Monday, 1 September 2014

Independence for Scotland?

                                       Tuscan School, The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew
For we have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come.
Hebrews 13:14

For we ha'e faith
in Scotland's hidden poo'ers
The present's theirs
but a' the past and future's oors.

Hugh MacDiarmid 

This is a spiritual blog not a political one, forbye which most of the people who read it will never come within a thousand miles of Scotland. So what for am I writing a post anent the Scottish Independence referendum of September 2014? Firstly, because I'm Scottish about which more later. Secondly, because it seems like a good test case for considering the relationship between spirituality and patriotism or nationalism. After all if, for example, Christians hold that the 'one thing necessary'(Luke 10:42) is to 'seek first the Kingdom of God' (Matthew 6:33) then you would think that they would look with a lofty disdain on merely earthly kingdoms.

In the New Testament we frequently find suggestions that in our personal hierarchy of values we should put mundane considerations such as income, family or country low down on our list of priorities. For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul (Matthew 16:26If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26) And within the historical context of the first century Holy Land the very actions of Jesus bear witness against the nationalism of many of his compatriots. Early in His mission we see Jesus therefore, when he knew that they would come to take him by force, and make him king, fled again into the mountain himself alone (John 6:15)

From the perspective of the Roman authorities the territory was full of Palestinian terrorist like Barabbas (Mark 15:7) who concealed themselves in the civilian population and used them as human shields while committing 'sedition and murder.' From the point of view of many Jews though groups like the Zealots were heroes who fought valiantly against a regional superpower. The fact that they had no chance of success did not matter much so long as they struck a blow on behalf of a people who had been beaten and dispossessed by a powerful foreign foe.There was an expectation that a figure anointed by God, Messiah or Christ means the anointed one, would be able to unify the Jews and turn the disparate groups of Jewish jihadis into a force capable of driving the occupying power into the sea. Many thought that Jesus would be such a figure. He, however, repudiated such nationalism. My kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) He told the Roman governor Pilate.

The only witness in favour of nationalism in the New Testament comes from St Paul who writes For I could wish that I myself were accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kin according to the flesh. (Romans 9:3) But even here he acknowledges that 'not all who are of Israel are Israel' meaning that membership of a nation or tribe or clan is secondary to the main business of life which is spiritual. Encountering and responding to the transcendent reality is what matters and anything in the material world which substitutes itself for the deity, such as the Nation, is is to be rejected. What we do in this world, such as loving our neighbours as ourselves, should flow from the divine encounter. Nothing can be put into a separate category where spiritual values do not apply.

Does this mean that Christians in Scotland should ignore the referendum and that they have nothing to contribute to the debate? No, but it means that their contribution needs to come from a distinct angle. There is nothing peculiarly Christian to be said about a common currency or how much oil is left in the North Sea (although there is a Christian angle to the removal of weapons of mass destruction from Scottish soil.) But Christianity does have something to say about community.

There are many things in this world which are both imaginary and real at the same time. Or, more precisely, they are real because they exist in people's imaginations. Money is one such thing. With a coloured piece of paper it is possible to buy haggis and chips but not a bottle of single malt whisky. With a slightly different coloured piece of paper one can buy not only a single malt but also several haggis suppers and a deep fried Mars bar while receiving numerous metal disks in exchange for the paper as well. The intrinsic worth of both bits of paper is identical but the value we ascribe to them is a collective act of the imagination. A country or nation is a similar imaginative creation. If nobody believes that a country exists then it does not exist. If large numbers of people believe that a country exists then that alone will have the power to bring it into being if it is not already established. Nature does not create nations. Geography does not create nations. God does not, in the usual sense of the term, create nations. Contrary to what you might expect economic necessity does not create nations either although it plays a part in forming and sustaining them. And most particularly science does not create nations.
A country is an imagined community. It is not real in the sense that no single individual imagines the country to be just precisely, just exactly the way that country actually is. People attribute to the nation a collective sensibility, a shared set of values which it does not possess. They understand it to have a shared history which it has never lived, all historical accounts are highly selective and in any event the past is even more of an act of the imagination than the national community is. Very often a patriot thinks of her country as being mostly composed of people very like herself but no country is very like any one person. Commitment to nation or love of country is an act of faith in an imagined reality. 'Just like Christianity!' the atheists among you will say. However that might be Christianity and Nationalism have this in common they proceed from a notion of Incarnation. Ideas which taken in isolation are mere abstractions take on life when they are clad with flesh. Moreover, from the beginning Christianity was Church, a community. Without Church there is no Christianity. Without community there is no Nation. The Church community is in part a visible, structured thing with rituals and sacraments, it subsists in the Catholic Church, and in part an invisible, spiritual thing, a hermit on a mountain is as much part of the community as a woman at a Papal Mass attended by millions. So too the Nation, whether it has a State of its own or not, exists in both visible and invisible forms. A People without shared rituals and agreed common signs is no People at all.

What the members of a nation agree among themselves to imagine about themselves becomes an incarnated reality. Christians who are called to be the leaven that leavens the whole must play their part in contributing ideas and values to this shared act of imagination. The loyalty which they have may be first and foremost to the person of Jesus Christ but He is not an abstraction. He is a person and He translates His ideas and values into action in the world. In the national conversation Christians must seek to ensure that the collective imagination becomes tinged with the personality of Christ so that the nation as a whole through its agencies, such as the health service or the foreign office, and each member of that collectivity acts more or less consciously under the influence and inspiration of these values. This should not be confused with evangelism or a mingling of Church and State. It is no business of the State or Nation to demand of its members allegiance to a religious confession as a prior condition of membership of that country. Explicitly recruiting to the Church is a task for the Church alone. But it is the business of Christians to diffuse their values in society and it is not the business of State or Nation to prevent them and to insist that religion is a purely private affair.

Leaving that to one side. Do Christians have a duty to love their country even if they are excluded from the national conversation or if their views are not heeded? The philosopher Simone Weil said that "In the soul of a Christian, the presence of the pagan virtue of patriotism acts as a dissolvent"  What she had in mind was specifically the patriotism of Rome (and also of Nazi Germany which was then occupying her native France) It is a pagan virtue if it is directed towards the notion of the State as an agent of power, as an idol to be worshipped. To love your country in the sense of saying 'we are number one' is morally abhorrent in a Christian. It is to identify might with right and your notion of God with the policies of your country. There is no sense in which Christians can justify sin in the name of patriotism. And to the extent that a country is mired in sin a Christian who wilfully either distorts theology to justify evil or pretends that her countries policies are something other than they really are has departed from Christianity and become an idolator. There is a positive duty of resistance laid upon Christians which always and everywhere trumps patriotism. Where a nation embarks upon a path which Christianity condemns Christians are bound to refuse cooperation at the very least.

