Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Gays, Abortion, Women's Rights- Is the Church Out of Touch?

                        Image: Gustave Doré - 'The New Zealander' illustration from 'London: a Pilgrimage' by Blanchard Jerrold



There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable....Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's.
Thomas Babington Macaulay 

The position of the Catholic Church on many of the more contentious issues of our time is very clearly laid out and easily accessible. Notwithstanding which most of her critics seem to rely upon second- or third- hand summaries of them provided by enemies of the Church whenever they decide to comment upon them. I do not propose here to enter directly upon a discussion of the merits of the Catholic point of view, instead I will focus on a secondary argument which is often deployed. This is to the effect that by taking the stands which she does the Church is rendering herself out of touch and irrelevant in the eyes of the public and above all those of the youth. The customary counter-argument is to point out that those Christian communities which have taken on board the opinions of the age in matters like LGBT rights are declining at at least the same rate as those which reject them. Even if this is true it is insufficient since it places too much reliance upon passing events which might after all change in the future. Instead I will suggest that this charge against the Church rests upon a number of assumptions which are inherently false. Specifically I mean:
-Ascribing too much importance to the Zeitgeist.
-Subscribing to the notion of inevitable and irreversible progress.
-The illusion of permanence
-A misunderstanding of the nature of truth.

Firstly, by zeitgeist is meant "the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time."
It seems to be the case that this defining spirit in most Western countries and in the chattering classes of other countries includes a commitment to a whole canon of issues such as free access to abortion, ordination of women, the idea that same-sex relationships are more or less identical to heterosexual ones and so on. The Church by taking a distinctive stand on such matters stands accused, in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron, of failing to "get with the programme." I think it is quite accurate to say that Catholicism is out of sympathy with the zeitgeist in some parts of the world but that is less of a problem than her opponents imagine.

Except in quite exceptional circumstances history is made by activist minorities. Most people most of the time are intensely absorbed in their own concerns. They tend to express opinions on broader matters about which they care little through the simple process of repeating what others have said. As an example I will look at the change in reported social attitudes towards same-sex relationships which has occurred in the UK during the course of my lifetime. When I was younger the prevailing feeling was that these were, on the whole, A Bad Thing and people tended to feel mildly hostile to them. Within that consensus was a minority who were very strongly hostile and another minority who were either homosexual themselves or very strongly supportive of homosexuals. Today the prevailing feeling is that these relationships are A Good Thing and that people tend to feel mildly positive about them. Two different cohorts of the population here are worth thinking about. Those of my generation (I admit to being 51 at time of writing) have mostly got with the programme. However, even the most committed liberal optimist would probably not suggest that in each of the several million people in question this 180 degree change was effected after a period of soul searching and deep thought. In most instances they have simply trimmed their sails to the wind on a subject that doesn't deeply interest them. The cohort of the young, as you would expect, is thoroughly imbued with the zeitgeist. However there is little doubt that in most case they hold as firmly to it as my generation held to theirs which is to say hardly at all. What has happened over the course of some three or four decades is that power and influence has slipped out of the hands of one activist minority and fallen into the hands of another. That is how history happens. To rest any kind of prediction about social attitudes going forward, however, on the zeitgeist is simply to mistake a possibly temporary victory for a fundamental change of some kind.

The idea of 'Progress' is itself part of the zeitgeist in much of the world. It rest also on the more secure foundation of being a philosophical conviction which is at the heart of the Left, Social Liberal weltanschauung. Briefly the idea is this; civilization progresses from a lower state to a higher one over time. This does not just mean that it's technological level continually rises, it means that its core values undergo a continual evolution towards ever more perfect expressions of the human spirit. The perfectibility of Man is an article of faith of this creed. Since Man can become perfect it follows that human societies can become perfect and that, led by wise liberals, it definitely shall become perfect. History becomes an unfolding map recording humanity's gradual progress towards its final goal. Since Progress has its enemies, reactionaries who cling to the old ways for self-interested motives, its advance takes the form of a series of battles some bloody, some in the realm of ideas. Despite the odd defeat along the way the line of march is inevitable and irresistible. This set of ideas, this sunny optimism, was the openly expressed view of many, such as the Science Fiction author H.G. Wells, at the beginning of the 20th century. The events of those troubled hundred years and since have rather silenced these transports of delight. Probably most contemporary Social Liberals if challenged would state that victories were neither inevitable nor irresistible. Nonetheless the notion that they actually are both is a deep rooted emotional truth for the Left. Ask them to envisage the world in a couple of centuries from now and they will reproduce a version of today's Sweden or Holland only more so. Societies where old folk hold leaving parties before visiting the neighbourhood euthanasiast, where promiscuous sex without biological or emotional consequences happens all the time and (more commendably perhaps) where healthcare is free and first class at the time of need, where poverty, unemployment and wars are things of the distant past as is religious belief in all its forms. Essentially it is a working out to the end of the impulse which was commenced by the the French Revolution in 1789.

There are several drawbacks to this vision. The most important one is this idea of the perfectibility of Man. It is in some ways a mutation of the Christian idea of the redeemability of Man. This holds that each person without exception is capable of being redeemed by the saving power of God and transformed into a new creature, a saint, who then, among other things, contributes to society in a generous and self-sacrificing spirit. The necessary corollary to this belief is that each person stands in need of redemption, that without such a transformation Man, wounded by the effects of Original Sin constantly yields to temptation and sins most grievously against their neighbours and themselves. The Liberal idea decouples Man from personal, internally experienced, concupiscence and lays the blame for imperfections in individuals primarily on external pressures usually caused by reactionaries. Remove the imperfections from society and you will remove the imperfections from man. This contributes to inevitable and irresistible progress because as each generation has one or more shackle removed from it its successors born into the new more perfect world and no longer subject to the external pressures of reactionaries on this or that issue as it is removed will no longer act imperfectly with regard to, say, race, sex, sexuality or the like. They will then resist any attempt to rollback history and the world can prepare to move on to the next level up by defeating the next enemy along in the chain of progress. In this scenario the Church, it is argued, so long as it remains attached to the values of a previous epoch will be left behind in the slipstream of progress and disappear altogether. Only if it attaches itself to the chariot of Progress does it have any prospect of survival.

The basic problem with this theory is the inadmissibility of it's central premise. Man is not perfectible. However society is ordered, whatever institutions are created or destroyed, however many reactionaries are defeated and despatched to the archives each individual human person from the moment of birth will be subject to the power of temptation. Selfishness, self-centeredness and narrowness of perspective are not impositions laid upon people by their environment, they are an inescapable part of human nature. They can only be defeated by a conscious personal act of the will prompted by the grace of God. That means, for the purposes of this discussion, that no political victory is ever final no triumph is irreversible. 'Progress' is a chimera which is every bit as likely to vanish away to the same place that the 'Divine Right of Kings' has already gone to. The failure of the Church to jump into the progressive bandwagon is not the one thing guaranteed to ensure it vanishing into oblivion, it is rather one of the things ensuring that it will do no such thing whatever may happen to that set of French Revolutionary ideas which are not even three centuries old yet.  

