb of Jesus
And heave that stone aside
To let us in. We wanted
To get our work over and done with.
Then we came within sight of the tomb
We were looking for.
Oh no!
We stared at it with horror:
A gaping mouth of rock! Open! Wide open!

The huge stone had been rolled aside
In its groove.
Who could have dared to enter?
No Israelite would have taken the risk,
When even to touch the body
Meant ritual defilement.
The Romans? But why?
We ran to the tomb and peered in.

Somebody was there.
A young man in white clothing
Sat on our right in the entrance, on guard.
He shone. He inspired awe.
And fear.
We shrank away, terrified. He stood up
And spoke: ‘Do not be alarmed’, he said – 
Alarmed? we were petrified –
‘You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth
Who died on the cross:
But he has risen.
He is not here.’
The man pointed to the stone of anointing
At our feet in the ante-chamber.
‘Look’, he commanded, ‘there is the place
Where they laid him.’
I stared at the bare rock.
Tears filled my eyes.
‘You must go,’ he said, ‘And tell his disciples this:
“Jesus is going before you to Galilee;
There you will see him,
Just as he said you would.”’

We turned and fled with our baskets and pitchers.
We ran back, all the way back to our homes,
Too frightened to tell a soul.

And who, anyway, would believe
A mere woman?
Only a man can bear witness
And hope to be believed.
But I, Mary from Magdala,
Too frightened until now
To describe that amazing morning,
Know that Jesus was no longer in the tomb,
The empty tomb.

Later, I took a little of that myrrh – 
Those rich, shiny, yellow tears of gum –
Placed them in a small linen bag,
And hung it round my neck
On a silken thread.
In the hollow between my breasts
This hidden myrrh is still fragrant,
A living perfume.

St. Stephanus, Hainhofen: Simon von Cyrene hilft Jesus das Kreuz tragen

                                                        SIMON OF CYRENE – 11

I think, as night falls,
Of people lighting the lamps I have made,
And every flame I imagine
As lit from the life of Jesus

It is many years since I carried the cross,
Then crouched at Golgotha praying
To be forgiven:
Praying, praying, weeping.

Ever since that day I have been Christian,
Even before the resurrection,
And my wife too.
Life is full of change:
We have been called Berbers, Greeks, Jews: and now
We are known as Christians.
Our sons, Alexander and Rufus,
Often tell my story at their meetings
And repeat my message of hope:
‘I believe I am forgiven by my saviour,
And I have forgiven myself.’

Recently our old friends in the synagogue
Have turned against us. They have
Refused to speak to us again, ever.
We have made new, Christian friends,
Though sometimes we feel lonely,
As our Saviour did.

The clay of every lamp I make
I sign with a hidden cross,
Remembering how I was called
To help Jesus to his death:
And he,
Lying in the road,
Blessed me.

from the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome


I have heard of the way to the Tree of Life.
Wise men say it stands like a fountain of flame
And smoke and wind and water,
The Tree with branches cascading from remotest air
And gold roots that burrow and thrust everywhere.
If I want to see it,
I must set out today between the houses’
And look for it with mine own eyes.
But it is not enough
Merely to see the Tree.

They have said I must come to the Tree of Life.
Wise women tell me to explore it with my fingers,
Taste its aromatic bark with my tongue,
Listen to the syllables of its twigs.
I must sit under it,
My spine pressed hard against the Tree-trunk
In stillness.
While ants and doves and whales and tigers
Revolve round the motionless Tree
In ecstasy and boredom and despair,
I must detach myself from all care,
Be in tranquility.
But it is not enough
Only to experience the Tree.

Sages have said I must go from the Tree of Life:
Enter my self,
Enter my being,
Travel the way that is no way at all
Through the person who is no person at all
Climb up the tree that is no tree:
The higher to climb, the more to see!
Up and up from serpent to eagle
To find –
Far higher from the lordliest of eagles –
Ragged and bleeding
In a golden nest, with frankincense and myrrh,
The phoenix,
Scarred and radiant, singing in silence
His eternal song of forgiveness
And love.

