Thursday, 30 April 2015

Centering Prayer: Some Reflections

                                            An Old Woman Praying by Nicolaes Maes

Some Christians think that Centering Prayer is an invaluable way to deepen their spiritual lives, others think that it is the work of the devil and many more have never heard of it. For the benefit of the latter I shall briefly summarise it based on this leaflet (pdf)
The Guidelines
1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
3. When engaged with your thoughts*, return ever-so gently to the sacred word.
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
On the subject of choosing the 'sacred word'-
The sacred word expresses our intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
The sacred word is chosen during a brief period of prayer asking the Holy Spirit to inspire us with one that is especially suitable for us. Examples: God, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother, Mary, Amen. Other possibilities: Love, Peace, Mercy, Listen, Let Go, Silence, Stillness, Faith, Trust, Yes.

The practice is recommended for 20 minutes a time, twice a day. Its proponents argue that it is based on an ancient Christian practice referred to in, for example, the medieval English work The Cloud of Unknowing which is true so far as it goes. It is no coincidence, however, that this practice emerged and was publicised at a time when Eastern meditation techniques based on Hindu or Buddhist mantras were gaining many adherents in the West. Indeed it is strikingly similar to Transcendental Meditation which also recommends two twenty minute periods with eyes closed. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Christianity appropriating and Christianising this or that aspect of non-Christian cultures, philosophies or practices, The key question is always: does this provide a bridgehead to advance Christianity into new areas or a breach to permit non-Christian beliefs to invade the Church? In the case of centering prayer we can only answer that question when we have some sense of its benefits or risks.

Some critics contend that repetitive prayer is wrong and unbiblical. In that I think that they err. Repetitive prayer in a variety of forms has been a continuous practice of the Christian Church, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, for at least 1800 years most widely today in the forms of the Holy Rosary and the Jesus Prayer. The experience of the Church is that such prayers confer immense spiritual benefits on those who use them, on the Church as a whole and on the wider world. There is, however, a difference between  prayer based upon a sentence or phrase which contains a clear meaning and a particular aspiration and praying a single word with no specific content attached to it. It is the difference between active and passive. There is a place for passive prayer within Christianity but it needs to be recognised as a particular category and cannot claim close affinity with its more active cousins.

I suppose the first question to be asked about any form of prayer is- what is purpose does it serve? The first word of the prayer which Jesus gave us is 'our' as in Our Father. This teaches us, among other things, that God does not wish to save us as mere individuals but as individuals in community. All Christian prayer has both a vertical direction towards God and a horizontal one towards our neighbours particularly to those in the family of faith. To pray passively, opening ourselves up to the still small voice of God in our hearts, is a means to strengthen us in our active lives of faith. Practically all the great contemplative pray-ers of the Catholic faith such as St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila were enormously active and creative people who contributed largely to the Christian life of their time. When the emphasis lies in the personal benefits of centering prayer rather than in the contribution it can make to the life of loving service demanded of all Christians then it veers towards a sort of quietist form of therapy which produces undoubted personal benefits like calmness. There is nothing wrong with therapeutic meditation but it is not a form of prayer.

For a prayer to be Christian it requires both its form and content to be in harmony with the faith of the Nicene Creed. The person praying is establishing or strengthening her personal relationship with the Father, through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. It cannot then be a matter of indifference what word or words they use in that prayer. The word is only unimportant if it is a sort of background noise to lull the active mind to sleep while the rest of the person rests in a sort of zone of self-induced calm. What a pray-er should seek is a living connection with the living God and the tradition and experience of the Church suggests that pre-eminently the name of the Lord serves that function. Not because it has some magic mystical power but because every time a Christian uses it it calls up within them consciously and unconsciously a memory of all that they know and love about Him and this activates the heart in a movement of love towards Him. The name of the god-bearer Mary can also have a similar effect because by a special gift of the Lord she has been privileged to convey Jesus to us and us to Jesus. This is not to say that other words should never be used but I suggest that we impoverish our prayer when we exclude the names of Jesus and Mary from it.

Looking at the tradition which centering prayer claims to draw inspiration from, The Cloud of Unknowing, the key passage (at the end of chapter 7) is this-
And if thee list have this intent lapped and folden in one word, for thou shouldest have better hold thereupon, take thee but a little word of one syllable: for so it is better than of two, for ever the shorter it is the better it accordeth with the work of the Spirit. And such a word is this word GOD or this word LOVE. Choose thee whether thou wilt, or another; as thee list, which that thee liketh best of one syllable. And fasten this word to thine heart
This seems to be a straightforward enough source to draw upon but I think that it overlooks two key points. Firstly the preceding passage includes this-
Yea, and so holy, that what man or woman that weeneth to come to contemplation without many such sweet meditations of their own wretchedness, the passion, the kindness, and the great goodness, and the worthiness of God coming before, surely he shall err and fail of his purpose. And yet, nevertheless, it behoveth a man or a woman that hath long time been used in these meditations, nevertheless to leave them, and put them and hold them far down under the cloud of forgetting, if ever he shall pierce the cloud of unknowing betwixt him and his God
(apologies for the old English the more modern translations are still under copyright)
Clearly the author has in mind that what we call centering prayer is a late stage in a process of growth in prayer life which is preceded by, among other things, a contemplation of our own sinfulness and the goodness of God. One arrives at the 'sacred word' after perhaps years of contemplation and prayer which helps us to discover just what that singular word might be. To begin centering prayer without this preliminary process might or might not be a good idea but it clearly isn't what the author of The Cloud of Unknowing had in mind.

The second thing overlooked is the monastic context of this form of prayer. Those who used it also prayed the Divine Office (based on the psalms) seven times a day, went to Mass daily, were subject to the authority of a Rule and an Abbot (or Abbess), and had a confessor and/or spiritual director. Not only this but all parts of their lives, including their prayer lives, had a community dimension. Even hermits prayed the Office as a part of the praying Church not purely as individuals. It is certainly reasonable to adapt monastic forms of prayer to the use of people living in the world but that does not mean plucking out this or that attractive aspect of it and dumping all the rest as unappealing. The Church is possessed of much wisdom in such matters and these forms have come into existence and endured because they serve a good purpose. Not least they remind us of the 'our' of the Our Father.

