Matthew 13:29. “Shall we go and gather the weeds?”
I was told that at an early English wedding, the bride on her wedding day promised to be “bonnere and buxom in bedde and at boarde.” I’m not sure what it means, but it has something to do with food and sex so it sounds good to me! When we got married thirty years ago the reformers had got at the service and cleaned it up. My partner promised to “love, cherish and obey.” That still sounded pretty good to me. It meant that when I came home after a hard day’s work, my dinner would be ready, my slippers would be warm and the children would be ready to greet me with quiet enthusiasm. Bah! Thirty years later, I’ve learned to cook, and my partner is no longer home three nights a week because she is doing “church work” and I put the children to bed. The contract has been renegotiated.
The first signs emerged after we had been married for about ten years. One evening we were invited to dinner at one of the Oxford colleges by a friend who was the chaplain. After dinner, as we sipped Madeira in the Fellow’s common room, he bewailed his lot as chaplain. “What I need,” he said, “is a little woman to do the linen.” With hardly a blink, my partner said, “Yes. Or a little man.”
We’re off to Italy this evening. Pompeii, Assisi, Florence, Rome…. One of the places that doesn’t rate in the guidebook is a small town called Foligno, a few miles from Assisi. I have a secret desire at least to drive through Foligno on our trip, even if we don’t stop. I have a score to settle. Foligno is the home of a little-known woman mystic—Angela of Foligno. She lived in the 13th century, shortly after St. Francis. I don’t think you will find her in any dictionary of saints. Many people thought Angela was a pain in the neck. I remember stories of her going into church, taking her clothes off, and shouting at God. As you can imagine, the clergy didn’t like her very much. Like several of the women of the middle ages, she found a “little man” to write down her spiritual biography. He was a Franciscan Friar called Arnaldo.
Why should anyone take notice of Angela? Perhaps no reason, except that when I was reading her book I came across a remarkable passage. “It came to pass, God so willing, that at that time, my mother who had been a great obstacle to me, died. In like manner my husband died, as did all my sons in a short space of time. Because…I had prayed to God for their death, I felt a great consolation when it happened.” Not every man’s ideal of prayer, one feels! These events left her free to develop her real love affair with her crucified Lord. The intensity of her experience of God, and her ability to put into words what defies description has placed her alongside the great women mystics in the Church—with Teresa of Avila, and Catherine of Siena.
Angela does not fit very well into our tidy, male-dominated theology. The view of God and the universe implied in her story is one we immediately jump on. “How awful!” we say. Especially if, like me, you are married to a quiet little woman who pledged life-long obedience at the altar and is always there with dinner ready, children lined up and newspaper in hand when I walk through the door. “How awful!” we say, to think of God like that. And we trot out once more the safe old platitudes about the God of love. If the great women of the Church had listened to them, we would still be wearing woad and wielding clubs. The platitudes would have kept women like Angela, and Saints Agatha, Agnes, Catherine, the two Theresa’s, the Philadelphia eleven and, of course, my wife, firmly in their place.
But I like Angela. I like Angela because her life of prayer begins where every true life of prayer has to begin. Not with theory. Not with some cut and dried concept of “God” or abstract idea of “love.” Not with “theology.” But with reality. Angela prayed out of the reality she knew. And that reality was not chocolates and roses. Angela prayed the prayer that I’ll warrant has been prayed by many abused woman in history. And, as far as she was concerned, God took care of things as only God can and that was just fine. She was set free—free to become a woman whose story and book is still read 800 years later.
Christians like a tidy God. We prefer a God who explains all things, puts up with all things, smoothes over all things. Angela’s God wasn’t like that. Angela’s God had rough edges. He was a passionate and crucified God. Only this kind of God was big enough to handle Angela’s world.
We have a great need to keep God and the world tidy. You can see it even in the gospels. Last week, the parable of the sower. This week the parable of the wheat and weeds in the field. In both, the disciples are desperate for an explanation. They want a parable they can under-stand because they want a world they can understand. They want a God who adds up. They want a religion that gives them power and control. You can only have power if you can understand. “Knowledge is power,” said Bacon. If you wait long enough, you will see that in black letters outside every school in the city. It’s nonsense!
The disciples have confused “ignorance” with “mystery.” But our problem, our reality, is not just ignorance, it is mystery. There is no God who can “tidy up” cancer. There is no God who can “tidy up” Auschwitz. No God can simply “tidy up” death. Knowledge is powerless against mystery. Only wisdom has any power in the face of mystery. You know that famous prayer of St. Teresa: “God grant me to change the things I can change, to accept the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
We live in the field of wheat and weeds. The field of wheat and weeds is fundamentally mystery. Our lives, our relationships, the people around us are not “puzzles” to be solved. They are mysteries. There is no knowledge that can sort out the weeds and leave the wheat unharmed. The disciples demand explanation. But the explanation isn’t as good as the story. It doesn’t ring true. The disciples want the “knowledge” that will save them from the world. But the gospel does not offer knowledge. The gospel offers “wisdom.” Wisdom is the Spirit’s way of living with mystery—with a world that doesn’t “tidy up” easily. Wisdom requires patience, it demands that we continue to love and tend the field in all its ambiguity. For one day, there will be a harvest and there will be joy and rest.