Sunday, 30 August 2015

Hostile Witness

We all know, from our communities, parishes and neighbourhoods, the bad brought to the Church and the scandal caused by those people who call themselves very Catholic, who frequently go to church, but then, in their daily lives, don’t take care of their families, speak ill of others, etc.”
From the inside looking out we might think it possible to be part time Christians. We can sometimes give ourselves a break from being quite so holy, from holding ourselves to quite such a high standard. Pope Francis in his remarks just quoted takes another view. He goes on to point out-
This is that which Jesus condemns because this is a Christian 'counter-witness.‘“ (Vatican Insider)
From the outside looking in everyone who knows us will consider that anything we do has the mark of ‘Christian’ about it.And when we publicly do things which are discreditable to ourselves we are bringing down scandal upon the Church. Quite literally in fact because the word ‘scandal’ means stumbling block and every time we bear a counter-witness to the Gospel we are putting a stumbling block in the way of others entering the Christian life.

Some of the things we do may be hidden or private but malicious gossip, ‘speaking ill of others’ as the Holy Father puts it, is always by its nature a public act. Very often it becomes more public than we intend since once it is put into circulation who knows where it will end or what damage it may do? As St James put it-
Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna
From this perspective the damage done by gossip is not simply the harm done to the person about whom you are being spiteful. It is the perception which you create that being hurtful, nasty and vicious about someone is perfectly compatible with the Christian faith. You are bearing witness to your neighbours that the love of which Christians speak is an abstract, formal, dead sort of thing but that the living spirit of Christianity is, like that of the world, to do down people whom you don’t like and do up people whom you do.

His Holiness proposes another approach- internal conversion  “Without a purified heart, we can never have truly clean hands and lips that speak sincere words of love, mercy and forgiveness.” he says “if the heart doesn’t change, we are not true Christians. The border between good and evil does not lie outside of us, but rather within us.” Such a conversion cannot be entirely our own work, we must ask for an infusion of Grace to help us to be transformed-
“But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.”

We do however need to desire this Grace, to pray for it and to co-operate with it when we get it. Continuing in the same old way until such time as the Lord chooses to change us without any effort or strain on our part is not an option. It is in the nature of gossip that we often scrutinise intently and comment about unkindly the motives of others while leaving our own strictly unexamined. We need to begin to reverse that process. Ask ourselves why are we talking in this way about this person? Why do we want to see them shipwrecked, humiliated, demeaned, in the eyes of others? And why do we want to be seen as the agents of this process? Or, at least, why do we so enjoy hearing others do this in our presence. Be sure if the answers to these questions do you no credit then they will do the Church great harm as well. Paradoxically perhaps your fellow gossips may not wish to behave like Christians but they may want you to do so. You disappoint them at some level if you don’t and you erect a barrier to their conversion. If you are not bearing witness of a better way then you are bearing witness to a worse one. The same as other people but with added hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness. Pope Francis ended with a prayer we should make our own:
“Let us ask the Lord, through the intercession of the Most Holy Virgin, to give us a pure heart, free of all hypocrisy — that’s the adjective that Jesus used with the Pharisees: hypocrites, because they say one thing and do another. Free from all hypocrisy so that in this way we are able to live according to the spirit of the law and reach its goal, which is love.”

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Friday, 28 August 2015

Salvation: It's Not All About Me

Now if I have found favour in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favour in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.’  He said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ And he said to him, ‘If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.’
Exodus 33:13-16

Formulae like 'I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour' are very commonly used among Evangelical Christians. They can act as the gateway marking the point at which a person becomes a Christian. In that sense they resemble the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith. What they don't resemble is the traditional Christian gateways which are baptism and the profession of the  Nicene creed. There are many things which could be said about this but I propose to focus on what I see as the excessive individualism which this approach to the faith both reflects and encourages.