Professor Weil, however, joined the Free French resistance out of the love which she bore for France. Patriotism can have many faces. She wrote One can love France, for the glory which would seem to insure for her a prolonged existence in space and time; or one can love her as something which being earthly, can be destroyed, and is all the more precious on that account. These are two distinct ways of loving" Recognising that a nation is a product of imagination, that at some point it comes into existence and at some point it will cease to be. Recognising too that it is no more and often less than the best of the best people who make it up Christians have a duty to strengthen the good, console the weak and defend the right. Their place in the nation is not as apologist nor as traitor but as bulwark. The great gift a nation can offer is stability. Through its institutions and shared values it can, for a time, allow for the maintenance of what most of its members agree to be good. Families can be safe, children can be taught, one generation can share its imagination with another. Christianity places the family at the centre of its project. Country and Church have a shared stake in stability which does not exclude, for example, one country seceding from another as may happen in Scotland. The argument here being that the shared values which Scots imagine that they have will be lost if the Union with an England possessed of antagonistic values persists.    
                                                        William Hepburn 1940-2011

Which brings me to my Scottishness. Since I live in partibus infidelium, also known as Exeter, and may, after all never return to my native land it is possible that the only practical impact upon me personally of a 'Yes' vote would be my having to acquire a different passport. Yet, if a nation is an incarnated set of ideas (or dreams) a person from that nation is a bearer of those ideas. Accept them or reject them ones life is never entirely free from an interior dialogue with them. It is usually through the family that those values are first transmitted. My late father William Hepburn, God rest his soul, was a Scottish Nationalist for around 50 years of his life. Had he lived few things in that life would have given him more happiness than to answer the question "do you want an independent Scotland?" with a resounding Yes! I can almost hear him saying "if not this time then next time" I never shared his nationalism, I don't share it now. I am sad beyond words that he cannot crown his act of imagination with a triumphal vote but my imagination is not his.

But he did teach me one thing of inestimable value about this debate. He became a Nationalist in the 1960's before oil was discovered in the North Sea. His conviction did not rest upon an argument from material well being. He believed that whether or not Scots were financially better off as a result of independence was not the most important consideration. The current debate among politicians has mostly been about money. The 'No' campaign offers no vision for a better tomorrow, it simply warns against a worse one where voters may be several hundred pounds a year out of pocket. The 'Yes' campaign counter by saying 'no they won't be.' If, however, Scotland does vote for independence it will likely not be about either of these propositions. Scots will be saying that, yes, they know there is a financial risk but, so long as the weak and vulnerable are protected that is not the real point of the thing. They will be voting for a future where the shared values that they imagine that they have will take an assured place as of right in the governance of their country. And they will be rejecting the values which they do not wish to have imposed upon them by distant elites.

Whether they know it or not many Scots who vote 'Yes' will be striking a blow against materialism. Because of the crass nature of the 'No' campaign few Scots will vote for it for other than material reasons. Christian Scots can make hard headed calculations as well as the next voter and there is nothing wrong with voting for the well being of your family and yourself provided it is not at another's expense. But when you vote for money and money alone it is a sign that your horizons are too low. I do not, as I said, share my father's Nationalism but I do share his thrawnness. It is one of the things that we tell ourselves about ourselves that we are a thrawn people. And it is a piece of imagination that to some extent has become a reality. If the 'No' camp thinks so little of Scots that it offers money in place of enduring values then many Scots will say the hell with  them I'm voting 'Yes' whatever the risks may be. Scotland is better than its politicians and it places more emphasis upon things that endure longer than a politician's promises. Independence for Scotland? I say Yes.

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Saturday, 30 August 2014

And It Was Night

                                                           Last Supper- Perugino

After receiving the piece of bread, he went out immediately. And it was night.
John 13:30

The Gospel account given by St John in large part consists of long periods of dialogue interspersed by short narrative sections. It is tempting to consider those sections are simply being bridges leading from one conversation to another put in merely to give some context. As I have mentioned in some of my earlier posts, however, St John's is the most highly structured of all the Gospel accounts and every word usually does duty at more than one level. If we spend time meditating on these narrative passages we can see that each of them carries more meaning than may at first appear and serves the Evangelist's didactic purposes as much as any other part of the Gospel. And so it is with this record of the last few moments that the traitor Judas Iscariot spent in the friendly company of the Apostles. When next they met it would be as enemies.

We can conveniently divide this into three sections beginning with Jesus handing some bread to Judas. The concept of bread is central to the Christian project. It is widely thought, for example, that the chief significance of the birth of our Lord at Bethlehem is that it was a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. So much so indeed that atheist and theologically liberal critics suggest that St Matthew and St Luke fabricated their accounts of the Nativity in order to fit in with this preordained schema. The name Bethlehem, however, means 'house of bread.' So we can say that Divine Providence achieved a double whammy by ensuring that Jesus was born in a place which both looked back to historical prophecy and looked forward to His own mission.

Earlier in the Gospel the Christ describes Himself in this way I am the bread of life (John 6:35) and He also said  Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you (John 6:26) As the other Evangelists tell us previously in this same meal He had shown what He meant And He took bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it to them, and said, “This is My body, which is given for you" (Luke 22:19) So, what we see in this segment of narrative is Judas accepting the food that perishes as his portion when he could have instead accepted the food that lasts for eternal life. It is customary to think of thirty pieces of silver as the price for which he sold the Saviour but St John illustrates here that it was even less than that. Other translations refer to this piece of bread as a 'morsel' or a 'sop'. It was a mere nothing and he preferred that to everything. He was betraying himself as surely as he was betraying our Lord. To add to the burden of his folly and sin he had earlier participated in the Eucharist so that he received the sacred elements of communion falsely and now took what was the object of his real desires, that is the purely carnal, material rewards that an unspiritual life offers.

He went out immediately. There is no gap between a decisive act of the will and its spiritual and moral consequences. We can see this at what you might call both the other end of the Gospel and the other end of the moral universe where the immediate consequence of Mary saying Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) is that she conceives with joy Jesus in her heart before she does so in her body. Here Judas has reached the crucial point. He could have gone back on his agreement with the High Priest. His heart could have been softened by this shared banquet with our Lord and His friends. But now he made the final step within himself. He took the bread that perishes and with it he perished himself, all the rest was just an acting out in the physical realm a destruction which he had taken upon himself in the spiritual one. It reminds us that in Genesis God had said to Adam and Eve of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die (Genesis 2:17) The story tells us that the pair lived for many years after they had eaten of that fruit but the Almighty had spoken truly since death entered their souls from the moment that they decided to eat from this tree.

