Tuesday, 21 June 2016

With Mary to Jesus

The same night the Lord said to him: Arise, and go down into the camp: because I have delivered them into thy hand. But if thou be afraid to go alone, let Phara thy servant go down with thee.
Judges 7:9-10

In the Book of Judges the nervous Gideon is shown several miracles by God and then given a commision to visit the camp of the enemy. You might think that witnessing the power of the Lord and being personally reassured by Him was enough but apparently it wasn't. Gideon remained timid, the flesh may have been willing but the spirit was weak. The Almighty could have taken offence at this but, as it happens, He didn't. He knows of what stuff we are made, as well He should, and so in addition to all the other things He had offered Gideon He made provision for a companion in the mission. Humans like to have someone to share the burden. We see something similar in Moses being granted the assistance of Aaron. Later Jesus would send out His disciples in pairs. Not that they needed each other to proclaim the Good News, to heal the sick or to perform miracles. No, they needed each other because they needed each other, that's just the way we are.

When Catholics say that Mary is given to us to help in our journey towards Jesus some other Christians argue that since Jesus is both the Way and the destination Mary's role is spurious. I think she is only spurious in the sense that Phara and Aaron and the twinned disciples were spurious, that is to say not at all. God does not change His way of operating. He knows that if we were perfect we could come to Him uncompanioned but it is precisely because we are not perfect that we need to come to Him at all. He gives us the gift of a mother, and of such a beautiful mother, since we know that Jesus is both our saviour and our judge. If we long for the one we rightly fear the other. Like Gideon we may have been reassured in multiple ways that our sins have been forgiven, washed away in the blood of the Cross, yet still we hesitate because we know how terrible they are and how often since we accepted Christ we have repeated them. And then gentle Mary comes to us, smiling and kind. She strengthens our hearts and taking our hands she walks side by side with us in our pilgrimage to her Son. And because she does this we make a pilgrimage that otherwise fear would have prevented us from setting out on. More souls have been saved by accepting Mary's help than ever will be by rejecting it.

Another way of looking at this can be seen if we consider this episode from the Lord of the Rings by the Catholic author JRR Tolkien-
"Filled suddenly with love for this old man, he knelt on one knee, and took his hand and kissed it. 'May I lay the sword of Meriadoc of the Shire on your lap Théoden King?' he cried. 'Receive my service, if you will!'"
(Return of the King, Chap 2)
The hobbit Merry was not simply pledging his service to Théoden, since the king was bound by oaths, loyalty, ancient friendship and love to Gondor service to Théoden automatically also meant service to Gondor. And in this double service Merry rode of to war on the fields of the Pelennor where he played a crucial role in destroying the chief of the Nazgûl. One could not love the king of the Rohirrim without also loving the cause of the people of Minas Tirith.

The same, of course, applies to Mary and Jesus. If she fills us with love, if we are touched by her example and by her person and so pledge ourselves to her she only accepts us so that she can deploy us in the service of her Divine Son and present us to Him as His faithful servants because we are hers. Jesus and Mary are not rival sovereigns with  rival servants like Abraham and Lot. They are a single sovereignty doing the will of the Father competing with each other, as it were, only in love, mercy and forgiveness.

There are any number of different ways of entering into our Lady's service. One is by beginning our day's activities with a prayer such as this-

Dear and most Blessed Lady, Mary.
As you brought Jesus to St Elizabeth when you visited her bring Him also to me,
As, by the Father's will, she was filled by the Holy Spirit at the sound of your voice may you send the Paraclete also to me.
That, strengthened by God and accompanied by you, I may bear my Cross in life, through death to the glorious resurrection in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Frequently through the day, whenever you have a few seconds to spare, you can renew your Marian commitment by quietly or silently offering up this aspiration-
O Mary, guide me to your Jesus.
And then we can rest reassured in the truth taught to us by St Bernard that never was it known that any one who fled to her protection, implored her help, and sought her intercession, was left unaided.

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The painting is Christ appearing to the Virgin by a follower of Rogier van der Weyden

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Gate & the Way

An Evangelical Christian preacher very often, if not always, preaches on the need for conversion. She will invite her hearers to accept Christ into their hearts and be born again. Catholics and other Christians are prone to finding this repetitive and tedious. They have, they think, already made that fundamental choice and are more interested in finding out the best way to translate it into their daily, hourly, lives. By contrast, Evangelicals often find Catholic preaching tepid and uninspiring. Moreover since it often focuses on outward behaviour it can lead an unconverted person to pursue an hypocritical life where they publicly conform with their bodies to Catholic usages but inwardly do not accept them and practice vices in private.