The illusion of permanence. Another facet of the human personality is the persistent illusion that the way things are is the way that things will be. In the middle of summer it is difficult to imagine winter and vice versa. The 51 years which I admit to have been tumultuous ones in the history of humanity. I grew up in a world in which the Soviet Union and its allies were seemingly a permanent feature of the world and it seemed likely that their number would grow rather than diminish. A world where South Africa was ruled by only whites, where Israel was at war with its neighbours, where telephones were immobile, computers filled large sized buildings, Popes were always Italian, televisions were black and white, India and China were minor regional powers with small economies and so on and so forth. All but one of these things has changed beyond recognition. But where the map of the world has changed the map of the mind remains the same. We still expect tomorrow to be pretty much the same as today unless we are unfortunate enough to be in a war zone or fortunate enough to be about to give birth for the first time. One of the more powerful forces preventing people from turning to the spiritual is the illusion that what visibly surrounds us, the things of time, really matters and that what is invisible, the things of eternity, doesn't. We seek to transform the place in which we find ourselves into a permanent home and invest all that we have into making it perfect, believing that perfectibility is both possible and desirable. This is a transposition of the error of liberalism into private life. It is the fruit of an earthbound hope this earnest striving to make the space we inhabit into a paradise because we believe it possible to do so because we think we can make the transient permanent. One of the products of this illusion is that our vision of the world going forward is that it should and will contain the elements of the world as it now is. And to those who support the ideals of 'progress' or who accept the current zeitgeist the future, in the West at least, is one that contains free abortion on demand, artificial contraception, 'equal marriage' and so on for no more powerfully cogent reason than that that is what the present contains. And since the Church does not accept these things she will not be part of the future unless or until she 'gets with the programme.' I feel here that simply to state the case is to undermine it. Nothing is permanent, all things must pass. The programme can be interrupted.

The nature of truth. I never tire of restating this proposition- the Church is not the advocate of a philosophy, she is the steward of a Divine Revelation. What she proposes for belief is the truth about God and the things of God which she has received from God Himself most fully and completely in the person of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary. Jesus Christ, yesterday, and to day; and the same for ever. (Hebrews 13:8) That being so her propositions though they may vary in form as the centuries roll by cannot, will not and should not vary in content. The world may believe what it will but where the beliefs of the world contradict the truths of Revelation then the world is wrong and the Church is right. It would be a grave dereliction of duty for the Church to turn aside from the straight path to pursue the world through its twists and turns of fashionable belief and practice. More than that it would be a great act of folly. If the truth is indeed truthful then it will, in the end, always prevail. To attach herself to a chariot heading for the cliffs is no act of wisdom. There have been many epoch's in human history when the Church has been marginalised or subject to sustained assault. It is another cherished illusion of the Liberal Left to think that the history of the West consists of a period of unbroken dominion by Catholicism or its variants over society from the time of Constantine until the advent of universal education, the advance of science and the first triumphs of the spirit of the storming of the Bastille began to undermine her. Far from it, the Church has weathered stormier times than this without the opposition of these factors which are neither necessarily enemies of Christianity (education and science are positive goods) or of enduring significance (other -isms than liberalism once seemed unstoppable.) No, the Church has this promise behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. (Matthew 28;20) and this I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18.) As long as the Church is in touch with the faith of the Apostles and true to her Divine Master then she is on the course marked out for her from the foundation of the world. She will neither disappear nor become irrelevant because Christ will do neither of these things and the Church is the Bride of Christ, His destiny is her destiny, thanks be to God.

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Monday, 21 July 2014

Unbridled Lust


am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt:
open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.
11 But my people would not hearken to my voice;
and Israel would none of me.
12 So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust:
and they walked in their own counsels.
13 Oh that my people had hearkened unto me,
and Israel had walked in my ways!
14 I should soon have subdued their enemies,
and turned my hand against their adversaries.
Psalm 81(80) 10-14

Blood, vengeance, hatred, war, cursing and much more to the same effect seem to form the staple content of many of the psalms. Indeed The Young Person (in the Podsnappery sense) whose only acquaintance with the scriptures was the Book of the Gospel and the Book of Psalms might be forgiven for thinking that they referred to two different deities and two different spiritual paths. Such a Young Person would be surprised and probably discomfited  to discover that the psalms form the very heart of the corporate worship of the Church and the private devotions of many Christians. Surely some mistake they might think what has 'gentle Jesus meek and mild' got to do with all this dashing of children against rocks? [Psalm 137(136)] To descend to the particular, I was that Young Person dear reader. It struck me that this ancient practice of the Divine Office which gave so central a part to Hebrew poetry was a legacy from a more barbarous past with which the Church was now saddled but which could profitably be sidelined by individual believers. Eventually, though, it came into my mind that perhaps in such matters the Church possessed better judgement and greater wisdom than I did. So, in a modified version of Pascal's Wager, I essayed the experiment of making the psalms part of my daily prayer life. Over the course of time, day after day, year after year, I began in a sense to sink through the bony surface of them and enter into their marrow, discovering great underlying themes and ideas which can only be seen from the inside looking out never from the outside looking in. I fell in love with them because in them I discovered love.

As an aside it occurs to me that something similar could be said of the Quran. Non-Muslims who have never read it in its entirety or only read it once or twice in a lifetime will understand it in radically different ways from those within Islam who read from it and think about it every day. They will discern things in it from the inside looking out which are truly there for them though they do not appear to be so for those on the outside looking in. Of course the parallel is not exact since, from a Christian point of view, I do not suppose that the Quran is Divinely inspired in the same way that the Bible is. However, many of the Surahs, perhaps those especially written during the Meccan period while Khadija, the first wife of the founder of Islam, was alive, clearly proceed from a more or less accurate apprehension of the Unity of God and the relationship that man should have towards Him. This means that a person with right intentions looking for right meanings within the book has a good chance of finding them though they may find other things besides. Anyway, I digress and probably offend large numbers of both Christians and Muslims in the process.

Psalm 81 (numbered as 80 in some Bibles) is in some ways representative of the 'difficult' Psalms. The verses under consideration represent a summary from God's perspective of the Book of Exodus or more paradigmatically of God's relationship with His people Israel over all of history. It seems to suggest that if they do what He tells them they will receive in return substantial material rewards and their enemies (and Israel never runs out of enemies) will get a sound spanking. On the other hand if they don't do what they are told suffering will ensue. It is plausible, even likely, that the psalmist (traditionally King David) understood the psalm to mean what it appears to mean. It is certain that many generations of Israelites understood it in that way. However people can be unconscious agents of a deeper wisdom than they themselves possess and Christians would argue that the Holy Spirit inspired David to write (and sing) something which has an altogether more universal and less materialistic meaning.

