Thursday, 2 July 2015

Waking from Sleep

                                                 Christ Giving His Blessing- Memling

Awake, O sleeper,
    and arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light
(Ephesians 5:14)

Missionary religions have the task of persuading people to totally transform their lives. In pursuit of this objective there is a temptation to over-egg the pudding. The old life is painted in vivid language as being one of unrelieved misery totally immersed in wicked sin. By way of contrast the new life of the convert is portrayed in glowing terms full of happiness, joy and general goodness. Unless the person being evangelised is in a particularly vulnerable emotional state or has the wisdom to see a core truth concealed within the apparent hyperbole they will not be convinced. They will seldom think of their own lives in such bleak terms or of themselves as being such moral reprobates. If, moreover, they know many religious believers they will but rarely observe them to be significantly more happy or more virtuous than their unbelieving neighbours.

A fiery Christian preacher might argue that what they are saying constitutes an objective truth and that only a false consciousness (to borrow an expression from Marxism) prevents their unredeemed listeners from accepting it. This may be so but a personally experienced subjective reality has more power to convince than the truest of objective truths not directly felt. Most lives, I suspect are lived in a neutral zone, islands of misery or of happiness occasionally loom out of the fog and then are more or less swiftly left behind. In this context I think that the paired opposites offered by St Paul to the Ephesians constitute a more effective evangelical tool. They are also slightly surprising, wakefulness and sleep we might expect but death and light rather less so.

Within Buddhism and Vedanta Hinduism the notion that the unrealised or unenlightened person is inhabiting a word of illusion (Maya) out of which they can escape only when they grasp the essence of the Real is a commonplace. It cannot be understood in the same sense within Christianity because not only is the material universe real it has also in a sense become divinized through the Incarnation and will be a part of eternity in the physical resurrection of believers. We can however say that perceiving the material cosmos to be the only reality is an illusion and that a life premised on that perception has a dream like quality by comparison with one based on the dual truths of the physical and spiritual realms. Therefore the missionary should be nudging her audience to consider the question 'Is this it?' when they consider their personal lives and the collective life of the society and the world which they inhabit. This does not need them to presuppose their own misery and wickedness but simply to acknowledge the divine discontent which their hearts will, at least from time to time, experience when they live as if the answer to the question is 'Yes.' To begin, even if hesitantly, to answer 'No' and to live in accordance with that answer is to wake the spiritual self from that slumber into which materialism has put it.

The notion that we are dead though apparently alive is parallel to that of being asleep though apparently awake. Where 'Christ will give you light' differs from 'Awake' is that it introduces the idea of personal relationship. It is not simply that we realise a truth, spiritual life is a reality, but that we encounter that truth in the form of a person. The light is given to us personally by Him personally. Nor is it a simple transaction, it is a process, He does not give us a fixed amount of light and then go about His business. It is always in the future tense He 'will give' light. The more alive we become the more light He shall give us, the more light He gives us the more alive we shall become. So here the threefold task of the missionary is to relate the divine discontent of her listeners to their perception of the reality of a spiritual realm to the person of Jesus Christ. The necessity for conversion is great but one strategy for overcoming the false consciousness or false sense of security of the unbeliever is not confrontation or condemnation but a leading of them to a personal encounter with our Lord.

I am not suggesting that Christians should ever stop preaching in season and out upon the wrongness of sin and upon the profound sinfulness of each person, nor upon the misery of life without God. I am suggesting that we follow the example of the Apostle- 'To those outside the law I became like one outside the law—though I am not outside God’s law but within the law of Christ—to win over those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some.' (1 Corinthians 9;21-22)

It is also worth bearing in mind the second reason for the failure to convince which I mentioned earlier. Christians are not noticeably happier or more virtuous than their neighbours. Leaving aside the question of Christians-in-name-only I would argue that there is no particular reason to expect that the outward aspect of believers will be markedly different from that of non-believers, in most cases they are at best 'work in progress.' It is the inward aspect that should be forever altered. The islands of misery and happiness are still encountered (although in a transformed way) but the neutral zone should be a thing of the past. No day spent in the company of Jesus, no hour spent with the Holy Spirit, no time spent in the hand of the Father is neutral time. The light which is shed upon the Christian life and within the Christian heart makes all time kairos- the right moment.

