A letter from Ithaca

Rev Chris Walker is often in touch with friends at St Martin in the Fields. Here are some letters from The Nazareth Community.

The August 2023 letter is here.

Copied below is Letter for August 2022: Silence, Sacrament, Service, Study, Sharing, Sabbath and Staying With

Dear Sisters and Brothers,
I am writing to you this letter early in the morning sitting down by the side of the sea in Ithaca, Greece. There is a cockerel crowing and the sound of birds singing and I hear the sound of the cicadas beginning their carefree call. Homer in The Iliad mentions cicadas “that chirrup delicately from the boughs of some high tree in the wood” It is so much the sound of this place during the heat of the day. But I am not in a wood rather I am surrounded by olive trees. What sacred trees. These here were planted over a hundred years ago and I love their old, sinewed, twisted trunks and the bends and turns that branch out like muscled limbs into the tangle of slender shoots and the fans of their soft arrowed leaves. The underbelly of these leaves are a pale soft green and the outer side a darker emerald glossy green. As the breeze catches them these leaves toss and turn and their different shades shimmer like pale silver in the sun light. Their top branches stand erect and rustle like heads of tussled bleaching hair. Through the dart-like leaves shine slithers of sun and dappled light and shadow, so that they
magically shimmer. In these trees the small green olives are forming that will be harvested in November and December for their precious virgin oil, what Homer referred to as “liquid gold” They comb the olives from the branches and gather them in nets- the family here pride themselves on the taste of their own virgin olive oil which will be enough for their extended family and guests for the year.

These trees are a symbol of abundance, wisdom, glory and most of olive all peace. And the olive branch is of course the sign of life and hope after the great flood in Genesis: “Then the dove came to him in the evening and behold a freshly plucked olive branch was in her mouth and Noah knew that the waters had receded from the earth” (Genesis 8.11) Yesterday we went out for a meal and on the tables on the terrace below, along the white tablecloths there were winding olive branches and leaves and candles floating in glass bowls to celebrate a wedding and the guests arriving, olive skinned, in soft white, pale greens and blues seemed to be filled with the warmth of the same Mediterranean light, land and sea.

Beyond the olive trees is the Ionian sea. Its surface this morning is rippling and alive with refracting light, each ripple a mirror of the rising sun. At times a cobalt blue, at others a beautiful aqua-marine sparkling in an undulating sheen of light, and above the sea the lighter cornflower blue of the sky with long trails of soft white cloud. It is a sea that constantly invites you to swim. To enter into the blue.
But I have come down to the sea this morning to pray and to write to all of you. I am alone this morning sitting here. Until now I have been with my brother’s family with my niece Molly and nephew Jack who are 21 and 17. How wonderful it has been to explore this island with them and the freshness of their eyes and joy they bring. We stand at the two ends of our lives. They are beginning the race. While I for the first time am seeking to reach the finish line. Molly is in training to run the London Marathon for charity while I sometimes feel like the marathon runner who has slowed down a little in the final stretch and, looking around for the first time, wonder if my legs will make it. My nephew and niece are so supple and fit they run so fast out, each morning, to run 9km before breakfast. I, in contrast, have begun to feel the aches of the journey. At the same time I have become more aware of a world alive with miracles and the wonder of this life. I want to slow down to stop and take it all in. Its taken me all this time to appreciate all we have been given. I long to hold the moment rather than race on. This time now will not come again. With Molly and Jack I delight in the energy of their youth and their lives opening up with opportunities and future hopes and of course, as one does for all those you love, fear for them for the unknown future we know that all must face, while trusting in their goodness. For myself I realise how much the past has made me who I am, the love, the pain, the achievements and the failures. And yet how important it is to live with love now and savour the present. The stiller I become, the more attentive, the more I am astonished by the beauty of the world and the more I feel its pain.

Yesterday they left to go home. I am so aware how holy days are immediate and lived now. You have to live the wonder of the moment. For suddenly the moment is gone- the lived becoming a memory, an emptiness. Today my sister-in-law is on South West Trains making the trip up to St Thomas’ Hospital where she works. I told her before she left to land gently and take the light and the blue of the sea with her. She was lying on a very rickety wooden sun lounger which was digging into her back in warm sun. In her garden in England she has an olive tree she took home from here several years ago and planted to help her through the winter. Today she texts me from the train: “Oh Richard, I am having to remind myself that all our fun time together wasn’t just a dream. One day we will all have lots of time to enjoy… Very clammy here and water ban starts today. Just boarding my train and will close my eyes thinking I am swimming on an Ithacan beach. Sending lots of love from an overcrowded South Western.”