We should in some measure approach the psalms in the same way that Sherlock Holmes approached a crime scene. The available data can easily and quickly be assembled to put together a satisfactory narrative which explains meaning and motive. But the official narrative is invariably wrong and like Holmes we should be alert for the single thread in the tangled skein, the one clue that enables us to unravel the mystery, put the unimaginative literally minded Scotland Yarders to shame and discover that important truth which will serve the good cause. Here the clue is in that passage which gives this blog its (slightly mischievous) title So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust: and they walked in their own counsels. The enemy who defeats Israel is Israel itself.

The guidance which God proffered to the nation resolves itself into His presence dwelling in the hearts and minds of individual Israelites. This would be understood to be especially present in some individuals more than others, Moses, Aaron, the Prophets the Davidic Kings, but nonetheless present in all. Or, at least, in all who were willing to accept that gift, to "open wide their mouths."  When the gift was refused then the situation that our Lord later described became true For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. (Matthew 25:29) Those who found even the nominal acceptance of the Law and the restriction of worship to one God too onerous to observe were granted their desire to be freed from the lightest touch of Divine grace. Without this presence people wander bewildered in a material world which can only be understood in terms of material desires and passions. The purpose of this kind of life lacks any ethical base and consists of a cycle of trying to fulfill desires whose outcome is invariably unsatisfactory leading to continuous repetition often in ever more extreme variations. As another aside it is worth pointing out that by absence of grace I do not simply mean absence of an explicit religious faith. An ethical life can be lived apart from faith but not apart from grace which is the invisible action which prompts ethical choices in all who make such whether they are aware of its presence or not.

Using this clue we can recast and reshape the narrative present in the psalm in spiritual terms which harmonise very well with the Gospel. The Lord appears as a lover urging His beloved to accept His gifts of grace, His agape-

We have seen that God's eros for man is also totally agape. This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives. Hosea above all shows us that this agape dimension of God's love for man goes far beyond the aspect of gratuity. Israel has committed “adultery” and has broken the covenant; God should judge and repudiate her. It is precisely at this point that God is revealed to be God and not man: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! ... My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hos 11:8-9). God's passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love.
Deus Caritas Est 10- Pope Benedict XVI             

David moves on to tell us that Israel, the beloved rejected their Divine lover and would not listen to Him. Which is, of course, a generalisation on his part by which he means that the overwhelming mass of Israelites rejected God although a faithful remnant ever remained, as it ever shall. Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him. (1 Kings 19:18) Left without the guidance of pure love Israelites, and you and me, act in ways which are guided by its opposite. Love is always about others, about giving, about service. Self-centredness is about Me, about taking, about reaping what we do not sow and letting the devil take the hindmost.

The Almighty, who has voluntarily limited His own power to grant His people freedom, then laments that He has been abandoned. This lament springs not from a sense of what He has lost, what can God lose, but what we have lost by relying upon ourselves alone, by trying to be as gods ourselves. And what have we lost? His aid in our battles against those powerful enemies who kill our souls (and often our bodies too) here in time and also in eternity. The enemies whose names are  wrath, avarice, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Without His help they rule over us, the lesser has power over the greater, the body over the mind and spirit. With Him we can vanquish them and be as we should be, as Mary the mother of Jesus was.

It was not intuition that moved Sherlock Holmes to single out this or that fact from the mass and fashion his theory around it. He had a method, the science of detection. Christians looking at the psalms also have a method, the science of love. More specifically the lens through which we examine David, and all of the Old Testament, is the New Testament, is the figure of Jesus. By interpreting scripture that foreshadows the fulness of Divine revelation with the tools that that fulness gives us we can understand them as they are intended to be understood without pretending that they were so comprehended at the time they were written. Even so we can find that some psalms can range from 'difficult' to 'very difficult.' Holmes was an expert also on the history of crime. He was frequently led into the solution of a case by his previous knowledge of numerous similar cases. Likewise we have before us the history of 2000 years of Christian reflection upon the psalms. If we ourselves struggle to reconcile David with the Gospel then the fault lies not with the Holy Spirit who inspired both but with our own inadequate grasp of it. We should therefore turn to the commentaries upon those texts and their spiritual meaning which numerous saints and good Christians have written precisely for our benefit. There are also, incidentally, some modern commentaries based upon historical and textual criticism which seek to describe the psalms in purely mechanical ways as fitting into this or that cultic practice or crisis in Israel. These can usefully add to our knowledge of the history of the biblical epoch but serve no useful spiritual function. When we pray the psalms with the mind of the Church, which is the mind of Christ we can enter into them spiritually and the Spirit through them can enter into us and lead us into the Divine presence there to be fed with the finest wheat which is the Bread of Heaven, Jesus our Eucharist. He should have fed them also with the finest of the wheat:
and with honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee. Psalm 80(81)    
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Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Women Bishops & Catholicism

                                       Painting by Cosimo Rosselli
                               Saint Catherine of Siena as Spiritual Mother of the Second and Third Orders of Saint Dominic
The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints.
Inter Insigniores

Normally this blog avoids current controversies. Partly this is because controversy gives rise to partisan spirit. People moved by an ardent enthusiasm for their party, faction or group are too prone to fall into the trap of thinking that it is more important to be right than it is to be kind. Any truth which relies upon unkindness to advance its cause is no truth at all. Partly also it is because being controversial is a great way of alienating people. The readership of this blog is perfectly formed in the sense that each person reading this is a uniquely wise and gentle individual. It is also, however, small and I have no great desire to make it smaller by leaping into a here-today-gone-tomorrow argument when the main purpose of this blog is about the deep love to be found in a close relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Nevertheless because I live in England the almost universal applause which greeted the recent decision by the local Anglican ecclesial community (the CofE) to 'ordain' women to the role of 'bishop' reminded me how little known and understood are the Catholic reasons for not applauding. I feel moved then to do my little bit to redress the balance. If it so happens that you in your turn feel moved to stop reading my blog because you fundamentally disagree with me then let me take this opportunity to thank you for your patience thus far and prayerfully wish you all the best for your future journey.

Many arguments cannot be characterised as debates in any meaningful sense of the word. The participants talk past each other because they are really talking about different things. In this case the advocates of women's ordination tend to advance their case on the grounds of equality and justice, the Catholic opponents advance theirs on the basis of authority and its limitations. I will come to equality later but will begin with the limits of authority because I suspect it is the least known and least understood category in the whole dispute.

In his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacredotalis Pope St John Paul II made this definitive statement  I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.  You might think 'he's the Pope, he has the authority to do whatever he likes.' but you would be wrong. The Catholic Church is the steward of a gift which she has received, she is not the author and mistress of a philosophy of her own devising. In the Nicene Creed she proclaims her belief that the Church is, among other things, Apostolic. This means that what the Church believes to be true about the revelation of God to man in the person of Jesus Christ are those things, and only those things which she received from the Apostles who were the companions of Jesus on His mission. Many of the doctrines which the Church proclaims and teaches to be true, such as the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity or devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary are only implicit in the deposit of faith. Centuries of reflection upon and debate about this deposit has led to the implications being drawn out ever more fully and expressed ever more clearly. Blessed John Henry Newman in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine compares this process to a seed which grows into a tree, all the elements of the tree are present in the seed but many lifetimes may pass before the tree reaches the fullest extent of its development. Part of the stewardship role of the Church then consists in cultivating the Apostolic faith because it is a living thing rather than in preserving it unchanged as if it was a mere museum piece. But what the Church cannot, must not, do is introduce new doctrines which do not have their origin in that initial deposit of faith.

