Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Repent! Of What?


In contemporary English the command 'Repent' is generally considered to have 'of your sins' as its object. This, however, is not necessarily so. That is, while the correct response when considering your sins is always repentance it does not follow that the correct response when thinking about repentance is an exclusive focus on sin. The two things are not invariably linked in Christian Scripture. St Mark reports the beginning of the mission of Jesus in this way-
After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
(Mark 1:13-14)

The final clause might be interpreted as two separate commands-
1)Repent of your sins and also 2)believe in the gospel.
But it seems to me to be more likely that it is a single command-
Repent and therefore believe in the gospel.
If we consider that the word 'repent' has an existence apart from the word 'sin' then we need to know what it means. The Greek original of which it is a translation is metanoia which literally means change ones mind. Since, however, the ancient Greeks meant something much more by the concept of Mind than modern English speakers do the literal translation does not help us much. I think that we would have a clearer grasp of the command if we took it to mean something like 'completely reorient yourself and your direction of travel.'

The answer to the question 'repent of what?' then becomes 'of everything.' This is why our Lord would think that one who repents would therefore believe in the gospel because if we orient the focus of our being and activity away from the material realm of the senses then it can only be towards the spiritual realm which He names the kingdom of God. Of course the demand to repent of everything is the most radical of all possible demands and prompts the supplementary question why? It is easy enough to assess what we would lose from such a change of direction but it is less clear what it is that we would gain. Indeed the why question is one of the underlying assumptions of the Atheist Bus Campaign slogan "There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The assumption here being that enjoying life is the thing we would lose and worrying is the thing which we would gain if we respond to Jesus' invitation.

There is actually some truth in this if we accept the idea that the object of repentance is always 'of your sins' because then we would spend all our time worrying about how good or bad we are at adapting our external behaviour to a more or less rigid set of rules many of which seem arbitrary to ourselves and even more so to our neighbours. However if we go with the idea that it means a reorientation of everything then it knocks two of the slogans ideas on the head. Firstly, a life directed primarily to the things of the spirit enables us to affirm that actually, yes, there is a God. Secondly, we discover that worry is far less of a factor in the spirit filled life than it is in the materialist one and that if its characteristic isn't enjoyment that is only because its characteristic is joy. What I am doing here of course is making an assertion. The only way to find out if it is a true assertion is to try it for yourself. Repent and be made anew.

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The painting is Cristoforo by De Predis




Friday, 13 May 2016

Pentecost & the Idiot


And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim
Acts 2:4

There is an ancient Chinese saying that when the sage points at the moon the idiot looks at his finger. This refers to the idea that religious actions, practices and rituals which are designed to point beyond themselves to a transcendent reality are often transformed into ends in themselves, and dead ends at that. The 'spiritual but not religious' crowd, enemies of organised religion and theological liberals emphasise this idea and suggest that the individual presenting themselves before the ultimate spiritual reality is the only show in town. In this view the function of the Church is, at best, merely an organising one, to carry out good social work and to gather believers in one place so that they can form suitable affinity groups.

The saying, however, has an important secondary meaning which is often overlooked. We can see the moon without the help of the sage but we cannot see it through his eyes without his help and guidance. That is, both the sage and his finger are necessary parts of the process which transform our understanding of the moon into something which we did not possess before. From a Christian point of view it is sometimes argued that since we receive the Holy Spirit, who is God Himself, then what need do we have for formalised actions, practices and rituals since we can be guided directly? What happened in the days immediately after this gift was first received? St Luke tells us-
They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.
Acts 2:42
So, although each believer had been touched by the Holy Spirit in order to grow in understanding, love and effective response they had recourse to the teachings brought to them by the companions of Jesus and to the spiritual strengthening offered by the sacrament of the Eucharist and by the liturgy. In that sense the Spirit is like the moon and the sage, we can each perceive its presence within us but to grow in response to its presence requires us to make an effort beginning with having the humility to recognise our own weakness and ignorance. The Apostolic Church is our sage and wise guide, the sacraments are the finger of God. Believers need them both if they are to both see and understand the true light which comes to us from the Father and the Son.