My conclusion is that the practice of centering prayer is valuable and Christian only where the person who uses it situates it within the context of, as it were, a cloud of related practices. Each person should have their own little Rule. Ideally they should not choose that Rule for themselves but accept it from a wise spiritual director or at least from an Institute or organisation steeped in the prayer life and practices of the Church.That Rule should include daily reading or chanting of the psalms. The argument that much of the content of these psalms is difficult or even repugnant to the modern mind is no reason not to use them. Prayer at times ought to be hard work, we do have to make an effort, it is a struggle. Repeated reading of the psalms with the mind of the Church enables us in time to crack the nut and get to the sweet kernel within, if that takes years or decades well then let it take years or decades. The Rule should also include frequent resort to the sacraments since these give us strength and reaffirm our rootedness both in Christ and the community of the Church. And the Rule should make it plain that the object of centering prayer is to know God better, to love Him more and to serve our neighbours with all our strength.

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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Seeing God, Making God Visible.




The saints are the true interpreters of holy Scripture The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out.
Pope Benedict XVI

The organ for seeing God is the heart. The intellect alone is not enough. In order for man to become capable of perceiving God, the energies of his existence have to work in harmony.
Pope Benedict XVI

The Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI can accurately be described as an intellectual or, at any rate, an academic. Anyone who reads his books (and you really should) can have no doubt that he has a formidable mind which he feeds by wide reading and nourishes by deep reflection upon what he has read. He is then better placed than most of us to know that by the intellect alone we cannot see God. His life and work also stands as an eloquent and elegant refutation of the lie that Christians must abandon their intelligence in order to embrace their faith. Our discursive, cogitative, enquiring mind forms part of our God given personal apparatus as it were and so must play its part in our search for and encounter with Him but the part must not be substituted for the whole.

What does that mean exactly? To be a human is to be more than a pure intelligence. To be fully engaged in human life is to involve our whole selves, our 'energies of existence.' If we do not love or feel compassion or understand things with our heart then we are not using every part of ourselves, we are attenuating ourselves. It is unwise to believe or feel or do anything which our intellect cannot give consent to but the mind alone does not provide us with a powerful enough motivating force to actually do or to dare very much in life. It is an inadequate definition to say that a Christian is a person who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary. It needs to be added that a Christian is a person who has a loving relationship with God through Jesus (and if they are wise a loving relationship with Mary also.) So what Father Benedict is saying is that to see God with all the fullness possible to us we must use all the humanness that has been granted to us, that is mind and body, emotions and feelings, soul and spirit, everything. The more we look the more we see and that looking is more than just thinking.

When we engage our whole selves in the relationship with God then all that we are becomes capable of being transformed by Him through that relationship. Each of us recognises from personal experience that simply knowing something to be true with our minds is not sufficient to decisively affect our conduct. Indeed whole industries are built on the fact that our desire for chocolates or shoes has more power over us than our knowledge that we need to buy considerably fewer of these things than we actually do. St Paul put it like this 'With my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.' (Romans 7:25)  To see God is to immerse ourselves in Him through prayer, the sacraments, reading the Scriptures, living in communion with the Church community and in love with all our neighbours. He is both within all these things and more and transcendent to every created thing so that no true perception of Him can be anything other than multidimensional and experienced through all of our faculties.

Which brings us to 'totally transfixed.' What the Holy Father is referring to are those saints who respond to an insight which they have had of God, found in the Scriptures, and reflect it in the way they live their lives. That is, having seen God themselves they seek to make Him visible to others through the things they do and say. The 'energies of their existence' have worked in harmony to bring about clarity of vision but this is not a purely self centred thing because the energies of their existence continue working in order to share that vision with the world. The two commandments cited by Jesus; 'Love God and love your neighbour' are simply different faces of the one commandment 'be transformed by God.' When with all the energies of our existence we see Him then these same energies can be put at His disposal to do His work in Creation and that work is always a labour of love and service, above all to the weakest and most vulnerable.

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Saturday, 18 April 2015

Fearing God





The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
    all those who practise it have a good understanding.
Psalm 111:10

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’
Luke 5:8

For about 1800 years most Christians would have understood the idea of fearing the Lord to mean just what it said on the tin. Over the past couple of centuries or so the tendency has been for many theologians, pastors and teachers to explain away the notion of fear and replace it with something altogether more cuddly. Two main strategies have been employed, to emphasise that perfect love casts out fear and to re-cast the word 'fear' to mean 'awe.' Both approaches are perfectly sound so far as they go but effectively unbalance doctrine by being deployed as primary explanations rather than as auxiliaries to add to our understanding of the plain meaning of Scripture.

The first argument rests on the words of the Beloved Disciple There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.(1 John 4:18) It is worth noting the contrast between beginning and reached perfection. If every mention of fear is immediately counterbalanced with the effects of perfect love it will have the same effect as telling a child on the first day of primary school not to worry because whatever they do they will get a university degree in due course since perfect education means prizes for all. Perfect love is not our starting point fear of the Lord is. By following the path which this fear indicates we may hope, by the grace of God, to attain to final perfection but if we dispense with the fear then we cannot realistically hope to attain the perfection.

Secondly, to contain the entirety of the meaning of 'fear' within the idea of 'awe' is to have an incomplete understanding. One might feel awe in the presence of a President or Queen, a Mount Fuji or a Niagara Falls. That is, one recognises that one is in the presence of something commanding power or respect or possessing grandeur and feels impressed beyond measure. Such a response is perfectly reasonable when encountering or contemplating the One who created and sustains the universe and everything in it but awe can only ever be a part of that response not the whole of it. We need to take into account that God is not an impersonal force of nature, He is the Living God with whom we have a personal relationship. His power and majesty has a direct connection with us personally, we depend upon Him. Who we are and what we do is not a matter of indifference to Him and His justice and truth are not a matter of indifference to us.

What this means can be seen in the encounter between the Prophet Isaiah and the Almighty-  I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!(Isaiah 6:5) This is very similar to the reaction of St Peter quoted above. I think that the concern to explain away the notion of the fear of God springs from the perception that this gives the idea that God is an angry, unpredictable deity who constantly requires propitiation lest He break out into an irrational and ungovernable rage. Yet what we see from Isaiah and St Peter is that their fear springs from a knowledge of themselves and their own weaknesses. It is not the irrationality of God that worries them it is that they recognise His perfect justice and truth and they know that their own sinfulness renders them wholly unfit to be in His presence. Classical Greek philosophy suggested that the maxim know thyself was the beginning of wisdom. Scripture suggests that knowing ourselves in relation to God is the beginning of wisdom. It is when we see the gulf between ourselves as we are before Him and as we should be before Him that we feel fear.