You might think 'why not? The world changes and the Church should change with it.' To which the answer is, and not for the first time on this blog, Yes and No. The world does change and since Christians have an obligation to evangelise the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ then they must always so far adapt themselves so as to make it possible for each new generation to hear, understand and accept that Gospel. God, however, does not change. The final word which He spoke in universal revelation to all humankind was contained in the person of Jesus. Nothing exists to be added to or taken away from that word, nothing can be more true, more sublime or more relevant. The Church, therefore, while always seeking to present that word as effectively as possible must be absolutely, unequivocally and unwaveringly faithful to it whatever the cost may be. The fullness of that revelation was summarised in the faith of the Apostles which the Catholic Church holds in the form of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Moreover our Lord gave this promise to the Apostles and implicitly to their successors the Bishops, behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. (Matthew 28:20) Which is understood to mean that the Saviour did not simply leave a set of teachings and a stellar example to His followers before disappearing off to heaven, His promise includes the continued presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the counsels of the Church. That is to say, whenever the Church is definitive about a subject concerning the faith which she has received, whether that be through an Ecumenical Council, an ex cathedra statement by the Pope or through the universal, unanimous,  unbroken and continuous teaching of the Church (the Magisterium,)  then the protection of the Spirit has the effect of ensuring that that teaching is infallibly a true and accurate understanding of the faith.

So what has this got to do with the ordination of women? Well, we know that Jesus only chose men to be Apostles but this is not crucial to the argument, His mission was very specifically to the Jewish community. However, the Apostles appointed successors to themselves, bishops, wherever they established Christian communities and their successors appointed successors and so on. There is no evidence that in the century or so after the first Pentecost that any of these bishops were women. And it is certainly the case that it has never been the universal practice of the church to appoint women as either bishops or priests. Given the wide geographic spread of Christianity even in its early days and the accompanying wide variety of cultures in which it operated there is no argument that in every case the idea of women priests was locally unacceptable as it would have been in Judea. In places where inhabitants were familiar with the idea of priestesses because the indigenous pagan cults had them Christians could have ordained their own women priests but did not do so. Despite the best efforts of advocates for women's ordination to prove otherwise there are no grounds for supposing that the Church at any point in its history would have countenanced such a practice had it been considered by an Ecumenical Council, a Pope or the Magisterium. Which brings us back to the limits of authority. If the deposit of faith had included an implicit notion that the priesthood and episcopate was open to both men and women then the Holy Spirit which guides the Church in such matters would have facilitated an expression of that notion somewhere within the practice of the Church at some point prior to the 20th century. That He has not done so leads us to conclude that the notion is not present and that therefore the Church does not have the authority to introduce it as if it had been.

Before looking at the question of equality and the idea that ordaining women is A Good Thing regardless of obscure theological quibbling I will touch on what all this has to do with the CofE. It is popularly supposed that at the time of the 'Reformation' a new religion was established in England which ousted the old religion of Catholicism and replaced it with a new body called the CofE. Anglicans however do not, at least officially, see it that way. They define their faith as Catholic and Reformed and affirm that they believe essentially the same things that the Church believed prior to the 'Reformation,' they are not a new body but a continuation of the old one purged of irrelevant accretions, superstitions and distortions. Their website says this-

"The religious settlement that eventually emerged in the reign of Elizabeth I gave the Church of England the distinctive identity that it has retained to this day. It resulted in a Church that consciously retained a large amount of continuity with the Church of the Patristic and Medieval periods in terms of its use of the catholic creeds, its pattern of ministry, its buildings and aspects of its liturgy, but which also embodied Protestant insights in its theology and in the overall shape of its liturgical practice"            
Anglicans claim to hold to the faith of the undivided Catholic Church as it existed prior to the schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, it proclaims that the CofE is part of the Catholic and Apostolic Church. Which means, among other things, that part of its mission is to establish unity between the sundered members of the Christian family. And also, crucially, that the formulae of faith (the creeds) which emerged from the Ecumenical Councils were accurate because the Councils were guided by the Holy Spirit. Now, it is clear that part of the deposit of faith which the CofE received was that priestly ordination was reserved to men. In its own practices it upheld this up until the late 20th century. Now it does not and by extending the concept of women's ordination to include the office which they call bishop, successor to the Apostles, then they are either innovating, introducing a new doctrine not included in the original deposit of faith, or asserting that this doctrine was always present but only implicit. In the first instance they would be immediately departing from the catholic faith by any reasonable definition of the concept. In the second then they are using a provincial council to change the doctrines of a universal Church, something which only an Ecumenical Council can do. That is, despairing of the prospect of persuading the Catholic and Orthodox Churches they have unilaterally established a new position. In both cases the CofE has decisively moved itself from the position it claimed as a member of the Catholic body and into a new role as just another Protestant sect.

And so, equality. Let me make my personal position clear; if the Church had the authority to ordain women few people would welcome that more than I would. I have spent most of my working life in overwhelmingly female workplaces and am well aware of the talent, abilities, strengths and enthusiasm that women can bring to the many roles which they fill. It is not here a question of competence to fulfil certain defined tasks. For reasons about which we can only speculate God has appointed that the role of sacerdotal priest is reserved to men. Why that might be so we do not know for certain that it is so we can be sure or else He would have included it in the Apostolic faith which He revealed to the world. In the New Testament there are a number of statements by Jesus known as 'hard sayings,' like for example he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost, shall never have forgiveness, but shall be guilty of an everlasting sin. (Mark 3:29) which Christians may not fully understand but do fully accept because they have the authority of our Lord behind them. The Church is, in a manner of speaking, a continuation of Jesus by other means and this doctrine about women's ordination is one of her hard sayings and Christians should accept it in the same spirit and for the same reasons.

It is argued that on this issue, and on a number of others, the Church is making herself increasingly look outdated, out of touch, old fashioned and misogynistic (misogyny means having at least an ingrained prejudice against women.)  That may indeed be how she is perceived by many people especially in the West and especially among the young. Well, let it be so. The Church always has to pay a price for her fidelity to the faith, in the past it paid other prices in the future it will pay still other ones. It is not the job of Christianity to conform itself to popular taste. She has no choice in this matter, she cannot ordain women whatever else may happen. What she can do, must do and to a certain extent has been doing is to proclaim by both word and deed her absolute commitment to the fact that not only are women and men equally beloved by God but that neither sex is superior to the other on the grounds of intelligence, ability, talent, commitment or any other good quality you care to name including, crucially, leadership ability.