Blessed John Henry Newman, of course, expressed this idea with more elegance than I can hope to muster-
Our Prayers and Services, and Holy days, are only forms, dead forms, which can do us no good. Yes, they are dead forms to those who are dead, but they are living forms to those who are living. If you come here in a dead way, not in faith, not coming for a blessing, without your hearts being in the service, you will get no benefit from it. But if you come in a living way, in faith, and hope, and reverence, and with holy expectant hearts, then all that takes place will be a living service and full of heaven.
(Parochial Sermons Vol 7:13)

@stevhep


The painting is Pentecost by  Jan Joest van Kalkar



Monday, 18 April 2016

A Simple Method of Contemplative Prayer




The Method

  • Adopt a comfortable posture with the spine as nearly straight as possible and the eyes open or half-closed.
  • Form a specific intention for your period of prayer.
  • Say to yourself or quietly an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be. (the prayers mentioned can be found at CatholiCity dot com))
  • Then with your indrawn breath say to yourself or out loud 'Jesus' and with your outward breath 'Mary.'
  • Persist in this for whatever time you have decided, I recommend not less than ten minutes and not more than forty-five.
  • Finish with a Salve Regina/Hail Holy Queen and offer your thanks to God.

The Rationale


  • There is nothing mystical about the posture. Its designed to be comfortable enough to hold for a reasonable length of time without being so comfortable that you fall asleep. If you prefer kneeling to sitting while you pray then do so.
  • The intention transforms your action from a solitary one to a communal one. If you intend the spiritual benefits of your prayer to flow to the needs of the world, or the Church or your loved ones then it is not all about you. If your intention is to be strengthened in virtue then, again, the chief beneficiary of your good acts will not be yourself.
  • Saying the prayers of the Church is not only a good thing in itself but, psychologically and physiologically it provides a bridge between whatever you were doing before to what you are about to do. It allows your body and mind to relax into their new activity.
  • Jesus is the breath of life to us so invoking Him with our inspiration makes good sense. Mary is our mother, our fellow pilgrim, our good companion, so sending our respiration up to heaven with her for company also makes sense.
  • Again the prayers at the end are good in themselves and, in the case of the Thanks Be To God, necessary, whilst also acting as a useful bridge.

Practical Tips
As soon as you try to keep your mind focussed and your body still both of them immediately revolt and seek to through you off course. As far as the body goes you are likely to break out into itches and aches and pains combined with a need to convulsively swallow every few seconds. Of the two, body and mind, this is probably the easier to overcome. When you feel the need to scratch, change position or swallow don't try to ignore it or to resist it heroically. If, in addition to paying attention to your breathing and the names of Jesus and Mary you just direct your mind towards the part of the body most affected and, as it were, mentally observe it then the feeling will likely pass away fairly quickly. If not then change position and settle down again. In my experience this bodily restlessness stops being an issue after a fairly short period of regularly praying this way.

The mind is a much trickier proposition to deal with. Distracting thoughts race through it almost all the time and you begin to engage with them and get led away into wondering what to have for lunch or who's going to win the World Series or the wonderful thing you are going to do the moment you stop praying or whatever. There is nothing you can do to prevent thoughts arising so don't try. Focus as much as you can on your breathing and on the names of Jesus and Mary. When you notice that you've engaged with a thought don't get irritated or resolve to do better next time. Just gently let it go and resume your focus until the next time. Unlike the challenge from the body this distraction is likely to be with you for the duration so just live with it and do the best you can do.



Reflection

No method or form of prayer acts like a magic bullet in and of itself. In order for it to be effective in a spiritual sense, whatever it might do for us therapeutically as a stress reliever, it needs to be accompanied by a right intention on the part of the person praying and a free act of grace given to us by God through the hands of Mary. Moreover, even if those things are present prayer on its own does not constitute the spiritual life, it needs to be accompanied by a participation in the life of the Church, her sacraments strengthen us, her liturgies teach us, her Sacred Scriptures refresh us, and our fellow members in Christ need our charity as we need theirs.

Granting all these things what spiritual benefit can we hope for from this method of praying? This is something that will vary from person to person so really the only way to find out for yourself is to do it for yourself. Decide that for a period of time, a month maybe or three months, you will set aside half an hour or so for at least six days every week and pray in this manner and then you will be in a better position than I am to answer the question.