This is not a fear that we should explain away, it is a fear that we should nourish. It is a searchlight into our hearts exposing our inadequacies and prompting us to change. That process of change forms the content of our relationship with the Triune God. We seek to become mirrors so that we reflect Him, our sins are transformed through Him into virtues our weaknesses into strengths. We attain more closely to perfection and so to the casting out of fear. Yet if we do not begin with fear we can never fully understand our imperfections and attempt to do something about them. Dispensing with fear can only be done by embracing ignorance of both God and ourselves. Knowledge of both is the essential root of of our recognising the need we have for salvation and for a saviour.

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Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Shakespeare & the Apostles

Agincourt, Imagination and the Bible





 Then he took the twelve apostles aside, and warned them, Now we are going up to Jerusalem, and all that has been written by the prophets about the Son of Man is to be accomplished.  He will be given up to the Gentiles, and mocked, and beaten, and spat upon; they will scourge him, and then they will kill him; but on the third day he will rise again. They could make nothing of all this; his meaning was hidden from them, so that they could not understand what he said.
Luke 18:31-34

King of France
With pennons painted in the blood of Harfleur: 
Rush on his host, as doth the melted snow 
Upon the valleys, whose low vassal seat 
The Alps doth spit and void his rheum upon: 
Go down upon him, you have power enough, 
And in a captive chariot into Rouen 
Bring him our prisoner.
Constable of France.
 This becomes the great. 
Sorry am I his numbers are so few, 
His soldiers sick and famish'd in their march, 
For I am sure, when he shall see our army, 
He'll drop his heart into the sink of fear 
And for achievement offer us his ransom
Henry V, Act III, Scene 5


The Apostles do not come well out of the Gospels. They seem to have a near perfect ability to misunderstand or not comprehend Jesus. It is tempting to dismiss them as unusually dense or at least woefully ignorant. It does not help much if we remember that we know the end of the story and they didn't, that we have the benefit of the reflections on Jesus and His mission in the Epistles and two thousand years of Christian thought and they had to make do with very much less. The reason this is not helpful is because it is a purely intellectual exercise on our part. Most readers of the Gospels, Christian or not, are emotionally invested in Jesus, often to a great degree, and it hurts us when we see Him desperately trying and usually failing to make those closest to Him understand who He is and what He is doing. That emotional wound, that empathy which we feel, cannot really be touched simply by engaging in the mental exercise of adding up the things which the Apostles could have known and could have understood and comparing it with what our Lord was asking them to know and understand. Emotional wounds need to be treated with emotional medicines.

(enter Shakespeare)
One way of reading Scripture is to immerse oneself in it imaginatively. If we try to see the events unfolding before us not through the eyes and with the feelings of a 21st century person but as near as we can manage it with the feelings of the historical participants then our perspective will change. For most of us it will not be possible really to enter into the thought processes of the Apostles, the holy women or the Pharisees because their thinking was dominated by a framework of assumptions and experiences that only professional historians could really reproduce. Their feelings, however, would be akin to ones that we ourselves are familiar with because the lapse of two thousand years has effected no change in the human emotional range whatever it may have done to the world of ideas. In this context Act III, scene 5 of Henry V becomes a useful tool. Why? It is set on the eve of the battle of Agincourt, the flower of French knighthood and nobility is preparing itself for a foreseen victory. In that they are wise, they possess the greatest warriors in Christendom, they are fighting on their own soil and they heavily outnumber the English. It is not vainglorious or foolish of them to expect to be victorious, quite the reverse they have no reason to expect anything else. Yet, as it happens, on that October day in 1415 they experienced a crushing and humiliating defeat. Shakespeare, I think, captures well their attitude and does not portray it as he might have done as being hubristic. This makes the contrast with what follows all the sharper.
(exit Shakespeare pursued by angry Frenchmen)

If we read the Agincourt section of Henry V then none of its participants appear to be behaving in an excessively foolish manner, they do not irritate us by their denseness. If we read the Gospels in a similar way then we can see that the Apostles, particularly on the eve of the Passion found themselves emotionally in a place analogous to that of the French nobility. They expected a triumph and had good reason for such an expectation. In Jesus they recognised the promised Messiah, the Anointed One of God. Their understanding of these titles was that as a descendant of King David and Solomon our Lord would restore the kingdom of Israel to its ancient glories driving out the occupying Romans and humbling their insolent neighbours. A restored Israel would be rich and powerful and all the world would acknowledge the might of Israel's God. That Jesus had the power to be just such a Messiah they could not doubt, had He not displayed His power over sickness and death and had not His words shown a wisdom greater even than Solomon's? That Jesus did not intend to use His power in such a fashion they could not grasp. That is to say they may have intellectually grasped that His words pointed in a different direction but, rather like our attitude towards them, they could not emotionally grasp the significance of His mission because in their heart they desired something different. It would require the horror of the Passion and the joy of the Resurrection to flood into their inmost being before they could be open to understand as keenly with their hearts as with their minds what it was that Jesus stood for.

If we enter into their emotional lives then not only can we understand them better but we can also feel more deeply for ourselves the impact of the Easter events. Then, like the Apostles, it will be only natural that these events become for us the foundation of all that we are and do in the world. It should not be understood, however, that I am suggesting that we should read the Gospels only in an imaginative way. The scriptures can and should be read in a variety of different ways- as narratives, as literal truth, as metaphorical truth and so on- since only then can they yield to us all the treasures which they contain. Moreover, they should always be read with the mind of the Church, two thousand years of Catholic reflection and meditation have preceded us and we should draw upon this resource looking towards it for guidance and support particularly where we encounter passages and sayings which are difficult to understand or to integrate with scripture as a whole.

Nonetheless the imaginative reading of scripture has enormous potential to help us release our inmost energies. This does not only apply to the Gospels, the Exodus story of Israel escaping from bondage has often exercised great influence over those suffering oppression precisely because they can enter imaginatively into the sufferings of the Hebrews and see in their salvation a source of hope for their own plight. Personally too I recall that in the days after my mother died I read the Book of Job and what I saw there spoke to me and moved me and changed me in ways which had not been possible before because I could now see his loss and pain through the eyes of my own bereavement. The Bible has been called the Book of Life and it is that in this sense: your life can be found within its pages and that life by it and by prayer and the Holy Spirit can be transformed from darkness into light.

