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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Friday, 8 August 2014

Mindfulness and Identity

                                                    St. Mary Magdalene by Pietro Perugino

I keep the Lord in mind always.
Psalm 16:8

There is not a moment in which God does not present Himself under the cover of some pain to be endured, of some consolation to be enjoyed, or of some duty to be performed. All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals His divine action
Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade

#Mindfulness is something that you may well find trending on Twitter from time to time. This is because it has become a fashionable lifestyle accessory for some Western elite groups. The name and to some extent the technique have been borrowed from Buddhism and put to the kind of use that might make actual Buddhists shudder. Hash-tag Mindfulness is a way of making you more effective at what you do, so that a #mindful arms dealer will be able to sell more arms or a #mindful manufacturer of equipment for torture will make more exquisitely painful products than their less #mindful rivals. As a Christian I don't know whether to be sorry that once again our Western elites have bypassed a perfectly good and ancient Christian tradition of mindfulness to seek out an exotic alternative or be glad that we have not experienced such a shameful abuse of a concept that aims at so much more than being the mental equivalent of jogging or going to the gym.

As a business strategy #mindfulness aims at changing how you do what you do, as a Buddhist one it aims at changing how you perceive the nature of reality. The basic idea is to spend time in being still so that you are only aware of the present moment. Brooding over the past, worrying about the future are let go off and you focus only on now, you become aware of your breathing, of your body, of your self as you are and not the self compounded of your imagination and anxieties. Time spent doing this overspills as it were into the rest of your life so that when you undertake a task it is the task alone that absorbs you, distracting concerns about anything outside of the moment are left behind. Business Reporter quotes a CEO on the benefits of this the ability to concentrate on one thing, and not get distracted. There’s no point in getting stressed about things you can’t control, they key is learning to understand that. Alternatively-

In mindfulness, we see things as they really are. The Venerable Gunaratana writes that our thoughts have a way of pasting over reality, and concepts and ideas distort what we experience.
 Mindfulness sees the true nature of phenomena. In particular, through mindfulness we directly see the three characteristics or marks of existence -- it is imperfect, temporary and egoless.
#Mindfulness helps to increase profitability but is derived from an approach which suggests that the drive to succeed materially in this material world is a deceitful illusion. A technique has been entirely ripped out of its context and applied to ends which are antagonistic to its beginnings. A Christian Mindfulness will have an effect upon what we do and what we perceive because it aims to fundamentally transform who we are, to change our identity. In this sense it too is antagonistic to #Mindfulness, Buddhist Mindfulness, of course would also have an effect of changing who we are but I will leave its practitioners to argue their case while I advance a Christian one.

The most important part of any moment, and of all our moments, is the relationship which we have with God and the relationship that God has with us. Derived from that the second most important part of any moment, and of all our moments, is the relationship which we have with our neighbours. To be mindful of these things continually is one of the aims of a Christian mindfulness. As I have already identified there is both an external aspect, what we do, and an internal aspect, what we perceive and who we are, to this. The two things are related and, as it were, feed off each other. Part of the relationship has been described in this way by the Buddha-

What we are is the result of what we have thought,
is built by our thoughts, is made up of our thoughts.
If one speaks or acts with an impure thought, 
suffering follows one, 
like the wheel of the cart follows the foot of the ox.
Dhammapada 
And by Jesus like this-
"The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person
Matthew 15:18-20

By 'thoughts' and 'heart' our Lord and Sakyamuni clearly mean something different from what we normally ascribe to these words. The mind as the seat of the discursive intellect, the heart as the seat of the emotions are both implicated in what we do and so is the rest of the apparatus which we use to respond to the world and to ourselves. We might think of 'ego' or 'psyche' as being words which describe the concepts which are being referred to. In any event there is a further dimension, thought or feeling precedes action but the effect of acting especially a frequently repeated action is to alter the things which we think and the feeling which we feel. A negative feedback loop is set up if we continually do harmful things then we will be ever more inclined to do more of them more often. Or a virtuous spiral is entered into if we do positive things we shall be ever more inclined to do more of them more often and so rise towards ever greater perfection. Aquinas said a habit of virtue cannot be caused by one act, but only by many.

We have more control over our internal environment than over our external one. Although you may think that this is a truism it is worth dwelling over for a moment. A great many people who are aware that they are 'worriers' prone to living in a semi-permanent state of anxiety are resigned to the fact that that is the way they are and that there is nothing they can do about it so they focus almost exclusively on trying to manage their external environment to reduce the number of anxiety producing situations. We do have basic personalities and there is indeed only so much that we can do to change that, although all things are possible to God, but that does not mean that we can do nothing. It is not a sin or a personal failure to be plagued by anxiety nor is there anything wrong with seeking to alter that by medical means such as medication but neither should we abandon all hope that internal changes can be brought about which, at least from time to time can significantly ease the burden that we bear.