The late nineteenth century Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith reflected on a useful distinction which can be made here. There are Christians primarily concerned with foundation truths and those who mostly deal with superstructure truths-
"Foundation truths deal with the beginnings of things, superstructure truths deal with their development. The first show the entrance to the divine life, the last teach how to live and walk after we are in that life. Without the superstructure truths, the foundations remain bare and crude; without the foundation truths, the superstructure will be tottering and unsafe."
(The Unselfishness of God: Chapter 29)
Growing up she was exposed to much teaching about how she should live but not about why she should make such choices which were radically at odds with the world at large. When she encountered the Revivalist movement she, or at least her faith, went from being dead to being alive. This led her to direct her attention to the exhilarating task of making converts. But that was not the end of the story for her-
"As years have passed on and the foundations of our Christian life have been, as we believe, securely laid we have become more and more interested in the superstructure and now to some of us the old preaching which once we did not understand has become marrow and fatness to our souls. This is not so much because the preaching has changed as because we have changed."
(Quaker Writings: An Anthology)

The obvious thing to say at this point is that the Church needs balance and must find a way to combine both things. How it is to do this is a question above my pay grade to answer. To paraphrase Mr Spock, however, I will say that the needs of the many are often the same as the needs of the few or of the one. That is, each one of us who call ourselves Christian cannot afford to neglect either our own foundation or our superstructure. Specifically we cannot take our calling as an unexamined first assumption. We must continually revisit Christ, Christ Himself, and be born again in Him from out of the death of sin and forgetfulness which we constantly plunge ourselves into.

For Catholic and Orthodox Christians the sacrament of penance (confession) can play an important part in this process of renewal, unless it becomes a routine outward practice with no inward feeling attached to it. It could be said though that if we have many eggs the Lord has provided us with many baskets to put them into. That is, we have multiple ways open to us to return to our Divine source and seek refreshment. As we are each different then we may each find different methods more helpful to us. Prayer is one, daily examination of conscience is another, listening to charismatic preachers is a further option and so it goes on.

For my part I find nothing, outside of the sacraments, more powerful than the Gospel. When I approach it with a thirst for Jesus it always satisfies me. How you read the Gospel and why you read it will powerfully affect the impact it will have on you. When you pick it up longing with all your heart to encounter the Beloved then He will not hide Himself from you. In His divinity and in His humanity He is there, waiting for you, longing for you as you long for Him. Although I read from the Scriptures every day I do not always do so with the same attitude, few of us do. We must consciously call to mind the need to shore up our foundations and then open ourselves to what the Holy Spirit will do through the pages of that wonderful text to bring us to a rebirth in Christ.

Nor must we neglect our superstructures. The Church has produced many saints and their lives and examples can inspire us, teach us and guide us in our journey towards God. And we should recall that not all the saints are in heaven, some are among us still, some perhaps are our neighbours, our priests or teachers. Some, it maybe, do not yet embrace all the fullness of our faith but yet can still show us the effects of grace in the human heart. The Christian life is not only about doing but also about being. Sometimes the fastest way to travel is to stand still and the most deep reaching sound is silence. We can build up our faith lives and strengthen ourselves to help others by occasionally or frequently doing nothing but communing with our Father who is in heaven, His stillness to our stillness, His silence to our silence, His love to our love.

Although it is convenient to think about foundation and superstructure it is only an analogy. There are threads that weave their way through all of our aspects of life in Christ. There is, I think, no part or stage of the Christian life where we cannot offer up this heartfelt prayer which St Catherine of Siena has given to the Church-
"Lord, unmake me, and break the hardness of my heart, that I be not a tool which spoils Thy works"
May each one of us join ourselves to this petition and may the Good God in His mercy answer us.

