The Divine Dance, Fr. Jack Winslow and Exercising our Franciscan Imagination
Thoughts by John Hebenton tssf based on a homily given at the final Eucharist of the TSSF Asia Pacific Conference 2018
In New Zealand we currently have a programme called “Dancing with the Stars.” I have tried very hard not to see it, unless I have been tricked into watching it by the women in my life. It is not my favourite programme. In part I think because of the dancing. I don’t really get it. I don’t see the differences. The sambas and cha-chas and waltzes all look the same to me, which I think says something about the quality of dancing. Now if it was contemporary dance or hip hop I might be a bit more excited.
During this conference we have been invited into the Divine Dance that is Trinity, the eternal dance that is at the heart of God. We have been reminded that in Andrei Rublev’s icon Trinity, also called The Hospitality of Abraham, we are invited to see ourselves and those around us within this eternal dance. And like dancing with the stars, there is more than one way to join this dance. This weekend we have been invited to learn some more steps in the Franciscan version of this dance.
But before we can think about that we need to consider what the divine dance itself might look like? When we talk of the eternal divine dance what are we talking about?
I have come to think that when trying to answer these kind of questions that there are three basic questions that should shape how we live in the world. The first is – how might we describe the God of the eternal dance? Another way of asking this is “whose are we?” And in light of that, then, who are we? And then that most Franciscan question – in light of all of that, what is ours to do?
So, whose are we? How might we describe the divine dance within the Trinity?
St. Augustine of Hippo said that Jesus came to remind us that we are made in the image of God, and that the way Jesus lived reveals/reminds us of who God is. So to know what this eternal dance we call God the Trinity looks like we need to look to Jesus, and for that we need to look to the gospels. When the gospel writers wrote their gospels they were not just writing a nice biography of Jesus. These are not history books. Instead they were offering a radical theology; that we meet God in the person of Jesus, or in terms of the eternal dance, in Jesus we see the divine dance lived out. Too often we miss this. We start out with our preconceived ideas about who God is and then we lay them onto Jesus. The gospel writers were suggesting we work the other way around. When we don’t start with the gospels we miss the radical nature of what the gospel writers were offering us. This is not helped by the way the writers of the creeds reduced much of Jesus life to either a full stop or a comma. We begin to think the only important things about Jesus life are his birth to a virgin and his death so that we can get into heaven. And everything else becomes way less important. A collection of sayings and stories that we can use to make our points of view seem more legitimate. But if all that was important was the birth (which is only in two of the gospels anyway) and the death, well the gospel writers wasted a lot of time writing all that other stuff. But I think they thought it was ALL important, and that is why they wrote it. They wrote it because they believed that in the story they told, we would, using our language for the Trinity, we see the divine dance being lived out for us all to see. So, what does Jesus show us about this dance?
Jesus lived a radical hospitality. In his time whenever you accepted hospitality from someone and ate with them you honoured and blessed them. When the three men/angels accepted Abram and Sarai’s hospitality, they honoured and blessed them. And Jesus kept on eating with all kinds of people. And when he did that he honoured and blessed them. People that were not supposed to be either honoured or blessed. Tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, sick people. All people God was not supposed to honour or bless. In fact God ws thought to have judged them. But there was Jesus honouring and blessing, and so say the gospel writers, was God honouring and blessing. In Luke’s gospel this is what got Jesus into so much trouble, so much trouble the leaders conspired to kill him.
Jesus was also enormously generous, healing all those people and freeing them without a sniff of a fee, or a demand they recognise him in any way except as someone who could heal them. And when he healed them he restored families and communities. His ministry had a significant social impact wherever he went.
Jesus also lived justice. He was constantly telling stories that painted the wealthy elite – the rich Judeans (a so much better translation of the word usually translated as Jews) in a very bad light. And they were none too happy about it.
So when we read the gospels as a means of understanding the divine dance we see it being described as being about hospitality, generosity, compassion, justice. We might call this love.
The second question then – who are we? We are made in the image of this hospitality, generosity, compassion, justice, love. But we are also Franciscans.
A few years ago I was at the Taize community in France. Now that I am over thirty I can only go for a week a year, and I have to book in. 18-30 year olds get to go whenever they want for as long as they want. The rhythm in the mornings is morning prayer, breakfast, a study lead by a Taize brother in English, French and German. And then we gather in groups around common languages. In my group were two Portuguese speakers who also spoke English. One was an OFM brother working in Angola. When we introduced ourselves I said I was an Anglican Priest and was a Third Order Franciscan. Later in the week he introduced me to a friend of his as “this is John, he is a Franciscan priest.” I was taken aback and said “No, I am an Anglican priest who is third order Franciscan” and he replied, “John, you are a Franciscan Priest.” Franciscan first. Wow! We are Franciscan first. As Franciscans we are different from nearly everyone else in our churches and in our communities. We dance different steps to others. We are yeast thrown in the bread of church and the beer of our communities. Never forget that. Fundamentally we are Franciscan first and foremost, and we join the eternal dance of compassion, hospitality, generosity, justice and love as Franciscans.
