Tuesday, 6 October 2015

St Edmund Campion: Priest & Martyr

The most high profile of England’s martyr priests to be executed during the time of Elizabeth Tudor was certainly St Edmund Campion who died 1 December 1581. During the year or so of his mission he preached the Word and administered the sacraments to recusants while being hunted for his life by pursuivants (the Elizabethans had a wonderful way with words.) St Edmund’s fame, or notoriety, arose because of two documents which he wrote while on the run. First a short letter, called by his opponents Campions Brag, which contained a challenge to debate the issues between Catholics and Anglicans at his old university of Oxford. Secondly, after what became known as the Uxbridge Conference with fellow recusants, he wrote, in Latin, Ten Reasons which outlined the arguments he would have made had such a disputation been permitted.

These were angry and passionate times and St Edmund’s writing style was combative, that of his opponents if anything was even more so. There is little that modern readers might find edifying in the polemics of that time. The Brag however ends on this note-
I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to Almighty God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us his grace, and see us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.
Perhaps unconsciously Dr Rowan Williams, when he held the title of Archbishop of Canterbury, echoed this idea as, in 2010, he commemorated the Carthusian martyrs to Henry VIII-
If Henry VIII is saved (an open question perhaps) it will be at the prayers of John Houghton.  If any persecutor is saved it is at the prayers of their victim. If humanity is saved, it is by the grace of the cross of Jesus Christ and all those martyrs who have followed in his path.”

Although many great and terrible wrongs can be laid at the feet of those who call themselves Christian there remains at the heart of the faith an irreducible core which can be ignored but cannot be denied. There is an obligation to forgive, to love and pray for those who hate us and to acknowledge that every child conceived in the womb is a person for whom Jesus died on the Cross. Christians cannot despise any of their fellow humans. The recusants who were involved in activities like the Gunpowder Plot and Anglican Elizabeth’s chief torturer Topcliffe (like the Queen herself) may have forgotten this but fortunately for the reputation of Christianity St Edmund and many like him did not.

It is relatively easy to preach high sounding sentiments but the challenge is to live them out in the little details of life. Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited, wrote a masterly biography of Campion which recounts many such instances. Perhaps the most outstanding is the case of George Eliot, not the author but a spy whose treachery and perjury brought St Edmund to the scaffold. Visiting the martyr in gaol Eliot asked for forgiveness not because he feared for his immortal soul but rather for his mortal body since he had grounds to think that certain less saintly Catholics than Edmund were likely to seek vengeance for his treachery. Although still in agony from the rack and other tortures which Eliot had delivered him up to Campion’s reply is a classic of its kind-
You are much deceived if you think the Catholics push their detestation and wrath as far as revenge; yet to make you quite safe, I will, if you please, recommend you to a Catholic duke in Germany, where you may live in perfect security.”

There can be few more Christlike images than that of a man who, bearing the marks of suffering upon his body, takes anxious thought for the well-being of the person who holds chief responsibility for those marks. As it happened Eliot did not take advantage of the offer and returned to his trade of spying but St Edmund’s gaoler, Delahays, who heard the conversation was so moved by it that he converted to Catholicism. We can hope that in this country never again will we be visited by such an evil as religious persecution but perhaps more than that we can also hope that in every evil that does visit us we will never lack for Christians filled like St Edmund with the spirit of forgiveness and generous love. By the grace of God may we ourselves be such Christians.


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Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Our Lady of the Window-A Vision

stained glass shadow.jpg

The declining sun lit up her sweet-sad smile, the folds of her blue mantle glowed softly. Below, the stone-flagged nave was dappled with multi-coloured shadows. For over a thousand years her delicate, fragile eyes had looked benignly on the people who passed backward and forward through her Son’s cathedral.

Many of these had scurried across the shaded space ignoring her. Others, half-aware of her presence and of her beauty had snatched hasty glances at her. Occasionally one or two individuals had stopped as if transfixed and had drunk their fill of the gifts of light which flowed through her and into the hearts of each woman or man who would accept them.

There was no one upon whom she did not smile; the empty headed and the wise, the ambitious and the contented, children of the pharisees, heirs of the Apostles. If the smile did not benefit each equally the fault lay not with the giver but with the recipient. People who will not be smiled upon will walk in a gloom of their own making.