The formula is theologically sound so far as it goes, its main problem is the premature use of the full stop. It makes the Christian faith in its totality appear to consist of a personal relationship between the individual believer and one member of the Blessed Trinity. This is at best inadequate and at worst positively misleading. If we consider the example of the relationship between God and Moses then we can see that the Prophet never considered himself to be simply an individual fragment of humanity standing before the Almighty One but as a part of the People of God, his well-being was bound up with theirs, theirs was bound up with his. When the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf at Sinai the Lord planned to destroy them but to Moses He said 'of you I will make a great nation' (Exodus 32:10) Moses declined this honour and, as the psalmist put it 'stood in the breach before Him' (Psalm 106:23.) For the Prophet salvation was not merely a personal affair it was a national one also and his nation consisted of all those, whoever they may be, with whom God had entered into a Covenant relationship.

The New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus on the Cross does not negate this communitarian aspect of the relationship between God and His people. St Paul wrote 'If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.' (2 Corinthians 1:6) The nation of God, the New Israel, is the Church which is not only a single body it is actually the body of Christ Himself. So when this same Paul was persecuting the Church Jesus could say to him 'why do you persecute me?' (Acts 9:4) This means, in fact, that the relationship between the Almighty and His people is closer than it was during the time of Moses, destroying Israel was always an option, destroying Himself is never a possibility.

There is an interesting phrase in the dialogue on Mount Sinai. The Lord says ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ Jesus echoed this later by saying 'Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.' (Matthew 11:28) On the mountain God is telling Moses that He will accompany the people Israel and that for all of them, for each of them He will be their rest and Jesus is not varying this message here. It follows from this that if we have a relationship with God that this includes everywhere that God is and everyone in whom God dwells therefore an exclusive focus on ourselves alone and our personal salvation is not an expression of the Christian faith but its negation. We do not enter into this rest of God other than as members of each other, indeed we, insofar as we are instruments and agents of our Lord, are called upon to be that rest for each person whom we encounter.

Another way of looking at this is from the angle of sin. Evangelicals hold, quite correctly, that we need salvation because we are sinners, but what is sin? In Spe Salvi Pope Benedict XVI looks at this and notes-
"14...sin is understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division. Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is. Hence “redemption” appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers"
That which has caused our rupture with God is a crime against unity, against human solidarity, and so to repair that breach Jesus came to be at the heart of community, of solidarity above all with the suffering. If we are to be clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27) then we too must be immersed wholly in lives of solidarity.

One of the advantages of baptism as the gateway to the Christian life consists in the fact that we cannot baptise ourselves. On our own, at home, in the car wherever, we can use the formula I accept Jesus Christ etc. in response to the radio, TV or internet. As our Christian journey starts in a bubble it could easily continue that way, we proceed as consumers of Christianity and Christian products. The necessity of community and communion is not immediately obvious from such a perspective. To be baptised is to present ourselves before the People of God and have the blessed names of Father, Son and Holy Spirit pronounced over us as we are washed in the sacramental waters. From the outset the message is clear- your salvation is not only personal. Apart from the people whom God has called together you will not be saved, apart from you they will not be saved. The ancient formula of the Nicene Creed explicitly and deliberately unites the concepts of community (Church= Ecclesia), baptism and resurrection so that together we can say-
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.


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The picture is Moses by Lorenzo Monaco

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

What is Man? Part 2

Lord, what is man that you take notice of him;
    the son of man, that you think of him?
Psalms 144:3

Look into this mirror every day, O queen, spouse of Jesus Christ, And continually examine your face in it.... that mirror suspended upon the wood of the cross
St Clare of Assisi- Fourth Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague

In Part One I suggested that by gazing into the mirror of Christ Crucified we can see answers to the question What is Man? (male and female) because Jesus is an icon of what a human should be like and because His situation is emblematic of the human condition. I proposed that 'Man is loved and lovable' is one conclusion we can deduce and that 'Man is a sinner' is another.