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The painting is Pilger ins Heilige Land by Alois Niederstätter

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Inner Light: Catholic & Quaker

But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days—oracle of the Lord. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. They will no longer teach their friends and relatives, “Know the Lord!” Everyone, from least to greatest, shall know me
Jeremiah 31:33-34

I...directed them to Christ, the true Teacher within
George Fox: Journal

The great insight of George Fox and the early Quakers (AKA the Religious Society of Friends) was that each human person has 'that of God' within them. Overlaid as it may be by passions and material desires there is nonetheless a Divine seed ever present. In silence and stillness we can uncover this presence within and it, or more properly He, can act as an Inner Light which can guide us into fulfilling all righteousness.

It is characteristic of those movements or ideas which the Church defines as being heretical that they are in possession of one or more elements of divinely revealed truth. The problem is that they over-emphasise those elements to such an extent that they overshadow other parts of the same revealed truth and, in due course, end by denying them altogether. This is the reason why Christianity has often been riven with disputes about seemingly trivial points. The defenders of orthodoxy, like St Athanasius, have had the wisdom to see the end concealed in the beginning and so excise the error from the body of Christ before it contaminates the whole.

In this context it is instructive to read the early apologists for Quakerism such as Robert Barclay and William Penn (who put the Penn in Pennsylvania.) They fiercely refuted criticisms that Friends denied the unique salvific power of Jesus or the importance of Scripture or the doctrine of the Trinity and so on. It was certainly true that Quakers of that era denied none of those things. It is also true that by the time we reach the 21st century most Friends had discarded these doctrines as inessential if true and possibly not even true. The point being that if the Inner Light is a true guide no other guide is needed.

However, I come to praise Quakerism not to bury it, or not entirely bury it anyway. The primitive insight is true enough, we do have an inner citadel of our hearts in which God resides and in stillness and silence we can find our way to Him. I think it will be useful to look at George Fox himself and ask why it is that he accepted as a given so many orthodox Christian propositions which his spiritual progeny have now effectively abandoned.

From a young age Fox was possessed with a divine discontent, he perceived that not only were the times out of joint (he lived during the period of the English Civil War) but that he too was out of joint with himself. Like a latter day Socrates he wandered around questioning people about their beliefs and seeking to find from them answers to his own inner restlessness. More than that he devoted himself to reading the Bible assiduously, he became so saturated with scripture that he practically memorised the entire text. And, not least of all, many hours were devoted by him to prayer with inexpressible groanings (Romans 8:26) It was not until he had done these things for some considerable time that he first had his 'openings from God' as he termed them. We can see from this that uncovering the Inner Light lies at the end, not the beginning of a process. Many of his successors, perhaps particularly those born into Quaker families, seek the Light without serving the apprenticeship and not surprisingly find a different sort of light altogether from that of George Fox.

It is plausible, I think, to contend that the spiritual journey which Fox undertook in and of itself refutes the conclusions which he came to. Either all his mental anguish, questionings, study and prayer were a waste of time and he would have achieved the same end by staying quietly at home or else they formed, in whole or in part, a necessary pre-condition to him receiving the 'openings' and having the tools to interpret them. In which case the Inner Light on its own is insufficient as a guide. The philosopher Wittgenstein famously said that if a lion spoke we could not understand him, we would both have such wholly different reference points. To some extent this must apply when God speaks to us. Jesus Himself during His earthly mission was frequently radically misunderstood when He spoke. Not only His enemies but even those who loved Him most and knew Him best did not grasp His meaning all the time. Why should we suppose that we will be better at understanding 'Christ, the true teacher within' than the Apostles were at understanding the actual Christ in the flesh?

Another expert on the Inner Light, the great Catholic mystic St John of the Cross, took a different approach. Referring to words spoken in the soul (locutions) he said- 'sometimes it is hardly possible to know what words are spoken by a good spirit, and what by an evil spirit.' And he went on to add ' let it be carefully noted that a soul should never act according to its own opinion or accept anything of what these locutions express, without much reflection and without taking advice of another. For strange and subtle deceptions may arise in this matter; so much so that I myself believe that the soul that does not set itself against accepting such things cannot fail to be deceived by many of them.' (Ascent of Mount Carmel Chapter XXX)

It might be said that the original sin of Protestantism is hyper-individualism and the early Quakers were the product of a very Protestant society. This meant that, logically enough, they applied the principle that each ploughboy was his own Pope, when it came to interpreting scripture, to the Inner Light as well. Since the Light was immediate and personal it was felt to be superior to scripture at least in the sense that the Bible was interrogated by the Light not the Light by the Bible. Which puts each individual in the driving seat as the final authority on all spiritual matters provided they can assert that the Divine seed provides them with a warrant for their actions. Had the movement arisen, like the Franciscans, as a prophetic revival in a Catholic country then it would have been able to assert the same original insight, there is 'that of God' in each of us, but would have accepted that the tools to fully understand what it is saying to us may not wholly rest within ourselves. The shared wisdom of our brothers and sisters in Christ may be better at interpreting what we have heard within ourselves than we are. And that, after all, might be one reason why God made Church in the first place.