Over that same thousand years too she had gazed upon the altar at the Eastern end of the nave. There the life, death and resurrection of her beloved Son had daily been made present in the midst of a mostly indifferent world. A spiritual truth become visible, like herself, under the veil of material forms. She did not weep at the sight, her weeping was done. Now her eyes were forever fixed on Him and would be though altar, window and cathedral should pass away into destruction.

In the city behind her as in the church before her much had happened since the first sunset had lit up her first smile. Crowned heads had risen and, quite literally in some cases, had also fallen. Fields had turned into factories, shepherds had become hirelings. Revolutions and wars, baptisms and marriages, martyrs and their murderers all had now slipped into the irrecoverable past. Sometimes the sound of cannon-fire had been heard, bombs too had fallen from the skies. In their houses the people of the city had trembled. Amongst them, some few in every generation, had been those who trembled more for her than for themselves. Hearing the explosions they had called to mind her delicate tracery, her thin, ancient, finely crafted glass. They knew how easy it was to destroy beauty, how difficult it was to create it, how impossible to restore it.

These few were the ones who had discovered the great secret, the window of our Lady was also a gateway. She was a channel who conveyed light to them and from them. She was more than the sum of her parts, the unmatched craftsmanship of medieval artisans, the materials of the builders, the vision of the Gothic architects, just as the light she conveyed was more than mere radiance from the sun. Anyone standing in the blue shadow of her mantle who turned dappled eyes towards her, accepting her gifts, found themselves lifted out of time and into eternity. That light from heaven transformed itself into heaven’s light within which flowed back through the gateway to its divine source. They became, if only for a moment, mirrors reflecting back the perfection which reached into them. And because the source was generous and gave abundantly when they left the window behind them they too became channels pouring out light to their neighbours in the form of selfless acts of love.

Our Lady of the Windows had sisters and because fragility and vulnerability was a necessary part of their beauty and usefulness some of these sisters had been shattered. Men marching beneath black flags or red ones had smashed them in the name of God or in the name of No God and they had vanished from the world forever. Yet the divine purposes had not been frustrated, He has many channels by which His light might be conveyed. But woe to those by whom that destruction has come. The gates which they have closed have been their own gates, their own path from darkness. They have locked themselves into their own dungeons. Woe to those who prefer ugliness to beauty, anger to gentleness, destruction to creation. They walk in hell already and it is a hell composed of their own hatefulness.

There are times when our Lady of the Window is clothed with the sun and there are times when she is crowned with the stars. She is a daughter of light, a dispenser of light. She is not, it is true, a creator of that which she shares but she draws people towards the One who is that Creator. May we too walk in the shadow of her mantle and be drawn through the sweetness of her smile into the presence of the Father of Light.

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Friday, 11 September 2015

And All the Holy Angels

christ in the garden of gethsemane 1584 Paolo Veronese.jpg

The nuns in St Bernadette's convent were praying a novena to the Blessed Virgin Mary when the little saint was noticed offering her petitions in the chapel of St Joseph.
"But you are mistaken sister" she was told.
"Oh," Bernadette smiled "In heaven no one is jealous."

Of course the Lourdes visionary was right but if the heavenly angels were ever to be envious I suspect it would not be of their captains St Michael and St Gabriel but of these guys-
"Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him" (Matthew 4:11)
"And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him" (Luke 22:43)

To serve the suffering and sorrowful Jesus in the desert or in the garden where He experienced such agony of spirit is surely a great privilege. Think what a joy it must be to know that the lesser has comforted the greater, that the almost nothing has brought strength to the author of all, the recipient of love has shared that love with its divine author and so brought Him relief in His sorrows. St Thérèse of Lisieux said "disinterested love is for us to console Jesus, not for Him to console us" and those angels who have chosen to serve God exist only for the purpose of disinterested love- "Are they not all ministering spirits sent to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?" (Hebrews 1:14). It therefore seems that those fortunate, those blessed angels who ministered to our Lord after His forty day fast and before His Passion fulfilled their role in a way which no other angels could ever equal or surpass.

Fortunately angels are excellent theologians so that the temptation to envy will be removed when they consider these words of Jesus- "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40)  It follows then that when the angels help us in our distress then they are fulfilling their purpose every bit as much as those who ministered in the wilderness and in Gethsemane. And, indeed, it is no accident that the Gospels show us the angelic ministry at times of temptation and torment for that is their particular place of combat by our sides. When we are vulnerable to our inner demons or tested to the limits of our endurance then the angels are at hand to assist us if only we are willing to turn to them and be helped.