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Saturday, 11 April 2015

Thoughtfully Detached




I have started a new blog on WordPress, Thoughtfully Detached, The aim of this at least to start with is to look at some of the stuff that happens in the world from the standpoint of morality and ethics. My starting point, of course, is Catholic values but it is not intended to be an overtly religious or spiritual blog. When arguing in the public sphere at a time when much of the public is non-Christian or anti-Christian I think that it is important to set out Catholic philosophical positions in a way that can command maximum support and so effect change for the better in the world. I will not conceal my Catholicism or decline to discuss religious or spiritual matters as they arise but the primary purpose of the blog will be to make plain that an alternative perspective to the normal Conservative/Liberal dichotomy exists and does make sense. My first substantive post, Is Democracy A Good Thing?, is an indication of the sort of thing I have in mind.

I don't intend to abandon this blog. Illness has prevented me from posting anything here for a while but hopefully I will revive enough to resume posting here soon. The reason why I've started the new blog before resuming this one is that here in the UK we are going through a General Election process and it seems timely enough to begin a more political series of posts. Anyone who likes Catholic Scot will be more than welcome at Thoughtfully Detached but if it doesn't interest you please be patient and by the grace of God normal service will resume here shortly.


Saturday, 31 January 2015

What is Man? Part 1


                                                     Crucifixion- Alonso Cano


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

We tend to think that the enquiry What is Man? (meaning female and male) is a philosophical question. The psalmist reminds us that it is also a theological one. In order to understand the relationship between humans and God it is necessary to understand the nature of each participant in that relationship. One significant difference between the two disciplines is that theology unlike philosophy regards the contents of divine revelation, such as scripture, to be part of the data it needs to consider. It appears to me, nonetheless, that since the time of the 'Enlightenment' Western philosophers have implicitly accepted that the propositions which theologians have advanced in answer to the question should form part of their philosophical first assumptions regarding Man. As Western societies become post-Christian, however, this is decreasingly the case. It is my contention that the more philosophers confine their considerations to merely human sources and propositions then the more inhuman their philosophies become so that a Culture of Death increasingly emerges.

This sounds counter-intuitive to everyone who isn't hard-core religious. Surely, the argument would go, nowadays we are more accepting of things like divorce and homosexuality? This must prove that philosophies have become more human by being less judgemental. Against this I would contend that these changes proceed not so much from compassion towards our fellow humans as from indifference about them. People can do what they like whether it makes them happy or not because freedom, conceived of as autonomy, not happiness is the major concern of human philosophy. We are permissive about others only because we wish others to be permissive about ourselves. Doing what we wish has priority over doing what is right because (a) that way we need acknowledge no external constraints upon our freedom and (b) there is no consensus about what is right. Against this I hope to demonstrate that the Christian answer to What is Man? provides the basic assumptions which we require to form a philosophy which is truly human in the sense of guiding humans to fulfil their essential natures as creatures whose purpose is not to be autonomous pleasure-seekers but to give of themselves in loving service to others.

For Christians, I think, the best place to start is not the beginning if by beginning we mean- 'Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness' (Genesis 1:26) This is because the icon of God implied here is not Adam as archetypal Man but-  'in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them'. That is humanity as a whole is a reflection of God and each individual is only imperfectly such. In the figure of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, however we see what it means to be Man and what it means to be God distilled into a single person. Thus we can avoid abstractions and come quickly to concrete definitions and propositions by fixing our gaze upon Him. More than that, St Clare (like many of the women who have taught the universal Church) showed great wisdom when she suggested that it is Christ Crucified who reveals ourselves to ourselves most fully. He does so, I would suggest, in two ways: as He is in Himself we get a positive vision of what Man is or should be and through Him as He is situationally we can make inferences about Man.

                   

                            The Death of St Clare- Master of Heiligenkreuz

One aspect of our Lord's Passion is that it was voluntarily undertaken for the sake of liberating humans from bondage to corruption and death. We can infer from this that, since this liberation is offered to each human ever conceived, Man is loved with an extreme, self-sacrificial love. That is, every human person is the object of an infinite love. Further to that we may add that since it can be said of God that not only is He Love but He is also Reason (as mentioned in my post Why Be Moral?) this love is a rational love. Which means that it can be posited of Man that he is lovable. If we pair these things then one part of the answer to What is Man? becomes Man, individually and collectively, is loved and lovable from the moment of conception through to the moment of natural death and at every single point in between. If we accept this proposition then we must conclude that human life is a sacred thing just because it is human and for no other reason.

We can see here a contrast with post-Christian philosophies which could be summed up in relation to the social issues I mentioned earlier. A Christian philosophy would propose that we love divorced persons and homosexual persons. A post-Christian one proposes that we love divorce and homosexuality. The difference outcome flows from the different reasoning process. If the priority is to ensure the maximum independence of each person from every other person then almost anything which dissolves bonds, particularly the strong bonds which family creates, is welcomed. If, however, the aim is to simply love what is sacred, because it is loved and lovable, then a desire to strengthen not weaken bonds emerges. It might no doubt be argued that divorce and same sex partnerships are different ways for love to express itself and that in any event Catholicism has not in practice shown much love for divorced persons or homosexual persons. The latter point is only valid insofar as one reads it to mean that Catholics have not always displayed this love, philosophies are not always well served by their followers. The former point is covered by the next thing which is revealed about Man in the mirror of Christ Crucified.

The proximate cause of the Passion was human sin. It seems anachronistic to talk about sin in this era since the non-Christian population is largely divided into those who know what the word means but don't accept the concept and those who have no real idea what the concept actually is. So to say that another part of the answer to What is Man? would be 'Man is a sinner' requires some explanation. The Catechism defines sin thus- "Sin is an offence against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbour caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity" Another way of putting it is that it is an exercise in radical autonomy, a putting of the desire of the self for some gratification ahead of all other considerations. Essentially sin is the practical application of a post-Christian philosophy stripped of its moral compass. The concept of solidarity is not one that is often adverted to in contemporary discourse because accepting it places one under the obligation of considering other persons before oneself. It has been used in the language of some political movements like socialism or nationalism but the Catholic understanding of it is a much deeper thing and it encompasses a network of relationships. Sin is that which intrinsically disturbs such relationships. Insofar as divorce and homosexual acts have those tendencies then they do not tend to human happiness and cannot be approved. These are issues which I hope to explore more fully in Part 2.


