Thursday, 21 July 2016

Mary Magdalene-The Scarlet Woman



Most blessed lady, I who am the most evil and sinful of men do not recall thy sins as a reproach, but call upon the boundless mercy by which they were blotted out. 
(St Anselm, Prayer to Saint Mary Magdalene and Our Lord)

From the early Middle Ages the Latin Church began to associate a number of different Gospel stories, the nameless woman who was a great sinner (Luke 7:36-48) and Mary of Bethany, with the figure of Mary Magdalene who had been first witness to the Resurrection of Jesus. Feminists, enemies of Christianity and liberal theologians always present this association as if it were a misogynist scheme by the old white men (now dead) of the Catholic Church to slut-shame a feisty independent woman disciple of Christ. As a plot it failed miserably since the Magdalene became, after our Lady, far and away the most popular female saint of the Middle Ages. This was not despite but because she was seen as a reformed sinner. Most Catholics then as now could empathise with one who had succumbed to temptation, especially sexual temptation, and saw in her redemption and closeness to Jesus a significant source of hope for themselves.

I, however, have an alternative theory. One of the things which the Gospel tells us about our saint is this- "Mary who is called Magdalen, out of whom seven devils were gone forth" (Luke 8;2.) This is immediately after the story of the unnamed woman so linkage is plausible but more importantly it features the number seven. To the modern mind this conveys nothing but in the ancient and medieval world it was charged with significance. The world was created in seven days, the seven seals of the Apocalypse will be a prelude to the end of days, the Israelites had to drive seven tribes out of Canaan, seven Apostles witnessed the risen Jesus by the shores of Lake Tiberias and so on and so forth. Therefore whenever this number appears in Scripture we are invited to ponder on what significance it may have. Often it is taken to imply fullness so when St Peter asked (Matthew 18;21-22) if he should forgive someone up to seven times a day he simply meant "as often as it is likely to happen."

Pope St Gregory the Great when he reflected upon it came to the conclusion that in the case of the Magdalene it referred to the seven mortal sins. That being so she became a perfect fit with the unnamed woman in Luke because of two things which the Gospel tells us explicitly about St Mary. Firstly, that she had been possessed but that Jesus had liberated her from that. Secondly, that she loved our Lord very greatly. This last was shown by her standing at the foot of the Cross during His Crucifixion. Indeed, the Magdalene is often depicted as wearing red and/or as having red hair. This is not, as some suppose, because of an association with prostitution, but rather because of her association with the Lord's Passion and death. More poignantly after His entombment her love is depicted in this passage by St John the Evangelist-
Mary stood at the sepulchre without, weeping. Now as she was weeping, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, And she saw two angels in white....They say to her: Woman, why weepest thou? She saith to them: Because they have taken away my Lord; and I know not where they have laid him.  When she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing; and she knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith to her: Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, thinking it was the gardener, saith to him: Sir, if thou hast taken him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith to her: Mary. She turning, saith to him: Rabboni (which is to say, Master) 
(John 20:11-16)


So moving is this passage that it has resulted in many reflections upon it by saints, artists, poets and writers. St Anselm for instance wrote-
..And, more than all this, what can I say, how can I find words to tell, about the burning love with which thou didst seek Him, weeping at the sepulchre, and wept for Him in thy seeking? ...So, near to death and hating her own life, she repeats in broken tones the words of life which she had heard from the living. And now, besides all this, even the Body which she was glad, in a way, to have kept, she believes to have gone. 
And can Thou asketh her, 'Woman, why art thou weeping?' 
Had she not reason to weep? 
...I think, or rather I am sure, that she responded to the gentle tone with which He was accustomed to call, 'Mary'. What joy filled that voice, so gentle and full of love....
..At once the tears are changed; I do not believe that they stopped at once, but where once they were wrung from a heart broken and self-tormenting they flow now from a heart exulting..