It is a curious thing that most mainstream Christians rarely speak about the angels. It's as if we have to believe in them because they are in the Bible but it's a bit embarrassing to actually talk about them. The result of all this is that although there has been a tremendous growth of popular interest in all things angelic- books, TV series, websites, memes etc.- almost all of it has taken place outside of the Church and apart from the Christian faith. What it reveals is that not only do angels play an important role in God's plan for the cosmos but that also they form an important part in the spiritual life of humans. If this spiritual need or hunger is not met in a way that is consonant with revealed truth and the Holy Spirit then it will be fed by those who have little knowledge of the first and do not accept guidance from the second.

It is all very well and correct for us to say that people need no intermediaries between themselves and God. It is nonetheless true that many people actually want such intermediaries. Aaron and Miriam the siblings of Moses and Joshua his successor could have faced the Lord on Mount Sinai but they were happy for Moses to represent them instead. Simon Magus could have petitioned to escape the consequences of his deeds himself instead he asked St Peter "“Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” (Acts 8:24) And in that they all showed some wisdom because certainly our case before God is helped if we have righteous and noble advocates acting on our behalf.

And so angels have a twofold function- acting as agents of God's will towards us and as our advocates towards Him. Since God's will towards us is always love, overflowing, abundant, infinite love then when the angels approach us on His behalf they do so as guardians, protectors, friends, companions, helpers. If the principle animating Satan and his followers is 'I will not serve' (Jeremiah 2:20) then the opposite principle animates the angelic hosts; they serve, and gladly serve, the loving purposes of their Lord and our deepest and most urgent needs. They are helped in their labours and we in our needs if we turn to them with hope, acknowledge their presence seeking and accepting their help. And we are more likely to do that and to do it rightly and in accordance with the purposes of the Almighty if the Church regularly reminds us of them and teaches us about them.

It happens that when the Church does teach about the celestial hierarchy it reveals a complex and multi-layered reality which consists of a good deal more than simply our guardian angels and the Archangels. But that is a topic for another day. Here I will close with words from one of the Catholic prayers to our protecting spirits-
O charitable Guardians of those souls for whom Christ died, O flaming spirits, who cannot avoid loving those whom Jesus eternally loved, permit me to address thee on behalf of all those committed to thy care, to implore for each of them a grateful sense of thine many favours and also the grace to profit by thine charitable assistance.


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The painting is Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane by Paolo Veronese 

Monday, 7 September 2015

Mary the Tabernacle of God

The stream of the river maketh the city of God joyful: the most High hath sanctified his own tabernacle.
Psalm 45:5 (aka Psalm 46:4)

One of the reasons why Catholic and Orthodox Christians on the one hand and Christians of the Reformation traditions (Protestants) on the other have such divergent approaches to the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is because they read the Old Testament in significantly different ways. For the first (and oldest) group the text is chiefly significant because it contains in a veiled form the contents of the New Testament and one studies it to see in shadow what becomes more fully revealed in the light that is Jesus Christ our Saviour. Protestants primarily see it as a record of the relationship between God and His chosen people Israel, a relationship which reaches its summit and fulfilment in the mission of our Lord.

The two approaches are perfectly compatible with each other. Catholics would use both but perhaps place the emphasis more on the typological method, that is looking at the types or figures with which the Holy Spirit has pre-figured the Gospel. Protestants, however, are generally suspicious of typology unless Scripture itself clearly mandates it for a particular passage. This is particularly so with the use of allegory, the fear is that humans will devise their own doctrines and artificially seek to impose them on the Bible by allegorising texts which have a clear meaning and sense without allegory. There is a certain lack of consistency in this approach; the Song of Songs, for example, read literally is erotic love poetry so Protestants tend to read it as an allegory but there is no specific mandate in Scripture to do so.

It strikes me, however, that there is a possible way which allows us to synthesise our understanding to some extent. Even if we grant for the sake of argument that the allegorical method is generally inadmissible there should be no reason why we cannot agree that the use of analogy is perfectly acceptable. By which I mean that if the Old Testament shows God acting in certain ways or upholding certain principles we can assume that He acts in the same way and on the same principles in the New unless Scripture specifically informs us otherwise.