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The picture is George Fox preaching in a tavern from Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Repent! Of What?

In contemporary English the command 'Repent' is generally considered to have 'of your sins' as its object. This, however, is not necessarily so. That is, while the correct response when considering your sins is always repentance it does not follow that the correct response when thinking about repentance is an exclusive focus on sin. The two things are not invariably linked in Christian Scripture. St Mark reports the beginning of the mission of Jesus in this way-
After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
(Mark 1:13-14)

The final clause might be interpreted as two separate commands-
1)Repent of your sins and also 2)believe in the gospel.
But it seems to me to be more likely that it is a single command-
Repent and therefore believe in the gospel.
If we consider that the word 'repent' has an existence apart from the word 'sin' then we need to know what it means. The Greek original of which it is a translation is metanoia which literally means change ones mind. Since, however, the ancient Greeks meant something much more by the concept of Mind than modern English speakers do the literal translation does not help us much. I think that we would have a clearer grasp of the command if we took it to mean something like 'completely reorient yourself and your direction of travel.'

The answer to the question 'repent of what?' then becomes 'of everything.' This is why our Lord would think that one who repents would therefore believe in the gospel because if we orient the focus of our being and activity away from the material realm of the senses then it can only be towards the spiritual realm which He names the kingdom of God. Of course the demand to repent of everything is the most radical of all possible demands and prompts the supplementary question why? It is easy enough to assess what we would lose from such a change of direction but it is less clear what it is that we would gain. Indeed the why question is one of the underlying assumptions of the Atheist Bus Campaign slogan "There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The assumption here being that enjoying life is the thing we would lose and worrying is the thing which we would gain if we respond to Jesus' invitation.

There is actually some truth in this if we accept the idea that the object of repentance is always 'of your sins' because then we would spend all our time worrying about how good or bad we are at adapting our external behaviour to a more or less rigid set of rules many of which seem arbitrary to ourselves and even more so to our neighbours. However if we go with the idea that it means a reorientation of everything then it knocks two of the slogans ideas on the head. Firstly, a life directed primarily to the things of the spirit enables us to affirm that actually, yes, there is a God. Secondly, we discover that worry is far less of a factor in the spirit filled life than it is in the materialist one and that if its characteristic isn't enjoyment that is only because its characteristic is joy. What I am doing here of course is making an assertion. The only way to find out if it is a true assertion is to try it for yourself. Repent and be made anew.

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The painting is Cristoforo by De Predis

Friday, 13 May 2016

Pentecost & the Idiot

And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim
Acts 2:4

There is an ancient Chinese saying that when the sage points at the moon the idiot looks at his finger. This refers to the idea that religious actions, practices and rituals which are designed to point beyond themselves to a transcendent reality are often transformed into ends in themselves, and dead ends at that. The 'spiritual but not religious' crowd, enemies of organised religion and theological liberals emphasise this idea and suggest that the individual presenting themselves before the ultimate spiritual reality is the only show in town. In this view the function of the Church is, at best, merely an organising one, to carry out good social work and to gather believers in one place so that they can form suitable affinity groups.

The saying, however, has an important secondary meaning which is often overlooked. We can see the moon without the help of the sage but we cannot see it through his eyes without his help and guidance. That is, both the sage and his finger are necessary parts of the process which transform our understanding of the moon into something which we did not possess before. From a Christian point of view it is sometimes argued that since we receive the Holy Spirit, who is God Himself, then what need do we have for formalised actions, practices and rituals since we can be guided directly? What happened in the days immediately after this gift was first received? St Luke tells us-
They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.
Acts 2:42
So, although each believer had been touched by the Holy Spirit in order to grow in understanding, love and effective response they had recourse to the teachings brought to them by the companions of Jesus and to the spiritual strengthening offered by the sacrament of the Eucharist and by the liturgy. In that sense the Spirit is like the moon and the sage, we can each perceive its presence within us but to grow in response to its presence requires us to make an effort beginning with having the humility to recognise our own weakness and ignorance. The Apostolic Church is our sage and wise guide, the sacraments are the finger of God. Believers need them both if they are to both see and understand the true light which comes to us from the Father and the Son.