As a completely random aside, the fruit that Adam and Eve ate is generally depicted to be an apple. This puzzles many people since the item in question is never named and it wouldn't necessarily be the first thing you would think of as a Middle Eastern fruit. My guess is that the idea stems from this passage in the Song of Songs Under the apple tree I raised thee up: there thy mother was corrupted (Song 8:5) Interpreting the Song allegorically was a small industry in Medieval times since obviously it's not the erotic poetry it might appear to be. Here the soul of the believer or humanity in general is raised up by Jesus from the corruption inherited from our first parents. And since the corruption took place under an apple tree the agent of corruption must have been an apple QED.

And it was night. St John is not simply acting as a speaking clock here. As death had entered the soul of Judas, both his own and that of his Master, he plunged into deep gloom. This is your hour, and the power of darkness (Luke 22:53 For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness  (Ephesians 6:12) Jesus had said of Himself I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) Judas by walking out with murder in his heart left behind the light and found only darkness within and without. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where he is going. (John 12:35)

Looking at the passage as a whole then. We can see that the bread of life, both spiritual and material, comes to us from the hand of God. If we accept only the material we die spiritually. If we accept only the spiritual we would die physically. With gladness and thanks we should accept all that the Lord gives us in order to live fully. More than that 'He gives' and that sets us an example, if we have received an abundance of His gifts then it behoves us also to give, to act as His agents. If we hoard material wealth we resemble Judas, if we give it away we resemble Jesus. If we refuse to accept His gifts then we immediately banish ourselves from His presence. But why would we? Why did Judas? Material things are tangible, we can see them, touch them, use them to satisfy our physical desires. Spiritual things are invisible, sometimes we can be aware of their presence but often enough they are like a seed hidden in the soil, it may be growing and preparing to bear abundant fruit but we are unaware, other than by faith, that this is so. You need neither faith nor love to use physical objects, you need both to fully respond to the spiritual gifts that come to us from Christ Jesus. And finally night is the natural home for those who are satisfied only with the things of death. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. (John 3:19-20)    

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Monday, 25 August 2014

Making a Home for Divine Love

                                          St John the Evangelist- by Valentine de Boulogne

A Reflection on 1 John 4:7-18

v13: This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us, that he has given us of his Spirit

v15: Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God

v16:...God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him

Very rarely do we perceive something as it actually is in itself. Normally when we observe an event or read a text we do so through the eyes of our personal history, our beliefs, our cultural background and our personality. In the fraction of a second between our seeing something and it presenting itself as an idea in our mind a whole interpretative process takes place. When we explain this event or text to ourselves or to others we may fondly imagine that we are doing so in an objective fashion but we are not. Our explanation is a complex hybrid of the thing in itself and our commentary upon it. Sometimes an event or text will catch us by surprise; by being so far outside of our normal terms of reference it will present itself almost unmediated to our mind shocking us as it were into responding to the thing itself. As time passes, however, our interpreting mechanisms will get to work on it and when we come to retell the event or text then our account of it will, unconsciously to us, increasingly diverge from our original response. Eventually we will settle on a final account which brings it entirely within our preexisting mental and psychological framework. Only if the event or text carries with it enough force to fundamentally alter ourselves so that our framework itself is changed will this revisionism not happen. Every encounter, therefore, with an event or text involves a transformation, either we transform it in our minds or it transforms who we are.

This process is profoundly significant when we come to consider the Sacred Scriptures. When we read this or that portion of them their meaning may strike us as perfectly obvious and we are surprised when others propose alternative meanings, supposing perhaps that this proceeds from mere perverseness on their part. There are at least two extremely plausible ways of understanding the three propositions by St John which I have listed. Each choice once made leads on to concrete real world actions and therefore the choice is of more than academic importance. How we make that choice, or indeed if we even become aware that a choice is to be made, will for most of us depend upon our ready made bank of predispositions.

The propositions are that in order for us to remain in God and for God to remain in us we must-

  • Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit
  • Acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God and
  • "Remain in love."
It might be that the Apostle intends to convey that these things are simultaneous and inseparable. This would mean that only those who acknowledge the divinity of Jesus also receive the Spirit and remain permanently loving. It would follow then that only Christians receive these gifts and attain these heights. It also follows that if these things are inseparable then they can only be achieved instantaneously. That is, we have the classic 'born again' experience where the descent of the Spirit, the confession of Jesus as Lord and the infusion of a state of grace filled with love all happen in an instant. And having happened they cannot unhappen unless the believer consciously apostatises. This means in effect that the spiritual life of the Christian consists of a constant attempt to chase the dragon since the spiritual impact of the moment of conversion is a peak experience which represents the point to which the believer always wishes to return.

It is no less plausible, however, to understand the Apostle as suggesting a sequence of events, a series of steps from a lower state to a higher one. An idea that gains strength if we suppose that a fourth proposition is intended in a slighter later verse v18..perfect love drives out fear Thus the sequence would be-

  • Receiving the Spirit then
  • Acknowledging Jesus as Son of God then
  • Abiding in love then
  • Attaining perfect love.
The first stage at least becomes universally accessible without explicit faith and for Christians the Christian life can be seen more in terms of process than event although conversion experiences and peak experiences can form part of that process.    

Looking at the first step we see that it is a gift. The initiative comes from God and is unearned by the recipient. The Spirit operates in an infinite variety of ways and often with great subtlety so it would be unwise to lay down rigid parameters and say that it requires in all cases to be an overwhelming experience of the kind outlined in Acts2. However St Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1:5 suggests that 'power' and 'conviction' accompany the gift. This would mean that it comes under the category of an event which presents itself to our mind in the first instance unmediated and as it is (or more properly as He is) in itself. Our response to it then becomes to some degree formed not by ourselves but by that to which we are responding. The Holy Spirit though takes seriously the idea that there is no compulsion in religion (more seriously perhaps than many of the adherents of the book where these words first occurred.) That being so the person who receives the gift can reject it, run with it or subject it to an interpretative framework which significantly alters the explanation that one would offer for the thing in itself. Christians would argue that the Holy Spirit carries its own explanation with it in the sense that the Holy Spirit is inseparable from the other two persons of the Blessed Trinity nonetheless, however, except in exceptional circumstances the person receiving the gift will have to seek for an explanation of it from a source which will precisely correlate the experience with the explanation. This source is the Christian Church, we see in the Acts of the Apostles and in the New Testament Epistles that the Apostles and those delegated by them as missionaries explained the gift in relation to Jesus. Subsequent generations of the Church could additionally use the Scriptures themselves as explanatory resources but it remains primarily the task of the Church and not of the texts.