In the internal environment which we inhabit we are not alone unless we choose to be, we can kill the presence of the Spirit by mortal sin, and so any practice of mindfulness should begin with our relationship not to our body but to our God. The psalmist words at the top of the page could be more literally rendered as I keep the Lord always before me If you stop everything which you are doing and thinking and simply become aware of the presence of the Lord within you, within your breathing, within every beat of your heart, within your silence and your noise, within your focussed mind and your dispersed one then you enter into a perception of the one thing necessary so that all the other things may exist at all. Your awareness of self becomes a felt, in the heart, and perceived, in the mind, awareness that firstly before all else your self is relational. You exist to be in relationship not to be autonomous. Moreover, since the same God is equally present to all then your relationship with Him necessarily includes the truth that you exist to be in relationship with each person in whom He is to be found ie everyone. The Lord is always before you in the double sense that He is always directly present to you as Himself and indirectly present to you in others. Actually you could extend the principle to include His presence in all that He has created but if I did so it would make this blog absurdly long. It may be easier to get a handle on this double sense if rather than being present to an abstract notion of God you make yourself present to Jesus who is fully human and fully God and who took on His humanness through Mary precisely as a consequence of the Divine Love for those in whom He dwells.

Relationships can begin without words and once begun can pass at times beyond words but communication is essential to any relationship and humans normally use words as an unavoidable part of that process. It therefore follows that to be mindful of the relationship which we have with our Lord and to help its growth and development we need to use words. But if our primary purpose is awareness of the truth of that Divine Presence we cannot achieve that by continually using our discursive mind to work out what to say next. Christian tradition suggests that during periods of contemplative prayer (which is to Christians what mindfulness is to Buddhists) we should use a small number of words frequently repeated. These are not magic formulae which will summon the Divinity or automatically raise our consciousness to new levels. They are ways of expressing essential truths about Him about whom we are becoming increasingly aware. The phrase or word which we use must, then, bring some facet of Him before the eyes of our heart. Every time we use a word or group of words in their train comes the associations which we personally have with those words. This may be an emotional memory or an event or an idea or some combination of these and other things beside. The more we focus on what we say the more associations come with it but even the least attention suffices to introduce these associations however slightly into our heart. And since we are sharing all those associations with our Lord He responds to us at a deep level and so adds new meaning and dimension to the words and associations, He creates in fact new associations. It is a fruitful process because each new encounter adds new associations and/or a deeper level of meaning to existing ones.

Much of the focus of #mindfulness in its business variety is on breathing and posture, in its Buddhist and Hindu original model it is additionally on a mantram. From a Christian point of view there is no harm in associating your prayer with your breathing or paying attention to your posture so long as you recall that these physical acts are strictly secondary considerations to what is primarily a spiritual relationship with God. If they help, thats fine. If they don't help, thats fine too. If sometimes they help and sometimes they don't well, guess what, that's absolutely fine as well. There is a Christian technique, hesychasm, associated with monks in the Orthodox tradition which firmly linked the Jesus Prayer with breathing and posture but never considered these as more than making someone more able to respond to the gifts of Grace which God sends and it is Grace which is the true motor of contemplation not this or that mechanical method.

So far so hypothetical. Of what would a period of Christian mindfulness/contemplation consist? I can only really speak to my own experience. I usually try to do this first thing in the morning (first thing means after ingesting caffeine nothing is possible before this.) I read from the Scriptures, always finishing with something from the Gospel. I then get myself into a comfortable position. I usually remain motionless but I'm not sure how helpful or otherwise that is, its just what I do. I make a bridge from everything else into contemplation usually by saying the Our Father. Then much depends upon the state of my psyche at the time of starting. Sometimes I am aware that I am in a good condition to concentrate well so I restrict myself to two words. I inhale silently saying 'Jesus' and exhale saying 'Mary' (I appreciate some Christians will be shocked at introducing Mary at this point but I will come to that later.) Sometimes if I am more scatter brained I will use a longer form of word such as 'gentle heart of Jesus, I trust in you.' I loosely associate that with my breathing but it really doesn't matter much whether I do or I don't. The benefit of the longer form is that it gives me more aspects to attract my attention too. When my mind wanders, as it often does, I find it easier to draw it back to a group of concepts, gentleness, the heart, Jesus, trust, than to only one or two. As an aside I never worry about my mind wandering, it is more distracting to get annoyed by distractions than it is to just accept that they are going to happen and just patiently re-directing your self back to the words as soon as you realise that you have been mulling over what to have for lunch instead of the gentle heart of Jesus.