Which brings me to Mary and the Tabernacle of the Lord. The Tabernacle was that structure sitting at the heart of the nation of Israel where God dwelt among His people in a special manner. It first took shape as the Tent of Meeting at the time of Moses and later became the Temple of Solomon. There is no doubt that God dwelt in a special way too in Mary, the mother of the Son of God. I would suggest that the principles which underlay the construction of the first Tabernacle, made by human hands, also underlay the creation of Mary in the womb of her mother St Ann by the hand of God.

What were these principles? The details for the Tent of Meeting were laid out at some length in two passages of the Book of Exodus. Chapters 25-31 contain the plans outlined by the Lord to Moses on Mount Sinai and Chapters 35-40 describe its actual construction. Significantly the final verses of the final chapter of Exodus (40) concern themselves with God inhabiting the Tabernacle. It would take up to much space to go through every point here but there are some key aspects to highlight-

  • Moses was not just told how to build the Tent but was shown its divine blueprint "Look well, and make everything in due accord with the pattern which has been shewn to thee on the mountain." (Exodus 25:40) Which means that before it existed on earth it was fully formed in God's mind i.e. it existed from eternity.
  • It was to be constructed of the best of all possible materials available, gold, silver, jewels, linen, wools and so on. " Provide thyself with spices, a stone of the best and choicest myrrh, and half a stone of cinnamon, and half a stone of scented cane, a stone, too, of cassia" (Exodus 30:23-24)
  • The most skilled craftsmen (and women) were to be employed on this work and the Lord would fill them with wisdom to complete their tasks. "And now the Lord said to Moses, Here is the name of the man I have singled out to help thee, Beseleel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Juda. I have filled him with my divine spirit, making him wise, adroit, and skilful in every kind of craftsmanship...and I have inspired the hearts of all the craftsmen with skill to carry out the commands which I have given thee." (Exodus 30:1-6)
And once the work had been completed- "When all was done, a cloud covered the tabernacle, and it was filled with the brightness of the Lord’s presence" (Exodus 40:31-32) Solomon's Temple although on a grander scale and intended to be permanent was constructed on the same basic principles as outlined in 1 Kings 6-8 (sometimes known as 3 Kings.) "Nothing in the temple but was sheathed in gold, the altar that stood before the shrine with the rest." (1 Kings 6:22) with the same result "As soon as the priests had left the inner sanctuary, the whole of the Lord’s house was wreathed in cloud; lost in that cloud, the priests could not wait upon the Lord with his accustomed service; his own glory was there, filling his own house." (1 Kings 8:10-11)

Solomon, however, makes a point about the Tabernacle which Moses did not. He says "This I ask, that thy eyes should be ever watching, night and day, over this temple of thine, the chosen sanctuary of thy name; be this the meeting-place where thou wilt listen to thy servant’s prayer. Whatever requests I or thy people Israel make shall find audience here." (1 Kings 8:29-30) So the Tabernacle was not only a place where God manifested Himself in a particular way it was also a privileged place of prayer which was more efficacious than petitions delivered without regard for the Temple. Even directing oneself heart and body towards the Tabernacle from afar was effective "as they fall to prayer, let them but turn in the direction of the city thou hast chosen, the temple I have built there in thy honour, and thou, in heaven, wilt listen to their prayer for aid" (1 Kings 8:44-45)

If all these things applied to the lesser sanctuaries, which hosted God's appearance concealed within a cloud, can we assert that the sanctuary of the incarnate God Himself received fewer or less valuable gifts? St Thomas Aquinas put it like this "The Virgin was elected to be the mother of God, and therefore there can be no doubt that God, by his grace, rendered her fit for it." Like the Temple she existed from eternity in the mind of God as a central element of His plan for the redemption of mankind. She was, from the moment of her conception crafted of the finest spiritual materials, exempted from the stain of sin, filled with grace. By the time of her birth it could be said "how lovely in the sight of heaven and earth was the beautiful soul of that happy infant" (St Alphonsus de Liguori)

What the Gospels tell us of Mary's life lets us see that she had indeed been so gifted. As St Alphonsus put it "The offering which Mary made of herself to. God was prompt, without delay; entire, without reserve." If the Tabernacle were a privileged place of prayer for Israel then, again, how much more so will this be true of Mary. Those in her presence, such as the newlyweds at Cana (John 2:1-11) only needed her to observe their needs for Mary to effectively petition her Son Jesus. Those of us who have distanced ourselves from her and from her Son by our sins can, like the ancient Israelites, direct our prayers towards the Tabernacle that is the Mother of God and be sure that they will be heard.