There is no good reason to suppose that God restricts the gift of the Spirit only to those who subsequently go on either to become Christians or to those who explicitly reject Christianity. God created Man in order to love Him and be loved by Him in an eternal relationship of ever greater depth and strength. Where a person find themselves in a situation where are insuperable obstacles to them accessing the comprehensive explanation of the gift offered by the Church then they can respond to it in the best way they know how and grow to the fullest stature available to them in this life as a prelude to an eternity of intimate knowledge of God. This does involve a loss on their part relative to Christians though. Firstly, by not having access to the sacraments of the Church, especially baptism, reconciliation and the eucharist they are not strengthened on their journey. Secondly, by not having an explanation for the thing in itself which fully corresponds to that thing they are faced with internal dissonances which may tend to weaken their response to it. Thirdly they are deprived of the possibility of that personal relationship with Jesus which is the fundamental axis around which the entire relationship of Man redeemed from his sinfulness and a just and merciful God revolves.

Which brings us to Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God.  This is the second step along the road to perfect love. Earlier in his letter St John writes every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God (1 John 4:2) Abrahamic religions like Judaism or Islam are happy to acknowledge the reality of a relationship between Man and God but utterly reject the notion of incarnation. Hinduism will acknowledge the presence of God on earth in the form of avatars like Lord Krishna but do not develop a theology of incarnation because the flesh, indeed all matter, is something that is left behind when we enter perfection which is a purely spiritual state. Buddhism will accept that an individual like Gautama Buddha can achieve an earthly perfection but that too is merely a prelude to abandoning the body and all connected with it in eternity. The USP of Christianity is its proclamation that God became Man by nature that Man might become God by participation. That is, that the second step on our road is our being clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27.) God abiding with us is not a transitional phase before we shed this mortal form finally and forever. It is a transformative experience in which all that we are, body, soul and spirit, is readied for a time of renewal when all that we are enters joyously into the eternal bliss of a risen life with Christ. It also makes sense of the second half of the equation. The first part, God abiding in us, is relatively easy to conceptualise. Our abiding in God where God is considered in terms of an abstract spiritual entity of infinite power and perfections is practically impossible to conceptualise until or unless we are incredibly far advanced along the spiritual path. Jesus, in whom our and His humanity and His divinity are united indissolubly, however, is a much easier object of contemplation. We can more readily imagine dwelling in Him and He in us than we can if He did not form such a perfect bridge for us.

The third step is a remaining or an abiding in love.We can conceive of it in this way Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light (Matthew 11:29-30) and also like this Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27) Beyond a certain point the concepts of 'rest' 'peace' and 'love' merge into one another because their meeting point is the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This is no chasing the dragon kind of spirituality but a process of growth into the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Ephesian 4:13) By accepting the gift of the Spirit and responding to it in and through the incarnate Son of God and Son of Mary then we enter into a relationship which is not intellectual alone or emotional alone or spiritual alone or anything alone it is a personal relationship involving the whole person of both participants in that relationship. And since the whole person of Jesus includes His divinity He constantly raises us higher and higher towards Himself so that we become more like Him. As He is, so are we in this world (1 John 4:17)

I would like to speak of the fourth step, the perfect love that casts out fear. Unfortunately I am uniquely unqualified to do so. I am far from that state. If you, dear reader should ever attain it please remember me in your prayers.

                   The Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist from the workshop of Oostsanen

 Whenever we read St John it is always worth holding in our mind the fact that he was an adopted son of Mary Immaculate (John 19:26-27) They shared a home, probably for some years, and no doubt often talked about not only the one thing most of all which brought them together, Jesus, her Son and his Master, but also, if you will, the spiritual autobiography of Mary. Additionally the Evangelist had constantly before him her example of a life absorbed in the perfection of love for God and neighbour. So when he came to write about these things it would be our Lady which formed the model which he held in his mind as he wrote. We can do the same. Her generous response to the Spirit, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. (Luke 1:38) Her acknowledgement of Jesus, My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour (Luke 1:46-47) Her abiding in love, And his mother kept all these words in her heart. (Luke 2:51) And her fearlessness in love Now there stood by the cross of Jesus, his mother (John 19:25) Each of these severally and all of them together should serve us as the most noble of examples to follow. Not only this but if, despite the beauty of the Incarnation we still have difficulty in envisaging our abiding in God through Jesus, since He is after all the sovereign Lord of Creation and the Judge who is gravely offended even by the least of our sins, then we can take refuge in the Immaculate Heart of Mary which is a perfect mirror of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. If we have not yet attained to the love which is free from fear then in the gentle and merciful Heart of Mary we can find solace and refreshment and through her prayers and the grace which flows through her hands we can hope in time to come to that blessed state.

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Thursday, 21 August 2014

Anteaters & The Aphrodisiac of Doom

A Conserving Christianity

 God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth.
Genesis 1:28

The aspect of the conquest and exploitation of resources has become predominant and invasive, and today it has even reached the point of threatening the environment's hospitable aspect: the environment as ‘resource' risks threatening the environment as ‘home'.
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Christianity often gets a bad press from secular environmentalists, ecologists and conservationists (hereafter referred to as Greens.) This is at least partly down to the perception that Christians justify humanity's total domination of the planet and, related to this, have the notion that humans form the apex of Creation and possess therefore an innate superiority to all other creatures upon our common planet. I propose to argue that these two propositions do not carry the meaning that Green critics suppose that they do. St Francis de Sales wisely recommends that meditation should always be followed by a firm practical resolution to turn the subject of meditation into concrete action. With that in mind having dealt with the Christian relationship to the environment I shall look at the test-case of the scaly anteater and why Christians should act strongly in its defence.

Most people probably understand 'Dominion' to mean something like 'the unfettered freedom to do whatever you like to those subject to your power.' This being so it is hardly surprising that Greens look at a theology of human dominion over planet earth with horror. However, this is to misunderstand the Christian conception of dominion which is radically different from the foregoing. I think there are two important considerations to bear in mind here, firstly that the primary model of dominion is that offered by God Himself and secondly the paradigm of dominion which Scriptures offer us through the narrative form of the Eden story.