We can, I think, deduce from the New Testament and the entire history of the Church including the Apostolic era that the correct Christian approach to what are now called gender issues is to be found in the ideas of balance and harmony. In the context of people 'equal' does not mean 'identical.' Women and men are different from each other and these differences, hard to pin down precisely as they may be, should not be ignored. They do not provide any valid excuse for the exercise of oppressive power. What they provide are fields of opportunity. It should not be the function of the Church to demand that women behave like men or that men behave like women. There is a considerable overlap, areas where both men and women can operate alongside each other in identical roles each producing equally satisfactory outcomes. But there remains a residue of areas where persons are better qualified to function by virtue of their sex than other equally talented persons of the opposite sex. In the context of the Church for mysterious reasons God appears to uniquely qualify some men, but only men, for the role of priest however He also seems to exercise a preferential option for women when it comes to the handing out of charismatic gifts (something I touched on in my earlier Girl Power post.)

We can see some evidence for this in the category known as Doctors of the Church. These are people whom the Church recognises as having made particularly important contributions to developing ever more fully our understanding of the faith. Much has been made of the fact that the list of Doctors is overwhelmingly male. But this is exactly what you would expect in a 2000 year old institution. It is in the nature of such things that those most qualified to teach would first of all have learnt and until relatively recently higher education, within and without the Christian world, was almost exclusively reserved to men and so men would have the greatest opportunity to explore the intellectual realm. It is to be hoped and indeed can be confidently expected that future Doctors of the Church will be as likely to be female as male so long as higher education remains equally accessible to both sexes. For our purposes, however, it is interesting to note that 3 out of the 4 women Doctors had little education. That is St Teresa of Avila, St Catherine of Siena and St Therese of Lisieux, indeed St Catherine may well have been illiterate until quite late on in her mission. What they possessed was the authority of charisma, a technical word in this context which means a particular gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift enabled each of them in very different ways to instruct the Church and indeed to act as leaders to groups of disciples often including priests and bishops. St Catherine of Siena, like her near contemporary St Bridget of Sweden, practically bullied several Popes. And what these women did in their way many hundreds of others like St Margaret Mary Alacoque, St Bernadette of Lourdes, St Faustina Kowalska and Chiara Lubich did as they had been guided to by the Spirit guiding in their turn many others both male and female.

The model for the balance and harmony I suggested earlier can be glimpsed in the relationship between Mary and Jesus. Our Lady is the mother of all charismatics, she was and is the spouse of the Holy Spirit, through their fruitful collaboration salvation came into the world. Whatever power Jesus had by virtue of His role as priest, prophet and king He voluntarily submitted to the authority of Mary, her requests are never unanswered. He performed His first public miracle in response to her prayers. She in her turn voluntarily submitted to Him because of the roles He filled. Mutual submission and a complementarity of functions in those instances where they do not overlap is a rule with them and so also with the Church, yesterday, today and forever.


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Sunday, 13 July 2014

Bride of Heaven

A Love Song


Listen, daughter, consider, and turn your ear.
    Forget your own people, and also your father’s house.
11     So the king will desire your beauty
Psalm 45(44):10-11

Many of the psalms have Superscriptions or Headers at their beginning before getting into the actual psalm itself. Most of these are technical or musical notations referring to types of instruments or tunes. Some refer to particular episodes in biblical history to which the psalm supposedly relates; the most famous of these being Psalm 50(51)  A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bath-sheba which explains why David is so repentant in that song. Psalm 45 (confusingly numbered 44 in some Bibles) is unusual in that in addition to the technical part the superscription adds "a love song"  or as one version beguilingly puts it A canticle for the Beloved. It is also unusual in that most Christians agree that its literal meaning is of secondary importance to its spiritual one. Naturally, Christians being what they, there is a bit of a falling out as to what that meaning actually is but we shall come to that by and by.

On the face of it the psalmist seems to be primarily concerned with celebrating a Royal Wedding. Specifically the marriage in Jerusalem of one of the kings descended from David and Solomon to a foreign wife. Perhaps, indeed, that was all that the author consciously intended  to do. There is though a constant motif that runs all the way through the Old Testament in which the relationship between the Almighty and His People Israel is compared to that between husband and wife. It was natural enough then in light of that to incorporate this psalm into that motif. Christianity took that theme up and saw in the bridegroom the figure of Christ and in the bride an image of the Church. And as in the larger so in the lesser it could also be seen as a portrayal of the relationship between the individual believer as lover and Jesus as the Beloved. A further, more controversial, layer of meaning will be referred to later.

What is interesting in the verses I have highlighted here is that they contain a fairly detailed programme of action condensed into a very few words. Poetry has the ability to do this and the psalmist in this case was no mean poet. The Bride is advised to-

  • Listen
  • Consider
  • Turn towards
  • Forget i.e. turn away from.
When she has done this and as a result of having done this she will become beautiful (or more beautiful) in the eyes of the King and, therefore, He will desire her. In the context of a Jewish wedding what follows from that will have been in the minds of those who first heard the psalm Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh (Genesis2:24) Where the bride is a human and the groom is God incarnate then what we have here is a prescription for achieving Divine Union where the bride enters by participation into the very being of the Blessed Trinity.

A prescription is only of use if it is possible to fulfil its requirements. So, can we, could the bride, do what the psalmist proposed? The first injunction is 'Listen.' We live in an age where people walk around the streets or sit on public transport listening to personal stereos or mobile phones. When not doing this they listen to TV's, radios, DVD's, movies and even, occasionally, each other. When not listening they are usually talking. People even sleep with TV's turned on. The problem you might think is not that there is too much listening but that there is too little silence. In fact, from a spiritual point of view, there is too little listening because there is too little silence. God speaks to us it is true but in a still small voice (1 Kings 19:12) To hear Him we must listen attentively for Him alone, be still, and know that I am God as another psalm puts it. (Psalm 46:10) To listen to Him requires an effort on our part, a desire to hear Him.

Specifically there are several ways that Christian tradition recommends to us as methods through which we might hear the voice of the Bridegroom. Reading the Scriptures is one, or actually two at least since there is more than one way to read them. We can take a passage or a chapter or a book in the Bible, begin at the beginning and work our way right through to the end. Then we can think about what it means and, if we are wise, we can consult the opinion of others by reading commentaries on the text and see what better minds than ours have made of it. That is one method and the Gospels in particular are well suited to be used in this fashion. Another approach would be the practice known as lectio divina where after prayer we take a very short passage of Scripture read it slowly and/or repeatedly and then  let it slowly sink into us. Not so much thinking analytically about it as holding it in our minds and waiting to see what fruits will spring from the seed within us. As I have already hinted there is the practice of prayer to help our listening too. In this context it cannot consist of a list of demands that we want God to action but rather of an upward motion of our heart inviting a downward motion of His Spirit into us. In my series about Christian Meditation I outline a number of ways to do this.

