Tuesday, 28 July 2015

St Mary: The Beautiful Dove

He sent forth also a dove after him, to see if the waters had now ceased upon the face of the earth. But she, not finding where her foot might rest, returned to him into the ark: for the waters were upon the whole earth: and he put forth his hand, and caught her, and brought her into the ark. And having waited yet seven other days, he again sent forth the dove out of the ark. And she came to him in the evening, carrying a bough of an olive tree, with green leaves, in her mouth. Noe therefore understood that the waters were ceased upon the earth. And he stayed yet other seven days: and he sent forth the dove, which returned not any more unto him.
Genesis 8:8-12

The Coptic Christians, whose ancient communities are enduring a prolonged martyrdom in the Middle East, have long given the Blessed Virgin the title of The Beautiful Dove because they see a type or figure of our Lady in this story from Genesis. In common with all of Christendom prior to the time of Luther the Copts find the New Testament present within the Old. In its pages, the stories, the people, the artefacts used, the sacrifices offered and so on everything which Jesus and the Apostles make plain can be seen under a veil as it were. Christians have long delighted in piercing that veil and in unfolding into plain sight the truths which we can now see thanks to the revelation of Christ and the faith passed on through the Apostles. The three journeys of the dove are types of, respectively, the girlhood of Mary, her role as Mother of God and her Assumption into heaven.

The earth covered in waters represents a world drowned in narrow materialism, sin and self-regard. From the moment of her Immaculate Conception our Lady became a pilgrim: in this world but not of it. Noah and his family in the Ark stand for the anawim the humble righteous ones looking with hope for the coming kingdom which would dry up the waters and flood the world instead with the spirit of love and devotion. Mary became in a special way the representative and ambassador of the anawim. She flew forth across the waters filled with love and hope but could find nowhere where here foot might rest. She was sustained only by the wings of faith and the winds of the spirit. Finally she came to rest in the hands of St Ann, her mother, and St Joseph, her betrothed.

At the Annunciation she takes to flight once more, the wind beneath her wings is the Father who chose her, the Holy Spirit who espoused her and the Son who was formed in her virginal womb. Already the waters have begun to diminish, St Zechariah, St Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Simeon are so many islands emerging into the light and filled with the joy of a new birth in and for the earth. The dove returns, so the Septuagint tells us- "carrying a bough of an olive tree, with green leaves, in her mouth." This symbolises the Passion of her Son, the tree reminds us of the Cross of Golgotha, the leaves of the Resurrection and Ascension. The combination of the two reminds us that life and death are united in the Crucifixion and that life has the final triumph. It carries too an echo of the words of our Lord on His Way of the Cross "if in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?" (Luke 23:31) That this Good News is borne in the mouth of the dove recalls also the canticle of praise that came from Mary's lips, the Magnificat-
My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
Because he that is mighty, hath done great things to me; and holy is his name.

The receding of the waters is a symbol for the completion of the redemptive work of Jesus, sin and death have been finally conquered. The dove resting in the Ark among the family of Noah represents Mary after the days of the Passion, Ascension and Pentecost resting in the family of the Church. And after she completes her full time on earth (in the scriptures the number seven is a signifier for completeness) she flies one more time, raised by the angels to be reunited once more and forever with her Risen and Glorified Son. We are more fortunate than Noah, however, for if the dove never returned the Virgin certainly has many times. Because of the victory won by her Divine Son she now has numerous places upon which she can rest her foot, above all in the presence of the Christian anawim the St Bernadette's the St Juan Diego's the humble poor to whom she delights to appear at Lourdes in France, at Tepeyac in Mexico, at Fatima in Portugal and in numerous places. Always she carries with her the olive bough with the green leaves reminding us of her Son, of His Passion and Resurrection of the hope that He brings to the world and of the need for us to turn to Him with repentance and love.

The Beautiful Dove has not forgotten the Copts of Egypt. In the late 1960's as our Lady of Light she appeared at Zeitoun in Cairo perhaps to prepare them for the torment of persecution they now face. The dove of Noah symbolises hope, life appearing from out of a dead earth. Mary, the God bearer, is a sign for us of that hope and she brings to us the One who in His Person defeats death and the forces of darkness. May we all turn to her and join our prayers with hers on behalf of the Christian people of the Middle East. By the grace and power of God may it be that the dove of peace, the dove of light, the dove of joy, the Beautiful Dove may find her home in the lands that gave birth to our Christian faith. It is in Egypt too that we find the oldest of all prayers to Mary the Sub Tuum Praesidium-
We fly to your patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin

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The painting is a detail from The Annunciation by Fra Filippo Lippi

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Heaven in Ordinary

As Paul went on and on, a young man called Eutychus who was sitting on the window-sill grew drowsy and was overcome by sleep and fell to the ground three floors below.