The philosopher Simone Weil rather startlingly suggest that one way of looking at Creation is as a process of withdrawal by God. He allows a space to emerge in which life other than His own can exist and act without being so oppressively aware of His presence that it becomes overwhelmed  by it. That is, the root of freedom is an act of self abnegation by God. He chooses to exercise His dominion precisely by not fettering those over whom He has dominion. It is true that from time to time He does intervene in the history of His Creation but only with the intention of guiding it into certain paths which are for its benefit and never does He override the free will of His subjects who always retain the possibility of rejecting His guidance. Given that this is the Divine model for human dominion then clearly any approach to the environment which is based upon a rapacious and selfish approach to our planet as nothing more than a resource to be plundered is contrary to the mandate which God has given us to act as in a sense His Vicegerents upon earth.

In this context the question about whether the story of Eden is factual or not is entirely inconsequential. What it presents us with, Christians believe, is a divinely sanctioned paradigm for the exercise of human dominion over our environment. The Catechism of the Council of Trent gives us this picture of it-
Man's soul He created to His own image and likeness; gifted him with free will, and tempered all his motions and appetites, so as to subject them, at all times, to the dictates of reason. He then added the invaluable gift of original righteousness, and next gave him dominion over all other animals.
So the dominion is conditional upon several things, that is to say it is fettered. Man (short for humanity) must act after the image and likeness of God as outlined above. Man must be subject to the dictates of reason not to those of appetite and immediate gratification. Man must act righteously that is to say justly, mercifully and virtuously. Then, and only then can he exercise dominion over his fellow non-human creatures. It should, moreover, be borne in mind that in the prelapsarian model Man, and indeed Tiger and Anteater, were vegetarian. The role given to Man in Eden was to cultivate and care for it. (Genesis 2:15) The consequence of the entrance of Sin into Paradise and the Fall of Man was to leave Man with Original Sin in place of Original Righteousness but this did not cancel out the conditions by which he was to exercise dominion. Any attempt to use the environment as merely an instrument for Man's appetite without reference to the image and likeness of God present within him or the dictates of reason or the requirement to act righteously is gravely sinful and thus in no way morally permissible. In this way then we can see that the Christian conception of dominion, at least so far as its everyday objectives are concerned, however different it may be from secular Green philosophies does not constitute an insuperable barrier to close cooperation between secular and Christian Greens.

It would seem however that there is an unbridgeable gap between the notion of Man as the apex of Creation and one that proposes that the ontological and axiological difference between men and other living beings be eliminated, since the biosphere is considered a biotic unity of indifferentiated value. Thus man’s superior responsibility can be eliminated in favour of an egalitarian consideration of the “dignity” of all living beings. (Environment and Health, Pope St John Paul II.) This is a non-negotiable for Christians in the sense that Man and only Man (on this planet at any rate) is made in the image and likeness of God and, moreover, through the Incarnation of Jesus as Son of God and Son of Mary, God has taken the nature of Man alone among His Creation into the essence of His own being for eternity. Thus Man has a privileged relationship to his Creator which no other species on earth shares in. This enables one to deduce that it was for the benefit of Man that much of the rest of Creation was created and it was certainly almost exclusively for the benefit of Man that Jesus was incarnated. But if we view this from the negative side of the picture, from the consequences of the Fall, then we can arrive at practical conclusions which certainly harmonise well with many of the concrete concerns and demands for action of the secular Green movement.

Only Man has the capacity to consciously and deliberately destroy this or that part of the environment or species or indeed the whole of our shared planet. Only Man is capable of becoming aware that the unintended consequences of his activity will have destructive consequences but yet deciding to continue these activities with a reckless disregard and an indifference both to those with whom he shares the planet and future generations of his own species. Only Man can lie to himself about the effects of his own actions and use the lie as a justification for continuing. In short if Redeemed Man is the apex of Creation sinful Man is its nadir. It is therefore the duty of Christians to struggle against the sinful propensities of Man and to defend with a passion all that God has entrusted to us to defend. The development of a well balanced Christian approach to the environment rests not so much upon a vaunted boast of superiority as it does upon a struggle against Mans tendency to degrade himself as a prelude to degrading all that surrounds him.

And wandering into all these theological abstractions, for all the world like hobbits pursued by Nazgul, comes the humble scaly anteater or pangolin. Described as a timid and strange looking creature who resembles a walking artichoke or, more succinctly, as a scaly critter the pangolin is the most illegally trafficked mammal in the world. Of the 8 different species of pangolin in the world 2 are 'critically endangered' and all 8 are 'threatened with extinction' according to the IUCN Red List. And why has this come about? They are being slaughtered on an industrial scale for two reasons. To provide an expensive 'treat' for gourmets to eat and to have their scales turned into an aphrodisiac for use in Chinese traditional medicine. An aphrodisiac? How does that work? Well, it doesn't, the scales are made of keratin the same stuff you would find in your fingernails. So if keratin was really an aid to an enhanced sex life (clue: it isn't) then we could obtain large supplies of the stuff without destroying a million wild animals over several continents.

So, from a Christian perspective, lets look at what is motivating this extirpation from the planet of some of God's finest handiwork. Greed for a meat which we don't need and can well do without. Lust for evermore exciting sexual experiences. Stupidity for believing we can get the last named thing from fingernail like substances. Greed and Lust are sins and while stupidity isn't sinful as such it becomes so where it is wilful and blind to the obvious. It was said by Macaulay “The Puritans hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.” however that might be one reason that Christians have for supporting the campaign to save pangolins is that the campaign to destroy them proceeds from motivations that are wholly unworthy of redeemed mankind. More than that though, we have a species, or 8 species, created by God, loved by God and playing their role in maintaining the biodiversity willed by God which is being wiped out of existence for no good reason. This cannot but be contrary to the will of God and an abomination to all right thinking people.

The philosophical differences between secular Greens and Christians, whether they classify themselves as Green or not, are substantial. Nor, ultimately, are they reconcilable to each other springing as they do from widely different starting points. Different need not, should not, mean hostile. Whatever ultimate ends we are working towards our proximate objectives in many instances are identical. Christians should not steer clear of activities geared at saving the biosphere in whole or in part because these activities are led by non-Christian or even anti-Christian forces. Nor should secular Greens allow their disdain for Christian beliefs to overflow into their rhetoric and activities in such fashion that they deter potential allies unnecessarily. Or, to put it another way "'Come, come!' said Gandalf. 'We are all friends here. Or should be; for the laughter of Mordor will be our only reward, if we quarrel."-[ Lord of the Rings-Book III, Chapter 6]
                                    Tree of Life and Death from the Salzburg Missal          

From the earliest centuries of Christianity Mary the mother of Jesus has been acclaimed as the New Eve. The Garden entrusted to our first parents fell into corruption and decay because of sin. Mary, who knew no sin, has been entrusted with the redeemed environment. The Father entrusted into her care His Son. She loved Jesus for the sake of the Father and for His own sake. She gave of her substance to Him and devoted her meditations and actions to His well being and the furtherance of His purposes. As the mother of the Creator she becomes also in a real way the mother of Creation. As she loved and nourished Him so she loves and nourishes it. And through her patronage life and not death flourishes. Christians as servants of God and children of Mary can do no less than share her concern, turn concern into action and, additionally, commit our beloved planet and all upon it to the protection of her prayers.