Jesus said of the nameless woman "Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much" I think it likely that Pope St Gregory connected the idea of this woman's great love with Mary Magdalene's great love and her sins with the Magdalenes seven devils. Critics who focus on the sin forget the love but the Church never did. The idea that these two persons are one might or might not be right but the idea that they were linked in order to denigrate the great and much beloved St Mary Magdalene is most certainly wrong.
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The paintings are Mary Magdalene by El Greco and Magdalene Mourning by Colijn de Coter.





Thursday, 14 July 2016

Faith & Knowledge


There are some who like to define faith as "believing in something which you know is not true." Others, less sneeringly perhaps, opt for "belief which exists in the absence of evidence." The weakness of these definitions is that they presume religious belief falls into the same category as, say, belief in a demonstrable fact (Lincoln was President during the Civil War) or an irrefutable theory (gravity exercises an effect on all material objects.) Christian belief, however, is faith in a person, Jesus, based upon what we know of Him as sufficient evidence. St Mark gives us an example of this-
"Jesus led them on, while they were bewildered and followed him with faint hearts"
Mark 10:32

This text describes the final journey to Jerusalem. The Apostles knew that the authorities would use the opportunity presented by having Jesus within their jurisdiction to do Him harm. They, the Apostles, also knew that they possessed no earthly power through which they could resist the authorities and their minds had not yet been fully opened to the spiritual power concealed in our Lord. Nonetheless, because they knew Him as well as they did they followed Him into danger. The evidence of His person itself was enough to give them the faith necessary to walk into hazard so long as He led them. Where they could not see clearly themselves; where their reason and their fears told them one thing they consented to do another because they willingly conceded their judgement to One who could see more clearly, reason more perfectly and conquer fear more completely.

It is of course possible, indeed common, for humans to place their faith in persons, causes or ideas which are not worthy of receiving such an high trust. Holy Church, aware of this, proposes that faith should always be allied to hope and love since an object worthy of these last two is likely to be worthy of the first also. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes-
"Turn your minds to Jesus, the apostle and the high priest of our profession of faith."
Hebrews 3:1
As apostle, which means messenger, Jesus lays before us; through His life, His actions and His words the hope which we, as Christians, can have. The certainty of a new life in Him, by the will of the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit, a new life which begins now, today, in this life and continues through death to eternal life in His blessed presence. As high priest He offered Himself on the Cross at Calvary, a gift of pure love, perfect love, overflowing love for us and for our salvation.

So, our Catholic faith is belief in Jesus based upon our knowledge of Him as our hope, our Saviour, and the foundation of our new life. And these constitute our evidences for belief. How do we gain this knowledge of Him? We encounter Him in Sacred Scripture, clearly and openly in the Gospels, under veiled forms and types in the Old Testament. We encounter Him in prayer, in silence and in stillness. We encounter Him in the sacraments and liturgies of His body which is the Church. We encounter Him in His saints those in heaven and those we live beside here on earth. Each such encounter increases our knowledge of Him and so strengthens our faith, our hope and our love.

Or, at least, they should so strengthen these things. Hebrews once more-
"We have been granted a share with Christ only if we keep the grasp of our first confidence firm to the end."
Hebrews 3:14
The definitions with which I began have this much truth in them: A faith which begins as alive can end as dead. Our life in the Spirit can fade, our joy in Christ can pass away and we can profess our faith out of habit not conviction. The evidences which we once possessed we may possess no longer. If we do not renew ourselves daily in Christ, drinking from the fountain of life and love which flows from His wounded side then we will lose Him. And that means that we shall have lost ourselves too.
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The painting is Christ in the Wilderness byIvan Kramskoy









Friday, 1 July 2016

Down With Agitation!


There is no sin nor wrong that gives a man such a foretaste of hell in this life as anger and impatience.
(St Catherine of Siena Letter to Monna Agnese)

The 5th Century Greek Bishop St Diadochos of Photiki wrote "those pursuing the spiritual way must always keep the mind free from agitation." Those of us living in tumultuous times for ourselves, for our country or for the world may ask- is this true? Is this possible? It is perhaps the obviously right course of action for those living a contemplative life in monasteries but for those whose spiritual way includes an active struggle for justice and peace in the world  is it not a counter-intuitive piece of advice?