If Eutychus isn't the patron saint of ordinary churchgoers then perhaps he should be. On days when the sky is blue, the sun is warm, the sermon is dull and a tall glass of something cool is waiting for you outside then who is the one whose attention would not waver at least a little? I don’t think that this is a cautionary tale (spoiler alert: it has a happy ending) its more an observation that even in the presence of the famous Apostle to the Gentiles human flesh is weak. If it were not there would have been no need for the Incarnation.

There are many positive arguments that can be made in favour of churchgoing but Eutychus I think points us towards a negative one. Church services can be dull or worse than dull. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The temptation to think that the Church can pretend to be a part of the entertainment industry is something that should be firmly resisted. However well put together a service is, however many guitars or flashing lights that it has there will always be something much, much better to watch on TV or YouTube. If the demand of churchgoers is ‘entertain me’ then they need to be challenged but I don't think that that is what they/we do demand whatever worried pastors with declining congregations might think. Lively, inspiring and enlightening homilies are always welcome. Worthily celebrated sacraments are gratefully received. But even when these are not present there is still a reason to turn up week after week and if necessary do a Eutychus.

Our daily lives are filled with dull moments, with mediocrity, with routine. The thousand and one necessary things which we have to do, go to the shops, buy petrol for the car, endure a long commute, listen to boring anecdotes you've heard a dozen times before. Their dullness is as real as their necessity and we cannot dispense with either, they are part of what it means to live a human life. If an hour in church resembles an hundred other hours we have already spent in the previous week that doesn't represent a failure on the part of the pastor. It means that churchgoing is woven naturally into the fabric of our lives. It has this one difference though. At any moment from a phrase of scripture, the verse of a hymn, a sentence in the homily or the elevation of a Host or even a sunbeam dancing on the sanctuary at any moment I say we can suddenly be transpierced by the love of Christ. We can be moved from time to eternity. Transcendence should be a regular visitor to the Sunday service, coming and going as He pleases.
There is a need for Sacred Space and Sacred Time where we can concentrate on what is holy. More than that though there needs to be the possibility of interpenetration between the two. Where we are aware that ordinariness is a part of the church experience then we will also be aware that the sacred can invade and be a part of the ordinary experience too. Our dull days and routine activities, our falling asleep through boredom, are not exempt from an infusion of the divine. Eutychus points us towards this mingling of the two realms. The title of this piece is from the poem Prayer by the Anglican vicar George Herbert it ends with these words, the ‘something understood’ is the subject of this article-
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
         The land of spices; something understood.

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The painting is St Paul by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Why be Reborn?

                                        Christ and Nicodemus- Cijn Hendricks

Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’  Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit
John 3:4-5

"What's in it for me?" is a perfectly reasonable question to ask whenever someone tries to persuade you to take a risk. It may not be the only or even the most important question but it is certainly one which can legitimately be put. One cannot, therefore, blame non-Christians for taking it into consideration when hearing the appeals of evangelisers to be 'born again in Christ Jesus.' To people who believe in neither heaven nor hell the promise of the one and the threat of the other will make no impression. Likewise those who have no sense of sin are conscious of no burden of guilt from which they have to escape. None of these things then can be advanced as being relevant to the "what's in it for me?" criteria.

The idea that the population would be susceptible to such appeals is the heritage of a time which has now past. Where you have a society in which almost everyone accepts the basic ideas of Christianity the task is to energise them, to get them to move from theory to practice. In the West today there are few if any such societies so the strategy requires to be revised. Fortunately the Church has experience in dealing with a world in which most people were ignorant of, indifferent to or antagonistic about basic Christian doctrines. This was the gentile world of the first century Mediterranean where the Apostles and their associates did the work of planting the Catholic Church in the first place. I think that they made three distinct promises which each convert would receive as a gift when becoming converted to the faith, promises which the Church can still make and which provide the answer "this is what is in it for you."

The first is this; new Christians will receive the Holy Spirit. This was clearly an expectation in the primitive Church "Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples.  He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" (Acts 19:1-2.) The idea that this is something which will necessarily cause people to jump about shouting Hallelujah! and waving their hands does not on the face of it make it an attractive promise to many people. However this is not the case. The Spirit is infinite and infinitely variable, He manifests Himself in many ways. In some He descends like a thunderbolt and sets them aflame and keeps them aflame for a lifetime. In others He gently infuses himself into the mind and heart slowly turning them into havens of peace and joy. What is certain is that He makes Himself present to believers in ways that He does not to those who reject faith (the Holy Spirit is certainly at work in non-Christians but the form and content of that work is qualitatively different from that among those united to Christ.)