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Sunday, 17 August 2014

An Everyday Assumption

                                                Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico

He hath given us most great and precious promises: that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature
2 Peter 1:4

Draw us onward with the sweetness of your voice, that one day, after our exile, you may show us Jesus, the blessed Fruit of your womb, O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
Pope Venerable Pius XII

One reason why the Church celebrates certain feasts, such as Easter and Christmas, with particular solemnity is that they have a universal applicability. That is to say, after we have put away our festal party frock and resumed our workaday dress the content of the feast which is celebrated on one day continues to have vital relevance on all the other 364 days of the year. [NB. the frock and the dress can be either literal or metaphorical as the case may be.] Recently some of my non-Catholic friends on social media, they know who they are, expressed some bemusement about my rejoicing on the occasion of the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary so it struck me that it might be useful to say something about what this feast is all about and why its importance overflows into the daily life of the Christian.

Quite simply the Church celebrates this fact-
The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory  
Munificentissimus Deus
This was proclaimed a dogma of the Church in November 1950 by Pope Pius XII of blessed memory although it has been celebrated and believed in by Christians since ancient times as he outlines in the Apostolic Constitution which I have just quoted. Among Eastern Christians it is celebrated under the perfectly splendid title of the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. The word dormition has the same root as dormouse and refers to the falling asleep of the Virgin which preceded her Assumption into heaven.

In the whole course of the 20th century the Catholic Church only once exercised, via the Pope ex cathedra, her infallible teaching office in order to affirm as certainly true what had only been received as probably true before. At the halfway point of this most troubled of centuries and only 5 years after the end of the most destructive war in human history she proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption. Christians of the Reformation traditions (often called Protestants) might argue that what the world most needed was to have Jesus proclaimed, not Mary. Non-Believers might argue that instead of indulging in such magical realism the Church would be better employed in feeding the hungry, tending the sick and housing the homeless. In part of course the critics are right so far as their instincts go but err in their judgement. In proclaiming Mary Assumed by Jesus, because of her love for Jesus and His for her, the Church precisely proclaims Jesus to the world and show the effects of His involvement as Emmanuel, God with us. And amongst those Catholics who do in fact commit themselves to feeding the hungry and so on there are few whose commitment is not enriched and strengthened by their devotion to Mary and there are none whose work is not made more effective through her prayers and the graces which flow through her hands as Mediatrix of all Grace.

It is obvious why we might be glad for our Lady that she has been reunited with her Son in much the same way as we might be glad when a friend passes an exam or marries their beau ideal but what practical effect does it have on our daily life? If you have read my blog about Mary-Mirror of Perfection you might recall the Jubilee Prayer which includes these words-
because you are the star of the morning, the gate of Heaven,
and the first resurrected creature

The words 'first resurrected creature' contain in very few words an idea I am about to use many words to explain. In this kind of context 'creature' is a technical term it follows from the role of God as Creator, those living things which He creates are referred to generically as creatures. 'Resurrection' refers to rising from the dead never to die again. So, in Scripture Jesus is the only Resurrection recorded but He cannot strictly speaking be referred to as a creature since He is fully God as well as being fully Man. Scripture records other people, such as Lazarus (John 11:38-44,) rising from the dead but in time they would again die so the term resurrection cannot be applied to them. Similarly Scripture arguably records two people, Enoch (Genesis 5:24) and Elijah (4 Kings 2:11), who were translated into heaven but they did not first die so again resurrection does not apply to them.

Being first has a double significance to it. It means that no one was before Mary, her Son accorded her a unique privilege, and it also means that others will follow her. She is not the first and the last she is the first of many. So for us Mary is a pioneer. Her faith in the Father, her co-operation with the Spirit and her love for the Son were of such a superlative order that she has precedence over all other Christians yet all who share in that faith, co-operation and love for God have a share too in the gifts that flow from it. In the vision of Mary Assumed the Catholic can fill their own lives with hope and raise up their hearts at all times. 'Pie in the sky when you die' the atheist will say. If that was the sum total of the gift to us from the Assumption then they would have a good point but as usual with God's gifts it overflows with abundance and cannot be limited to just one thing. If our Lady is now seated with honour in the heart of heaven it is because heaven was first seated with honour in her own heart. Entering heaven is not about endless time it is about a continuously present eternity and we can enter eternity now and experience it now by opening our hearts to the eternal God and giving Him a dwelling place. A necessary prelude to the Assumption was the indwelling of the Spirit in the Theotokos and a prelude to our own eventual resurrection is a similar if lesser indwelling and this transforms our lives here, it transforms our lives now and if we remain faithful it transforms them forever.

It is important to notice also that this is among other things a physical event. From the very get-go Christianity has been vigorously challenged about the whole notion of the Incarnated God and the physically resurrected Christ as forerunner to a general and universal resurrection. It was about this very point that the Sadducees challenged our Lord (Mark 12:18) and the Athenians ridiculed St Paul (Acts 17:32.) Gnostics, Cathars, Buddhists, Baha'is and theologically liberal Protestants can all unite around the idea that life from eternity and into eternity is purely a spiritual thing in which the body has no part. If life continues beyond death and attains a happier state than now it is because the body which is an encumberance and a stumbling block is 'left behind' (to coin a phrase). Indeed matter itself in any form is a potent source of evil and the spirit alone is or can be the only source of good and happiness. 'Not so' says the Church, by uniting Himself essentially and forever to a body of flesh Jesus, the Divine Logos, has divinised matter, He has become Man by nature that Man the whole of Man can become God by participation. Our Lord who desired the most supreme possible blessedness for His mother did not permit her body to be subject to corruption and decay, the Assumption is a triumphal affirmation that perfect happiness for humans is an exaltation of all that it means to be human, not spirit alone, not soul alone but spirit, soul and body. And it reminds us day by day that we must give our bodies what is due to them, if they make bad masters opening to us the gates of damnation they also make excellent servants sharing in the joys of eternal beatitude if only we use them wisely.