Blessed John Henry Newman, of course, expressed this idea with more elegance than I can hope to muster-
Our Prayers and Services, and Holy days, are only forms, dead forms, which can do us no good. Yes, they are dead forms to those who are dead, but they are living forms to those who are living. If you come here in a dead way, not in faith, not coming for a blessing, without your hearts being in the service, you will get no benefit from it. But if you come in a living way, in faith, and hope, and reverence, and with holy expectant hearts, then all that takes place will be a living service and full of heaven.
(Parochial Sermons Vol 7:13)


The painting is Pentecost by  Jan Joest van Kalkar

Monday, 18 April 2016

A Simple Method of Contemplative Prayer

The Method

  • Adopt a comfortable posture with the spine as nearly straight as possible and the eyes open or half-closed.
  • Form a specific intention for your period of prayer.
  • Say to yourself or quietly an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be. (the prayers mentioned can be found at CatholiCity dot com))
  • Then with your indrawn breath say to yourself or out loud 'Jesus' and with your outward breath 'Mary.'
  • Persist in this for whatever time you have decided, I recommend not less than ten minutes and not more than forty-five.
  • Finish with a Salve Regina/Hail Holy Queen and offer your thanks to God.

The Rationale

  • There is nothing mystical about the posture. Its designed to be comfortable enough to hold for a reasonable length of time without being so comfortable that you fall asleep. If you prefer kneeling to sitting while you pray then do so.
  • The intention transforms your action from a solitary one to a communal one. If you intend the spiritual benefits of your prayer to flow to the needs of the world, or the Church or your loved ones then it is not all about you. If your intention is to be strengthened in virtue then, again, the chief beneficiary of your good acts will not be yourself.
  • Saying the prayers of the Church is not only a good thing in itself but, psychologically and physiologically it provides a bridge between whatever you were doing before to what you are about to do. It allows your body and mind to relax into their new activity.
  • Jesus is the breath of life to us so invoking Him with our inspiration makes good sense. Mary is our mother, our fellow pilgrim, our good companion, so sending our respiration up to heaven with her for company also makes sense.
  • Again the prayers at the end are good in themselves and, in the case of the Thanks Be To God, necessary, whilst also acting as a useful bridge.

Practical Tips
As soon as you try to keep your mind focussed and your body still both of them immediately revolt and seek to through you off course. As far as the body goes you are likely to break out into itches and aches and pains combined with a need to convulsively swallow every few seconds. Of the two, body and mind, this is probably the easier to overcome. When you feel the need to scratch, change position or swallow don't try to ignore it or to resist it heroically. If, in addition to paying attention to your breathing and the names of Jesus and Mary you just direct your mind towards the part of the body most affected and, as it were, mentally observe it then the feeling will likely pass away fairly quickly. If not then change position and settle down again. In my experience this bodily restlessness stops being an issue after a fairly short period of regularly praying this way.

The mind is a much trickier proposition to deal with. Distracting thoughts race through it almost all the time and you begin to engage with them and get led away into wondering what to have for lunch or who's going to win the World Series or the wonderful thing you are going to do the moment you stop praying or whatever. There is nothing you can do to prevent thoughts arising so don't try. Focus as much as you can on your breathing and on the names of Jesus and Mary. When you notice that you've engaged with a thought don't get irritated or resolve to do better next time. Just gently let it go and resume your focus until the next time. Unlike the challenge from the body this distraction is likely to be with you for the duration so just live with it and do the best you can do.


No method or form of prayer acts like a magic bullet in and of itself. In order for it to be effective in a spiritual sense, whatever it might do for us therapeutically as a stress reliever, it needs to be accompanied by a right intention on the part of the person praying and a free act of grace given to us by God through the hands of Mary. Moreover, even if those things are present prayer on its own does not constitute the spiritual life, it needs to be accompanied by a participation in the life of the Church, her sacraments strengthen us, her liturgies teach us, her Sacred Scriptures refresh us, and our fellow members in Christ need our charity as we need theirs.