The second promise is Christ Himself. Him you will certainly receive. By this I mean the whole Christ not the attenuated wise teacher of so many timid sermons or relativist theologies. The full red-blooded Son of God and Son of Mary, crucified on Calvary, risen from the dead, ascended to the Father. Many people have a vague idea about Jesus, He is a sort of blank space of vacuous goodness upon which can be written or projected whatever a person wants to impose upon Him. He is cited in defence of this political project or that abnormal form of conduct. A Christian receives Him in all His dimensions, present in the Gospels and all Scripture, made present in His body the Church, seen suffering in the world among the vulnerable and outcast, encountered under the appearance of bread and wine in the Eucharist.

And then there are miracles. Many Christians get a bit shifty when it comes to miracles explaining that biblical accounts are either metaphors or psychological cures for psychosomatic ailments. There are healing ministries in places but these are out of the mainstream and all too often tainted with charlatanism. Yet the scriptures couldn't be clearer "Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles" (Acts 5:12.) The early Church was acquainted with the miraculous and that was part of the package that believers signed up to. Nowadays educated opinion frowns on the idea so the Church often appears apologetic about it or hushes it up altogether. This approach is nonsense, if Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead why should they disbelieve in varicose veins being healed? Moreover impressing the intellectual elite is not the sole purpose of the Church, millions of people do not have an a priori belief that miracles cannot happen therefore they do not happen and to close off from them this part of the Good News because we are afraid of appearing foolish in front of the worldly wise is a dereliction of duty.

Certainly the possibility of fraud or hysterical temporary 'cures' is always present when miraculous healings are the matter at hand. The Church has no interest in such things save to denounce and expose them. Nonetheless there are inexplicable cures and events associated with Christianity. The case of Lourdes provides a template for what is possible. Claims of cures are not accepted until thoroughly investigated by qualified physicians, including those who are not associated with the Church and are sceptical of her faith. A miracle is not declared until some very tough criteria have been met. The point about this is not that miracles are common, by definition they are exceptionally rare, so that believers can expect to have their problems solved by them. No, the point is that by accepting the Christian faith a person begins to inhabit a world, a universe, in which the miraculous is possible. Their experience of life is fundamentally altered by this simple change of perspective. The little pamphlet A Protestant Looks at Lourdes (PDF) by Ruth Cranston gives us a glimpse into this-
" Time after time I have been told at Lourdes—by doctors, nurses, brancardiers, even by the man who sweeps the paths: "The sick? Oh, Madame, they've forgotten about their own cure. All they care about is that the man in the next row shall get well. . . . 'Don't bother about me—that fellow over there needs you more.' . . . 'Never mind, nurse, I can wait.' . . . 'Look after this poor lady in the next carriage—she really needs attention'."
Naturally the pain comes back again, but it hasn't the same hold. Their minds are not centred on it any longer. And when the time comes to go home, though they haven't been physically cured, though they know what hardships and suffering yet another pilgrimage will mean, their one cry is: "If only I can come back next year! If only I can come again to Lourdes!"

So, "what's in it for me?" You get the Holy Spirit, Jesus and miracles. The proof of all this is experimental, that is these are gifts that you can only have by having not by being told about. The invitation to be born again is a risk, there is so much that you have to give up, to leave behind. But there is also so much to gain. The choice is yours to make.

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Friday, 10 July 2015

The Esoteric Christ?

                                          Did Jesus Teach a Secret Gnostic Doctrine?

And when he was alone, those present along with the Twelve questioned him about the parables. He answered them, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables
Mark 4:10-11

Since ancient times there have been those who say that Jesus taught one doctrine openly and another, higher, one secretly to those initiated into His circle.From time to time groups have emerged, and still emerge, which claim to be custodians of this doctrine or to have 'rediscovered' it. A claim which, of course, it is impossible to either verify or to disprove. A somewhat related theory suggests that during His youth our Lord went to India and upon His return taught some form of Buddhism or Vedanta Hinduism to those followers whom He had first drawn to Him by preaching a radical form of Judaism.

To some extent these are all conspiracy theories; a way of viewing the world which is notoriously difficult to unsettle. Anyone who wishes to believe such a theory, whatever form it may take, is meeting a psychological need and is likely to be impervious to those facts which fail to meet that need. Nonetheless I think that it is a worthwhile exercise to demonstrate why I think these are untenable approaches for explaining the mission of Jesus.