Protestants may say that this is all very well but where in Scripture can we find a reference to the Assumption? In Munificentissimus Deus Pope Venerable Pius XII refers to a number of figures or types of the Assumption which contain the mystery under a veiled form but essentially these are secondary sources. The belief has been held in the Church since ancient times, it has been celebrated in the West and in the East, it is fitting that God should have acted in this way and it is not contrary to Scripture. As the First Vatican Council put itall those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the written Word of God or in Tradition, and which are proposed by the Church, either in solemn judgment or in its ordinary and universal teaching office, as divinely revealed truths which must be believed. There is nothing in Scripture which says that Scripture Alone should be our rule of faith and neither Catholic nor Orthodox Christians feel constrained to ignore what has been handed down from antiquity simply because it has no express warrant in the Bible. Scripture is a sure guarantee against error if we do nothing which contradicts it but it is an unsure source of doctrine when read without reference to the continuous beliefs of the People of God as the ever growing multiplicity of Protestant sects all too sadly confirms.

Another powerful help to our daily Christian journey comes from the knowledge that the Son, who through love of His mother raised her to heaven, cannot fail to respond positively to her prayers. In Mary we have a highly effective intercessor. As the Marian prayer Memorare puts it Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that any one who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided.  Protestants argue against this that since we can pray to Jesus ourselves why should we need intercession? To which we can  reply that we have an explicit injunction in Scripture itself to seek intercession from others-
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.           James 5:16
That Mary is righteous beyond all others we can know from the fact of her Assumption therefore we can have every confidence in her intercession. It is also worth considering this point You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly (James 4:3.) The Saints and the Blesseds have greater success with their prayers than you or I because they know how to ask aright. That is to say their prayers are not infused with their own egos and passions nor do they act as conduits for the egos and passions of others but their prayers proceed from pure love to Him who is pure Love itself. And since Mary is filled beyond all others with love for her Son Jesus who can doubt that her prayers are asked with perfect rightness and are heard with gladness by our Lord? All that is impure and awkward in our petitions is transmuted by flowing through her hands so that they come to Christ in forms which are perfectly suited to our real needs.

But how can Mary hear all these prayers offered up day and night by millions around the globe the objector asks? How can I hear your objection? I hear it because God has made it possible for you to communicate and for me to understand your communication. Is it more difficult for God to make it possible for Mary to hear many communications than it is for Him to enable me to hear one? If Mary were in time she might be overwhelmed but she is not in time she is in eternity. Those Christians who believe it possible for God to enable the dead to rise with their bodies after thousands of years in the grave, and who can empower an Elisha or a St Paul to raise the dead themselves but impossible for Him to allow Saints to hear prayers have a very limited notion of omnipotence.

There is so much more that could be said but I will consider just one final thing. One of the Marian titles is Our Lady of Sorrows.

As Simeon prophesied (Luke 2:35) our Lady had her soul pierced by a sword not just once but many times. Her life, like the lives of so many of us, was marked by loss, anxiety and pain. Above all that unnatural loss that every mother fears, a child who dies while its parent still lives, was enacted in brutal and horrific reality in front of her eyes. Yet that soul did not break because it was linked with that of her Son in a love stronger than death. Through sorrow she was sustained by Him and that love which was and is mutual was not conquered by the end of her own earthly life it triumphed to raise her up to where she always longed to be. And we in our own sorrows to the extent that we possess that love of Jesus and recall to our minds the dogma of the Assumption can be assured that sorrows will have an end but the love of God for us is without end and without measure. There is no despair so bleak that it can overwhelm a firm faith in the Assumption as a guarantor of how the friends of God are cherished by God. It is important to recall, of course, that our ability to hold this faith can be gravely impaired by mental illness or some other factor which incapacitates our judgement and which is known to God alone to whom we can safely entrust the souls of all those who have died under the influence of such unblameable despair.

St Paul famously outlined the three theological virtues as being faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13.) We can see each of these three as being powerfully present in the Assumption. Through them and by them Mary was raised to heaven. Through meditating upon the Assumption, or at least frequently recalling it, we as Christians can grow in each of these virtues and above all in love which is, as it were, the fuel that powered the flight of Mary from the grip of the tomb into the arms of her beloved Son. May the prayers of Mary, Mother of God and Queen of Heaven, help us to find our way to the same destination.

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Monday, 11 August 2014

If Only You Knew...

Alessandro MORETTOLombardy 1478 /1518 – Brescia 1554
Christ and the woman of Samaria[Cristo e la Samaritana]c.1515-20

Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God"
John 4:10

This Gospel fragment forms part of the dialogue between our Lord and the Samaritan Woman which is given in the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to St John. The more famous second half of the sentence goes like this "...and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.  A great deal has been said about the living water and rightly so but we are in danger of overlooking an important point if we focus too exclusively on it. What Jesus gives us in this sentence is a model for contemplation, of 'the gift', acting as a springboard for action, 'asking', which produces a reaction, 'He would have given.' We live in an active world and contemplation is often sidelined as unnecessary or even self-indulgent but here it is presented as foundational to developing and enriching our relationship with God and moving it out from the purely personal into the realm of practical activity be it ever so small.

There are three obvious questions which arise from our Lord's words. What is the gift? How can we know it? What difference will it make? In many parts of the Christian Scriptures we see reference to the gifts of God, the plural being used because the gifts are many. Here there is but one gift but it is the root and source of all the other gifts. That is to say it is Himself. God gives Himself entire and whole as a gift to humanity (or Man for short.) It is the essence of a gift that once given it belongs to the recipient to do with as they will. Having given Himself into the hands of Man Jesus was and is used or misused as each individual man or woman chose or chooses to use or misuse Him. He did not refuse the humiliation of being born into poverty, becoming a refugee, being scorned and cursed, being arrested, tortured and executed. Nor does He now refuse to be rejected. But what is the value of the gift of a man, even if He be a God, who allows us to do what we will with Him?

It is customary to think of the giving and receiving of a gift as a single transaction which confers an absolute dominion upon the recipient but it is not always so. Sometimes we can only enjoy the gift to the full if we resign our dominion over it. A child is a gift and we can only make that gift flourish if we allow its needs to override our needs and if we not only make sacrifices on its behalf but do so gladly and cheerfully. Moreover the gift becomes greater still if we sacrifice not only to meet its necessities but to meet its superfluities as well, to bring a smile onto their face, to bring a light into their life how many parents go the extra mile and more besides. Friendship too is a gift and this can only be enjoyed to the full if it is reciprocated. The more we respond to the gift with a counter-gift the greater the gift becomes. So our Lord comes to us as a gift which we can ignore or despise or cherish and love. If we do the first it does us no good, indeed it does us harm not only in eternity but here and now in time since each time we harden our hearts we darken our own lives. If we do the second we become rich, and the more we do it the richer we become.