The question of outcome though is linked to that of right intention which I mentioned above. The aim is to focus entirely on the love of God who has come to us, through Mary, in the person of Jesus Christ. We cannot be unmindful of the details of His life, particularly His Passion, Death and Resurrection, but these are present to us implicitly in His sacred Name as are the other two persons of the Trinity. They are present also in the name of Mary who stood at the foot of the Cross on Golgotha and who is the daughter of the Father, the spouse of the Holy Spirit and the Mother of the Son. Our purpose though is not to call any of these things explicitly to our conscious minds but simply to place ourselves in the presence of this divine love expressed in incarnated form through Jesus and received and lived out most perfectly in Mary. And having placed ourselves so we simply wait for that seed to grow in the way and at the pace that the good God decides is best for us. We travel in faith towards love sustained by hope. And then we will know.

@stevhep

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The picture is a detail from The Annunciation by Joos van cleve








Monday, 4 April 2016

Mary and the Word of God



The word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do
Isaiah 55:11

And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word
Luke 1:38

When the Solemnity of the Annunciation coincides with Eastertide it invites us to consider the great mysteries together. Pre-eminently the Word of the Father is the Son. That Son went forth from the mouth of the Father and became clothed in flesh the moment our Lady gave her glad consent. Before, at the Ascension, He returned to His source the Word experienced the flight into Egypt, the hidden life in Nazareth, the mission in Galilee, the betrayal, abandonment, torture and death of the Passion and the Easter resurrection. All of which constituted, as Isaiah foresaw, a carrying out of the will of the Father, voluntarily undertaken, and an achievement of His purposes using the weapons of humility and seeming defeat.

This all was the work of the Triune God Himself. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each involved essentially in everything that makes for Man's liberation from the dominion of darkness. It has never been, however, God's way with His free creatures, Men and Angels, to act alone, without their participation in their own emancipation. Before the Son, as Man, could begin to do the will of the Father on earth Mary, as Woman and as our representative, had first to make that precise same choice- voluntary obedience to the Father's will.

The glorious triumph of Easter, then, is radically dependent on the quiet faithfulness of Mary. The work of the Word on earth, in the person of Jesus, is God's will in action. This is an exercise of power which is not imposed upon humans but which comes about through His co-operation with them. It is, to be sure, not a relationship of equals, the distance between God and Man is always infinite except in the God Man Jesus. Nonetheless it is a necessity for the God who *is* Love to act in ways which are true to His essential nature and that includes respecting the freedom of those whom He has created to be free. In Measure for Measure Isabella says-
O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant. 
The Lord God is no tyrant therefore He uses His strength with restraint and as a Father not like the pagan gods who were understood to be capricious, deceitful and without restraint of any kind save that imposed by other gods.

It is because God's nature makes human co-operation a necessity for human redemption to be achieved that we can speak of the particular human, Mary, whose co-operation was most necessary as a co-redeemer with Jesus. There is of course only one redeemer, Jesus, and one redemption, through His crucifixion and death, yet without Mary's fiat mihi there would have been no flight into Egypt, no hidden years in Jerusalem and, above all, no Passion, Death and Resurrection. The Father's Word went forth and returned successful not only because it was spoken by Him but also, and crucially, because it was heard and listened to by the Blessed Virgin Mary.

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


Monday, 14 March 2016

Frodo the Mystic


Towards the end of the Lord of the Rings there is a significant piece of dialogue-

" 'Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together,' said Merry. 'We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.'
  'Not to me,' said Frodo. 'To me it feels more like falling asleep again'."

Each of the hobbits have, physically, travelled long distances but Frodo alone has travelled to places beyond the merely physical. He has had peak experiences of darkness and light and these have taught him that the world we inhabit, so close at hand and seeming solid, is really ephemeral by comparison with what lies beyond the boundaries of normal vision and experience. In that sense he resembles the traveller in the cave allegory of Plato, having seen the Sun he knows that normal life is a focussing on shadows.

More than that, Frodo has been wounded-

'There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?'

Although his injuries were inflicted with malevolent intent, aiming to subdue him to the rule of evil, they have not been effective. His restlessness does not seek slaves to satisfy itself like a Sauron or a Saruman. No, Frodo’s hopes are set elsewhere-

...the ship went out into the High Sea on into the West, until at last on a night of rain, Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

The purpose of Christian mysticism is to seek union with God not to enjoy what classical authors call ‘consolations.’ Nonetheless, for many mystics transcendent moments, glimpses of the Divine do form part of the journey. Those moments of grace have the twofold effect that Frodo experienced, that is they make the mystic see the world differently, as less substantial, and they resemble a wounding. The Catholic mystical writer St John of the Cross put it like this-

Where have you hidden,
             Beloved, and left me moaning?
             You fled like the stag
             after wounding me;
             I went out calling you, but you were gone.

