Quanto costa una preghiera? (What price a prayer?)

Well, I have to hand it to him. A real Italian pro at work. He slipped in, waited, selected his victim, checked that nobody was looking, then struck. Even though the closed circuit cameras caught sight of him as he took the bag, they didn’t catch his face as he disappeared through the back exit. A perfect crime.

Diocletian baths, now walls of the Santa Maria degli Angeli Basilica. Photo: Giovanni dall'Orto

Diocletian baths, now walls of the Santa Maria degli Angeli Basilica. Photo: Giovanni dall’Orto

An all-too-familiar story in Rome, of course, the sort of thing the guidebooks warn you about (the specialità romana being Vespa-riding thieves seizing handbags at intersections). Unfortunately for me, I was the unsuspecting victim, and in a surprising location – the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli located a stone’s throw from Opera Roma. I had strolled in having a few minutes to spare before catching my bus out to the airport, intrigued by its architectural origins as part of the huge Diocletian complex of baths, once the largest building of its type in the Roman world. Once inside, I sat down to pray, ruminating among other things upon the whole complex relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity. When I opened my eyes, my baggage only two inches away from me was gone (including my plane ticket and a computer with six years’ worth of files, though thankfully not my passport or credit card). As I remarked to the very helpful parish priest who watched the CCTV video with me to no avail, that was a pretty expensive prayer! But then again… the second before the thief made his getaway I had been thinking about the scourging of Jesus at the hands of Rome, and as I left the church for the bus, I imagined a voice saying: ‘they stripped me of everything, you know…’ So no point in complaining about a few lost electronic gadgets, although I would advise anyone headed for the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli (well-known to the local Carabinieri , it turns out) either to pray with their eyes open or else chain themselves to their valuables!

Basilica_santa_maria_degli_angeli_dei_martyt_2011_4It was an inauspicious end to what had nonetheless been a memorable day in the Eternal City. In the morning, I had joined a crowd of some 50,000+ in a pleasantly dry St Peter’s Square for Pope Francis’s General Audience, and I have to say that the atmosphere was electric. Somehow I have always found the Piazza when full a more moving sight than St Peter’s Basilica itself (excluding Michelangelo’s Pietà), perhaps because of the collective energy, the sensum fidelium represented by the massed pilgrims from around the whole world. On this occasion what impressed me was the sense of anticipation, the feeling as Pope Francis arrived and began to ride around the square to the delight of the crowd that this was not simply ‘business as usual’, but that something important was actually happening.  It is difficult to identify any one factor behind the buzz in St Peter’s Square: the Pope’s spontaneous manner and proximity to the crowds, the limpidity of his uncomplicated yet profound teaching, his roots in the Global South where the demographic centre of gravity of world Christianity is now located, the heartfelt longing of so many ordinary believers for the Church’s return to the simplicity of the Apostolic Age… all these contributed to creating an unforgettable event. The closest parallel in my own experience is probably the annual European Meetings of the Taizé Community that I attended some two decades ago in the years around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when there was a similar feeling among the crowds of being caught up in ‘history in the making’, that we were participating in something radically new , the Divine novum which cannot simply be extrapolated out of the past.

St Peter's square RomeThe same can be said of the ‘concert for peace’ at the Auditorium Conciliazione (formerly home to the Accademia di Santa Cecilia’s symphony concerts) the evening before, where Russian soprano Svetlana Kasyan certainly lived up to her billing  as a major talent. Although I tend to be wary of published comparisons of any artist with Maria Callas or any of the legends of the past, I have to say that in my years spent coaching lyric artists at the Opéra Bastille in Paris and elsewhere, I have rarely heard someone as young as Ms Kasyan capable of such vocal power (even if at times the usual problems of balance between even the most accomplished soloist and an onstage orchestra performing music written for an opera pit were in evidence). Her performance of arias by Verdi, Puccini and Catalani, delivered in a refreshingly unaffected and unpretentious manner, left no doubt as to her formidable expressive capabilities.