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Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Veiled Majesty of Jesus Christ

                                                           Ecce Homo- Cigoli

The Jews answered, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.”  Now when Pilate heard this statement, he became even more afraid
John 19:7-8

The Gospel accounts of the encounter between Pontius Pilate and Jesus are tensely dramatic and full of profound meanings. This exchange between Pilate and the mob occurred immediately after the scourged and mocked Jesus had been displayed publicly. There could be few individuals in the world who looked less divine than our Lord did at that moment. Yet to the mind of the Roman Governor these words of the Jewish crowd carried a ring of conviction. He clearly accepted the possibility that perhaps his prisoner was after all what He has apparently claimed to be. Why might that be?

There are various plausible explanations. As an occupying power the Romans would have had a good intelligence network which no doubt informed Pilate about the miracles attributed to Jesus in Judea and Jerusalem. Also he had received a message from his wife anent our Lord 'Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him(Matt 27:19) Taken together these might have been sufficient to induce the Governor to take the claim of divinity seriously. I doubt this however. In the world of the first century Roman Empire claims about miracle workers and prophetic dreams were if not commonplace at least of sufficient frequency for them to be explained by things other than divine filiation.

It seems likely to me that there was something about the person of Jesus which conveyed outwardly the inward truth about His origins. It was not so obvious as to compel recognition or belief but it was there to be seen by anyone who looked closely enough. Pilate was, in effect, a politician. To get where he got to he had to have an ability to 'read' people. In Jesus he perhaps read something which at the least puzzled him. Our Saviour possessed what we would call charisma (although technically this is inapplicable in His case, I mean charisma in the popular sense.) We can only speculate as to how this might have manifested itself but it would probably take different form depending on the role that He was fulfilling. In this case He was on trial for His life, He had been abandoned by His friends, beaten by the Jews, scourged by the Romans. And yet His judge at least half-believed that He was the Son of God.

I have often wondered what it would be like to look into the eyes of Jesus. I feel that in those something essential about His mystery is to be seen. In the encounter between Judge and Judged I think that it was in the eyes of his prisoner that Pilate would have seen the intimation of the real nature of our Lord. He wavered before them for a while but then surrendered to the demands of the mob, as politicians will whatever their inner wisdom might tell them to do. He veiled his own eyes because he preferred power and applause to the uncertainties of the journey which the charisma of Jesus promised him.

Does this have any significance for us today? The Church is the Body of Christ. In many parts of the world like Him it is scourged and bloody, in other parts it is mocked and ridiculed, politicians turn away from it. Almost everywhere it is crowned with thorns. Yet veiled within it is the divine majesty of Christ. It is there to be seen by those who look. If it must face its Passion it can do so with a serene confidence in its Resurrection. Some vent their fury upon it precisely because they do sense that hidden divinity, others allow that fury to flow without seeking to hinder it because they, like Pilate, choose to veil their own eyes. As long, though, as the Church returns again and again to its divine source to draw strength and renew hope there are no defeats it cannot overcome, no losses it cannot sustain and no persecution it cannot survive. Try as they might the gates of hell will not prevail, the Church of Christ will survive until the time comes to greet its returning Lord. Vivat Christus Rex!

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Monday, 22 June 2015

Hating Jesus

                                                 Christ Mocked by a Soldier- Bloch
 If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.
John 15:18-19

The ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion
Laudato Si' 217

Looking at many of the reactions to the encyclical 'on care for our common home' by Pope Francis I began to wonder 'what is meant by the world hating Jesus and His followers and why is  this hatred felt?' Given the widespread welcome given to the document outside of rigidly conservative and rigidly liberal circles (one group wishes to go on polluting the other wants to impose artificial sterility on poor people) this may seem like a perverse subject to reflect upon at this time. I am reminded, however, of the time when a fiery sermon by St John Chrysostom against the practice of applauding in church was greeted with a standing ovation by the congregation. Individual propositions by Christ and His Church can be warmly welcomed but the whole package cannot be accepted without the profound interior conversion of which the Holy Father spoke. And it is the determination to resist conversion that is at the root of hatred to Jesus and those who faithfully follow Him. As our Lord put it Himself 'Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters' (Lk 11:23)