It is certainly true that there are a number of texts which show our Lord unfolding His teaching in a veiled way (the parables) before huge crowds and in a more explicit way (the discourses) before His disciples. What they don't show is that there is any difference in content between the parables and the discourses, the latter explain the former they don't alter their meaning. Moreover the category of 'disciples' is not clearly defined. The Apostles were a group of 12 who accompanied Jesus but the disciples were simply those who were attracted to Him by His teachings and works. We cannot then assume that wherever Jesus went the disciples who listened to Him were a fixed group of people. In all probability those who joined the Apostles to hear the explanations of the parables were people who had been in the crowd and who desiring to learn more had come forward to ask questions. To believe in an esoteric doctrine we need to suppose that Jesus spoke in parables to the crowds then more clearly in His discourses to the disciples and then more clearly still to an inner circle of initiates including the Apostles and Mary Magdalene. And there simply is no warrant in the texts to assume that this third stage happened.

Another point to note is that there are texts in which our Lord quite clearly suggests that He is not preaching a secret doctrine. In Mark 4, for example, we have- 'He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand? For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light.' (Mark 4:22) And before the Jewish High Priest He said- “I have spoken publicly to the world. I have always taught in a synagogue or in the temple area where all the Jews gather, and in secret I have said nothing. Why ask me? Ask those who heard me what I said to them. They know what I said." (John 18:20-21) So either Jesus was lying, in which case He has not a spiritual leader worth following, or He was telling the truth in which case there is no esoteric doctrine of the Christ only the public one.

History suggests that all but one of the Apostles met a violent death, martyred for the sake of the public doctrines of the Christian Church. There are some who dispute this but the Gospel certainly points to Peter's martyrdom (John 21:19) and Paul's willingness to be martyred (Acts 20:22-24.) There is no doubt either that many Bishops and others one can assume to be in the inner core of the Church willingly suffered torture and death for the openly professed doctrines of the Church. Now, why would they do that if they held those particular doctrines to be of little importance besides the esoteric ones which they secretly believed? One answer would be that the secret teachings were equally liable to persecution by the Roman authorities. The problem with that is that the various Gnostic groups and sects who claim to hold and teach the esoteric doctrines of Jesus Christ do not, in fact, advance anything that the Romans would have found half so objectionable as they thought Apostolic Christianity to be.

If Jesus is the unique Incarnation of the Son of God whose crucifixion and death redeems those who acknowledge Him to be Lord and Saviour then Christians are obliged to refuse worship to anyone else. This is the thing which most annoyed the authorities of the day and led to the persecution of the new movement. However, the Gnostics tend to claim that Jesus is simply, like the Buddha, the one who has most fully attained the life of the Spirit. What He offers is not Himself as such but His teachings. That being so there is no compelling reason to allow yourself to be killed for asserting His unique divinity when you believe that anyone can become equally divine by accepting His teachings and living them to the full. If you think that an esoteric doctrine exists then it requires you to suppose that it was held and taught not by the Apostles but by some other group who constituted an inner circle separate from the only inner circle for which we have any textual evidence.

There is an equal but opposite argument advanced by some Protestant Evangelicals that the Catholic Church dwells too much on what it calls 'mysteries,' especially regarding the Sacrifice of the Mass.It is said that the Church is pretending that the clear and simple message of Jesus has some hidden meaning that only priests can penetrate on behalf of the faithful. This is to misunderstand the meaning of the word 'mystery.' It signifies that there are things beyond the power of the human mind to understand fully. It does not signify that there are things which are fully known but deliberately hidden. It is, for example, impossible to fully unpack a sentence like ' I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world' (John 6:51) without coming up to the boundaries of the knowable. In that sense Christianity is and always will be a mysterious religion. What it isn't and never has been is a two-speed religion with the fullness of revelation reserved for initiates and some second-rate hand-me-down reserved for a gullible public. The Christ of the Church is the Christ for all.

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Thursday, 2 July 2015

Waking from Sleep

                                                 Christ Giving His Blessing- Memling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Veiled Majesty of Jesus Christ

                                                           Ecce Homo- Cigoli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, 22 June 2015

Hating Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, 30 May 2015

Mary & the Blessed Trinity

                                        Coronation of the Virgin by Bruyn the Elder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, 30 April 2015

Centering Prayer: Some Reflections

                                            An Old Woman Praying by Nicolaes Maes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Seeing God, Making God Visible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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