God also acts at times through human agents. We can hear Him if we pay close attention to the lives of the Saints. The Christians of the Reformation traditions (often called Protestants) tend to restrict themselves to the examples given us by outstanding biblical characters, and indeed there is a rich treasury of such to be found within the pages of the Bible. Catholic and Orthodox Christians look additionally to the many examples of Christian living which the past two thousand years have given us. Throughout the world and throughout the ages Saints of widely varied characters in all sorts of settings have shone like good deeds in a naughty world (Merchant of Venice Act 5 Scene 1) Whatever our own personality type or circumstances might be we will be sure to find a Saint whose life, words or deeds will speak the voice of God to our own condition whether that be the wisdom of a St Therese, the gentle patience of a St Bernadette or the outspoken counsel and visionary insights of a St Catherine of Siena. Nor indeed need we confine ourselves to the past. It is well known in the West that the spiritual traditions of the East call for spiritual seekers to look for wisdom at the feet of gurus. What seems to be a well kept secret is that the West too has a long tradition of Spiritual Directors, male and female, who are steeped in the various contemplative and prayerful spiritualities of Christianity and have the wisdom and experience to guide others.

So, we the Brides can, if we wish, listen to our Lord speaking to us through all these channels and others besides. Then what does the psalmist counsel? 'Consider.' This seems fairly straightforward. Reflect on what we have heard, consider it from various aspects, impact our options. Except that we are not considering a business transaction or a career change neither has our listening been of a conventional kind. With Jesus 'to listen' means 'to encounter.' He is our potential bridegroom, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health. It is not enough just to weigh up with our minds the pros and cons of His proposal to us, though we could certainly do that on the Pascal's Wager principal. We need to respond to Him with our whole selves, body, mind and spirit, because we will be living with Him with our whole selves both in time and in eternity if we accept His offer of marriage. If His call awakens something within us then we need to consider what it is we shall lose if we accept Him as well as what it is we shall have to gain. He may call upon us to sacrifice material things or established relationships upon which we have so far relied and depend instead entirely upon Him and upon Him alone.

Having considered we must turn to Him decisively. We turned aside from our way to listen to Him. We paused to consider what we had heard. Now He becomes our way, He is the route we travel and the destination at which we arrive. He nourishes us, He sustains us, He loves us and unites Himself to us and we allow ourselves to be united. The foreign bride of the psalm is urged to forget her own people, meaning her nation, and her fathers house, meaning I suppose both her family and her national religion. At a literal level this is a sacrifice which Jesus later put in these terms Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26) It is a radical gamble, to cast yourself into His arms and let everything else slip away from you. And indeed this forgetting of what lies behind is partly a conscious effort of casting aside all impediments. More than that though it is a becoming absorbed in new interests. Very often the close friends of a new bride expect their friendship to continues much as before, the bride herself may expect so too. But gradually as time passes, perhaps as children arrive, the things which concern her, which she cares about, which she is willing to sacrifice for become more and more different from those things which a single girl about town has on her mind. The forgetting then is less a casting of of the old and more a putting on of the new.        

There is a more than literal meaning though to this command to forget. God does not hate families or expect us to do so either. Except for those few people called to live out their Divine Matrimony in monasteries or hermitages most Christians will experience the companionship of the Bridegroom in the context of their own domestic setting, their earthly spouses, children, parents, siblings, friends, communities, Churches. There Jesus is to be an inseparable companion, His friendship and example enriching the way that we give of ourselves to those dear to us, the way that we love and are loved. The turning to Him, the forgetting of earthly chains becomes not a negation of these relationship but a raising up of them to a higher level, a spiritualisation of them. If the Saints have acted as agents of God to us then we must act as agents of God to our neighbours for if we are one flesh with Him how could we do otherwise? There is one important proviso in all that we do however, Every Christian must be a potential martyr. The commitment we have made is one that overrides all others. Given a choice between suffering or even death on the one hand or repudiating our faith, by word or deed, on the other then we must be willing to suffer and dies if needs be. Not because we desire a reward in heaven but because we are faithful spouses. At this point, given many events in recent world history, I feel the need to stress that for Christians the concept of martyrdom consists of a willingness to endure suffering but never, never, never a willingness to inflict it.

The Bride who has done these things, listened, considered and turned towards the Bridegroom, becomes in His eyes beautiful precisely because she has done those things. In the whole history of humankind it sometimes happens, rarely I'm sure but sometimes, that a bride becomes a little vain. She is proud of her beauty and congratulates herself if only within herself about it. In his letter to the Ephesians St Paul lets us into a secret about the bride of Christ.  Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27) Any beauty we may have comes to us as pure gift from the Bridegroom. What Christians call Grace, the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, is the very thing that prompts us to listen, that helps us to consider wisely and which sustains that act of will by which we turn towards Him and keep turned towards Him. And it is the sacrifice of the Son on the Cross at Calvary that washes us clean from all the acts by which we have disfigured our beauty from the very moment that we first set our heart on anything other than Him. So if we are radiant brides He is our radiance, if we have a beautiful dress He has supplied it. Another motif which runs through the Old Testament is that of adultery, the sin by which Israel turns from the Almighty and runs after other husbands. If we too fall in that way then our Groom stands ready to make us anew if we once again turn back to Him. We have no cause for vanity or pride but many causes for gratefulness and, it maybe, for repentance too.

Not the least cause for our gratitude lies in the fact that He, Creator of all that is seen and unseen, desires us. He loves us. He died for us. We are not instruments to be used we are made by Him in His image and likeness. Despite all that we have done to mar that image, to distort that likeness He will patiently help us to reconfigure ourselves to our Divinely crafted original. He desires us, if we remember this continually then we will as continually strive to make ourselves worthy of that love by allowing His hands to mould us into that which we should always have been had not our blindness and folly led us astray down dark paths where He is not to be found.


And so to the controversy. What I have said so far is I think common ground among most Christian traditions. Catholics see in the figure of the bride all that Protestants see. In addition, however, they discern Mary the Mother of Jesus. In part this is because, in a sense, Mary is the Church. For a time, certainly, the Church consisted of her alone, she was the first to hear of Jesus, the first to have faith in Him, the first to give Him to the world, the first to follow Him. In part also it is because she most assuredly is the spouse of the Holy Spirit for by His power it was that she became fruitful and contained within her womb Him whom the heavens could not contain, the Logos of God, her Son Jesus. But I think even if we lay aside all these claims for Mary which Protestants for reasons of their own baulk at we should all be able to agree that our Lady represents to a superlative degree all those qualities which the psalmist outlines.