The principle of analogy holds another message for us here also. Catholics are often asked "why pray to Mary when you can go directly to Jesus?" The ancient Israelites were actively encouraged to make their prayers via the Tabernacle although they could, like Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, have made them directly to the Godhead. Why was this? Well, God knows everything about the humans whom He has made. Very few of us are of the stature of Abraham, we are weak and full of fear and forever going back on our intentions and breaking our promises. To turn ourselves towards God in His fullness is a task too intimidating for us and rather than lose us altogether the Lord in mercy provides us with bridges and ladders. Where the terror of Jesus as the just judge may drive us away the mildness of Mary, mother of mercy and Tabernacle of God, will draw us through her Immaculate Heart and pure hands towards her maker and ours.

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The painting is the Natvity of Mary by the Master of the Life of the Virgin.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Hostile Witness

We all know, from our communities, parishes and neighbourhoods, the bad brought to the Church and the scandal caused by those people who call themselves very Catholic, who frequently go to church, but then, in their daily lives, don’t take care of their families, speak ill of others, etc.”
From the inside looking out we might think it possible to be part time Christians. We can sometimes give ourselves a break from being quite so holy, from holding ourselves to quite such a high standard. Pope Francis in his remarks just quoted takes another view. He goes on to point out-
This is that which Jesus condemns because this is a Christian 'counter-witness.‘“ (Vatican Insider)
From the outside looking in everyone who knows us will consider that anything we do has the mark of ‘Christian’ about it.And when we publicly do things which are discreditable to ourselves we are bringing down scandal upon the Church. Quite literally in fact because the word ‘scandal’ means stumbling block and every time we bear a counter-witness to the Gospel we are putting a stumbling block in the way of others entering the Christian life.

Some of the things we do may be hidden or private but malicious gossip, ‘speaking ill of others’ as the Holy Father puts it, is always by its nature a public act. Very often it becomes more public than we intend since once it is put into circulation who knows where it will end or what damage it may do? As St James put it-
Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna
From this perspective the damage done by gossip is not simply the harm done to the person about whom you are being spiteful. It is the perception which you create that being hurtful, nasty and vicious about someone is perfectly compatible with the Christian faith. You are bearing witness to your neighbours that the love of which Christians speak is an abstract, formal, dead sort of thing but that the living spirit of Christianity is, like that of the world, to do down people whom you don’t like and do up people whom you do.

His Holiness proposes another approach- internal conversion  “Without a purified heart, we can never have truly clean hands and lips that speak sincere words of love, mercy and forgiveness.” he says “if the heart doesn’t change, we are not true Christians. The border between good and evil does not lie outside of us, but rather within us.” Such a conversion cannot be entirely our own work, we must ask for an infusion of Grace to help us to be transformed-
“But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.”

We do however need to desire this Grace, to pray for it and to co-operate with it when we get it. Continuing in the same old way until such time as the Lord chooses to change us without any effort or strain on our part is not an option. It is in the nature of gossip that we often scrutinise intently and comment about unkindly the motives of others while leaving our own strictly unexamined. We need to begin to reverse that process. Ask ourselves why are we talking in this way about this person? Why do we want to see them shipwrecked, humiliated, demeaned, in the eyes of others? And why do we want to be seen as the agents of this process? Or, at least, why do we so enjoy hearing others do this in our presence. Be sure if the answers to these questions do you no credit then they will do the Church great harm as well. Paradoxically perhaps your fellow gossips may not wish to behave like Christians but they may want you to do so. You disappoint them at some level if you don’t and you erect a barrier to their conversion. If you are not bearing witness of a better way then you are bearing witness to a worse one. The same as other people but with added hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness. Pope Francis ended with a prayer we should make our own:
“Let us ask the Lord, through the intercession of the Most Holy Virgin, to give us a pure heart, free of all hypocrisy — that’s the adjective that Jesus used with the Pharisees: hypocrites, because they say one thing and do another. Free from all hypocrisy so that in this way we are able to live according to the spirit of the law and reach its goal, which is love.”

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Friday, 28 August 2015

Salvation: It's Not All About Me

Now if I have found favour in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favour in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.’  He said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ And he said to him, ‘If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.’
Exodus 33:13-16

Formulae like 'I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour' are very commonly used among Evangelical Christians. They can act as the gateway marking the point at which a person becomes a Christian. In that sense they resemble the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith. What they don't resemble is the traditional Christian gateways which are baptism and the profession of the  Nicene creed. There are many things which could be said about this but I propose to focus on what I see as the excessive individualism which this approach to the faith both reflects and encourages.