To begin at the beginning, a very formidable and exceptionally varied coalition was formed to oppose Jesus during the time of His mission. It is easy at this distance to think that what united His opponents was greater than what divided them but really except on this one subject they were completely with odds with each other about almost everything. American Democrats and Republicans are more in harmony with each other than the enemies of our Lord were. From the Gospel we can see that His opponents included the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, the High Priestly party and the Roman occupying power. Each of these groups had a distinct agenda and priorities which excluded those of their rivals. The followers of Jesus were mostly the anawim, the humble poor, who were either poor in fact or, like Joseph of Arimathea, poor in spirit. What is significant for our purposes was that it was possible for people to be anawim and Pharisee or anawim and Sadducee or even anawim and Roman and so on. The key to being a follower of our Lord was not outward allegiance but inward conversion. The issues that the different parties disagreed about were chiefly to do with matters of prudential judgement, about which disciples of Jesus can legitimately come to different conclusions to each other, not about how the inner person relates to their God.

The second question 'why is this hatred felt?' is the easier one to answer. Being converted, accepting Jesus and His values, into the very core of our being and into how we live our life means turning our personal world upside down. It means looking upon the things of the world, wealth, power, prestige, celebrity and so on as so much dross and making it our ambition to serve rather than to be served. It means that we desire others to be applauded, we should be glad, indeed, if they receive that applause for what we have done. To be converted is to prefer Christ not only to ourself but also to our family, our nation, our culture, our language in short to everything and everyone. Such a radical demand is madness and revolution to those who cannot surrender themselves, abandon themselves to it and so they reject it with a shudder.

The first question is more tricky, how is this hatred made manifest? How do Christ and His Church experience it? Some of you may have thought that it was curious that I included the Romans in the list of our Lord's enemies since Pilate was manifestly reluctant to execute Jesus. We see in the attitude and actions of the occupying power the truth of the statement that 'whoever is not with me is against me.' Pilate was not for Jesus he was indifferent towards Him for he knew little about Him. What he was chiefly for was himself and secondarily for Rome when he felt that both of those were under threat because of the Jerusalem mob then he willingly sacrificed Jesus for the sake of a quiet life. Without an inward conversion everyone, in fact, is willing to sacrifice Jesus for the sake of a quite life.

Fast forwarding several centuries we see a picture transformed. The anawim had so far prevailed as to make Christianity the official religion of a great empire but the coalition of enemies of Christ remained intact, as it will until the end of time. Those whose first love is power or wealth or sensuality will always resist conversion and hate the converting agent. What happened instead is that they masked their hostility to the whole by offering their support to the part, that is, by emptying Christianity of its core while officially supporting its shell they sought to destroy the content as they upheld the form. To kill Christianity as a living thing at the same time as upholding it as a dead one became the preferred approach of the new Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians and Romans. And this is what it means when Jesus says that the world will always hate Him and His followers. In the post-Christian West we see both approaches flourish, the outright attacks by overt enemies of the faith and the equivocal support of selected aspects of the message, but not the call to conversion, by those who profess friendship to the Church.

So what has this to do with Laudato Si'? The message of the encyclical is primarily about one thing- conversion. The wealthy must abandon their wealth to save the poor, the powerful must abandon their power to save the powerless, those who use creation as an object to be exploited must accept it as a subject to be cherished for itself. Those who welcome Laudato Si' or reject it simply because of what it says on the subject of man-made climate change are not only missing the point but wilfully, deliberately and selfishly doing so. They fear that if they accepted it they would be converted.

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Saturday, 30 May 2015

Mary & the Blessed Trinity

                                        Coronation of the Virgin by Bruyn the Elder

The king's daughter is all glorious within: her clothing is of wrought gold.
She shall be brought unto the king in raiment of needlework: the virgins her companions that follow her shall be brought unto thee.
With gladness and rejoicing shall they be brought: they shall enter into the king's palace.
Psalm 45:13-15

A philosophically minded person might ask the question 'If God is cause what is effect?' Those of us who are more simply minded are might ask 'If God is cause what is His effect on me?' It was, I think, because faithful Christians were seeking an answer to this second question that they began to look upon the person of Mary the mother of Jesus. If we wish to learn what sort of impact having a direct personal relationship with God could or should have upon us it is natural enough for us to look first of all at those who have preceded us in the faith. We can deduce from them what is likely to be the case for ourselves.First to appear before the eyes of the faithful were the Apostles and still today we can learn much from them through the pages of Scripture. After them were many saints of the Church, male and female, in whom God as effect shines through in the transformations wrought in their lives and the courage with which they gave witness to their faith. Following the principle of 'think universal, act local' we should try to see God as effect in the Christians nearest at hand to us, perhaps within our families, perhaps within our communities.