The Crucifixion is something voluntarily endured by our Lord because it is the efficient means for redeeming fallen humanity. We can deduce from this that, insofar as He is representative of us, that we can add 'Man is a lover,' that is one who loves, to our list of essential human qualities. However, although we can say that Man is loved and lovable unconditionally we must qualify the truth that Man is a lover with the fact that he is also a sinner. This means that every expression of love or feeling of it is, at least potentially, tainted by sin which is produced by disordered affection for or attachment to certain inferior goods at the expense of Good as such.

The idea, recently expressed, that 'love wins' is unreservedly A Good Thing is something I have challenged on my other blog. For our purposes I would say that love translated into intention and act always has to be evaluated in the light of how it fulfils its purpose. What this purpose is might be more easily be discussed if we consider that another conclusion we can draw from the mirror of Christ Crucified is that 'Man is dependent.'

An archaic meaning of the word dependent is 'hanging down' so Jesus is literally dependent upon the Cross. More generally though it is true to say that humans are wholly reliant on the objects of the universe. They need air to breathe, food to eat, materials for homes and clothes and so on. More than that before our Lord was in a position to say 'it is finished' and complete His mission through death He first had to address the needs of His mother and the beloved disciple, placing them into each others care.(John 19:26-27) It might be said that a sub-category of 'Man is dependent' could be rendered as 'Man is necessarily social.' That is, humans depend not only upon things but upon each other. Or, to be more personal I depend upon others and others depend upon me. This applies even to hermits or misanthropes since our present state of being incorporates our entire personal history and human life begins as dependent from the moment of conception in the womb of another person. Also what we do now may intentionally or unintentionally have an impact on another person in the future.

These things taken together, Man as lover, sinner and dependent, have implications. For people on the Left this is a fairly uncontentious statement when it applies to the environment, where humans are called to be stewards and to put curbs and restraints upon their appetites in order to prevent the destruction of things and its incident impact upon humans. However, it becomes contentious when applied to societies and individual people. For the Right the reverse is true, they are often happy to despoil the planet but insist upon particularly strict form of outward behaviour and morality. As a Catholic I would say a plague on both your houses, we must protect both the planetary and the human ecology. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it-
 "The book of nature is one and indivisible; it includes not only the environment but also individual, family and social ethics. Our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others"
(World Day of Peace 2010)

In Part 1 I suggested that divorce and homosexuality are taken as test cases, modernist thinking see's affirming them as being necessary to their project of maximising human happiness through maximising human independence. But, since we are dependent creatures independence necessarily has its limits. In relation to God we cannot be independent, in relation to each other we should not be independent. This is not to say that there is not a place for human privacy, for solitary communion with God and with our own souls. Christ Crucified was alone and, for the most part silent so we can deduce another human feature to be 'Man is an individual.' Again, though, this is a qualified truth which needs to be considered together with the truth's of dependence and sinfulness. Given these truth's maximising independence under the illusion that autonomy is either achievable or desirable is simply going against the grain of what human nature actually is. That we may, or many of us anyway, may want this license to behave as we will is a sign of our sinfulness, not of our inborn thirst to be free from the constraints of obligation which love when not disordered by sin places upon us.

The Catholic arguments, then, against divorce and homosexuality proceed from the assumption that these are lesser goods which disordered affection places above Good as such which we should be pursuing. The family, open to new life, nurturing and caring for existing life, centred upon the married couple is the basic human unit which is divinely designed to meet human needs and allow for the most optimum flourishing of the human spirit. All human life, even celibate life, is ordered around the family to support it by deeds, sacraments and prayers. Anything which seeks to dissolve this unit institutionally or legally is an enemy to real human freedom because it strikes at the roots of real human nature.