Which brings us to the third question– what is ours to do? Well we have spent all weekend talking about that using Open Space Technology. So there is not much more to day except that all those conversations need to be undergirded by how we understand the dance, and how we see ourselves in the dance.
But if I might add one more little piece to this. Today we remember Fr. Jack Winslow. To be honest I had not heard of him until I was told that we were commemorating him today. I thought he was some Australian. Imagine my surprise and slight shame when I realised he is the author of our principles. And his story is a significant one.
He was born in 1883 in England. He attended Eton and then Balliol College Oxford. Balliol was known for its pioneering work breaking down social and racial barriers. He also came under the influence of the Cambridge Brotherhood which saw the purpose of someone coming from the west to India should be to enrich Christianity and not to persuade Hindus and Muslims that their religion could be improved. In 1905/6 he went to India and felt a calling to go back there.
In 1906 he was ordained and worked in a couple of position in England until 1914 when he went out to India to work under Bishop Palmer, who had been his tutor at Balliol. In his work as vice principal of a school Winslow became increasingly uncomfortable at the gulf between British Christians and Indian Christians. This was the British Raj and its height, with a firm belief in its racial superiority. For this and other reasons Winslow could also see that the Church of England transplanted into the Indian context was not working.
During this time he was deeply influenced by Tilak, a Brahmana who had converted to Christianity and was now a poet and a minister in the American Marathi Mission – an Indian church. In 1918 (I think) he wrote a Eucharistic liturgy which used Indian elements, which was presented at the Lambeth Conference and approved for use. It became a significant liturgy in the development of liturgy in the church of India.
While on home on furlough he became increasingly influenced by Francis of Assisi, and also some of the fourteenth century English mystics like Julian of Norwich and the writer of the Cloud of Unknowing. He also began to study Indian Philosophy and mysticism. Towards the end of his furlough he said he had a “shewing” and on his return to India he asked if he could establish a Christian ashram. His first rule was for the Christa Seva Sangha, which means Christ service. From 1920 to 26 he lived with a number of Indians in very simple conditions. They sought to live as sanyasi or holy people. Their devotion to Jesus was expressed both in their communal worship, which composed of chanting (like Hare Krishna, except chanting biblical and Marathi verses by Talik) at sun rise and sun set, finishing each day with slow chants of shanti, shanti (peace, peace), and Eucharist at mid-day using his Indian liturgy; and their study of scripture. They worked in the local villages spreading the gospel. It was hoped that both English and Indian would live together in the ashram but Winslow was not joined by any others. By 1927 some of the original members had left, and Winslow returned to England. He had been supported by SPG (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) and went on a speaking tour on their behalf. On this tour he met and recruited 5 men, including one William Strowan Robertson, better known in SSF history as Fr. Algy. Winslow, Algy and the others returned to India in 1927, this time with a sizable donation to develop the ashram. However Fr. Algy’s vision was very different from Winslow’s. He sought to establish a western style religious order, with first order celibate friars (which had no appeal in an Indian context) and a third order. By force of his personality the ashram slowly changed from a community of sanyasi, an Indian expression of Christianity; to a more traditional expression with friars. In 1929 the ashram was reorganised and the rule was modified. The ashram became a friary, and by 1931 the married folk and other “third order” members had to leave to live separately.
In the early 1930’s Algy was invalided home, never to return to India. But he quickly set about establishing an English branch of the Christa Seva Sangha, out of which grew the SSF first and third orders of today.
In 1934 Winslow returned to England. He would not return until shortly before his death. His vision was gone, and he was deeply depressed with its passing. He never felt called to a celibate life and did not join Fr. Algy’s fledgling group. Eventually he become involved in Lee Abbey, of which he was the chaplain for many years. This was much closer to what he had tried to establish in India albeit in an English cultural setting, with married and single, lay and ordained living together in community. It continues to play a significant role in the life of the Church of England today.
As we think about that last question, what is ours to do, I wonder what the story of Fr. Jack Winslow offers us. I wonder how much we are like Fr. Algy with a very clear idea of what it means to be third order franciscans, inviting others to join us in our well-shaped version of the dance; or are we willing to embrace some of what Winslow invites us to, to let go of our preconceptions and to see how the Spirit might reshape the dance in our new time and context? Exciting times.
I want to finish then by returning to where we began – with the image of the dance. Using the words of Richard Rohr from the Divine Dance, as we continue to learn to dance as Franciscans, may we know that God is for us, we call him Father, that God is alongside us, we call him Jesus, that God is within us, we call her Holy Spirit. May the eternal mystery that enables, enfolds and enlivens all things, enable, enfold and enliven even us. Amen.