Having been wounded the only cure is to seek out the One who inflicted the wound since He alone has the power to heal. This search, though, will often lead through lands of desolation and darkness, akin to the lands Frodo travelled across in his quest.

Why, since you wounded
             this heart, don't you heal it?
             And why, since you stole it from me,
             do you leave it so,
             and fail to carry off what you have stolen?

All we can do is travel, the final decision about when or if we shall encounter the One who heals and then be healed is not ours but His. Tolkien indicates this by the way in which he allows providence and not Frodo himself to effect the destruction of the Ring on Mount Doom. Frodo’s time in the Shire, however, is not simply a passive waiting for the final journey. Although he is little seen and less regarded by most of the hobbits of the Shire it is his wisdom and guidance which lies behind the active measures, and the compassion, by which Merry, Pippin and Sam set things to rights. Mystics, contemplatives and hermits are not called to self indulgently seek a private fulfillment but to be witnesses to the world of the deep truth that lies hidden to eyes that do not seek it. Frodo uses his experience, and his wounds, as a guide to those who have travelled less far than him.

One of the concerns of most religions is to help prepare people for death and Frodo’s last few years in the Shire and his final journey into the West can be seen as metaphors for old age (or sickness) and death. But there is no real contradiction between the mystical path of seeking union with God and the more common one of preparing for a good death. The end is the same, to be at rest in the eternal heart of infinite love who is our God. The mystic, like Frodo, experiences here and now a foretaste of what each of those who are faithful to the end can hope to experience forever.
(this post first appeared on the Quiet Column blog under the name of Étienne McWilliam)


St John of the Cross quotes from


Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Out of the Silence



The use of perspective in painting means that one can stand very close to an object yet have the illusion that it is in the far distance. Religious believers often experience something of the kind in their relationship with the Divine One. Faith informs us that He is near at hand, within and without, yet our senses, our emotions our intellect cannot detect Him. "If He is silent and deaf then it is the same as if He did not exist" a little voice whispers to us.

This experience of His absence could, on the one hand, lead us to abandon faith altogether or else it might teach us patience. It sometimes happens that when people ask me something I spend some time thinking before I answer. Often the questioner will repeat the question or move on to some other topic before I start speaking. The expectation is that conversation should have no pauses and when they occur they should be skated over as quickly as possible. Why should this be so though? There is no objective reason why speech should always take priority over thought, indeed the very opposite might be argued to be the case in many situations.

Naturally you can guess where I am going with this. If silence is not evidence that a conversation is at an end then neither is absence evidence of non-existence. The silence of God, who is love, must necessarily be a loving silence. He does not need time to think but we often need time to be made ready to listen attentively and to hear clearly.

Every year the Church offers us the season of Lent as a desert experience. We do without things which normally accompany us and we wait for the great transformation of the world which Easter will effect. It is an opportunity for us to change our own perspectives. Not, here, as an artistic technique but rather as the ground upon which we stand when we survey all that is around us. It is a time to experience silence and loss and desolation confident in the knowledge that it will be followed by a resurrection, a triumphing of light over darkness.

The silence of the God who is near at hand is not a rejection. It is an invitation. Our task is to see it, to recognise it and to accept it.

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The painting is Landscape with Hagar and the Angel by Claude Gellée





Thursday, 31 December 2015

Forty Joyful Days


St Luke tells us about three significant forty-day periods in the life of our Lord. These are:
  • the time between the Nativity and the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22)
  • the time that Jesus spent in the desert after His baptism (Luke 4:1-2)
  • the time between the Passion and the Ascension of our Lord (Acts 1:3)
It would seem to be the case that the period in the wilderness was a necessary final preparation before the Messiah began His mission and that the period after the resurrection was a necessary final preparation before the Apostles undertook their mission, to proclaim the Good News to the world. I would argue that the first period constituted a necessary preparation for Mary before she undertook her mission as the Mother of God present in the flesh, Emmanuel, God with us.