One deduction we should be able to make from this cloud of witnesses is that having a relationship with God can have a profound, thoroughgoing and lasting effect on human lives. Another deduction would be that this effect is not uniform in nature, it is different in kind and degree in each individual depending upon that persons character and the closeness of their friendship with the Father, through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. Given that relationships are different in degree it follows that out of all the actual relationships that exist there must be one which is closer, more perfect and more profound than all the rest. To answer the question 'if God is cause what is His effect on me?' it will help us to know who it is that is most effected by Him so that we can learn from that person and through following their example come closer ourselves to God.

If we consider the question of who is most effected purely in relation to God incarnated in the person of Jesus then a number of different answers might be proposed. Apart from His mother we could consider the claims of the Beloved Disciple mentioned in the Gospel according to St John (probably the Evangelist himself) or those of St Mary Magdalene the first witness to the resurrection and Apostle to the Apostles (although claims that she was married to our Lord can be dismissed as fanciful at best.) However, if we consider the question in relation to the Triune God then there can be no doubt at all that the answer will be the Blessed Virgin Mary. The formula in which this is expressed is that Mary is daughter of the Father, mother of the Son, spouse of the Holy Spirit. This is a formulation which is both accurate and necessary but it is most useful for the philosophically minded people whom I mentioned earlier. Is there a more, as it were, human way of describing the relationship which will help us to answer our query about God's effect on me?

When I reflect upon Mary I think upon her friendship with God like this- she is (that is she exists) and she is beloved and loving through her relationship with the Father, she is fruitful and loving through her relationship with the Holy Spirit, she encounters God and expresses love in this world through the Son. No human is more beloved by the Father than Mary, none are more fruitful by the Holy Spirit than is Mary and none are more intimately involved in the entirety of the human life of the Son than Mary. The Blessed Trinity is the cause, the entire life of our Lady is the effect. She stands before us as an exemplar,the model of perfection. Through her relationship she experienced the greatest of all possible human joys, to be the mother of the Son of God, and the greatest of all possible human sorrows, to be the mother of the crucified Christ, and the greatest of all possible gifts, she received her Son back from the dead. She was at the centre of human history, she lived a life of deepest obscurity in a little Galilean town. She was patient, before the Annunciation, she was active, in the Visitation, she was a woman of prayer, she was a mother to the Beloved Disciple.

If it is true we cannot experience these effects to the same degree as our Lady it is also true that we can experience all of them to some extent. The more we resist grace the less like Mary we will be, the more we co-operate with its effects the more we will mirror her who is the mirror of perfection. Here I propose another formula- like Mary we can wait upon the Father, become fruitful through the Spirit, accompany the Son. We should remember too that to be with the Son is to also be with the Apostles, the sick, the outcast and the poor. The effect of God on me is never just a private matter, love exists to be shared, it cannot be a solitary concern, and to grow, love diminished is love dying. Mary joyfully accepted the vocation to be the mother of God not only because it promised to bring her closer to the Lord but because through Him the whole world could be liberated from the chains which bound it. One answer to the philosophical question 'if God is cause what is effect?' is 'selfless love.' For philosophers and the simple alike Mary offers a key which helps us to understand God's purposes for us. Let us give her our undivided attention and through her we will come to know and love the Blessed Trinity.

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Thursday, 30 April 2015

Centering Prayer: Some Reflections

                                            An Old Woman Praying by Nicolaes Maes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Seeing God, Making God Visible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, 18 April 2015

Fearing God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Shakespeare & the Apostles

Agincourt, Imagination and the Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, 11 April 2015

Thoughtfully Detached

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

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

Saturday, 31 January 2015

What is Man? Part 1

                                                     Crucifixion- Alonso Cano

Lord, what is man that you take notice of him;
    the son of man, that you think of him?
Psalms 144:3

Look into this mirror every day, O queen, spouse of Jesus Christ, And continually examine your face in it.... that mirror suspended upon the wood of the cross
St Clare of Assisi- Fourth Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague

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

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

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


                            The Death of St Clare- Master of Heiligenkreuz

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

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

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

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