Granting all these things what spiritual benefit can we hope for from this method of praying? This is something that will vary from person to person so really the only way to find out for yourself is to do it for yourself. Decide that for a period of time, a month maybe or three months, you will set aside half an hour or so for at least six days every week and pray in this manner and then you will be in a better position than I am to answer the question.

The question of outcome though is linked to that of right intention which I mentioned above. The aim is to focus entirely on the love of God who has come to us, through Mary, in the person of Jesus Christ. We cannot be unmindful of the details of His life, particularly His Passion, Death and Resurrection, but these are present to us implicitly in His sacred Name as are the other two persons of the Trinity. They are present also in the name of Mary who stood at the foot of the Cross on Golgotha and who is the daughter of the Father, the spouse of the Holy Spirit and the Mother of the Son. Our purpose though is not to call any of these things explicitly to our conscious minds but simply to place ourselves in the presence of this divine love expressed in incarnated form through Jesus and received and lived out most perfectly in Mary. And having placed ourselves so we simply wait for that seed to grow in the way and at the pace that the good God decides is best for us. We travel in faith towards love sustained by hope. And then we will know.


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The picture is a detail from The Annunciation by Joos van cleve

Monday, 4 April 2016

Mary and the Word of God

The word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do
Isaiah 55:11

And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word
Luke 1:38

When the Solemnity of the Annunciation coincides with Eastertide it invites us to consider the great mysteries together. Pre-eminently the Word of the Father is the Son. That Son went forth from the mouth of the Father and became clothed in flesh the moment our Lady gave her glad consent. Before, at the Ascension, He returned to His source the Word experienced the flight into Egypt, the hidden life in Nazareth, the mission in Galilee, the betrayal, abandonment, torture and death of the Passion and the Easter resurrection. All of which constituted, as Isaiah foresaw, a carrying out of the will of the Father, voluntarily undertaken, and an achievement of His purposes using the weapons of humility and seeming defeat.

This all was the work of the Triune God Himself. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each involved essentially in everything that makes for Man's liberation from the dominion of darkness. It has never been, however, God's way with His free creatures, Men and Angels, to act alone, without their participation in their own emancipation. Before the Son, as Man, could begin to do the will of the Father on earth Mary, as Woman and as our representative, had first to make that precise same choice- voluntary obedience to the Father's will.

The glorious triumph of Easter, then, is radically dependent on the quiet faithfulness of Mary. The work of the Word on earth, in the person of Jesus, is God's will in action. This is an exercise of power which is not imposed upon humans but which comes about through His co-operation with them. It is, to be sure, not a relationship of equals, the distance between God and Man is always infinite except in the God Man Jesus. Nonetheless it is a necessity for the God who *is* Love to act in ways which are true to His essential nature and that includes respecting the freedom of those whom He has created to be free. In Measure for Measure Isabella says-
O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant. 
The Lord God is no tyrant therefore He uses His strength with restraint and as a Father not like the pagan gods who were understood to be capricious, deceitful and without restraint of any kind save that imposed by other gods.

It is because God's nature makes human co-operation a necessity for human redemption to be achieved that we can speak of the particular human, Mary, whose co-operation was most necessary as a co-redeemer with Jesus. There is of course only one redeemer, Jesus, and one redemption, through His crucifixion and death, yet without Mary's fiat mihi there would have been no flight into Egypt, no hidden years in Jerusalem and, above all, no Passion, Death and Resurrection. The Father's Word went forth and returned successful not only because it was spoken by Him but also, and crucially, because it was heard and listened to by the Blessed Virgin Mary.


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The painting is from The Life of the Virgin-The Annunciation by Vittore Carpaccio 

Monday, 14 March 2016

Frodo the Mystic

Towards the end of the Lord of the Rings there is a significant piece of dialogue-

" 'Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together,' said Merry. 'We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.'
  'Not to me,' said Frodo. 'To me it feels more like falling asleep again'."

Each of the hobbits have, physically, travelled long distances but Frodo alone has travelled to places beyond the merely physical. He has had peak experiences of darkness and light and these have taught him that the world we inhabit, so close at hand and seeming solid, is really ephemeral by comparison with what lies beyond the boundaries of normal vision and experience. In that sense he resembles the traveller in the cave allegory of Plato, having seen the Sun he knows that normal life is a focussing on shadows.