The forty-days had an explicitly Marian dimension in that they constituted the time required for Mary to purify herself, according to the Law of Moses, after the birth of a son. Of course strictly speaking she could have dispensed with the requirement (as her Son could have done with circumcision on the eighth day) because the Law was only the shadow of things to come (Colossians 2:16-17) and the reality had now come in the form of the infant Christ. However since He was born of a woman, born under the Law (Galatians 4:4) it was seemly that the provisions of the Law should be adhered to until our Lord completed His mission on the cross at Calvary.

These days, though, were much more than the formal keeping of an outward legal prescription. They were a time of great and never to be repeated joy for the Blessed Virgin. Mary had a life full of sorrow and trouble. From the Annunciation to the first Christmas she had all the anxieties of any pregnancy plus the peculiar difficulties attendant on being the unique virgin mother-to-be of the Son of God. She also had the pain of inflicting pain upon St Joseph by her silence about the conception until an angel enlightened him about it. Furthermore she undertook three long journeys during this time, those to and from St Elizabeth and finally the trip to Bethlehem while nine-months pregnant which ended in the worry about finding somewhere to stay while she give birth.

During the Presentation Simeon prophesied that she would have her soul pierced by a sword (Luke 2:34-25) although there is no doubt that she was more concerned that he also foresaw that her Son would be a sign of contradiction and thus experience in Himself a turbulent life. The shadow which descended upon her at these words would never afterwards depart from her until all was fulfilled. And then, shortly afterwards, she and St Joseph had to escape form the Holy Land altogether and seek refuge in far-off and alien Egypt.

Mary, though, was blessed with these forty tranquil, trouble-free, joyous days with her Son and the holy patriarch. It was a time to bond with Him. To gaze her fill upon Him with the eyes of a mother and of a daughter of God. He was blood of her blood and flesh of her flesh and nourished wholly by the milk of her own body. There were no clouds in the sky. She could reflect with gladness and hope on the words of the archangel Gabriel "He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end." (Luke 1:32-33) And on those of the angel to the shepherds "I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people" (Luke 2:10)


The relationship between our Lord and our Lady that was so close and that endured so much had begun in her womb and continued long after these days but this period was special. For the first time they could see each other and Mary could express her love through the simple, practical actions of the body which are so human and so necessary. To kiss her child, to hold Him in her arms, to see Him sleep, to lie still and hear Him breathe, to feed Him and bathe Him, to smile at Him, perhaps to shed tears of pure happiness over Him. These were the things that transformed Mary into the woman who would be able to do and suffer all that she would subsequently be called upon to endure for the cause of the Redemption wrought for us all by her Jesus.

Luke repeatedly tells us that Mary treasures the things of Jesus in her heart and ponders upon them. This is of twofold importance for these forty-days. Firstly, during that time she could call into her heart the love and mercy of God towards her, her people Israel and all the world and link it to the child whom she was just beginning to know. Secondly, in the long, dark and troubled years to follow she could summon up the spirit of these days to console and strengthen her. This would be no nostalgia for better times but an actual making present within herself of the incarnated love which having been begun in the world and in her inmost being would never pass out of them though they would sometimes be hidden. And this is what makes these days important for us too. We can not only rejoice with Mary's rejoicing but we can imitate her. In our moments of trial we, by contemplating the life of our Lord and recalling our personal moments of grace can bring them to life because they are moments of eternity which have intersected with time. In prayer and thankfulness we, like our Lady, can find the key that lets light into our darkness because we too can adore her Son any time we want to.
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The paintings are The Holy Family-the workshop of Raphael and The Holy Family- Joos van Cleve


Friday, 25 December 2015

On the Feast of Stephen

Giorgio Vasari Martyrdom of St Stephen.jpg
The birthday of the Christ child was an event of joy for each person involved in it, as it has been for Christians ever since. Yet it was a joy hedged about with anxieties. The Magi may have had to resort to people smugglers to escape from Palestine. The Holy Family were forced to seek asylum in Egypt. The infants of Bethlehem were massacred by the security services of a paranoid Middle-Eastern despot. It is no accident, then, that Holy Church has twinned the celebration of Christmas on the 25th with that of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen, on the 26th of December.

You do not have to be religious, of course, to appreciate the fragility of human happiness. In these days we are remembering the centenary of the First World War. There were many thousands of births in Cowley or Cologne, Dublin or Delhi, where unfeigned rejoicing was tempered by fear that the fathers of the babies would never live to see them. Weddings too were celebrated in the shadow of barbed wire and poison gas.

