Common Ground Editorial: August 2021

“Who are the friends you’re with as you’re learning?” my Professor friend asked me. I paused, mumbled a few names of close friends, then trailed off. “No,” she said, “I mean, who are your friends in the tradition? Who are you reading, keeping company with?” She mused for a moment, then: “Richard Rolle! I think you’d enjoy him. And then there’s Teresa of Avila.”

I can’t say Richard, a university drop-out turned hermit mystic from 14th-century Yorkshire, has become a close acquaintance, but his Incendium Amoris remains lodged in my consciousness like a shining glass splinter. I’m learning to keep company and to step into the deep and strange waters of the Christian tradition, which in a thousand tongues have flowed through time and across cultures from the person and teachings of Jesus. And my understanding of Christ—of his body the Church and of my own small moment in God’s saving purposes—has begun to send its roots deeper and to grow.

For many, however, the writers of the past and, perhaps, particularly Christian writers of the past are not only strange but troubling. We’re alert to possible privilege, prejudice, moral failings, and more. And then there’s the fact that communication across time and culture is simply hard work. Like me with Richard, we don’t think of them as potential friends let alone sisters and brothers in Christ.

But they are. Indeed, through Christ, Christians stand in a web of relations animated by tradition. In this month’s feature article, Luke Fenwick explores how through such relations we encounter reality: the reality of God in Christ, by whose life the Church lives across time and culture. Old Christian texts, he suggests, are icons, letters, gifts—and we need to learn how to receive them as such: not uncritically, but nevertheless with wonder and gratitude. But what might this look like, actually? Rev. Sonya Lewthwaite keeps company with C. S. Lewis to offer us this month’s practice—an invitation to read an old book prayerfully and generously.

We continue our Field Notes column with an interview with Sarah Askey, a conservator who specialises in books and paper. She spends her working day with some of the earliest printed material in te reo Māori, and her musings on keeping company with old texts are as astute as they are tender. Just as thoughtful is Mark Edgecombe’s essay, “No longer slave to the present.” Head of English at a suburban high school, Mark is well aware of the challenges of learning to read old books, but he’s just as clear that it’s something we need. Friends, with the latest resurgence of COVID-19 community cases and associated lockdowns, our thoughts and prayers are with you—with your whānau, your churches, your businesses, work, study, and households. If you have particular prayer needs that you’d like the Venn team to join you in, please do get in touch. But here and now, this is our invitation: by learning to read those who have gone before, we’re freed from the present moment and called into generous and life-changing company. Do join us.