A no less remarkable feature of the concert, however, was the music and presence of Russian Orthodox bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, highlights being Svetlana Kasyan’s rendition of the plaintive Rachel’s Lament from his Christmas Oratorio (which also provided the evening’s encore) and a sombre, brooding song-cycle to texts by Federico Garcia Lorca. It might be argued that the setting – a hall whose heavy, uninspiring stage décor reminded me somewhat of the Salle Olivier Messiaen in Radio France – was not optimal for the more meditative moments of Metropolitan Hilarion’s music, and Italian orchestras such as the Rome Sinfonietta perhaps need an extra ounce of gravitas to convey its imposing solemnity. Yet this did nothing to diminish the success of the evening, and it would be hard to overestimate the symbolic significance of an event in which the bishop-composer found himself seated between Catholic Cardinals Gianfranco Ravasi (President of the Pontifical Council of Culture) and Kurt Koch (President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity), an intriguing additional ecumenical factor being the saturation of references in Bishop Hilarion’s works to the greatest ever Protestant musician – J.S. Bach. Here too, this was not merely a concert but a happening oriented not so much to the past as to a future of unprecedented conversations between Christian traditions that lies tantalizingly open. That it should have taken place in an auditorium on the Via della Conciliazione (the ‘Way of Reconciliation’) is surely more than a coincidence.

In the back of my mind as I walking back after the concert across an empty, moonlit St Peter’s Square and now as I write these words was the spiritual vision of one of the greatest modern pioneers of Christian Unity, Frère Roger of Taizé (1915-2005). Last December the ‘Pilgrimage of Trust’ organized by the Taizé Community filled the square in order to pray with Benedict XVI, from whose hand this Swiss Reformed pastor personally received communion in the last months of his life. Frère Roger’s overwhelming conviction was that the way forward for the Church lay in re-unifying the riches of the three Christian traditions within the one undivided Body of Christ- the Eucharist, devotion to the Mother of God and the role of the Pope as a visible universal pastor in Catholicism, the liturgical depth and connection with ancient Christian tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy,  the passion for the Scriptures of his own Protestant upbringing.  If there was much excitement around the time of the Second Vatican Council (at which he was an observer) that this vision might one day be realized, it has to be said that in recent decades it has seemed to have suffered a certain loss of impetus. But on the strength of my few days’ observation of goings-on in Rome, the time is ripe for its resurgence.

What price a prayer? Yes, my brief to the Italian capital turned out to be more expensive than anticipated, thanks largely to my brush with the professional services of the Roman branch of Organized Crime Inc. But a prayer for unity, in echo of the words of Jesus himself in John 17, is worth every last Euro. And if the thief happens to be reading this blog, in the bag you stole is a CD of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s St Matthew Passion given to me by the composer himself. Go ahead and take a listen – you might just learn something.


You can read Svetlana Kasyan’s own reflections on her meeting with Pope Francis in the latest instalment of the ‘Moynihan Letters’ here

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)


Thirst is our only light (or ‘on almost agreeing with Peter Rollins’)

Is anybody out there in the theological blogosphere as frustrated as I am at the way in which the internet seems to have stoked the fires of what can only be described as rabies theologorum (theo-abuse)? On one hand the web is indisputably a wonderful tool for the propagation of theological ideas at a tempo unthought-of even fifteen years ago, which has brought myriad voices into the public square that would previously have been excluded from debates reserved for a professiorial or clerical elite. Indeed, I would now say that much of the most stimulating reflection on the current state of theology is no longer to be found in academic publications but on rapidly-evolving and collaborative blogs such as Patheos, Homebrewed Christianity or The Other Journal. On the other hand, I think I am probably not the only one to cringe at the frequent colonization of such sites by those interested not so much in an honest search for truth as in the strident proclamation of religious propaganda of various sorts and the ferocious denunciation of all who may disagree.