Of course, because of the ever present reality of human sinfulness many human families fall well short of their potential and can sometimes become the source of real suffering, torment and cruelty. 'Man is a creature who suffers' is another vision we see in the mirror of Christ Crucified. Suffering and sorrow is an inescapable part of the human condition, no structures or reconstruction of society will end that because all of them, each of them, will be corrupted by the sinfulness of the humans who run them if not in the beginning then certainly by the end. The most we can do is create the best possible structures, inculcate the best possible values in our children and young people and offer fervent prayers to our merciful God. Structures which uphold the family but which minimise the suffering caused by dysfunctional families or by disordered sexual desires through offering protection against violence, bullying and unjust discrimination offer better possibilities for humans to fulfil their potential as people who are loved and lovable, sinners and lovers, dependent and individual, capable of suffering than those which sweep away all these truths and replace them with the falsehood that humans are autonomous individuals and that individual love, unpredictable and changeable, should always win.


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The painting is Crucifixion (Escorial) by Rogier Van der Weyden

Sonnet for our Lady of Light

In my own darkness, alone and stumbling,
Seeking that which is hidden by my choice.
Crying aloud, frantically praying
To emptiness which will not hear my voice.

Am I ever doomed to wander this way?
Lost and despairing as the devil mocks.
A ship amidst tempest and stormy spray
Rushing swift upon deadly shark-toothed rocks.

No, it shall not be. Light there is I know.
It is you, my love, to you I now turn.
You shine brightly showing the way to go.
Frantic now with joy towards you I run.

Our Lady of Light, my sweetness and life
You are victory of hope, end of strife.


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Saturday, 15 August 2015

Sonnet for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

 Far,  far   from   us  you  do   seem   to   fly
 No   more   can   we   share  a  loving   meal
Your  vision  is  now  banished  from  the  eye
 That   kind,  soft   touch  of  yours   we  cannot  feel

Are  we   always   to   be   so   sore  bereft?
Abandoned   here   below weeping alone  .
Unconsoled.  ever   in   grief   to   be   left
 To   be   dark,  in that place   where light  has shone

 But  it is not  really   so, my  love
 Gone   in   seeming  you  only   seem   to   go  .
 On   great  ardour's wings you  soar   high   sweet  dove
 Then   plunging   in my  heart  your  torrents   flow.

 We   assumed  you had  left   us   mother   divine
 But, ah  dear  Mary,  forever  you are  mine.

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Monday, 10 August 2015

The Two Mirrors: An Allegory

 Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
Hamlet Act III, Scene 2

Once, long ago, our Noble Lord was hung upon a tree and died thereon. Strange to relate at certain seasons the tree and Him upon it are made present among us. At such times His lovers are mysteriously enabled to drink His blood as if it were wine and to eat His flesh as if it were bread gaining great strength thereby.

For the most part though our Noble Lord is hidden from our senses. During these times two great and rival companies re-enact His Passion for our benefit. These are the Dark Companions, who are always the most numerous, and the Companions of the Light, who are always led by a most wondrous sweet Lady.

The Dark Companions fully and perfectly reconstruct among us the instruments of our Lord’s death. They are the most perfect liars, they are filled with envy and spite, they are consumed with anger. Of sympathy they are naked but nonetheless they are well clad, covering themselves with mockery and cursing.With all this and much more besides they present the play “The 50 Dark Moments of our Lord's Passion.” Always they receive the just reward for their performance.

Whenever the Dark Companions appear together assembled the Companions of the Light timidly run away. Presently though they are rallied by their womenfolk, and by one woman above all other women. Led by her they enter into the heart of our Lord’s Passion. They make present among us most perfect love, patience, grief at the evils men do and steadfast but tender endurance. Their play is “The 50 Moments of Light" It is not always obvious to human eyes but it is certain that they too receive the just reward for their performance.

When these plays are not being played the actors are among us as ordinary folk. It is a passing strange thing but whether acting or not the Companions alway remain true to their parts. Darkness never departs from the words and actions of the Dark Companions. When not being professional liars they are amateur ones; doing it, as it were, for the fun of the thing. The Companions of the Light for their part likewise are always loving, never counting either the cost or the benefit to themselves.