Sermon in anticipation of Mothering Sunday / Refreshment Sunday, 2016

Given by Beth Phillips, Westcott’s Tutor in Ethics.
2 Cor. 1.3-7; Luke 2.33-35
‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction . . . ’  Amen.
In many churches this Sunday we will be celebrating mothers and motherhood, and I must confess to you that even after ten years in this country, I find it difficult to embrace Mothering Sunday. Now, one may very rightly denounce the consumerism of American Mother’s Day and how it has been imported into Mothering Sunday, and I will be in agreement there. My problem with Mothering Sunday is more about seasonal timing. To an American, Mother’s Day is redolent with Spring and Eastertide; and it comes in May when the weather is warm and it’s lovely to be outside. So it is difficult to embrace Mothering Sunday in the midst of Lent. Mother’s Day and Lent do not go together; it simply feels wrong.
But if anything could persuade me to change my mind, it may well be the readings we have just heard. 
The gospel reading takes us back to the same moment we observed on Candlemas, when Jesus is presented at the Temple, and his presence is the source of great rejoicing for Simeon and Anna. On Candlemas we tend to focus on the words of Simeon which we sing in the Nunc Dimitis, words of gratefulness, fulfilment, consolation, and hope – words which Simeon addresses to God. In tonight’s reading, we are asked to pause and consider Simeon’s less lyrical words, those which he addresses directly to the mother of Jesus: 
‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ The tone of these words is entirely different; these are words of foreboding, danger, mystery, and suffering. 
Mothering Sunday, like American Mother’s Day, can be a sentimental and shallow celebration of an idealised vision of motherhood, just as Valentine’s Day is often a sentimental and shallow celebration of an idealised vision of love – motherhood and love are apparently all warm feelings, and roses and champagne. 
Perhaps the invitation extended by our gospel reading, in stark contrast to this sentimentalising of motherhood, is the opportunity to contemplate and enter into the reality which Mary experienced uniquely as the mother of Jesus, and which all of us experience in lesser ways: 
that motherhood – like all our most intimate relationships – can be the source of both unparalleled joy and consolation as well as the very deepest pain and suffering. 
I don’t mean this in a simple and trite way. This is not merely the sort of truism that could well grace a Mother’s Day greeting card: ‘Motherhood: It’s the hardest job you’ll ever have, and the best!’ – though of course that is a truism because there is something true in it.
What I mean, though, is something rather more ­­ searching, something about the mystery of human interrelatedness and interdependence, of which motherhood is in some ways a unique instance but is in no sense the exclusive instance. Wherever we connect most deeply with one another and commit ourselves most fully to one another’s good – whether that is in friendship, or marriage, or parenthood, or communities of religious orders – we find both the deepest, most fulfilling consolation, and the deepest, most piercing pain.
Our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians describes Christian discipleship and ministry in these same terms. ‘For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation . . .’ 
Whether our vocation in life is to priestly or lay ministry, to parenthood of children or to other forms of being fruitful in this world, whenever we commit to the journey of seeking to faithfully embody our vocation – to be disciples – with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, there too will we find both the deepest, most fulfilling consolation, and the deepest, most piercing pain.
So perhaps Mothering Sunday really does belong in Lent, if indeed it is an opportunity to contemplate and embrace this mysterious reality – this coinciding of joy and pain, of suffering and consolation – because Lent is a season in which we seek to enter into the mysteries of Christ’s sufferings and into the unique joy and consolation prepared for us when we take up our cross and follow him.
Now, lest I create the entirely false impression of a person who deeply understands and keeps a most holy Lent . . . 
I should be honest with you about the fact that each year I tend to feel genuinely bitter about the beginning of Lent. But again, this has everything to do with seasonal timing. 
Having spent a great deal of my life in the very sunny regions of southern California and Texas, I find myself deeply affected by the darkness of winter at this distance from the Equator. Quite frankly, it makes me miserable. 
And when we come to the beginning of Lent each year, we are not only suffering the toll taken by months of sun deprivation, we are also at about the midpoint of the academic year – that point at which the excitement of the beginning of a new academic year is too far behind us, and the horizon of the end of this academic year is too far ahead of us. 
So at that precise point each year – just when I feel certain I’ve altogether come to the end of my ability to cope – my honest feeling is, ‘Lent? Really? At this point I’m supposed to deeply contemplate my mortality and make grand gestures signifying my finitude and sinfulness and general inadequacy? Great. That’s just what I need.’
And yet, most years, it becomes very clear to me somewhere in the course of these forty days that this is, in fact, just what I need. 
For just as we cannot enter into the deepest joys of our mysterious human interdependence without entering into the dangerous certainty of those joys being accompanied by deepest pain, so we cannot enter into the deepest joys of our lives in Christ without entering into the dangerous certainty of the cross. 
Our Lenten disciplines should be a piercing mixture of contemplating the sufferings of Christ, embracing the ways in which we must enter into those sufferings, and turning to the world around us to see where ‘the least’ and ‘the last’ are suffering today – where Christ is suffering now in and with them, and meeting Christ there by refusing to remain indifferent to that suffering. And there we find, along with St Paul, that ‘just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ’.
Now, that may not work as a message on a Mother’s Day card, but perhaps it resonates more deeply and honestly with the rich and mysterious realities of motherhood, and of all our most intimate interdependencies, than all the flowers and roast dinners and greeting cards could ever do.
And so, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction . . . ’
‘ – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

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