At university, we were amused by a much older student, who wanted to be known not as a Christian of one kind or another but as “The Seeker”. No explanation of belief or experience, or even any demonstration of fact, was satisfactory to her. We liked her a lot, although we naughtily teased her; she was ever so serious. But it struck me that she was, after all, never interested in finding what she said she was seeking. To her kind and interested spirit, it was in the quest that she felt safe, not at any point of arrival. Decision was to be resisted; it was taking a risk you could not back out from.
I admired the integrity of The Seeker. I hope she found something - or at least found out what it is that Christians are talking about, when they say that they are following Christ. After all, we Christians realise that it is not we who follow Christ, but He Who has been following us around all along. So much for thinking that being His disciple is all down to our own intellectual and moral efforts! It is He who dogs our every step away from His own. Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven tells our familiar story:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days
I hid from Him …
From those strong Feet that … followed after
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy …
Not that the lady Seeker was evading Christ. It simply had not dawned on her that, wherever her heart and her thinking took her, He was attached to her. She had not noticed that wherever she went and found nothing, she took Him with her. Perhaps one day she happened to turn round and saw Someone keeping up with her step by step. Perhaps one day she asked the right question at the time of the right answer, and cried out, “Rabboni!”
Contrast this virtuous, honest lady’s search with others, who say they are open-minded, liberal-hearted, vigorous in pursuit of human rights and values, and zealous about the truth, but who really want to deflect the light from their deeds and motives, and close humanity and its freedom down. They know full well that Christ our Light follows their every move; yet (as in Thompson’s poem) they call to the dawn, and say,
Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!
All through the enervating news in recent days, there has loomed a crisis that sums up what is currently amiss. It is the case of Charlie Gard at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, and the rights of his parents to find healing for his life and to protect him until the day he dies. An experimental new means of treatment offers a ray of hope; but Great Ormond Street’s medical professionals, scientists and ethicists have dragged the family through to the European Court of Human Rights to seek to ensure that their expert opinion will prevail, and that Charlie’s life-support and sustenance be turned off, causing him to die. The justices of the United Kingdom and of the European Human Rights Court – which was established expressly to prevent the power of the state to deny Europe’s citizens their right to life and freedom - have declared that he is incurable; so, to prolong his life, or to attempt the treatment only available in America, is futile. Their thinking is chilling: not to bring about his death would cause him greater harm than causing him to die.
Lord Winston, Britain’s avuncular clinician, has pronounced that Pope Francis’ offer of care at his hospital in Rome, Bambino Gesù, may be well intentioned; but (he says) it has no scientific expertise in the child’s condition, and so the intervention of the Catholic Church in this field is cruel to Charlie. In this double-think it is "cruel" for Christians to offer the chance of treatment or, if it does not work, loving palliative care; yet it is not cruel for medics to induce the death of an infant patient against its parents’ will. Our jocular Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, weighs in to say that it would be illegal to move Charlie to Rome for treatment or care, because the courts have agreed with the hospital and, therefore, Charlie must be subject to its expert ethical and medical determination. This is not that Charlie be allowed to die - surrounded with our best love and protection, if the right to search for a possible cure is forbidden to the parents - but that his life be hastened to a close. Pope St John Paul declared that it is evil to deny the sick and dying the means of sustenance for life. Instead, this Catholic morality, which honours the sacredness of humanity - in which Christ Himself shared and suffered thirst and pain alike - must not be allowed to take precedence over the thinking of contemporary medical and scientific ethicists: supposedly objective, but actually relativist without roots in the principles of Christian civilisation, as it balances the fluctuating weights of conflicting medical knowledge and research, theories of care and wellbeing, political and economic expediency and public opinion. In the midst of all this, the Christian ethic that is needed cannot be tolerated, because it points to absolute truth. Thus respect for life is said to inspire and shape other considerations, but only as one belief among others that people are no less freely entitled to profess, and that states are democratically entitled to impose.
Now, hearing today’s Gospel (Matthew 8.28-9.1), most people think of the Gadarene swine throwing themselves into the sea of Galilee. But the point is about the two men who emerged from the tombs and encountered the uncomfortable light and truth of Jesus. They could not bear the sight or sound of it. Likewise, Lord Winston said that the Holy Father is cruel, and Boris Johnson says the Vatican’s request to care for Charlie is illegal interference. Likewise, Canada’s camera-loving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, revelling in his rock-star treatment around the world, has appointed a Foreign Minister who confronts all objectors, including Canada’s Catholic bishops, by saying that women’s rights to abort children in the womb is at the forefront of his government’s furtherance of human rights. The demoniacs said much the same: “It has got nothing to do with You. As Son of God, You have nothing to do with us.” Thus we are not welcome to talk of human rights, when those who pretend to be its promoters want the unmoderated power to facilitate the death of children, the sick and the elderly. Thus our protests about the right to life are scorned, while real abuses to minorities, religions and whole populations on political and ideological grounds go unchecked. Thus we are presented as the enemy of women’s freedom and wellbeing by those who hide behind those noble aims, in order to un-restrict the destruction of the unborn. Thus we are presented as lacking compassion, while our carers in disguise, affronted that someone else may offer more effective treatment, decide what values they - not we - deem acceptable, and set their limitations on who is allowed to live on what conditions.
The interesting detail in today’s Gospel is that, whereas everywhere else in Galilee people flock to Jesus, when He comes to Gadara-Gerasa town, they plead with Him to go away. He has come from the cemetery and brought unclean contact with those who are dead from the inside. The men appeared to come out of the tombs, but they were not risen from the dead. They appeared to have come to life but they were dark - no light on. Today we sang, “Death has been plundered” and we understand that it has nothing in its vast domains to offer or detain us. My friend the Seeker looked everywhere. She could not find Christ among the dead to bring Him up, or cut down out of heaven and bring Him here below (see today’s Epistle, Romans 10.1-10). For He comes to us, not from out of death, but towards the Kingdom of heaven. His life all along is upon us, behind us, behind, within ahead. It is our own vital sign, sacrosanct. This is why Charlie has “everything to do” with us, as does the fate of so many in the world, where privilege, vested-interest expertise and power trump the right to life, and the wellbeing of the created order. It is not just that all life is sacred in the Name of its Maker, and the Redeemer Who died for its sake. It is because all humanity is destined towards, and even now endowed with, the blazing fact of life that is the Resurrection, and the restoration of all things in Christ. We may never harm and destroy what is on its way to glorification. We must love our own who are in the world to the end (cf. John 13.1). This we cannot turn away from; we cannot tell the Lord this time to go. For if we do, it is our own life, and our resurrection that we turn away, as Love unperturbed pursues us “down the nights and down the days” – with “unhurrying chase … His majestic instancy”. I turn and see: "Rabboni!"