While it is true that the Dark ever claims the most numerous following a thing of great joy and wonder occurs from time to time. Moved by continually reflecting upon our Noble Lord in His agony and upon our most sweet Lady at His feet there are some who forsake darkness and become Companions of the Light. They abandon envy, anger and hate and humbly seek to follow the path of patient loving endurance. There is tremendous rejoicing and celebration when even but a single one of the Dark Company takes this step.

While the Dark Companions ever brood upon past wrongs and present jealousies it is not so in the Light Company. They never reproach their new companions with the deeds of their Dark past. They, and the Lady above all the rest, are ever gracious and kind to them. Our Noble Lord does not withhold even His Body and Blood, it is said indeed that He shed His most precious blood especially and above all for those who have walked in the darkness.

When our story will come to an end I do not know. But of this I am certain; victory will belong not to the many but to the few. The key to this victory will not be the power to inflict suffering and death but rather the power to endure it with patience, kindness and love.

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The painting is Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier Van der Weyden

Monday, 3 August 2015

The Journey & Other Poems

The Journey

You're in front of me
And I don't see you. Beside
Me and I don't know.
Fill my emptiness with you.
Touch my darkness with your light

With longing I search
For you. In hope I travel.
Towards or Away?
How can I know or be sure?
I long for your hidden smile.

Will I find you, see
You, know you? Elusive love,
Yet faithful lover.
Journey's end and beginning 
Pilgrim heartsease and hearts wound.

Of this I am sure,
The anchor to which I cling,
That which sustains me,
If I fail, when I fail, you 
Will find me. And we will kiss.

Not Hearing

I am without you.
You, my love, are within me.
Not hearing, I speak.

Within Me

On the mountains I
Look for you, and in the seas.
You are within me.

Zen Sky

Mind and sky empty
Cloudless. Infinite. At peace.
Dogs bark far away.

Harvest Season

Now I realise
My best days are behind me.
Season of harvest

Fragile Icon

Fragile icon. Soon
Your beauty will fade away
But not from my mind.

English Summer

Drumming on flat roofs
Summer shower, brief but fierce.
Abandon picnic!

Pacing the Cloister

Pacing the cloister
A thousand years of silence
Dust motes in the sun

Concealing Spiders

Untended garden
Riotously tangled life
Concealing spiders.

Evening of Life

Evening of life
A walk amid deep shadows.
Not without laughter.

Beyond the Window

Long days, short nights. Sun
Flecked paths. Warm rain. Bright flowers.
Beyond the window.

Our Lady of Light

Mary, filled with light
Mother of God’s pure Wisdom.
Advocate of love

Mary Amid the Darkness

Mary amid the
Darkness, sharing our sorrows.
Mother of our Hope.

Echoes of Silent Prayer

Echoes of silent
Prayer heard in deep stillness.
Shafts of light break through.


Tuesday, 28 July 2015

St Mary: The Beautiful Dove

He sent forth also a dove after him, to see if the waters had now ceased upon the face of the earth. But she, not finding where her foot might rest, returned to him into the ark: for the waters were upon the whole earth: and he put forth his hand, and caught her, and brought her into the ark. And having waited yet seven other days, he again sent forth the dove out of the ark. And she came to him in the evening, carrying a bough of an olive tree, with green leaves, in her mouth. Noe therefore understood that the waters were ceased upon the earth. And he stayed yet other seven days: and he sent forth the dove, which returned not any more unto him.
Genesis 8:8-12

The Coptic Christians, whose ancient communities are enduring a prolonged martyrdom in the Middle East, have long given the Blessed Virgin the title of The Beautiful Dove because they see a type or figure of our Lady in this story from Genesis. In common with all of Christendom prior to the time of Luther the Copts find the New Testament present within the Old. In its pages, the stories, the people, the artefacts used, the sacrifices offered and so on everything which Jesus and the Apostles make plain can be seen under a veil as it were. Christians have long delighted in piercing that veil and in unfolding into plain sight the truths which we can now see thanks to the revelation of Christ and the faith passed on through the Apostles. The three journeys of the dove are types of, respectively, the girlhood of Mary, her role as Mother of God and her Assumption into heaven.