So how can we come to know Him, this gift which is so powerful to change lives? Christianity proposes many ways, Scripture, Sacrament, prayer and so on. There have been millions of words written on the subject and I do not propose to add to them here. Instead I will look at what are the barriers that prevent us knowing Him. The Samaritan Woman stands in a sense for all of us but she is a person in her own right and with her own history. By considering the barriers that she considered stood between herself and Jesus we can perhaps learn something about our own case.

Without wishing to belabour the obvious two important facts to consider about the Samaritan Woman are 1) she was a Samaritan and 2) she was a woman. The hostility between Jews and Samaritans was proverbial, Jesus later made it a subject of one of His most famous parables (Luke 10:29-37) and, what is less well known, not long before telling the parable He had rebuked two of His Apostles, including the author of the passage we are now considering, for wanting to destroy a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-55.) So this hostility was near universal felt by both the good and the bad and on both sides. The Woman's first words to our Lord are an expression of surprise that He should speak to her at all, but He did. It may be no profound thought to us now that ethnicity is no barrier to becoming a Christian however revolutionary it may have been in the beginning but this does not exhaust the significance of the Samaritan-ness of the Woman. As the subsequent dialogue revealed there was a religious difference. As is often the case to belong to a particular ethnic group inevitably meant also to belong to an associated religious faith. The Samaritans rejected the Temple in Jerusalem and most of the Books of the Jewish Bible. But, in the end, this proved no barrier to the Woman recognising Jesus for what He was and believing in Him. Within the scope offered to her by her religion she was able to perceive that a Messiah would come and that He would have certain characteristics. In her encounter with Jesus she had her horizons broadened but still some of the necessary groundwork for accepting Him had been done through her own religion. Saint Augustine wrote
"you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you"
  Every serious endeavour of the human mind, whether it be a philosophy or a religion, contains within it either a reflection of this unquiet longing or a perversion of it, as in Nazism, The materials exist so that when anyone from such a tradition is called they will find something to understand and respond to in that call. It is true that to know Him more perfectly and be refreshed by Him more fully it will be necessary to leave that tradition behind but nonetheless neither non-Christian faith nor anti-Christian philosophy creates an insuperable barrier to beginning to know Christ.

Again, it may be no profound thought to us that both women and men are equally invited to participate in the Kingdom of God (which doesn't necessarily mean participating in identical ways) however revolutionary that may have seemed at the time but this does not exhaust the significance of the Woman-ness of the Samaritan. Jesus and she engage in a lively discussion about the Jewish religion. Historically, and still today, the characteristic Jewish way of coming to a conclusion or not coming to a conclusion about the meaning of the Torah was to have arguments. This was classically how Rabbi's operated and before that how they were trained. It is the form which we find embodied in the Talmud the Jewish summation of how Jews should live in the world. Jesus often engaged in this way with the Pharisees, the Sadducees the Herodians and His other educated opponents. Here He is doing it with a woman something that the Yeshiva, Jewish schools for studying the Talmud,which use the Chavruta method did not allow for more than a thousand years after this time. The point here is that Jesus was not only affirming that women were equally invited to the Kingdom but also by arguing as an equal with a person who not only had not studied the Torah but in all probability could not read or write was affirming that lack of education was not a barrier to coming to know Him and understand Him well. Moreover, it is likely enough that the Woman had internalised the belief that she was of less intelligence than men, here Jesus is affirming that to know Him lack of intelligence alone is not a barrier. For us the Samaritan Woman stands for all those who are looked down upon because they lack academic qualifications or because they are not conventionally intelligent and she demonstrates that wisdom can flourish wherever there is a heart and mind willing to accept it.

Another fact to emerge from this conversation is that the Woman was what a less politically correct generation would have called a 'notorious sinner.' Liberal opinion would no doubt suggest that having had five husbands and living in an informal civil partnership with a sixth significant other life partner was not prima facie evidence of sin. I don't intend to argue the point (although Liberal opinion would be wrong) because the barrier I am looking at here is the one which the Woman would have assumed existed on the side of Jesus. From the get go she would have assumed that she could not get to know Him because she was a Samaritan, a disbeliever in the Temple Cult, a woman and uneducated and relatively less intelligent. The one barrier that she could not have imagined existing was her life history which she thought unknown to our Lord. Whether she considered it sinful or not she would have known that He would and for that reason alone would not have anything to do with her. But Jesus revealed that He did know and that He still wanted to give her the gift of Himself. For us the significance is this; many people know that the Church regards as unacceptable some of the ways that they lead their lives and therefore they make no move towards it expecting rejection. The Church rejects no one, she is kind to all as Jesus is kind to all. She proposes as He proposed that some things are right and some are wrong and that persistence in wrongdoing will keep you at a distance from Him, you will not come to know Him so well as you might, but nothing you have done will stop Him loving you and showing you kindness and as with the Head so with His body the Church.

So, the gift is God and the only barriers to us knowing it are those we choose to erect. What difference does it make? In part the answer is given by our Lord Himself, He will give you living water, in part you can deduce the benefits from what I have already said. In the end though as you can only eat something  by eating it or love someone by loving them you can only know the difference that being in Christ Jesus makes by being in Christ Jesus. Lower the barriers, allow yourself to be flooded, drown in the ocean of Christ. And then you will know.

In the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus, we can see one who knows the gift, accepts the gift and displays to the full the effects of the gift. Our Lady accepted the gift as her child, for whom she made sacrifices. As her friend between whom and her love flowed and grew from perfection to perfection. With Him she walked the way of the Cross and through love shared His agony. She set no barriers to Him nor He to her. And, to end as we began, Mary was a contemplative, her world changing Yes to Jesus, her life as mother, teacher, companion, friend, advocate were all preceded and accompanied by a pondering in her heart of the things of God and the needs of her neighbours. Contemplation was the wellspring from which action came. Action brought forth the reaction from God. In the world of things actions bring forth equal and opposite reactions in the world of Spirit actions bring forth reactions a hundred a thousandfold greater than the the original impetus  so generous is our God and as no actions were more responsive to the love of God than those of our Lady so more grace has been poured upon her than upon any other mere creature of God. May she convey our prayers through her grace filled hands to Jesus her Son that we through her intercession can share in the joys of the Father's Kingdom.

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