In this context it is therefore extremely encouraging to read the constructive and generally respectful dialogue that seems to have been elicited by a recent book which makes no bones about its own claim to be incendiary, Insurrection by the Irish pioneer of what he terms ‘pyro-theology’, Peter Rollins. Drawing particularly on the lives and words of the late Bonhoeffer (hence the interest for this blog, named as it is after a line from the German martyr’s poem Jona) and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Insurrection is a passionate – although at times also hilariously funny – denunciation of the ways in which Christianity so often degenerates into ‘religion’ in the worst sense, the projection of our own fantasies of power and security onto the object of our worship which effectively becomes an idol. Not least because the idol functions in such a way as to provide us with a means of convenient escape from facing the Way of the Cross.

Peter-Rollins-Insurrection-coverInsurrection is certainly nothing if not controversial, and I have voiced a number of reservations about it in a review (for which I take sole responsibility and which should not be seen as necessarily representing the opinions of Soli Deo Gloria) which you can read by clicking here. However, for anyone unafraid of being made uncomfortable by difficult questions and the ‘refiner’s fire’ constituted by an engagement with contemporary philosophical debate, this is essential (and highly accessible) reading which contains a great deal of insight and truth, at least to my mind. Much of what Rollins has to say can be traced back to the time-honoured via negativa, the tradition of ‘negative’ theology which is perhaps most succinctly expressed by St Augustine’s famous phrase ‘Si comprehendis, non est Deus’ ( ‘If you understand it, it ain’t God’).

Rollins is reflecting a recurring theme of much recent writing in what is normally categorized as Continental Philosophy of Religion (beginning with Emmanuel Lévinas and the later Jacques Derrida, then continued by figures such as Jean-Luc Marion, Gianni Vattimo, John D. Caputo and the ‘academic rock star’ Slavoj Zizek). These writers are of course not unanimous in their views on religion and have on occasion disagreed with each other in spectacular fashion, but one thing they have in common is the conviction that dogmatic certainties are inherently idolatrous and need unmasking as human constructs. If we are to talk about ‘God’ at all (which some of these authors are highly reluctant to do), then it can neither be the despotic, monolithic God of imperial religion (Caesar writ large), nor the abstract metaphysical deity of the philosophers denounced by Pascal or Heidegger. Instead, all these thinkers find themselves drawn to yet also wrestling with the ‘weakness of God’ and the figure of the self-emptying, crucified Christ. In setting out his agenda Rollins refers to the celebrated lines of Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned in his prison cell in Tegel shortly before the failure of the plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 in which he was involved and for which he would be excuted in Flossenbürg in the final days of World War II:

‘God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.

Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deux ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.’[1]

How Bonhoeffer might have developed his programme for a ‘religionless Christianity’ sketched in Letters and Papers from Prison had he lived remains as much matter of debate now as in the 1960s, when first Bishop John Robinson (in Honest to God) and then the ‘Death of God’ theologians such as William Hamilton and Thomas Altizer notoriously claimed Bonhoeffer’s legacy in the name of a radical revision, if not outright jettisoning of Christian doctrine. The scholarly consensus would now seem to be that this was indeed ‘creative misuse’ of Bonhoeffer[2], and that a careful reading of the writings of his final period reveals a a questioning of ‘religion’ that is certainly radical, but is always held in tension with a rather traditional Lutheran personal piety. The latter, centred around the notion of union with Christ and a mysticism of the Cross exemplified by the 17th century hymns of Paul Gerhardt which Bonhoeffer so loved, is perhaps best expressed in his poems such as the famous Stations on the Road to Freedom and Powers of Good. There is in Bonhoeffer a constant dialectic between a desire for worldly engagement and what he termed Arkandisziplin, the life of worship, prayer and silence.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1939

This tension can be summarized as ‘Struggle and Contemplation’, the English title of one of the diary collections of Roger Schütz (1915-2005), better known as Brother Roger of Taizé, to whom Peter Rollins does not refer in Insurrection, but who could well have merited a place, if only by virtue of having co-authored the books Mary, Mother of Reconciliations and Seeking the Heart of God with Mother Teresa. Consideration of Brother Roger in his study might well have contextualized Rollins’ thoughts on Mother Teresa and shown that it is possible to subscribe to precisely the type of ‘weak theology’ that Rollins, Caputo and others are advocating without necessarily leaving an orthodox Christian framework behind in a way that seems to be taken as a given by much postmodern thought.