Mary listened to the Archangel Gabriel attentively, she considered their meaning she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be (Luke 1:29) And not just once did she listen, not just once did she consider but repeatedly  Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  (Luke 2:19His mother treasured all these things in her heart.  (Luke 2:51)  And she turned towards Him and forgot all else at the beginning Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. (Luke 1:38) and at what appeared to be the disastrous end Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister (John 19:25) And, quite literally she was given a new family When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 26-27)  A family which she was at the centre of and family ties which strengthened not weakened their mutual faithfulness to the Bridegroom  When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus  (Acts 1:13-14)        

And we for our part can do nothing better than to imitate Mary. As she chose so can we Those who look to Him are radiant with joy; their faces will never be ashamed. (Psalm 34:5)  
  
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Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Lord is my Shepherd


He leads me beside the still waters,
He restores my soul.
Psalm 23(22):2-3 Christian Community Bible

When a text or a song is very familiar to us there is a temptation to dismiss its content as clichéd, its use, as an expression of ideas or emotions, as hackneyed or sentimentalist. Or at any rate it is a temptation for those of us who have intellectual pretensions; forever on the look out for new, original ideas or previously undiscovered truths. Ordinary folk, on the other hand, at moments of great sorrow or great joy reach out almost instinctively to those texts or songs which have stood the test of time. They make natural companions to such moments because we can perceive if only intuitively that they speak to and from the heart of shared human experiences of the deepest kind. Here we see that the wisdom of the foolish exceeds by far the wisdom of the wise.

Psalm 23 can be dismissed as at best one dimensional and at worst a dreary depiction of a patriarchal, hierarchical religion. Yet if we come to it as new, discounting its familiarity, we can see within it the most profound of themes, the answers to questions that we did not realise we were asking. This certainly applies to the two lines which we are considering here.

He leads me. The late Christopher Hitchens, God rest his soul, had great fun with the notion of Christians as sheep. He, himself trenchantly resisted the notion of being such a thing himself. Rather ironically many other New Atheists in a thoroughly ovine way have followed where he led and use the term sheeple as an abusive term for believers. What they miss by looking at the sheep is the Shepherd in the same way that the idiot who looks at the pointing finger of the sage misses the moon. Christians begin by looking outward, towards the Christ. When we have seen Him, when we have recognised Him, when we have begun to know Him as He knows us who would not be His follower? We only recognise our littleness when once we have recognised His greatness. The Shepherd leads us first of all to Himself. Those who despise sheeple do not inform the surgeon that they will perform open heart surgery on themselves or the pilot that they will navigate the plane across the Atlantic. Where it affects their physical safety they will submit to any amount of authority and leadership. Where it comes to curbing their pride or recognising the limitations of their intellect in matters of the spirit then they will submit to no one or nothing, except indeed to their bodies and their bodily appetites. The choice, as always, is not between freedom and submission but about to what we shall submit.

He leads me. King David, to whom the psalm is attributed, was himself a shepherd. What he and his audience would have known without having to think about it was that shepherds lead flocks. Psalm 23 is couched in the terms of an interpersonal relationship but the subtext is that the shepherd is leading not just one but many. There can be too much emphasis on the notion of individual salvation. Jesus formed a community around Him, a community that endured, that became a Church, a community which still exists today. There are only two commands, He says, love God and love your neighbour as yourself. They are related commands. If we do not love our neighbour and desire for her what we desire for ourselves then self-evidently we do not love the God who died precisely to save that neighbour of ours. The Lord leads me but I can only follow if I consent to do so in company. The Lord saves me but I am only saved if I long as much for the salvation of others, and above all of my enemies, as I do for my own.

Beside the still waters. Those of us who live in temperate climates where rain is a frequent guest may not appreciate how it was that in the ancient Middle East water was simultaneously a necessity and a luxury. Its absence was always feared, its presence could never be taken for granted. When Jesus says he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45) you might think that He is comparing a good thing with a bad thing. Not at all, the shining of the sun and the falling of the rain were both equally important for survival, they were, and are, both blessings. So for David the image of the waters is a potent shorthand way of expressing the presence of life, of abundance, of refreshment. The quenching of thirst is one of the greatest of physical pleasures, the ending of our spiritual dryness one of the greatest of  God's gifts to us.

Still waters. A traditional image for tranquility and also for meditation is that of a clear, calm, quiet lake or pond. It is a restful image, and one of the promises of God is to give us rest. A sabbath rest still remains for the people of God;  for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labours  (Hebrews 4:9-10)  This is a rest which we shall enter into fully only in eternity yet even now we can partially experience it. And stillness in the presence of the Lord is one road by which we can enter into it. Ceasing from activity, from discursive thought, leaving aside our anxieties of the day and being still, placing ourselves before God in a patient, thankful waiting is such an experience of rest. The still waters too are a perfect mirror, they faithfully record what is above it. Our stillness is an opportunity to open ourselves to the image of the One who is above us, to become His mirror to reflect Him to Himself and to our neighbours and to carry that image with us wherever we may go.

Beside the still waters He restores my soul. The key factor is, of course, the shepherd. He could restore my soul any time He chose and in any place He chose. Yet our attention here is drawn to the combination of His work and the place where this takes place. The material setting plays a role in the spiritual regeneration. This is a fruit of the Incarnation, of God becoming Man. Material objects are not so many barriers to our spiritual awakening but rightly used and in the company of the Good Shepherd they can be so many superhighways precisely towards achieving it. The bread and wine of the Eucharist becomes not only the Body and Blood of God but His Soul and Divinity also and that not despite being material but because His Divine Spirit and His Body are inextricably and eternally linked as One. So, likewise material things, the sound of sacred music, the sight of sacred art, the cool shade of a lakeside arbour can be so many aids or helps to our Lord as He proceeds about the business of restoring our souls.

He restores my soul. It is important to grasp this truth- We cannot heal ourselves. We can break ourselves, certainly, but we can't put ourselves back together again. Co-operating in our healing is necessary of course but it is not sufficient. Psalm 23 points us to the healer and gives us images of the healing. Recognising that we are lost is a good beginning to the process of being found. Without Him we cannot come to the waters, we will not find refreshment, our soul will not be restored. Unless we realise that we are thirsty we will not drink. Without Him we cannot know that the answer to our restlessness, our darkness, our pain is to be found in the water that streamed from His spear-pierced side on Calvary. The water that restores my soul is the water of baptism.

Restores. Restoration implies a return to a previous condition. When David talks about restoring the soul perhaps he had in mind a return to the pre-lapsarian condition of Adam and Eve, the story of whom is a useful vehicle for summarising Man's loss of innocence and subsequent  alienation from God. But we live in a new dispensation now. O Felix Culpa sings the Church, O Happy fault which won for us such a great Redeemer. Our second state is better than our first. If we accept Christ as Lord and Saviour then our condition is infinitely superior to that of our first parents. How much superior we can see above all others in the figure of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. If her Son is the New Adam then she is the New Eve. Jesus is superior to Adam by nature, He is Divine as well as human, Mary is superior to Eve by Grace, she is fully and only human. It is in the nature of things that every creature will have one among their number who is best of all that species and most fulfils the potential inherent in them all. So it is with Mary, she fulfils to the uttermost limits of fulfillment all that humans can be of compassion, love, gentleness and devotion to God and neighbour. She is that mirror which most clearly reflects the Son. She is us as we should be. She is the restored soul par excellence because more than restored, O felix culpa, and no one, no one, is closer to Jesus than she. If we would follow Him then we must stay close to her and we cannot go astray.

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Thursday, 3 July 2014

Is Spirituality Superior to Religion 2?


