A Letter from our Father Superior
for Good Shepherd Sunday 2020
Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Oratory,
There is a little Indonesian congregation that meets in the Uniting Church around the corner. They have a very lovely custom I’m sure evident in other places, though I had not experienced it until I met them. At the end of Worship they move around the church shaking hands with everyone with the greeting “Happy Sunday”. Happy indeed are these days in the fullest and deepest sense of happiness as we keep our eyes fixed on the empty tomb, a glorious emptiness to be kept in view on every Sunday of the year, every day of the year.
On this Sunday we greet each other with “Happy Good Shepherd Sunday”. Please take this letter as my personal greeting to you on this important day in our Oratory Calendar.
One of my childhood memories is of my mother playing our old harmonium which, along with the rather ragged blue ‘fleur de lis’ carpet that graced my bedroom, had I think been purloined by my father from the church where for a time he served as a churchwarden. One of her favourite hymns was ‘Loving Shepherd of thy sheep, keep thy lambs in safety keep’ from the ‘For the Young’ section of Ancient and Modern. Listening to her play and sing first implanted the image of Jesus as my good shepherd in my heart, and much later maybe helped steer me towards a desire to have the ‘G.S.’ always associated with my name, an association, to be treasured by us all, brethren and companions alike.
It’s instructive I think that while our Rule and Manual is certainly steeped in Scripture, only one extended set of verses appears, and that is of course the 23rd Psalm which forms part of the prayer before a Provincial or General Chapter. It is my own tradition to say the psalm after every mass I celebrate or attend which I suppose means I have recited it quite a lot, though I must admit, sometimes somewhat mindlessly. But I have a kind of hope that they will be words so familiar that I will reach out for them when, if by chance and in God’s generosity, I have some warning of my last breath.
In some writing by the mid 19th century church historian Dean Stanley of Westminster Abbey, he asks “What was the popular religion of the first Christians?” Like most clergy, he answers his own question:
‘It was the religion of the Good Shepherd. The kindness, the courage, the grace, the love, the beauty of the Good Shepherd was to them, if we may say, Prayer Book, Articles, Creeds and Canons all in one. They looked on that figure, and it conveyed to them all that they wanted. As ages passed on, the Good Shepherd faded away from the mind of the Christian world, and other emblems of the Christian faith have taken his place. Instead of the gracious and gentle Pastor there came the omnipotent judge or the crucified sufferer, or the infant in his mother’s arms, or the Master at his parting supper, or the figures of innumerable saints and angels, or the elaborate expositions of the various forms of theological controversy….’
Maybe the good dean slightly overstates his case, unnecessarily setting ‘emblems’ over and against each other but what is the case is that our good founders rested upon the image of the Good Shepherd as the emblem of our life as we cleave to our calling to ‘adore God in the service of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the imitation of his most holy life’ (from the Introduction to the Seven Notes). For us the measure of what is ‘good’ is the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep and who knows them by name, and the training of ourselves to know his voice aside from the voices of any other ‘shepherds’ is the purpose of our discipline and our silence. In Kenneth Bailey’s book on the Good Shepherd he tells of a Syrian shepherd recounting to him how a new sheep needs to be trained to listen to the voice of his new shepherd. And what happens Bailey asked him to the one who cannot yet recognise the voice? It will headbutt its way around the rough stone walls emitting pitiful, heartbreaking cries in confusion until he begins to recognise the particular voice of his new shepherd. Mmm….I expect most of us have done some headbutting at various times.
In the choice of the Good Shepherd, our founders united themselves to this self description of Jesus so beloved by the early Christians and before the ‘elaborate expositions of the various forms of theological controversy’. It is a title that perhaps helped them and can help us to hold fast to that important Note of our Life, ‘the love that makes for peace’ challenging us as it does to see all people as those for whom Christ died and to eschew uncharitable attitudes towards those with whom we disagree.
How seriously challenged our world is at present, though less so in Australia than for some others of you who are living and praying in places contending with a virus still far from controlled, still instilling fear, still ending the lives of considerable numbers, and changing the fortunes of people and of nations. In the midst of it all, remember that our prayers and masses or our spiritual communions, and our faithfulness are as real as everything else going on, and trust they make a difference.
I am sad that I will not be able to attend the South African provincial chapter which as been wisely cancelled and we will not be meeting together in Australia this year. The hope of catching up with various brethren in the European province later in the year now looks increasingly unlikely. Though disappointing, nothing of this is enough to justify leaving go of joy, though it perhaps takes more effort to be joyful, or perhaps requires more intercession than usual. So Lord, give us the gift of joy and perseverance! How marvellous that Scripture teaches us that these are spiritual gifts that are true to the character of God himself and are available to us who share in the risen life of the Lord.
As we keep on, may the kindness, the courage, the grace, the love, the beauty of the Good Shepherd be to us our Prayer Book, Articles, Creeds and Canons all in one! How important it is that we, and the Church at large manifest these qualities, for the sake of our life together, and that those outside of the household of faith might be helped to discover the precious love of the One to whom those very documents seek to point!
Prayers and love as you keep on, Loving at a distance,