The earth covered in waters represents a world drowned in narrow materialism, sin and self-regard. From the moment of her Immaculate Conception our Lady became a pilgrim: in this world but not of it. Noah and his family in the Ark stand for the anawim the humble righteous ones looking with hope for the coming kingdom which would dry up the waters and flood the world instead with the spirit of love and devotion. Mary became in a special way the representative and ambassador of the anawim. She flew forth across the waters filled with love and hope but could find nowhere where here foot might rest. She was sustained only by the wings of faith and the winds of the spirit. Finally she came to rest in the hands of St Ann, her mother, and St Joseph, her betrothed.

At the Annunciation she takes to flight once more, the wind beneath her wings is the Father who chose her, the Holy Spirit who espoused her and the Son who was formed in her virginal womb. Already the waters have begun to diminish, St Zechariah, St Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Simeon are so many islands emerging into the light and filled with the joy of a new birth in and for the earth. The dove returns, so the Septuagint tells us- "carrying a bough of an olive tree, with green leaves, in her mouth." This symbolises the Passion of her Son, the tree reminds us of the Cross of Golgotha, the leaves of the Resurrection and Ascension. The combination of the two reminds us that life and death are united in the Crucifixion and that life has the final triumph. It carries too an echo of the words of our Lord on His Way of the Cross "if in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?" (Luke 23:31) That this Good News is borne in the mouth of the dove recalls also the canticle of praise that came from Mary's lips, the Magnificat-
My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
Because he that is mighty, hath done great things to me; and holy is his name.

The receding of the waters is a symbol for the completion of the redemptive work of Jesus, sin and death have been finally conquered. The dove resting in the Ark among the family of Noah represents Mary after the days of the Passion, Ascension and Pentecost resting in the family of the Church. And after she completes her full time on earth (in the scriptures the number seven is a signifier for completeness) she flies one more time, raised by the angels to be reunited once more and forever with her Risen and Glorified Son. We are more fortunate than Noah, however, for if the dove never returned the Virgin certainly has many times. Because of the victory won by her Divine Son she now has numerous places upon which she can rest her foot, above all in the presence of the Christian anawim the St Bernadette's the St Juan Diego's the humble poor to whom she delights to appear at Lourdes in France, at Tepeyac in Mexico, at Fatima in Portugal and in numerous places. Always she carries with her the olive bough with the green leaves reminding us of her Son, of His Passion and Resurrection of the hope that He brings to the world and of the need for us to turn to Him with repentance and love.

The Beautiful Dove has not forgotten the Copts of Egypt. In the late 1960's as our Lady of Light she appeared at Zeitoun in Cairo perhaps to prepare them for the torment of persecution they now face. The dove of Noah symbolises hope, life appearing from out of a dead earth. Mary, the God bearer, is a sign for us of that hope and she brings to us the One who in His Person defeats death and the forces of darkness. May we all turn to her and join our prayers with hers on behalf of the Christian people of the Middle East. By the grace and power of God may it be that the dove of peace, the dove of light, the dove of joy, the Beautiful Dove may find her home in the lands that gave birth to our Christian faith. It is in Egypt too that we find the oldest of all prayers to Mary the Sub Tuum Praesidium-
We fly to your patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin

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The painting is a detail from The Annunciation by Fra Filippo Lippi

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Heaven in Ordinary

As Paul went on and on, a young man called Eutychus who was sitting on the window-sill grew drowsy and was overcome by sleep and fell to the ground three floors below.