We are powerfully tempted to use magic to banish painful memories and anticipations from our thoughts. Not just the magic of spells and charms but that of money or power or alcohol or chocolate. Anything indeed that can keep an illusion of permanent happiness present within us. Since we know deep down, however, that none of this magic really works we are forever engaged in a restless search for new charms or more supercharged versions of current ones.

The genius of Christianity is not that it enables us to escape suffering (which is the false promise of magic) but that it brings hope into the midst of even the worst of our torments. St Stephen on trial for his life was transfigured not by fear but by the Holy Spirit “All those who sat in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.(Acts 6:15) As he met his violent death he could say “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56)

This is not a compulsory and artificial cheerfulness, many Christians suffer from the effects of depression or anxiety. It is not the least of the fruits of the Incarnation that God Himself is our companion both in our times of greatest rejoicing and those of our greatest suffering because they are no more alien to Him than they are to us. The gift of a living faith is that we possess the knowledge that we are never alone (except when we sin.) That knowledge born into the world on the first Christmas morning accompanied St Stephen as the murderous fury of a mob vented itself upon Him.

The martyred Saint, like the child born on Christmas day, was an innocent victim of unjust persecution. Being a Christian in the world can bring down more suffering upon us than if we were not Christians. In many places today this is suffering of a kind which Jesus and St Stephen could readily recognise. In the West such persecution is, for the time being at least, not experienced and there is little more than ridicule, insult and exclusion to fear. Even so why should we take this extra cross upon ourselves? Pope St John Paul II once said “Christianity is not an opinion nor does it consist of empty words. Christianity is Christ!” (World Youth Day 2003.) We have no reason to celebrate the coming of the Christ child into the world if we do not also welcome Him into our hearts. His presence there is that knowledge which enables us to more than endure the sufferings we cannot escape. It is also the sign of contradiction which challenges not only our own faith in magic but that of others. We cannot escape our own illusions without also offending those who cling to theirs. The boy born that first Christmas would one day say “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.” (John 15:18)

If, however, you do bear Christ within you then you carry a love that cries out to be shared. You can share it by your words and by your actions and these can persuade friends. To persuade enemies you need something stronger yet. The Church Father Tertullian said  "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church." Living in a country where you are not likely to die for your faith does not deny you the opportunity to make the same witness. In 1914 and 1915, no doubt, there were many people who joined the armed forces because they feared the shame of being called a coward more than they feared the trenches of Flanders or the cold waters of the Atlantic. In a sense conscientious objectors showed at least as much courage by standing against the mentality of the day as those who signed up for fear of ridicule (which is not to denigrate the courage of the many who joined up fully conscious of the risks.) For us the challenge is to say ‘Yes, we really do believe “all that stuff” however absurd it makes us appear to you and that is why we are willing to welcome refugees, to visit prisoners, to speak kindly of enemies, to reject the magic of power and money.’ And that is why, like St Stephen, we too can hope to see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.
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(the painting is the Martyrdom of St Stephen by Vasari)



Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Rabbi Koala & the Christ Child-A Christmas Fable


My life, now drawing towards its end, has been long and full of incident. I had intended to leave a record outlining all the extraordinary events which have led me to become the only koala bear in the Holy Land and a Rabbi in the Synagogue of the Creatures. Writing books, as you know, is a difficult task for animals and it took much effort and planning to obtain all the materials needed to write my account. I had only just succeeded in gathering them all together when incredibly, wonderfully, miraculously I encountered the long awaited child of promise. Laying aside then, with some regret, all my plans I will instead tell you about this, the single most important thing which has ever happened to me.

Because of my unusual history (which, alas, I will never now record) I have particular responsibility for providing pastoral care to migrant animals in what the Romans call Palestine. Most of these are congregated in the capital city, Jerusalem, so I am based there but every year I make a visit to the outlying districts. During the course of this I meet established immigrant communities and newcomers and find out what spiritual and material needs they may have. Last winter in the neighbourhood of Bethlehem I met two young pangolins, Harum and Scarum, who told me a fantastic story about a donkey, a manger and a baby (see Adoration of the Pangolins: A Christmas Fable.) Well, you know what pangolins are like; they have terrible eyesight and vivid imaginations so I didn’t set much store by this.