I think of all of you. I think of London and I know that somehow each one of us is called to carry the light, the wonder of the sea and the olive branch with us and to live the future filled with a constant faith in Christ’s mercy. Today it is a Thursday so wherever we are the Nazareth Community will try to keep a time of silence and contemplative prayer together. Jamie has just sent this early morning’s thought for the day for us all on WhatsApp: “We do not seek silence to escape the world, rather we seek silence to rediscover our humanity and a world infused with God. Neither do we seek silence to escape others but to find them.” (Richard Carter: The City is My Monastery p 7)

What am I learning is that we cannot live disembodied lives. It is that our hearts, our heads and our bodies are one. And we need to hold that life together- not to let ourselves become compartmentalised, fragmented by anxiety and distraction, we must not let our lives become divorced from our souls. Even in the city, perhaps most of all in the city, we need to enter into the cobalt blue sea of God- all of us, all
our bodies, all our memories- to be immersed in God’s presence. Its not a thing we do. It’s a relationship with all that we are. Jesus does not tell us who he is. He tells us whose he is. “I and the Father are one” We are not created to be in competition we are created to rejoice each in the beauty of the other and to live with the beauty of the sun, the sky, the olive tree and humanity within us. How would I describe this union? This is what the Greek’s call “theosis” θέωσις- it is the place of no division- where the mine becomes our.

Lord Jesus Christ
Son of God
Have mercy on us.

I am praying the Jesus Prayer which comes from the ancient orthodox tradition. It seems wholly right to be praying the Jesus Prayer here in Ithaca. “Pray at all times” St Paul reminds us several times. The Jesus prayer is our olive branch. It is his presence within us. The noise, prattle, addiction, materialism and most of all fear within our modern world shatters our souls into fragments. But Jesus in this prayer
draws us back into his very heart. This prayer is not concerned with abstract concepts of the mind but through calling upon the name of Jesus we are called into the place of living encounter and the realisation that nothing is outside of Christ’s mercy. The word for mercy in Greek is elios- έλεος and the word which sounds very similar which the Greek Fathers connected with the word mercy is elaion
ἔλαιον- olive oil.

I want to reflect upon how that symbol of olive oil can help us to understand the nature of mercy that is at the heart of this prayer. First olive oil is something that we eat- in Greece the olive is one of the basic ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine. As a nutritious food and pure oil it feeds us and has been grown, eaten and used in cooking since the 8th millennium BC. Second olive oil has long been used for cleansing- it is used in soaps and cosmetics- not only does it cleanse but it leaves the skin moisturised and nourished. Third it has since ancient times been used for healing, think of the Good Samaritan who pours oil on the injured man’s wounds- olive oil is known for its healing properties not only for the skin and for wounds but also for its ability to be a good oil, an antioxidant, a good cholesterol that can in fact lower the risk of heart disease and the use of olive oil as opposed to other fats can reduce blood glucose levels. Fourth olive oil is the source of light. It is used to fill the oil lamps of the orthodox chapels here and across the middle east. Fifthly olive oil is sacramental it is used for anointing as a sign
of identity and belonging. You are signed with blessed olive oil at your baptism and by the bishop at confirmation. I remember watching a young boy being baptised in Kefalonia- after his emersion in the water his whole body was covered with olive oil- and he was lifted up fragrant and shinning to be reclothed in white. It was like watching someone being reborn. When I was ordained as a priest I was anointed with oil and the sign of the cross was made on the palms of my hands, my forehead, my lips, my heart. I tell you these things for are these two not the gifts of God’s mercy. The call for mercy in the Jesus prayer is not a wallowing in our sin or guilt, it is the compassion and forgiveness that will be the food that sustains you and becomes the basis of all that you are. God’s mercy will cleanse you and hydrate your body and your soul. It will be your healing outside and in- the wounds of your body and the wounds of all that is within you touched by God. A healing that detoxifies and frees your very heart. And God’s mercy will be the light of your life. A lamp that is always being refilled with oil and will, if you receive it with gladness keep that light within you always burning. And like olive oil God’s mercy will anoint you. It will be the seal of your belonging- your baptism, your confirmation, your sign that you are God’s beloved and that nothing can separate you from that love. At the end of your life this olive oil will be the final sacrament of holy unction- the sign of the cross on your forhead that you belong to God both in this world but also beyond death for all eternity.