There are a couple of physical things which I find to be genuinely helpful. One is not closing my eyes. Your level of consciousness alters depending on whether you are seeing or not seeing and it seems to me that you are more likely to go of into dreamy states which are pleasant but unproductive if you keep your eyes shut. Buddhist and Hindu techniques usually involve half open eyes more or less focussed on the tip of your nose. I find this unhelpful partly because I have a short nose and go cross-eyed trying this at home but more seriously because I am not seeking to look inward as such but to look towards the Lord who certainly inwardly present but is by no means confined to my internal environment. I find then that looking at an Icon while I pray is helpful both to keep bringing me back from wandering and to remind me that its really not all about me.It's not necessary to always use the same selection of words, God has an infinite variety of facets and we have a huge variety of moods and levels of awareness and so on. Using a few words from the Scripture we have just read or one that comes into our mind before we start praying might be good or selecting from the range of short prayers recommended by the Church or constructing one for ourselves that particularly speaks to our own relationship with God might all be suitable. What is important though is not to keep chopping and changing in the middle of a period of prayer because then it is your discursive mind which is dominant not your listening to our Lord. You are adding a conscious distraction to the involuntary ones which anyway assail you.

What has this to do with changing Identity? Well, it can happen in two ways one of which is potentially adaptable to people without faith as being a fruit of technique and one of which flows from the relationship of the lover with their Beloved. When talking about #mindfulness I mentioned the overspill effect of being able to concentrate on one thing. If you were to practice #contemplation then the overspill would relate to the content of your contemplative session. Holding in your mind for about 20 or 30 minutes a series of words or images with associations to them is not something that will remain confined to that part of the day. The more often you do it the more likely your mind is to revert to these words or images throughout the day. The longer you do it the more frequently this is likely to happen. I have held to this practice for some time and find myself reverting to my prayer words hundreds of times a day, when walking, when waiting for a bus, when eating. It doesn't need to be a prolonged thing, I can look up from a book to check the time and between looking up and looking down the words will have run through my mind. They can pop up while I am working or having a conversation without impinging on my ability to concentrate. Writing about the Jesus Prayer the author of The Way of a Pilgrim referred to this as self-acting and continuous prayer. I can't pretend that it is continuous in my case but it is certainly self-acting. Of course I choose to contemplate the objects of faith so by frequently calling into my mind my associations of Jesus (and Mary) I am invoking a set of values to do with love, kindness, gentleness, patience, humility and so on. This in turn has an immediate impact upon my behaviour, I cannot think of Jesus (or Mary) and yell at someone at the same time for example. And as my behaviour is modified many times a day so symbiotically my personality and self image change with it with a cumulative effect as the years go on. It would certainly be possible, of course, to substitute non-faith based words and concepts to contemplate and frequently recur to. The effect on your identity would depend upon the concepts you chose but that it would have an effect is fairly certain, as the Buddha pointed out, you become what you think.

From a Christian point of view this process is an auxiliary benefit. The aim is is not to become a what but to become a whom, you become whom you contemplate. As St Paul put it yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20) and All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18) That is, we do not contemplate our Lord (just) because He is a really cool dude.  We enter into a relationship with Him that we might, by Grace, be transformed by Him or more accurately that we might be united to Him so that being one with Him His thoughts are our thoughts, His deeds our deeds, we identify with Him in such sort that our Identity becomes indistinguishable from His. God became Man by nature that Man might become God by participation. The more we are mindful of Him the more we ourselves have the mind of Christ Jesus (cf 1 Corinthians 2:16.)

Finally, a word about Mary, the mother of Jesus. One thing to bear in mind about contemplation, everybody is different. Some people just don't benefit from it at all. Some people find that they have no difficulty focussing on God as an abstract concept. Some find that contemplation comes most easily to them in relation to the Sacraments of the Church and will contemplate best in the presence of the Consecrated Host. Yet others find that the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus of the Passion is all that they desire. But that does not exhaust the possibilities. Many remember that our Saviour is also the Just Judge who will condemn unrepentant sinners on the last day. This can set up a barrier to contemplation if, like me, you have a good deal to fear from the Just Judge. Mary, however, is a perfect mirror of the Divine qualities which she has received as a gift from God. Justice and punishment are reserved to Himself but mercy, kindness, gentleness and the tenderness of a mother shine forth in our Lady. In contemplating her who in her turn uninterruptedly contemplates her Son we see those aspects of Him which will most encourage and strengthen us if we are weak. And so having recourse to Mary is the ladder that God extends to the most feeble and inadequate members of His flock of whom I am one. Indeed so keen is He to recruit to His Kingdom such folk He has even established a dedicated form of contemplation, the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin, through which Jesus can be viewed through the eyes of Mary. And for all the success of #mindfulness it is still the Rosary which is far and away the most popular form of meditation practised in the West, long may it remain so.          

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