If Eutychus isn't the patron saint of ordinary churchgoers then perhaps he should be. On days when the sky is blue, the sun is warm, the sermon is dull and a tall glass of something cool is waiting for you outside then who is the one whose attention would not waver at least a little? I don’t think that this is a cautionary tale (spoiler alert: it has a happy ending) its more an observation that even in the presence of the famous Apostle to the Gentiles human flesh is weak. If it were not there would have been no need for the Incarnation.

There are many positive arguments that can be made in favour of churchgoing but Eutychus I think points us towards a negative one. Church services can be dull or worse than dull. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The temptation to think that the Church can pretend to be a part of the entertainment industry is something that should be firmly resisted. However well put together a service is, however many guitars or flashing lights that it has there will always be something much, much better to watch on TV or YouTube. If the demand of churchgoers is ‘entertain me’ then they need to be challenged but I don't think that that is what they/we do demand whatever worried pastors with declining congregations might think. Lively, inspiring and enlightening homilies are always welcome. Worthily celebrated sacraments are gratefully received. But even when these are not present there is still a reason to turn up week after week and if necessary do a Eutychus.

Our daily lives are filled with dull moments, with mediocrity, with routine. The thousand and one necessary things which we have to do, go to the shops, buy petrol for the car, endure a long commute, listen to boring anecdotes you've heard a dozen times before. Their dullness is as real as their necessity and we cannot dispense with either, they are part of what it means to live a human life. If an hour in church resembles an hundred other hours we have already spent in the previous week that doesn't represent a failure on the part of the pastor. It means that churchgoing is woven naturally into the fabric of our lives. It has this one difference though. At any moment from a phrase of scripture, the verse of a hymn, a sentence in the homily or the elevation of a Host or even a sunbeam dancing on the sanctuary at any moment I say we can suddenly be transpierced by the love of Christ. We can be moved from time to eternity. Transcendence should be a regular visitor to the Sunday service, coming and going as He pleases.
There is a need for Sacred Space and Sacred Time where we can concentrate on what is holy. More than that though there needs to be the possibility of interpenetration between the two. Where we are aware that ordinariness is a part of the church experience then we will also be aware that the sacred can invade and be a part of the ordinary experience too. Our dull days and routine activities, our falling asleep through boredom, are not exempt from an infusion of the divine. Eutychus points us towards this mingling of the two realms. The title of this piece is from the poem Prayer by the Anglican vicar George Herbert it ends with these words, the ‘something understood’ is the subject of this article-
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
         The land of spices; something understood.

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The painting is St Paul by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Why be Reborn?

                                        Christ and Nicodemus- Cijn Hendricks

Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’  Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit
John 3:4-5

"What's in it for me?" is a perfectly reasonable question to ask whenever someone tries to persuade you to take a risk. It may not be the only or even the most important question but it is certainly one which can legitimately be put. One cannot, therefore, blame non-Christians for taking it into consideration when hearing the appeals of evangelisers to be 'born again in Christ Jesus.' To people who believe in neither heaven nor hell the promise of the one and the threat of the other will make no impression. Likewise those who have no sense of sin are conscious of no burden of guilt from which they have to escape. None of these things then can be advanced as being relevant to the "what's in it for me?" criteria.

The idea that the population would be susceptible to such appeals is the heritage of a time which has now past. Where you have a society in which almost everyone accepts the basic ideas of Christianity the task is to energise them, to get them to move from theory to practice. In the West today there are few if any such societies so the strategy requires to be revised. Fortunately the Church has experience in dealing with a world in which most people were ignorant of, indifferent to or antagonistic about basic Christian doctrines. This was the gentile world of the first century Mediterranean where the Apostles and their associates did the work of planting the Catholic Church in the first place. I think that they made three distinct promises which each convert would receive as a gift when becoming converted to the faith, promises which the Church can still make and which provide the answer "this is what is in it for you."