So in this prayer- this prayer of Jesus we call upon the name of Jesus. His name means “Saviour” And a name has power, for it calls the person into our presence. It names them and in so doing it makes us aware of our relationship with them and they aware of their relationship with us. It is their name- a name that is unique to them and yet, in a name, tells of the mystery of all that they are and cannot be spoken. In the calling of the name of Jesus we are invoking him, turning to him, recognising who he is, calling him closer, realising that we are not only calling him but that he is calling us by name. The chosen one has chosen us to be our Saviour. In this prayer we are also repeating his name and by doing so we are entering into the uninterrupted presence of the one we name. The repetition stills the restlessness of our wondering thoughts. As it calls upon his name it calls us back, gently, to rest in his presence. The prayer moves from lips, to mind, to heart, to silence. In this call there is both yearning and belonging. Repetition becomes rhythm, the rhythm of our breathing, the rhythm of our heart, the rhythm of God’s life in us. It is what in Greek they call hesychia- a silence that makes room, a stillness in which we can find rest, a contemplation that
finds in centre in a wisdom which is at our centre yet always beyond us. An inner and outer peace where we are freed from compulsion and the mind, heart and body are healed. In this prayer it as if there is a to and fro- like a breathing in and a breathing out – a movement towards Jesus as we call upon his name. A moving of Christ towards us in unconditional compassion taking away our sins. We breath in his name, we breath out his mercy that frees us and with that breath all that has held us captive.

Saying this prayer is something physical- it is a prayer which embodies all our senses and unites word and posture and breath and being- it brings our minds into our hearts as we simply go on repeating the words until the prayer prays itself and we ourselves becomes the prayer. Rowan Williams describes this like an indistinct picture or sensation “as the inside of the body as a sort of hollow or cave in which the breath comes and goes with an underlying pulse… it is a time you are aware of your body as simply a place where life happens and therefore where God happens. A life lived in you. You are breathed through by a life that isn’t your own possession.” I think of my soul like the sand and shingle on the beach which each wave of the sea sweeps over and then draws out leaving the beach cleansed, yet draws you out with the receding wave into the depth and mystery of the sea. This in and out, this with and beyond is the mystery of this prayer- and of course beyond the prayer it is the mystery of Christ himself calling you to himself.

Sometimes in our western tradition we have understood mercy in legalistic terms, satisfaction, atonement for sin, Christ taking the punishment for our sin. But the mercy of which this prayer speaks is not about guilt for breaking a rule it is the call of Christ for us to become all that God intended through Christ’s love for us as we are- and through that love metanoia- transformation, the gift of one’s freedom and renewed choice- the choice to return to God and like the returning prodigal to be clothed and raised by the one who watches and waits for all his children. This mercy is when we too come to our senses and remember the one who loves us. This Theosis becomes not judgment but deliverance and return. This mercy is homecoming. It does not negate the pain or the suffering of the cross but it reveals that God’s mercy can never be defeated by the sin of the world. That this love of God is stronger even than death.

And what is required of us:
Realising our humility
Repeating our call to Jesus
Again and again and again.

As I write to you the rain has begun. The clouds now blocking out the sun. At first I continue writing under the shelter of an olive tree but the rain is getting harder. I drop off my things in the shelter of the house and come back to the beach to enjoy the rain. Its really pouring down now- huge droplets of rain, and rain water is running off the hills and down gushing rivulets into the sea. The path to the beach has quickly become a stream. Morning 7.00am Meditation is beginning with Angela at St Martin’s. I listen to her opening prayers with rain water running down my neck. How wonderful to be praying together with all of you across the miles. But it’s too wet to sit and pray. Instead I take off my shirt and shoes and plunge into the sea. The sea is warmer than the rain and a haze of steam is rising above the water. And the water is dancing as raindrops hit the surface of the sea and bounce upon the surface in millions of tiny volcanoes of silver splash through which I swim. The horizon disappears into the haze and I hear the crack of thunder and in the distance I see a yacht coming out of the blue grey sailing towards me. What joy to swim in this rain, body warmed by the sea, face showered with pelting freshness. Swimming through heaven’s teardrops of new life for a thirsty land. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me.” I breath in – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” I breath out into the sea- “Have mercy on me a sinner.” Back on the land the silence is ending and Angela is singing so beautifully our closing prayer.

With my prayers,