The Cornerstone of our Lives
Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year. Fr Dominic White suggests that we take inspiration from the architecture of cathedrals.
One of the glories of our country, and indeed of every country where God has established the Christian Faith, is the cathedrals. “Prayer in stone”, these wonderful buildings encapsulate the Christian Faith in stone and articulate the whole of creation’s praise of God, of the God who saves us together with the entire cosmos.
Of course, to build such a structure needs very practical knowledge – the cathedral needs to go up, and stay up! It’s striking that even at their most elaborate, the cathedrals are built around solid, simple principles: the line, the square, the circle. The people of the Middle Ages didn’t compartmentalize knowledge: so the principles of architecture were understood not just for their practical purpose, but also their spiritual meaning. The line was not only horizontal, but also vertical – connecting heaven and earth. The square represented the earth (four cardinal points, four corners, etc.), while the circle, being an endless line, symbolised the eternity of heaven. The mason graduated from the square of earth to the circle of heaven.
But to become a master mason required understanding of the keystone (sometimes called cornerstone). The keystone is crucial to holding together the arch, or vault, or dome. You need to be a master to recognise it, and to recognise how it fits, because it can be a very odd shape (a bit like that odd jigsaw piece which is actually crucial to the puzzle).
And this is the trouble with chief priests and elders in today’s Gospel. They don’t recognise in Jesus the Messiah they have been teaching about, because He’s not what they expect. Likewise their ancestors didn’t recognise the prophets, because the prophets didn’t say or do what they expected – or indeed what they wanted to hear and see. People wanted the prophets to say that God was on their side against their enemies, that he would give them power and prestige to rival their neighbours. Instead the prophets told them to repent of their injustice. In Jesus’ time people wanted – very understandably – someone who would set them free from the occupying Roman forces. Instead He proclaims a Gospel of forgiveness, healing and radically unconditional love, including of your enemies. And He claims to be the Son of God. This feels both uncomfortable and irrelevant. So He’s rejected.
In our own time, very understandably, we want God to stop the pandemic and restore things to normal. There’s nothing wrong with praying for this. Indeed, starting today the Dominican Order all over the world is having three days of penance, and a global Rosary, to pray for the victims of the pandemic, for the bereaved, the health workers and governments, and indeed for an end to it. But as St. Thomas Aquinas says, our prayers don’t change God. When we pray, God changes us. We are inviting God to act in our lives.
And He is not only the master architect but also the master winemaker. A lot of the work of winemaking is unglamorous and indeed hidden. As in today’s first reading, there’s the work on the soil, clearing the stones. Then the protecting fence, and a watch tower to guard it against robbers.
When God answers our prayers, it’s often not the “instant result”. In fact, it may feel that nothing at all has happened. But if we look back a bit in our lives, we often see that God was deep at work in the soil of our unconscious, clearing away the stones of burden and blockage. He puts up protection – sometimes to save us from ourselves – and a watchtower of awareness in our consciences. Because God loves us far too much to just rescue us. God wants us to flourish like a vine, and our fruit to be the wine of last joy and friendship, not just escape and transient relationships.
We do not know what God is doing at the moment. The pandemic has not gone away. There have been many deaths, many people seriously ill, people losing their jobs. Pope Francis said back in March that God is not judging us, but rather inviting us to judge what is important to us. The pandemic – an evil thing in itself – has made us reflect more on what life is about. It has confronted us with the reality of death, which has become hidden and sanitised in society. Rather than the next life being a consoling afterthought, perhaps we are rediscovering this life as a prelude to heaven, to the Resurrection. Lived in God, all the wonderful moments in life on earth remind us of our future. We talk about community, and the Church is admired as a builder of community. This is the time for us ask God to work in us, to heal us and set us free, so our communities become real communities of loving practical and spiritual support in tough times. Let’s ask God to “guard our hearts and our thoughts” rather than being dragged off into negativity or escapism. Let’s pray to delight in everything “good and pure”, however small or everyday.
And perhaps God has something entirely different to say to us. So let us pray to hear His voice in our hearts, in the heart of the Church, with loving attention.
Then in the midst of life, even in the midst of suffering, we will find we are not worrying, but that we have a joy that no one and nothing can take away.
Photo: Salisbury Cathedral, by JackPeasePhotography.