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Thursday, 29 January 2015

Why Be Moral?



Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
    the upright shall live in your presence.
Psalms 140:13

 If you consider that he is righteous, you also know that everyone who acts in righteousness is begotten by him
1 John 2:29

Before answering the Why question a philosopher would ask the What questions- what is morality? what is a moral life? After answering the What and Why they would likely then proceed to the How questions- how can I live ethically? how can human societies be collectively moral? This helps explain why philosophy books tend to be quite big and not very popular. They seem to spend a lot of time proving what the reader already knows to be true or attempting to disprove what the reader thinks of as 'common sense.' Religion appears to offer a way of short-cutting all this tedious playing with words. All religions have associated moralities and within the Abrahamic religions these have the sanction of divine revelation. Morality is what revelation says it is, obedience to God is the only acceptable response to revelation and within the content of that revelation, either in the form of scripture or divinely mandated authority, is all the guidance required for individuals and societies to live out the moral life in practice.

There is no real doubt that if this is an accurate summary of religious belief then many of the criticisms levelled at religion by New Atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens (God grant him rest) and the current Richard Dawkins (God keep him on Twitter) are well merited. Such a rigid structure which requires no moral judgement on the part of believers but merely an acceptance of the first principles of faith would lend them and their belief system to being manipulated in the service of anyone who could pervert the interpretation of revelation to suit their own purposes, as Islamic State and Boko Haram appear to have done with Islam. There are, however, a number of things which could be said about this critique. Firstly, any moral code which has been reduced to a written set of rules is liable to be misadministered by the kind of unimaginative epigones that rise to the top of an established bureaucracy. This will typically result in injustices and absurdities regardless of the original source of the code because the letter and not the spirit is the deciding principle in decision making. Stalinism is the classic secular example of this but even the much vaunted Western Liberalism is vulnerable to the same defect. Secondly, Catholic thought proposes two crucial considerations which must always be borne in mind by those seeking to apply the moral rules derived from revelation. These are the principle of reason and a living relationship with the divine source of revelation.

In an Address to scientists at Regensburg early in his papacy Pope Benedict XVI looked closely at the role of reason in religion. One of his key points was that part of the definition of God provided by the scriptures is that God is Reason in the same sort of way that we say God is Love. He focussed on the prologue to the Gospel account of St John 'in the beginning was the word' where what we translate as 'word' is Logos in the original Greek. He said 'God acts...with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason' One of the implications of this is that God cannot act irrationally, this is, as it were, a check on His omnipotence. And what He cannot do He cannot command. Therefore all moral codes which are derived or claim to be derived from divine revelation must past the test of reason. Moreover humans, being endowed by God with reasoning powers, are obliged to apply that test to everything which they encounter including revelation itself. A mechanical obedience to authority of whatever kind is of no merit, however meritorious the authority may be and however outwardly virtuous the physical act may appear to be. Right action always requires to be accompanied by right intention and the latter cannot be formed without the conscious and deliberate use of reason.

The Regensburg Address gave rise to a storm of controversy because a quotation used by the Holy Father from Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus was maliciously or ignorantly attributed to Benedict himself. The emperor had said "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Although Muslims were wrong to suppose that this was intended as a modern commentary by the Pope it might be argued that some of the other words used by His Holiness should have given them pause for thought- 'for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.' Speaking about theological speculations by both Christians and Muslims he added that they might lead to  'the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.' The Catholic Church has decisively rejected such speculations and the image of a God always in harmony with reason forms part of her infallible Magisterium. This cannot, however, be said for Islam or, indeed, for Judaism or the Christianity of the Reformation if only because there is no body with the authority to say it. Thus these religions remain vulnerable to dissident groups who will use the image of a capricious God as the basis for a moral code which demands obedience unmediated by reason from its followers.

                                            St Thomas Before the Cross- Sassetta


God should have more than a walk-on part in the life of His faithful people. That is, each person should have a living relationship with Him and this exchange of love should lie at the heart of their decision-making processes. The Apostle John suggests that those who live righteously are begotten by the Righteous One. I think that means more than asking What Would Jesus Do when we are faced with morally significant choices. It means that we should allow ourselves to be possessed by our Lord in such a fashion that He lives in us (and we in Him.) Thus it should be the case that He acts through us and that in a sense our moral choices are literally His. This is a difficult programme to fulfil of course but at the least when we are charged with making especially significant ethical decisions we should have recourse to prayer, meditation, study of Scripture and the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. We give Him an opportunity to speak clearly within our very hearts and then we pause to listen to what He might say. In that sense I would interpret the psalmist words 'the upright shall live in your presence' as meaning that we only come to life as upright persons when we are in His presence. Apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5) Therefore it must be our aim to be as fully clothed with Christ as is possible in our daily journey because only so can we be fully alive to Him and, through us, He can be alive to those whom we encounter who will be affected by our moral actions. His choices are always morally good and where there is no difference between His choices and ours then we can be sure that we are living a moral life.

It is important to stress that any one of the three strands, revelation, reason, relationship, used independently of the other two is potentially dangerous. Revelation can be radically misunderstood, reason can be based on faulty assumptions, relationship can be illusory (atheists would argue that it always is.) Therefore the three must be woven together and all of them must lie behind any moral act we take individually or corporately. A further danger flows from the situation where revelation is understood to consist of nothing more than a written text. Here everything rests on private judgement so a person can believe that they have accurately and reasonably interpreted the text and that God has personally OK'd their interpretation. They can then go on to persuade others to agree with them and set in chain a movement grounded perhaps upon irrational and immoral premises. Against this there requires to be an authoritative source for interpreting revelation in the light of reason. It might be argued that this source itself can fall prey to irrationality or delusion and teach unreason as reason. Here the Catholic idea of infallibility presents itself not, as is generally thought, as an expansion of Papal power but a limitation upon it. An infallible teaching cannot be abrogated or negated therefore Popes are bound by precedent and cannot issue instructions which contradict previous ones. The moral codes present in the Church today are present in them for all time.