Clearly though something unusual had recently happened in the area. Although the local sheep were not part of my flock, as it were, being ‘indigenous’ I got to chatting with them as I went on my way. They excitedly told me about a vision of angels* who had appeared in the night sky singing about the glory of God and the coming of that child who will unite heaven and earth. If true this was news indeed since creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of this child of God.* I still wasn’t going to get worked up about it though. In my long life I’ve heard more false rumours than you can shake a stick at and I have learnt to discount about 90% of what excited creatures say.

Since I had finished my circuit of the region I was getting myself ready to return to Jerusalem when a raven dropped by and told me about a caravan from the East which had arrived in Bethlehem. News like this always interests me because I was born in India (something I would have been able to explain if I had stayed with Plan A.) Very often travellers from the Orient have news about my cousin Krishnan Koala who is something of a celebrity on the Indian subcontinent.

Being very keen to speak to the caravan animals I decided to make my way into town that evening. As the only koala for at least a thousand miles in any direction I have to be extremely cautious in the vicinity of humans since they are forever trying to capture me and put me in a circus. I waited then until the town was asleep and warily made my way in. The camels turned out to be quite chatty but terribly ignorant. Not only had they never heard of my cousin, they were from Persia not India, but they didn't even know why they had come to Bethlehem. One of the parrots, Leila, was woken up by our chatter.
“I know why we’re here” he said sleepily, “the child has been born and is in that house.”
I looked at him with wild surmise as he casually waved his left wing towards the nearest human dwelling.
“You don’t mean the One who is to unite earth with heaven and reconcile them?” I stammered.
“That is just what I mean” Leila insisted “and what's more I have seen Him. You only have to cast your eyes over Him for a moment and you will know that He is what He is.”

Now, at last, I was excited. To be within a few feet of the child of promise; an old Rabbi could ask for nothing higher.
“I will see for myself” I said and stealthily made my way into the house.

I found the Lady sitting under a single lamp in a large room. She was looking into a crib, her large, gentle eyes wholly absorbed in what they saw there. Koala’s are creatures of restricted stature and, unlike parrots, do not possess wings. I moved around in the shadows looking for something to climb so that I could get up high enough to see the baby. In doing this I must have made a noise, at any rate the Lady suddenly became aware of me. She looked up, smiled and stretched out a welcoming hand.
“Come,” she said “be not afraid,  The wolf shall dwell with the lamb: and the leopard shall lie down with the kid: the calf and the lion, and the sheep shall abide together, and a little child shall lead them. They shall not hurt, nor shall they kill in all my holy mountain*”
She radiated peace and kindness as she spoke and without hesitation I left the shadows and ran into her arms. The Lady lifted me up saying
All you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord*
And then I saw Him. Leila was right, as soon as I saw I knew. He was the source of love and it flowed from Him like a stream of living water. Most humans of course would be too dull to perceive it but we animals can see it. I realised too that this flowed from Him to the Lady and had then, through her, reached me drawing me in to adore Him.

Tears flowed from my old eyes “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation*” I managed to whisper. After I had filled my eyes and my heart with the Christ child the Lady tenderly set me down on the ground again. She looked into the shadows.
“They have no light” she said. So I set off to spread the good news.


(*The scriptures quoted in the story are- Luke 2:10-14, Romans 8:19-22, Isaiah 11:5-9, Daniel 3:81, Luke 2:29-30)

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Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Jesus-Why Bother?



In an earlier blog (Repentance-Why Bother?) I looked at reasons for making a fundamental decision to change your life, to 'die to self.' Here I will consider why, that decision having been made, you should make Jesus the focus for your new direction. It might be asked 'why look to anyone else at all?' If you are an intelligent adult possessed with the ability to reason should you not be able to work out your own destiny for yourself?

The difficulty here is that by accepting the need to radically transform your Self you have acknowledged that the problem is not something which is external. The thing which is broken cannot repair itself unaided. Archimedes is reputed to have said "Give me the place to stand, and I shall move the earth." Granted that you necessarily have a share in your own rebirth you still require some kind of partner, catalyst or teacher. Christianity proposes that Jesus is the place you can stand upon in order to move the inert globe of your dead self.

There is a passage in the Gospel according to St John which, I think, is relevant here-
-I am the door. By me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved: and he shall go in, and go out, and shall find pastures. 
-The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly.
-I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep
(John 10:9-11)
This contains three clear propositions.