More than that, Frodo has been wounded-

'There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?'

Although his injuries were inflicted with malevolent intent, aiming to subdue him to the rule of evil, they have not been effective. His restlessness does not seek slaves to satisfy itself like a Sauron or a Saruman. No, Frodo’s hopes are set elsewhere-

...the ship went out into the High Sea on into the West, until at last on a night of rain, Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

The purpose of Christian mysticism is to seek union with God not to enjoy what classical authors call ‘consolations.’ Nonetheless, for many mystics transcendent moments, glimpses of the Divine do form part of the journey. Those moments of grace have the twofold effect that Frodo experienced, that is they make the mystic see the world differently, as less substantial, and they resemble a wounding. The Catholic mystical writer St John of the Cross put it like this-

Where have you hidden,
             Beloved, and left me moaning?
             You fled like the stag
             after wounding me;
             I went out calling you, but you were gone.

Having been wounded the only cure is to seek out the One who inflicted the wound since He alone has the power to heal. This search, though, will often lead through lands of desolation and darkness, akin to the lands Frodo travelled across in his quest.

Why, since you wounded
             this heart, don't you heal it?
             And why, since you stole it from me,
             do you leave it so,
             and fail to carry off what you have stolen?

All we can do is travel, the final decision about when or if we shall encounter the One who heals and then be healed is not ours but His. Tolkien indicates this by the way in which he allows providence and not Frodo himself to effect the destruction of the Ring on Mount Doom. Frodo’s time in the Shire, however, is not simply a passive waiting for the final journey. Although he is little seen and less regarded by most of the hobbits of the Shire it is his wisdom and guidance which lies behind the active measures, and the compassion, by which Merry, Pippin and Sam set things to rights. Mystics, contemplatives and hermits are not called to self indulgently seek a private fulfillment but to be witnesses to the world of the deep truth that lies hidden to eyes that do not seek it. Frodo uses his experience, and his wounds, as a guide to those who have travelled less far than him.

One of the concerns of most religions is to help prepare people for death and Frodo’s last few years in the Shire and his final journey into the West can be seen as metaphors for old age (or sickness) and death. But there is no real contradiction between the mystical path of seeking union with God and the more common one of preparing for a good death. The end is the same, to be at rest in the eternal heart of infinite love who is our God. The mystic, like Frodo, experiences here and now a foretaste of what each of those who are faithful to the end can hope to experience forever.
(this post first appeared on the Quiet Column blog under the name of Étienne McWilliam)

St John of the Cross quotes from

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Out of the Silence

The use of perspective in painting means that one can stand very close to an object yet have the illusion that it is in the far distance. Religious believers often experience something of the kind in their relationship with the Divine One. Faith informs us that He is near at hand, within and without, yet our senses, our emotions our intellect cannot detect Him. "If He is silent and deaf then it is the same as if He did not exist" a little voice whispers to us.

This experience of His absence could, on the one hand, lead us to abandon faith altogether or else it might teach us patience. It sometimes happens that when people ask me something I spend some time thinking before I answer. Often the questioner will repeat the question or move on to some other topic before I start speaking. The expectation is that conversation should have no pauses and when they occur they should be skated over as quickly as possible. Why should this be so though? There is no objective reason why speech should always take priority over thought, indeed the very opposite might be argued to be the case in many situations.

Naturally you can guess where I am going with this. If silence is not evidence that a conversation is at an end then neither is absence evidence of non-existence. The silence of God, who is love, must necessarily be a loving silence. He does not need time to think but we often need time to be made ready to listen attentively and to hear clearly.

Every year the Church offers us the season of Lent as a desert experience. We do without things which normally accompany us and we wait for the great transformation of the world which Easter will effect. It is an opportunity for us to change our own perspectives. Not, here, as an artistic technique but rather as the ground upon which we stand when we survey all that is around us. It is a time to experience silence and loss and desolation confident in the knowledge that it will be followed by a resurrection, a triumphing of light over darkness.

The silence of the God who is near at hand is not a rejection. It is an invitation. Our task is to see it, to recognise it and to accept it.