Everyone has the same spiritual access to God — or the Great Spirit, or the Goddess — regardless of education or background. It is a personal spiritual access from within the individual directly to the Supreme Being - 
Stephen E. Schlarb

Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him.
Acts of the Apostles 8:30-31



In Part One I looked at the shared understanding that both 'spiritual but not religious' and 'religious as well as spiritual' people have that there is an underlying transcendent reality to the cosmos we inhabit. In this Part I propose to look at the assumptions-
a) Religion is man-made and artificial but spirituality is an authentic personal response to the Divine, and
b) Religion is hopelessly bound up in rules and regulations but spirituality is free.
I am writing from the perspective of Christianity but, in fact, I think my arguments would have some traction with all the major religions.

An individual human is limited and finite; the reality which they seek to apprehend or intuit is infinite and eternal. This means that each person can only grasp a small portion of it on the basis of personal experience alone. If they are content with that small portion not only are they terminally incurious but they have just created their very own personal man or woman-made religion. When we set the limits to what is knowable or experienceable on the basis of ourselves alone then we are not really responding to the infinite we are imprisoning it within our own limitations. At the very least it seems reasonable to suggest that spiritual seekers should seek to benefit from the collective wisdom traditions of other spiritual seekers. These can point us towards ways of accessing the Divine that we would not necessarily have thought of ourselves. They can suggest dimensions to the transcendent which we never would have imagined left to our own devices. Authentic spirituality then ceases to be merely an individual experience and becomes part of a community spread over both space and time.

Religion can be considered from this perspective to be the communities that collect, preserve and transmit wisdom traditions. Without the existence of such more or less stable more or less durable organisations or belief systems much wisdom would be lost from one generation to the next. Religion, however, can claim to be more than that. Christianity, for example, posits a Divine Revelation. God by intervening in various ways in human history reveals more of Himself and more about Himself than we could possibly apprehend without such a revelation. Unaided wisdom can lift us to the upper reaches of our own abilities, Revealed truth can lift us into eternity both in this life and in the one to come. In the figure of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, Christians see the fullest possible self-revelation of God. Religion based upon such a revelation is not a man-made one but a received one. We respond to what we have received and seek to form a relationship with the Divine One based upon it. Dogma and doctrine are not attempts to impose order on disorderly humans but are the formulae we use to summarise the truths we have received. Accepting these dogmatic definitions and using them as the basis from which we seek to understand and respond to the Divinity is not an inauthentic man-made response to a transcendent reality it is the fruit of the shared wisdom and understanding of generations of believers who have known God through Christ.

Of course the question naturally arises why accept one revelation rather than another? Why Jesus and not Krishna or why St Paul and not the prophet of Islam? In a world where people travelled little and knew of few religions it would be natural for them to accept lock stock and barrel the religion of one's country or region because they knew no other. For us in multi-cultural societies with easy access to all the wisdom and faith traditions of the world would it not be best to heed all wisdoms and act only on those which spoke most clearly to us? Well, yes and no. The idea that a personal spirituality is something that we acquire like we do an outfit, shoes from here, hat from there, handbag from somewhere else is rather repugnant to both good taste and good sense. Each religious tradition is a coherent whole. It has a consistent inner logic, one part fits with another. It is difficult if not impossible to appreciate that coherence and to benefit from the fruits of it from outside of the tradition. I was a Catholic for ten years or so before it all began to really make sense to me. If you try to match together disparate elements from different traditions it is not the best of all possible worlds that you will get because you will be reducing wisdom to your size not allowing your size to be expanded by wisdom. So much for the 'no', the 'yes' is simply this- to accept a religious revelation as authentic and to live your life by it is leap of faith and that faith can only be founded upon your personal experience of it.  I would urge people in the strongest possible terms to look towards Jesus and by prayer and hope and careful study of the Gospels to invite Him into your heart and life. That would give you the most authentic and most enduring of all spiritual lives. Other religions would no doubt offer similar invitations. The proof of religion is experimental which is a posh way of saying 'suck it and see.'

We come now to the idea that religions are bound by strict commands which usually begin with "thou shalt not" whereas spirituality is free from such restrictions and, therefore, less oppressive. It is certainly true that religions have rules and it is also true that within each tradition there are those for whom the rules are the religion. The textbook case of this. perhaps unfairly, are the Pharisees as depicted in the Gospels. In the history of Catholicism too there have been periods where outward observance has been seen as more important than the inner spiritual life. Providentially in such times God has raised up prophetic figures like St Catherine of Siena or St Francis of Assisi to guide it back into the path of authentic spirituality (something I looked at in my Girl Power blog.) Rules do serve a purpose other than social control however. The spiritual journey is about transformation. We are changed by it. Every gain involves a loss, we must shed, sometimes painfully shed, parts of ourselves which we are quite comfortable with. Our rough edges need to be smoothed our smoothness needs to be roughed. Most of all our ego needs to be irretrievably shattered a process beyond our own power to achieve. Rules against which we chafe, decisions which we can only accept in the first instance with faith hoping that reason will follow it in due course, these are the tools by which our square peg can be shaped to slot into the round hole. We should not fly from restrictions because they are difficult to adhere to and hard to understand, these are the very reasons that we should accept them when we know that generations before us have passed through the precise same crucible and so arrived at the point where they can say from experience 'the kingdom of God is within.'

It is false anyway to think that we are free if we are not bound by external forces. Our internal forces hold us fast in their grip. We are oppressed by our desires, our appetites our fears and inhibitions, our demons. Jesus put it like this Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. (John 8:34) It is all too often the case that when we wish to do something good or avoid doing something bad a force inside us overrides our good intentions and we find ourselves acting in ways that we ourselves think hateful. The choice before us is not freedom or slavery but involuntary slavery to our lower selves or voluntary obedience to the Divine One. And when each act is a free will offering to the Highest of the High, the Sweetest of the Sweet the Lord who has granted us our freedom to reject or accept Him then it is an escape from oppression not a retreat into it. When we can share in Mary's joyful exclamation Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word. (Luke 1:38) then we will have entered into a loving relationship between ourselves and the Persons of the Blessed Trinity who form the one underlying truth to all that is. Then spirituality and religion lose their distinction because we have become absorbed into the life of God Himself.

It is in the nature of humans to be spiritual seekers, to recognise the God-shaped gap in their lives and look for ways to fill it. Many grasp at substitutes, the immediate sensual gratifications that the world offers so abundantly. Others seek more ethereal experiences but are resolved to be the master of my fate.. the captain of my soul (Invictus, William Ernest Henley.) Such a resolution, though, is a delusion. We are never the masters (or mistresses) of our fate, we cannot control illnesses, the death of loved ones, the collapse of the firm we work for, the bomb that explodes on our aeroplane. Neither can we captain a soul which we cannot even compel to stop eating chocolate when we want to lose weight. We are both less free and more free than we think we are. Less free because we carry a cross without realising it, more free because we can choose to carry it with the help of Christ when we do realise it. And with Him nothing is impossible.

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