If we answer the question 'why be moral?' by saying 'because Jesus is moral' then we are correct but insufficiently so. Behind this answer is the question 'why is Jesus moral?' To which the answer might be that morality is always reasonable and God is reason and Jesus is God. Christianity proposes a morality which is, I think, of a much higher standard than can be proposed by unaided reason alone. That is, it is reason taken to a superlative level, revelation and relationship are the two wings upon which we can rise up to the level of a divine morality which is divine reason. It is not a rejection of reason or an alternative to it, it is the perfection of reason. So the question 'why be moral?' becomes the question 'why be perfect?' to which the answer this time really is 'So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect' (Matthew 5:48)


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Sunday, 25 January 2015

Sister Donkey, Brother Pangolin


Next morning when Balaam arose, he saddled his donkey, and went off with the princes of Moab.....When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord there, she lay down under Balaam. Balaam’s anger flared up and he beat the donkey with his stick. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she asked Balaam, “What have I done to you that you beat me these three times?"....the angel of the Lord said to him: “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come as an adversary because this rash journey of yours is against my will. When the donkey saw me, she turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away from me, you are the one I would have killed, though I would have spared her....”
from Numbers 22:21-34

All praise be yours, my Lord, through our Sister
Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us
Canticle of the Creatures- St Francis of Assisi

To the best of my knowledge there is only one postlapsarian example of a talking animal in the Bible. For atheists and sceptics of course that is one too many. Balaam's ass is conclusive prove, they argue, that the Scriptures are simply a collection of fables and fantasies. If, however, you were to turn to the Bible after reading actual collections of fables and fantasies of a similar length and similar antiquity to the Old Testament it is the comparative lack of talking animals which would strike you. It is an obvious motif to use and the Jewish scriptures use it remarkably sparingly which should alert you to the fact that there is at the least something unusual in the way that their holy books were compiled or in the beliefs which they held. Be that as it may my primary purpose in this post is with defending modern animals not ancient texts. Whether you accept the account of Balaam, the Angel and the suffering donkey as an historical account or as an extended parable then either way I would contend that there are important lessons which we can learn from it.

The donkey was savagely beaten because Balaam did not understand the benefit that she was conferring upon him by her behaviour. And often, indeed, it is the case that humankind mistreats or destroys this or that part of the environment in ways which they would not do if they fully realised the long term damage which they were doing to themselves and their species by their actions. A pangolin, for example, can eat up to seven million insects a year. We do not know what the impact upon us would be if these insects were allowed to multiply unchecked. It is unlikely to be good however and there is an excellent chance that we will find out because currently pangolins are being hunted to extinction across two continents, Asia and Africa. In this we resemble Balaam, we are attacking something which simply by being itself may well be defending us. (For more about Pangolins see my blog Anteaters & the Aphrodisiac of Doom)

A further lesson might be this: Balaam was a prophet and setting out to prophesy against Israel because he had been paid to do so, that is, out of greed he was misusing his gifts from God. The poachers who have made pangolins the most trafficked mammal on planet earth for the most part do not themselves consume them. They are sold on to traders who transport them to their final destination, usually Vietnam or China, where they are eaten as a delicacy by the elites (pangolin foetus soup is a particular favourite) or their scales are used for traditional Chinese medicine, although they actually confer no benefit at all being made of the same stuff as human fingernails. [You can hear more about this in a podcast Poached Pangolin from the BBC World Service series From Our Own Correspondent starting about 11 minutes in] We can all sympathise with people in poverty being forced by their circumstances to do unpleasant things but trafficking pangolins is not a traditional way of life nor is it a question of survival. Pangolins command premium prices so poachers are lured into the trade as Balaam was by the temptation of more money than they would otherwise get but which they don't, strictly speaking, require.

The assault upon the poor donkey was added to the list of Balaam's sins. Cruelty to animals is an abomination in the sight of God and of his angels. Especially is this so when it is a foolish cruelty whereby the man harms both himself and the animal in his rage or spite. It is a Catholic moral axiom that both the action and the motivation for the action need to be taken into account when considering the moral culpability attached to it. Our sister donkey asked Balaam this question:  “Am I not your donkey, on which you have always ridden until now? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way before?”  When a thing, person or animal starts to behave in unexpected ways the first response of a reasoning creature should be to ask why this is happening. All too often humans respond with ungovernable rage when not only should they know better but they do know better. Experience has taught us that reason not rage is the only really effective way to resolve such problems yet we allow the latter to run its course before allowing the former its proper sovereignty. In the case of those who consume pangolins it is gluttony or pride (eating pangolins is a form of conspicuous consumption for the capitalist entrepreneurs and communist bureaucrats in Vietnam and China) rather than anger which has dethroned reason. In some ways this is worse because anger is usually of short duration, pride lasts a lifetime. The history of humankind and the environment shows us that all too often rationality only appears when it is too late to repair the damage caused by sin. When pangolins become extinct, which is a real possibility, then they will be gone beyond recall and the harm will be irreversible.




February 21 2015 is World Pangolin Day. Here is what we can do to help these wonderful creatures
  • TWEET using the hashtag #WorldPangolinDay
  • LIKE the World Pangolin Day Facebook page
  • BLOG about pangolins on World Pangolin Day
  • SHARE pangolin information on your social media networks
  • CREATE pangolin art — paint, draw, sculpt, tattoo
  • EDUCATE by giving a presentation about pangolins at school
  • SUPPORT organizations which are working to protect pangolins
  • HOST a World Pangolin Day party or event (post your photos on the World Pangolin Day page!)
  • BAKE cookies or a cake in the shape of a pangolin (post your photos on the World Pangolin Day page!)
  • REQUEST full enforcement of laws and penalties for smuggling pangolins (and other wildlife)
  • INFORM traditional medicine prescribers that the use of pangolin scales is illegal (and there are no proven health benefits to consuming scales — they are made of keratin, just like fingernails!)
  • NOTIFY the authorities if you see pangolins for sale at markets or on restaurant menus, or if you know of anyone capturing or possessing pangolins.

 Less usefully you could follow the Catholic Scot Pangolin Pics Page on Pinterest to see stuff like this-



It is significant that in his Canticle St Francis says of Mother Earth that she sustains us and governs us. We may often remember the first but seldom the second part of this proposition. There are biological limits on humans. We are not and never shall be Masters of the Universe or even Masters of Planet Earth. Imposing ourselves on the environment will always have incalculable consequences because God's creation is infinitely more complex than our attempts to control it will ever allow for. This is not to abandon science, the attempt to understand creation, or technology, the attempt to use our understanding in cooperation with the world around us. But it is a caution to us that we must remember that the first reasonable principle which we should apply to all potentially world changing actions in relation to the planet that we undertake is humility. Thinking before acting does not prevent wise actions but it may stop foolish ones.

