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Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)
Sunday 10 February 2019 – Choral Evensong
Hosea 1 Colossians 3:1-22
I’ve recently read the most exhilarating book: Bow First, Ask Questions Later. It’s original, intelligent, perceptive, profound, witty and funny. Before you rush to order it, though, I ought – in all fairness – to come clean, and all I need to do, probably, is just tell you the subtitle: Ordination, Love and Monastic Zen in Japan. There, now; if your taste buds had been aroused a moment ago, they’ve probably gone to sleep now! The reason I mention the book, though, is because it offers an interesting slant on this evening’s second lesson and, in particular, on what it might mean to be clothed with the new self, with Christ. So, a little introduction to the book first.
When it was written, the author was still in her twenties and is even now, just a year after its publication, only 32. In 2009, when the stock market crashed, she was an English major at an American university, completing a ‘creative writing thesis that was a collection of love poetry’, so, as she says, she was ‘even less marketable than [she] could have been’. Her solution to the problem? She did, as she says, ‘what any self-respecting spiritual white girl would have done: [she] went to India’.
India wasn’t all it was cracked up to be as far she was concerned, so she moved on to Japan, where she met a monk who would become a significant influence in her life. So taken with him was she that she spent six months in his monastery before returning to America to write a novel. It was in her own words ‘a good novel. It was sexy and dark. It was intelligent, vulnerable and kinky, kind of like Franny and Zooey meets Fifty Shades of Grey’. The problem, though, was that she didn’t know how to end it. So if the contents of this novel interest you more than Bow First, Ask Questions Later, I’m sorry to disappoint you. It was never finished! You’ll just have to imagine what might have been!
As so often seems to be the case in life, the apparent frustration of our hopes, dreams and desires often nudges us in the direction of what we’re really seeking deep down, but haven’t quite identified. What Gesshin Claire Greenwood was clear about, though, was that she needed to return to Japan and to the monk who’d so impressed her when she’d first arrived in there. So it was that on 28th December 2010, she was ordained by him as a Buddhist nun, after which she spent another five years in various Japanese monasteries before receiving authorisation from him in 2015 to teach Zen, receiving final recognition of this in 2017.
Towards the end of the book she recalls how just before her ordination she asked her teacher what was the main difference between a layperson and a monk. His response took her by surprise: ‘a monk is someone who wears monk clothing’. The reason for her bafflement was that this answer seemed so shallow, implying that being a monk’s all about dressing up. Now there are plenty of Anglican clergy for whom this appears to be the case! Such people can leave us feeling slightly uneasy. This isn’t what the monk was suggesting. So what was he getting at? His understanding is actually quite profound, and it’s this that might help us appreciate a little more what it means to be clothed with Christ.
Let’s think about the clothes we wear. Over the last few decades, conventions concerning dress have become rather fluid, to say the least. In the 1950s, for example, there were fairly well accepted dress codes: men tended to wear suits for everything and women dressed in varying degrees of formality. In our own time, people increasingly wear simply what they feel comfortable in. This has happened in the Church. Even just a decade or so ago most clergy would have worn the vesture appropriate to their tradition. Nowadays there are some clergy who reject the wearing not only of a dog collar in everyday life, but even of what’s traditionally been expected in church itself. The motivation for this is no doubt that formality puts people off. There may be some truth in that in some instances, yet it’s also the case that there are some roles which do require a certain form of dress. If Her Majesty the Queen turned up for an official visit wearing trainers, jeans and a hoodie, your first reaction might be that it was rather out of character, and your second that she wasn’t really taking her role seriously. And that’s the point. The queen inhabits a role that’s performed in part by wearing clothes that are appropriate to the role. She is what she does and what she wears.
This is true not just of the Queen. When our probationary choristers, for example, are admitted as full choristers, having completed their initial training, they’re clothed with a surplice, which is ceremonially placed over their heads by senior choristers. The surplice denotes their role. They’re not at this stage as experienced or as able as older choristers, but they gain the necessary experience precisely by doing what their clothing indicates. In this way, they grow into the role and little by little perform it with increasing skill and ability. An eight or nine year-old chorister may not be fully fledged, but what they wear denotes that they perform a role in exactly the same way as is expected of the more experienced adults in the choir. The wearing of the surplice instils in the chorister the aspiration to inhabit that role in an ever more accomplished way, an aspiration that’s never exhausted.
It’s something of this that lay behind the assertion that a monk is someone who wears monk clothing. At what stage can a monk ever say he’s all a monk should or could be? There’s continual growth and development, which never comes to an end. The clothing denotes the role to be performed and is a reminder and an encouragement to continue to grow into that role throughout life.
Now this seems to me to be very pertinent to what it means to be clothed with Christ. The Letter to the Colossians doesn’t suggest this involves a particular form of clothing, although for some roles and vocations it might. Rather, clothing is used as a metaphor. The author does spell out, though, what being clothed with Christ actually looks like. The interior transformation by which the old self is stripped off and clothed with the new self becomes apparent, we might say, in the way we wear ourselves. The clothes we put on are compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, forgiveness and, above all, love.
It might be objected, though, that it’s not so simple: we can’t just be these things instantly, as if by magic. But that’s the whole point. We become these things by doing them. We become compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, forgiveness and love by performing them, by doing them, by practising them. There’s always going to be a gap between what these things really entail and how inadequately we perform them, but we have to begin somewhere. We fall short, we get things wrong, but in the process we gradually learn to inhabit the role, wear the clothes more naturally and comfortably. We don’t spend forever thinking about it and pondering the difficulties of it all. We just get on with it. We bow first and ask questions later.
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