The village of Taizé in Burgundy is of course now known throughout the world as a place of pilgrimage for the young and not-so-young where thousands gather to participate in the life of the ecumenical monastic community based there, which now numbers around 100 brothers, many of them living in ‘fraternities’ located in the slums of the developing world. What is perhaps less well-known is that this was not at all the result of a long-range ‘ministry plan’, but rather the unplanned-for result of the decision of a young Swiss Reformed pastor cycling through Eastern France at the outset of World War II to live in a quasi-abandoned hamlet of seven houses on the strength of a conversation with an old woman who asked him to join the villagers in their solitude. At the outset he pursued his dream of founding a monastic community of a handful of brothers in virtually complete obscurity, accompanied only by his sister Geneviève, a cow, two goats and the (lifelong) conviction that God was to be found ‘in the midst’ (in Rollins’ terms) in the poorest of the poor. A remark concerning a chance encounter during his early years in Taizé with an impoverished stranger encapsulates Brother Roger’s thought:

‘Since then, I have sometimes found myself asking: whom did I meet that day? Today I think I know. In that stranger, Christ was as present as can be. And he is the one whom, together with my brothers, we continue to meet in the most abandoned human beings.'[3]

For many, the word Taizé is synonymous with a highly distinctive style of meditative sung prayer, the majority of the best-known songs used by the community being penned by the self-effacing French organist and composer Jacques Berthier (1923-1994), who must rank as one of the great liturgical composers of the twentieth century. One which Brother Roger especially loved was De noche iremos, a setting of words by the Spanish poet Luis Rosales (1910-1992) but inspired by St John of the Cross, one of the most radical of all exponents of the via negativa: ‘De noche iremos, de noche, que para encontrar la fuente. Solo la sed nos alumbra.’ [sung translation: ‘By night, we hasten, in darkness, to seek for the living water, only our thirst lights us onward’]

Rosales’ astonishing final line (which I used in 1989 in the suite for organ Aunque es de Noche, one of my first compositions to be performed professionally) continues to make as strong an impression on me now as when I first sang it back in 1986, not least as the music at this point has a haunting Phrygian coloration of the type associated with the magical Spanish words duende and cante jondo (deep song).  The song’s impact was reinforced on reading Brother Roger’s Letter to a young Spaniard (1977), written somewhat in the idiom of the sixteenth-century Spanish mystics, where the link between the thirst for God and for justice, as in the spirit of the Beatitudes, is made plain:

‘You live in Spanish lands, lands that have always been burning with the passion of a Love, thirsting for the tenderness of God, ravaged by the violence of men, and refreshed at the living waters of the Risen Christ; you were able to cross the deserts, you knew the silences of God, you went right to the tomb, and that empty tomb did not frighten you […] To take the risk of the Gospel today, will you stand beside the Risen Christ, who is in agony for every human being? You sustain the hope of those who are thirsting for justice: will you radiate the bright light of his communion.[4]

Brother-Roger-Mother-Teresa-173x300Reading Peter Rollins’ Insurrection, De noche iremos rang through my mind, as it seems to express the notion of spiritual desire in a way that relates very closely to what much ‘deconstructive’ postmodern philosophy is trying to articulate in its search for what cannot be deconstructed. A quote from John Caputo’s Deconstruction in a Nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida illustrates this striking structural proximity:

‘the undeconstructible is not knowable or foreseeable or forehavable but hangs on by a prayer, “Come.”
Everything in deconstruction is driven by the undeconstructible, fired and inspired, inflamed and impassioned, set into motion by what is not deconstructible.[…] What is undeconstructible – justice, the gift, hospitality, the tout autre, l’àvenir [sic] – is neither real nor ideal, neither present nor future-present, neither existent nor idealizable, which is how and why it incites our “desire,” driving and impassioning deconstruction.'[5]

However, there is a crucial difference between Rosales as read by Brother Roger and Caputo’s ‘theo-poetics’, despite their commonality. In the case of the latter, the ‘arrival’ of justice is formally impossible, a contradiction in terms; its coming would in effect destroy the very passionate thirst that ‘lights us onward’ and constitutes the motivating force of meaningful human activity. For Brother Roger, the living waters of the Spirit of the Risen Christ serve as the ‘future-present’ that Caputo’s poetics cannot easily accommodate, a foretaste of a future reality that does not annul but rather impels practical, this-worldly action. Whose of these two narratives of desire you find more convincing is not primarily a matter of logical analysis.


I vividly recall two of the many occasions on which I have sung De noche iremos in the company of the brothers of the Taizé community. The first was in Notre-Dame de Paris at the end of 1988 (with Jacques Berthier himself at the organ), in a cathedral where the seating had been removed and where 10,000 people were praying seated on the floor, creating an atmosphere that I have never experienced before or since. The second was in Taizé itself just a few days after Brother Roger was fatally stabbed during an evening prayer service in August 2005 by a mentally disturbed young woman known to the community. I had made the trip down to Burgundy to pay my final respects to Taizé’s founder after hearing of his death and found the brothers (some of whom were just arriving from other continents) in a state of total shock and disbelief. In this context, with Brother Roger’s dead body lying exposed in the Eglise de la Réconciliation, De noche iremos seemed to express the inexpressible – the palpable feeling of entering, in a sense that can only be described as mystical, into the incomprehensibility of the brokenness and suffering of this world. Fundamental to Roger Schütz’s spirituality was the notion that Christ has united himself irrevocably with that brokenness, and in a way that cannot be grasped by reasoned argument, his violent death was, like that of Bonhoeffer before him, somehow a participation in that unfathomable mystery.

What struck me more than anything about that surreal day was the fact that, in their distress and disarray in the face of apparent absurdity and meaninglessness, the first thoughts and prayers of the brothers were to express their sympathy with the family of Brother Roger’s killer. As a form of testimony to the transforming power of faith, that alone carries a weight of authenticity that pure philosophy – if such a thing exists – cannot know. Strange though it may seem, Roger Schütz might well have agreed with Peter Rollins’ provocative catchphrase for his ‘pyro-theological’ programme, taken from Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti, that ‘the only church that illuminates is a burning one’, with one important proviso: the flame is none other than that of the living presence of the Paraclete. As the Letter to a young Spaniard puts it:

‘Breath of Christ’s loving, fire of his Spirit, kindle the deserts of the heart.'[6]

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, abridged edition (London : SCM, 2001), 134.

[2] The case against an ‘atheistic’ interpretation of the late Bonhoeffer was first argued at length by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s relative and correspondent Eberhard Bethge in his classic biography Dietrich Bonhoeffer (London: Collins, 1977, 757-795). See also Martin Marty, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: a Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), ch.5.

[3] Choisir d’aimer: Frère Roger de Taizé 1915-2005 (Taizé: Ateliers et Presses de Taizé, 2006), 33. Translation mine.

[4] Brother Roger of Taizé, And Your Deserts Shall Flower: Journal 1977-1979 (Oxford: Mowbray, 1984), 19.

[5] Deconstruction in a Nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida, edited and with a commentary by John D. Caputo (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), 128.

[6] Brother Roger of Taizé, And Your Deserts Shall Flower, 19.