Support Save Pangolins, Project Pangolin United for Wildlife and other Pangolin friendly organisations


Thursday, 22 January 2015

Silver & Gold I Have None

                                                Healing of the Lame Man-Raphael


 Peter with John fastening his eyes upon him, said: Look upon us. But he looked earnestly upon them, hoping that he should receive something of them. But Peter said: Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, I give thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise, and walk.
Acts 3:4-6

Turn my heart to Your decrees and not to material gain. Turn my eyes from looking at what is worthless; give me life in Your ways.
Psalm 118/9:36-36

There is a lot of looking going on in these texts. Sight is one of the mechanisms which we use to give our attention to something. Attention is the primary thing and vision is a mere auxiliary to it. What I mean by that is that although no doubt none of us wishes to go blind if it so happened that we did then our integrity as a person would remain intact. Our ability to focus our mind to a point and concentrate upon it would remain unimpaired although it would be discommoded. If however while still possessing sight we lost the ability to pay attention to anything then we would cease to be the person we are now. When considering texts like this then it can be a worthwhile exercise to leave aside consideration of the external events unfolding before the eyes and think about the essential objects upon which the attention of the participants, and by extension we the readers, is centred.

The disabled man whom the Apostles encountered desired to live. He was begging because only thus could he obtain the means necessary to that end. His attention was focussed on Saints Peter and John because he hoped that they could help him to keep body and soul together. His desire was a purely material one. There is a temptation to suppose that the intention of St Peter was equally material, to effect a bodily healing, and that what he gave to the man was good health. We should though bear in mind the words of Jesus 'Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? (Luke 5:23) The gift which St Peter gave was the name of Jesus, one of the effects of that gift was to heal the man's disability.

The post-modern mind is often impatient with miracle stories and seeks to discount them. So much the worse for the post-modern mind of course but if, as I suggest, we concentrate on the essence rather than the accidents of this episode is there anything in it which even the post-moderns can profit from? The beggar was in the position of most people in the secular West. He knew little about Christianity, cared less and expected next-to-nothing from it. To him the two Apostles were simply people who could assist him in achieving his immediate aims. There is a sense in which religion must have been important to him since he was begging at the gate of the Jerusalem Temple. Beggars are pragmatists, they beg where they will get results not where they will be ignored. Even today you will find much more begging outside of the doors of a cathedral than you will at a science museum, art gallery or supermarket. So then, our disabled man recognised the charitable impulses of many religious his object was to receive charity theirs was to give it.

St Peter here represents both the Christian Church and, in a sense, Jesus or at least the intentions of Jesus. He is concerned first and above all with the spiritual well being of the beggar but also with his physical well being. He gives him then the only thing which he has, the name of Jesus, and that effects a creation of wholeness in the man. A physical, easily observed wholeness to be sure but more than that St Luke (the author of Acts) also records 'he entered the temple complex with them—walking, leaping, and praising God' (Acts 3:8) The praising God thing is important because there was no inevitability about it. Jesus knew this only too well 'one of them, seeing that he was healed, returned and, with a loud voice, gave glory to God. He fell face down at His feet, thanking Him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Didn’t any return to give glory to God except this foreigner?' (Luke 17:15-17) Physical healings, miracles, do not inevitably produce faith or even gratitude for that matter. What is important to a person, the things which she gives most attention to, are what produces the most profound of her reactions and that does not always include an appreciation of what others have done for her.


                                    Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man- Poussin

If the disabled man is a representative figure for those outside the Church who sometimes turn to it with requests what can we say of their intentions and expectations? There is nothing supernatural in them. Nor are they necessarily strictly material. Many in the West will seek a brief comfort in the liturgies or even just the buildings and candles of the Church at times of great sorrow, tragedy or distress. The beggar in our text, like many beggars today, would not doubt have wanted money first and foremost but would also appreciate a moment of human contact, a smile, a nod, a friendly conversation. I think it fair to say also that, at least subconsciously, people expect to receive more from Christians (again not just in a material way) than they do from others. An expectation that seems to stubbornly remain no matter how often it might in practice be disappointed. This is grounded in a feeling that the standards of Christianity and the person of Jesus are of such a sublime nature that some of it must rub off on Christians (although sadly all too often it just doesn't.) The intuition is a sound one so far as the standards go and if it doesn't flow from personal experience then I would think it fair to attribute it to the work of the Holy Spirit, it is a gift of grace.

And what of  the same encounter viewed from the other side that of St Peter/the Church? Firstly we should note that he was not alone, St John accompanied him, which reminds us that the Church, that Christianity, is a collective enterprise not a solitary one. Conservative Catholics blanch at the use of the word 'collective' because it stirs up thoughts of communism. At the risk of sounding Chestertonian I would say that everything truly evil is always but an imitation of Christianity perverted to wicked ends. It is only mediocrity that does not imitate Christianity although all too often Christians and the Church imitate mediocrity (for more about Chesterton see my post G. K. Chesterton & the Square Circle).  What was the focus of St Peter's attention? Apparently two things, his faith in the name of Jesus and his compassion for the plight of the indigent man with a disability. But, of course, the two were one. For a Christian it is true that faith and compassion are a single thing, they cannot be separated. Faith and compassion without deeds is a pointless thing so St Peter was moved to action. The beggar wanted money, the Apostles had no money, so Peter did the only thing he could do. He prayed, he involved Jesus in the business of changing the world, and he did so without hesitation and without doubt. And, behold, the world was changed.