  1. Jesus is the gateway through which the new self or kingdom can be entered.
  2. In Him we will experience life more fully than ever before
  3. He demonstrates a self-sacrificing love for us of a kind that cannot be exceeded.
If we were to become convinced of these three things then we would have no reason not to accept Him as the place upon which we can stand with perfect confidence and hope.

That Jesus is the door is a large claim and calls for some significant proofs. It is in the nature of the thing that such proofs can only have a persuasive not a compulsive effect. That is to say, for Jesus to be our gate we require to have a freely entered into relationship of love with Him and love requires the freedom to choose not to love. Since the Christian thesis is that our Lord is both fully human and fully divine you would expect such proofs to exist in both physical and spiritual dimensions. The material basis for believing in Him can be found in the miracles He performed, in His rising from the dead and ascension into heaven and in the subsequent unbroken history of miracles associated with His body the Church. Many people fancy that these things only appeal to the credulous and that we live in a hard-headed age where such phenomena are discounted. We are not however as original as we might think; St John tartly observed "whereas he had done so many miracles before them, they believed not in him." (John 12:37) No amount of demonstrable facts can persuade a person to believe in something which they do not wish to believe.

Nonetheless for many of us the proof can only be an experimental one i.e. we need to try Jesus for ourselves and learn from that if we can go in and out of the sheepfold as promised. He offers salvation which, insofar as it refers to our eternal state, cannot readily be proved in this life. What He says here though is "shall be saved" which combines the notions of a present benefit with those of a future state. The idea is that by entering through the door of Jesus we will be kept safe from the wolves which threaten us. In relation to repentance these wild beasts are our own unchained appetites "the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches" (1 John 2:16) These parts of ourselves should be subordinate to our reason but very often our reason is subdued by our appetites. The proof that Jesus is the door to safety comes when aided by Him our reason (and our compassion and love) win more victories over our lusts than before. The question of just how we can "put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh." (Romans 13:14) is something I hope to look at in a future blog The Catholic Church-Why Bother?

That life is experienced more abundantly with Jesus than without is also an experimental proposition. To get the full benefit of that, I would argue, you have to be immersed in the life of the Church but you can, by the grace of God, get intimations of it before taking that step. As an experiment I would recommend spending time reading the canonical gospels. Do not approach them as if they were like any other book because they are a unique literary genre. Read slowly, re-read. Open yourselves to what they contain.It is certainly possible to read them analytically and to, as it were, argue with the characters in them. Do not, however, make that the main way you read them. At times just open yourselves to them, suspend analysis and just try to get a feel for the man Jesus, let Him seep into your consciousness, into your bones.

Alongside that there is the way of prayer. There are as many different ways to pray as there are people who want to pray so I won't propose a single model. Experiment for yourself but remember, its not all about you. Listening is an important part of the process. And if what you hear is silence then go with that. When was the last time you silently listened to silence? Its not as easy as you might think. If the thought of being silent and alone worries you ask yourself why? What makes it uncomfortable?

More controversially perhaps I also suggest that the use of images will help you to bring Jesus into your life. Allied with prayer and/or gospel reading just sitting looking at an Icon of Christ or a crucifix (as opposed to a bare cross) can help you. Hold in your mind while you are gazing a few words of Scripture or a short prayer and see what happens. If you make up your mind to try these things every day for, say, six months then you will be in a better position to know whether or not you are living life more abundantly because of Jesus.

The final proposition is that Jesus is worth responding to because He demonstrated towards each one of us the maximum possible love, a total self-sacrifice for us not because we are His friends but because we are His enemies. It is sometimes said that the motif of a dying and rising god is an ancient trope that the Christians just borrowed from surrounding legends. What this misses is the unique selling point of Christianity which is the doctrine of Incarnation. Jesus "though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness" (Philippians 2:6-7)

He was not a god living among men or an avatar of divinity. He was a person at once fully human, the Son of Mary, and fully divine, the Son of God, who chose to live in poverty and obscurity and to die a shameful and agonising death in order to effect a reconciliation between all that is far from God and God Himself. He emptied Himself to become a man and He was emptied, betrayed and abandoned to become a corpse. And all of this He did for your benefit, to help you empty yourself of your jealousies and envies, your anger and greed and to allow you to fill yourself with His riches freely given "I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.’" (Psalm 81:16) It is a generous offer. What prevents you from accepting it?
@stevhep

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The picture is Saint Andrew and St Thomas by Bernini