The first is this; new Christians will receive the Holy Spirit. This was clearly an expectation in the primitive Church "Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples.  He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" (Acts 19:1-2.) The idea that this is something which will necessarily cause people to jump about shouting Hallelujah! and waving their hands does not on the face of it make it an attractive promise to many people. However this is not the case. The Spirit is infinite and infinitely variable, He manifests Himself in many ways. In some He descends like a thunderbolt and sets them aflame and keeps them aflame for a lifetime. In others He gently infuses himself into the mind and heart slowly turning them into havens of peace and joy. What is certain is that He makes Himself present to believers in ways that He does not to those who reject faith (the Holy Spirit is certainly at work in non-Christians but the form and content of that work is qualitatively different from that among those united to Christ.)

The second promise is Christ Himself. Him you will certainly receive. By this I mean the whole Christ not the attenuated wise teacher of so many timid sermons or relativist theologies. The full red-blooded Son of God and Son of Mary, crucified on Calvary, risen from the dead, ascended to the Father. Many people have a vague idea about Jesus, He is a sort of blank space of vacuous goodness upon which can be written or projected whatever a person wants to impose upon Him. He is cited in defence of this political project or that abnormal form of conduct. A Christian receives Him in all His dimensions, present in the Gospels and all Scripture, made present in His body the Church, seen suffering in the world among the vulnerable and outcast, encountered under the appearance of bread and wine in the Eucharist.

And then there are miracles. Many Christians get a bit shifty when it comes to miracles explaining that biblical accounts are either metaphors or psychological cures for psychosomatic ailments. There are healing ministries in places but these are out of the mainstream and all too often tainted with charlatanism. Yet the scriptures couldn't be clearer "Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles" (Acts 5:12.) The early Church was acquainted with the miraculous and that was part of the package that believers signed up to. Nowadays educated opinion frowns on the idea so the Church often appears apologetic about it or hushes it up altogether. This approach is nonsense, if Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead why should they disbelieve in varicose veins being healed? Moreover impressing the intellectual elite is not the sole purpose of the Church, millions of people do not have an a priori belief that miracles cannot happen therefore they do not happen and to close off from them this part of the Good News because we are afraid of appearing foolish in front of the worldly wise is a dereliction of duty.

Certainly the possibility of fraud or hysterical temporary 'cures' is always present when miraculous healings are the matter at hand. The Church has no interest in such things save to denounce and expose them. Nonetheless there are inexplicable cures and events associated with Christianity. The case of Lourdes provides a template for what is possible. Claims of cures are not accepted until thoroughly investigated by qualified physicians, including those who are not associated with the Church and are sceptical of her faith. A miracle is not declared until some very tough criteria have been met. The point about this is not that miracles are common, by definition they are exceptionally rare, so that believers can expect to have their problems solved by them. No, the point is that by accepting the Christian faith a person begins to inhabit a world, a universe, in which the miraculous is possible. Their experience of life is fundamentally altered by this simple change of perspective. The little pamphlet A Protestant Looks at Lourdes (PDF) by Ruth Cranston gives us a glimpse into this-
" Time after time I have been told at Lourdes—by doctors, nurses, brancardiers, even by the man who sweeps the paths: "The sick? Oh, Madame, they've forgotten about their own cure. All they care about is that the man in the next row shall get well. . . . 'Don't bother about me—that fellow over there needs you more.' . . . 'Never mind, nurse, I can wait.' . . . 'Look after this poor lady in the next carriage—she really needs attention'."
Naturally the pain comes back again, but it hasn't the same hold. Their minds are not centred on it any longer. And when the time comes to go home, though they haven't been physically cured, though they know what hardships and suffering yet another pilgrimage will mean, their one cry is: "If only I can come back next year! If only I can come again to Lourdes!"

So, "what's in it for me?" You get the Holy Spirit, Jesus and miracles. The proof of all this is experimental, that is these are gifts that you can only have by having not by being told about. The invitation to be born again is a risk, there is so much that you have to give up, to leave behind. But there is also so much to gain. The choice is yours to make.

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