Unlike the Apostles the Church does have access to money and like them it has an obligation to make faith real in the world through deeds. In this episode we have a guide to what that means. Faced with an appeal the response must be instant, it must be collective, it must involve human contact (giving money to a third party to do compassion for you doesn't cut it) it must be practical, it must involve prayer and it must be rooted and grounded in the name and person of Jesus Christ. More than that we should recall that although conversion was an effect of the healing it was not a condition for it. The Church is bound to help for the sake of being helpful not for the sake of gaining members.' If you know these things, you shall be blessed if you do them' (John 13:17)

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Some of my earlier posts are collected into a free ebook on Wattpad This Contemplative Life

On a lighter note I also have a Nativity fable on Wattpad Adoration of the Pangolins






Sunday, 18 January 2015

Mary: Refuge of Sinners

                                        The Story of Ruth- Thomas Matthews Rooke

 Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.
John 4:35

And Ruth the Moabitess said unto Naomi, Let me now go to the field, and glean ears of corn after him in whose sight I shall find grace.
Ruth 2:2

The gulf of incomprehension between Catholics and Christians from the ecclesial communities of the 'Reformation' (Protestants for short) on the subject of devotion to Mary is fuelled in part by the radically different ways the two traditions read the Old Testament scriptures. The man who inspired the 'Reformation' Martin Luther said "The Christian reader should make it his first task to seek out the literal sense, as they call it. For it alone is the whole substance of faith and Christian theology" This means that what appears on the surface of the written words is sufficient in itself to convey all that we need to know about God. Catholicism, by contrast sees four levels or senses of Scripture. The literal is the foundation of all the others but it does not exhaust the content of Divine revelation, so if we rest in it alone then we miss out on all that the Lord intends to convey to us via the medium of the sacred texts.

For example, we can believe that the crossing of the Red Sea was both an historical event and a pre-figuring of baptism. Protestants will accept this because St Paul said so (1 Corinthians 10:1-2) They are reluctant however to apply the same kind of approach to those scriptures where there is no explicit scriptural mandate to do so. Catholics are not so timid. An allegorical reading of a passage which does not deny or contradict the literal sense, which is consonant with the faith received from the Apostles and which helps us to better understand and more deeply love God is a perfectly acceptable approach to studying scripture. By using it Catholicism arrives at the idea that the New Testament is hidden within the Old, that is, concealed under persons and events, and so the New reveals the meaning of the Old. Christians and Jews therefore will read these Scriptures in radically different ways unless the Christians adopt the Lutheran approach which bring them close to the Jewish methodology.

And so we come to Mary. Catholics understand many OT passages to refer to the Mother of Jesus, her life, her personality and her role in the history of salvation. Since Protestants see nothing more in these passages than the events, persons or places described in them they simply don't 'get' what Catholics are on about when discussing our Lady and so accuse them of importing extra-biblical ideas and practices. In this blog, as my contribution to ecumenism, I propose to look at the eponymous heroine of the Book of Ruth and see in what way she prefigures Mary as refuge of sinners.


                                                      Our Lady of Ransom

In my earlier blog Mary & Eternal Life I looked at a number of the ways in which Ruth acted as a type or figure of our Lady here I will look at some others. By 'type' is meant that what is done in part and imperfectly in the OT is brought to fulfilment and perfection in the Gospel and forms part of the economy of salvation. So, Ruth sets out to glean the ears of corn which the reapers leave behind in order to be able to feed Naomi her mother-in-law and herself. When, in the Gospels, Jesus speaks of harvesting He usually means gathering in souls to the kingdom of heaven. Since He speaks through the Old Testament as well as the New it is worth considering the possibility that references to the same subject in the one will have the same purpose as in the other. When to this harvest is added the figure of Ruth following 'after him in whose sight I shall find grace' we are irresistibly reminded of the words of St Gabriel 'Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.' (Luke 1:30) It seems then legitimate to read this passage as an allusion to the role played by the Mother of God in bringing into the kingdom those who escape from the hands of the reapers.

What Mary gleans are those who have heard the Good News about Jesus but have not benefited by it. They lie on the earth having missed salvation but not yet consigned to destruction. It seems likely to me that these are not necessarily greater sinners than the saved but they are guilty of the sin of despair. They feel themselves to be so wicked or to have committed such terrible acts that there is no possibility of them being forgiven and so they fear greatly to come into the presence of our Lord never doubting that condemnation will be the only outcome of that encounter. The Protestant approach is basically to say 'pull yourself together, Jesus will forgive you if you repent.' This is perfectly true of course but nonetheless it is a psychological fact that many people find themselves unable to overcome that fear of the Just Judge. So either we consign them (by them I mean of course me) to the flames or we offer them another route by which they can come without fear into the presence of the Saviour. The Church asks 'if you fear the Son do you also fear the mother?' And who can fear Mary? The despairing can turn to her and she will raise them from the earth, gather them in her arms and present them to her Divine Son who can refuse nothing from the hands of His most beloved mother. To the accusation that Catholics, through the cult of Mary, add an unnecessary barrier between Christians and Jesus we can reply that on the contrary Marian devotion give us a bridge that bring those who would otherwise be furthest from Him straight into His Sacred Heart.

The labours of Ruth are described thus: 'This is the Moabitess who came with Noemi, from the land of Moab, And she desired leave to glean the ears of corn that remain, following the steps of the reapers: and she hath been in the field from morning till now, and hath not gone home for one moment.' (Ruth 2:6-7) This sounds like Mary who went 'with haste' to support St Elizabeth (Luke 1:39) who stood unflinching at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25) and who constantly prayed at the heart of the Church (Acts 1:14) Her personality has not undergone a change for the worse since she was raised to heaven. If she worked tirelessly for the kingdom of her Son then how much more she does so now. The sinner, fallen from a state of grace and despairing of entering into it again will not call to her in vain. The field in which she works is filled precisely with the lost, the furthest from God, the ones guilty of the most gross sins. Those whose desire to be reconciled is finely balanced with their expectation of damnation will through Mary receive the grace and strength which they need to make that decisive choice, to be transformed through repentance leaving a life wholly given over to darkness behind them, entering the kingdom of light and themselves performing acts of light.

Space does not permit me to say all I could on this subject. So as homework I will leave you to ponder on how much this prayer offered for Ruth was fulfilled in Mary 'The Lord make this woman who cometh into thy house, like Rachel, and Lia, who built up the house of Israel: that she may be an example of virtue in Ephrata, and may have a famous name in Bethlehem' (Ruth 4:11) To the separated brethren of the Protestant traditions I say do not close your eyes to the treasures hidden in Scripture, the whole substance of faith and theology consists in more than a description of events, persons and places. And to those who fear to be excluded from the company of Jesus because they know themselves to be so hardened in wickedness I say put you hand into Mary's hand, she will lead you into His presence and He will have only smiles and love to offer to anyone who accompanies His mother. Mary, refuge of sinners, pray for us.


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                                         Madonna under the Fir Tree- Lucas Cranach the Elder