I think that if we are seeking change we ourselves must become the change we are trying to bring about. Aiming to reduce injustice in the world we must ourselves be just. Struggling against greedy materialistic societies we must be frugal in not only our use of resources but in our very desire for possessions. So too with anger and impatience, if we long for a kinder, gentler, more patient world when we encounter situations where none of these things are present we should be kindness itself, gentleness itself, patience itself.

This is fine in theory you might say but can it really be done while we are still engaged in the storms of life? And those who know me might add "physician heal thyself" since I am not always noted for calmness and conciliatoriness in the heat of political disputes. In her letter to Monna Agnese St Catherine wrote "by displeasure against itself the soul will drive out displeasure against its neighbour." Self-awareness is a necessary prelude to a mind free from agitation. As soon as we recognise within ourselves symptoms of conducts or attitudes which we would condemn in others then we need to pause for reflection.

An ancient Catholic practice which has somewhat fallen into disuse is the daily examination of conscience at the end or beginning of the day. This gives us the chance to notice what may have been hidden from us by the dusts stirred up in our whirlwind everyday lives. If that includes, as it surely will, moments of agitation, anger and impatience then we need to acknowledge that, sincerely repent of it seeking forgiveness from God and from our neighbours and firmly resolve to avoid future occasions of sin. This requires not only an act of the will but also small practical resolutions which we can immediately put into action.

One such resolution might be to get into the habit of asking ourselves "what is the most likely outcome?" before we start a conversation, on social media or elsewhere, about some matter of controversy. If the answer is that at the end of the process everyone will be more convinced than ever that they were right and they will have added several layers of anger to their pre-conversation state of mind then we would do well not to embark upon this discussion at all. We should also regularly ask ourselves "why am I doing this?" when we are carrying out a course of action or find ourselves unexpectedly involved in a controversy. And if the answer is, again, "in order to prove myself right" then we need to immediately cease and desist.

None of this means that we are obliged to shy away from the struggle to make the world a better place. It means that we should use our energy positively and constructively, and thus calmly, not negatively and destructively, and thus agitatedly. Looking at our two questions, if the likely outcome is that people will be persuaded to change their minds then go ahead with the conversation. If we are acting because there is a good chance of success then keep on acting. Even so, another key idea to frequently call to mind is "magnanimous in victory, gracious in defeat." Triumphalism on the one hand or bitterness on the other are both negative energies which will defeat our own inner peace more than they will achieve any benefits for our own cause. Magnanimity and graciousness moreover are not enemies of spiritual wholeness but manifestations of it.

Of course these things are difficult to achieve and easy to forget. This is why the daily examination of ourselves in the mirror of Christ Crucified is so crucial to attaining the balance of a life committed to bringing Christ to the world outside and to our own heart within. Writing to William of England St Catherine said "we must be illumined to know the transitory things of the world, which all pass like the wind. But these are not rightly known if we do not know our own frailty, how inclined it is, from the perverse law which is bound up with our members, to rebel against its Creator." Only by holding fast to that which is, Christ, Christ Himself, can we effect change in that which is not, that is, ourselves and the world around us. And, as well as self examination we have another important weapon at our disposal as St Catherine reminded Monna Agnese "when thou canst empty thy time for prayer, I pray thee to do it. And love tenderly every rational being." We should not be daunted by the difficulty of the challenge nor by our own repeated failures for as the Sienese doctor wrote to her correspondent Brother Antonio "to the true servant of God every place is the right place and every time is the right time." It is up to us to make it so.
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The picture is Mary Magdalene in Meditation by Massimo Stanzione.






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.
Amen

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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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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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)

@stevhep


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.



Reflection

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.

@stevhep

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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.

@stevhep

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