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The painting is Landscape with Hagar and the Angel by Claude Gellée

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Forty Joyful Days

St Luke tells us about three significant forty-day periods in the life of our Lord. These are:
  • the time between the Nativity and the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22)
  • the time that Jesus spent in the desert after His baptism (Luke 4:1-2)
  • the time between the Passion and the Ascension of our Lord (Acts 1:3)
It would seem to be the case that the period in the wilderness was a necessary final preparation before the Messiah began His mission and that the period after the resurrection was a necessary final preparation before the Apostles undertook their mission, to proclaim the Good News to the world. I would argue that the first period constituted a necessary preparation for Mary before she undertook her mission as the Mother of God present in the flesh, Emmanuel, God with us.

The forty-days had an explicitly Marian dimension in that they constituted the time required for Mary to purify herself, according to the Law of Moses, after the birth of a son. Of course strictly speaking she could have dispensed with the requirement (as her Son could have done with circumcision on the eighth day) because the Law was only the shadow of things to come (Colossians 2:16-17) and the reality had now come in the form of the infant Christ. However since He was born of a woman, born under the Law (Galatians 4:4) it was seemly that the provisions of the Law should be adhered to until our Lord completed His mission on the cross at Calvary.

These days, though, were much more than the formal keeping of an outward legal prescription. They were a time of great and never to be repeated joy for the Blessed Virgin. Mary had a life full of sorrow and trouble. From the Annunciation to the first Christmas she had all the anxieties of any pregnancy plus the peculiar difficulties attendant on being the unique virgin mother-to-be of the Son of God. She also had the pain of inflicting pain upon St Joseph by her silence about the conception until an angel enlightened him about it. Furthermore she undertook three long journeys during this time, those to and from St Elizabeth and finally the trip to Bethlehem while nine-months pregnant which ended in the worry about finding somewhere to stay while she give birth.

During the Presentation Simeon prophesied that she would have her soul pierced by a sword (Luke 2:34-25) although there is no doubt that she was more concerned that he also foresaw that her Son would be a sign of contradiction and thus experience in Himself a turbulent life. The shadow which descended upon her at these words would never afterwards depart from her until all was fulfilled. And then, shortly afterwards, she and St Joseph had to escape form the Holy Land altogether and seek refuge in far-off and alien Egypt.

Mary, though, was blessed with these forty tranquil, trouble-free, joyous days with her Son and the holy patriarch. It was a time to bond with Him. To gaze her fill upon Him with the eyes of a mother and of a daughter of God. He was blood of her blood and flesh of her flesh and nourished wholly by the milk of her own body. There were no clouds in the sky. She could reflect with gladness and hope on the words of the archangel Gabriel "He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end." (Luke 1:32-33) And on those of the angel to the shepherds "I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people" (Luke 2:10)

The relationship between our Lord and our Lady that was so close and that endured so much had begun in her womb and continued long after these days but this period was special. For the first time they could see each other and Mary could express her love through the simple, practical actions of the body which are so human and so necessary. To kiss her child, to hold Him in her arms, to see Him sleep, to lie still and hear Him breathe, to feed Him and bathe Him, to smile at Him, perhaps to shed tears of pure happiness over Him. These were the things that transformed Mary into the woman who would be able to do and suffer all that she would subsequently be called upon to endure for the cause of the Redemption wrought for us all by her Jesus.

Luke repeatedly tells us that Mary treasures the things of Jesus in her heart and ponders upon them. This is of twofold importance for these forty-days. Firstly, during that time she could call into her heart the love and mercy of God towards her, her people Israel and all the world and link it to the child whom she was just beginning to know. Secondly, in the long, dark and troubled years to follow she could summon up the spirit of these days to console and strengthen her. This would be no nostalgia for better times but an actual making present within herself of the incarnated love which having been begun in the world and in her inmost being would never pass out of them though they would sometimes be hidden. And this is what makes these days important for us too. We can not only rejoice with Mary's rejoicing but we can imitate her. In our moments of trial we, by contemplating the life of our Lord and recalling our personal moments of grace can bring them to life because they are moments of eternity which have intersected with time. In prayer and thankfulness we, like our Lady, can find the key that lets light into our darkness because we too can adore her Son any time we want to.

My other blog is thoughtfully detached

The paintings are The Holy Family-the workshop of Raphael and The Holy Family- Joos van Cleve