The formula is theologically sound so far as it goes, its main problem is the premature use of the full stop. It makes the Christian faith in its totality appear to consist of a personal relationship between the individual believer and one member of the Blessed Trinity. This is at best inadequate and at worst positively misleading. If we consider the example of the relationship between God and Moses then we can see that the Prophet never considered himself to be simply an individual fragment of humanity standing before the Almighty One but as a part of the People of God, his well-being was bound up with theirs, theirs was bound up with his. When the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf at Sinai the Lord planned to destroy them but to Moses He said 'of you I will make a great nation' (Exodus 32:10) Moses declined this honour and, as the psalmist put it 'stood in the breach before Him' (Psalm 106:23.) For the Prophet salvation was not merely a personal affair it was a national one also and his nation consisted of all those, whoever they may be, with whom God had entered into a Covenant relationship.

The New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus on the Cross does not negate this communitarian aspect of the relationship between God and His people. St Paul wrote 'If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.' (2 Corinthians 1:6) The nation of God, the New Israel, is the Church which is not only a single body it is actually the body of Christ Himself. So when this same Paul was persecuting the Church Jesus could say to him 'why do you persecute me?' (Acts 9:4) This means, in fact, that the relationship between the Almighty and His people is closer than it was during the time of Moses, destroying Israel was always an option, destroying Himself is never a possibility.

There is an interesting phrase in the dialogue on Mount Sinai. The Lord says ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ Jesus echoed this later by saying 'Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.' (Matthew 11:28) On the mountain God is telling Moses that He will accompany the people Israel and that for all of them, for each of them He will be their rest and Jesus is not varying this message here. It follows from this that if we have a relationship with God that this includes everywhere that God is and everyone in whom God dwells therefore an exclusive focus on ourselves alone and our personal salvation is not an expression of the Christian faith but its negation. We do not enter into this rest of God other than as members of each other, indeed we, insofar as we are instruments and agents of our Lord, are called upon to be that rest for each person whom we encounter.

Another way of looking at this is from the angle of sin. Evangelicals hold, quite correctly, that we need salvation because we are sinners, but what is sin? In Spe Salvi Pope Benedict XVI looks at this and notes-
"14...sin is understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division. Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is. Hence “redemption” appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers"
That which has caused our rupture with God is a crime against unity, against human solidarity, and so to repair that breach Jesus came to be at the heart of community, of solidarity above all with the suffering. If we are to be clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27) then we too must be immersed wholly in lives of solidarity.

One of the advantages of baptism as the gateway to the Christian life consists in the fact that we cannot baptise ourselves. On our own, at home, in the car wherever, we can use the formula I accept Jesus Christ etc. in response to the radio, TV or internet. As our Christian journey starts in a bubble it could easily continue that way, we proceed as consumers of Christianity and Christian products. The necessity of community and communion is not immediately obvious from such a perspective. To be baptised is to present ourselves before the People of God and have the blessed names of Father, Son and Holy Spirit pronounced over us as we are washed in the sacramental waters. From the outset the message is clear- your salvation is not only personal. Apart from the people whom God has called together you will not be saved, apart from you they will not be saved. The ancient formula of the Nicene Creed explicitly and deliberately unites the concepts of community (Church= Ecclesia), baptism and resurrection so that together we can say-
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.


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The picture is Moses by Lorenzo Monaco

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

What is Man? Part 2

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

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

In Part One I suggested that by gazing into the mirror of Christ Crucified we can see answers to the question What is Man? (male and female) because Jesus is an icon of what a human should be like and because His situation is emblematic of the human condition. I proposed that 'Man is loved and lovable' is one conclusion we can deduce and that 'Man is a sinner' is another.

The Crucifixion is something voluntarily endured by our Lord because it is the efficient means for redeeming fallen humanity. We can deduce from this that, insofar as He is representative of us, that we can add 'Man is a lover,' that is one who loves, to our list of essential human qualities. However, although we can say that Man is loved and lovable unconditionally we must qualify the truth that Man is a lover with the fact that he is also a sinner. This means that every expression of love or feeling of it is, at least potentially, tainted by sin which is produced by disordered affection for or attachment to certain inferior goods at the expense of Good as such.

The idea, recently expressed, that 'love wins' is unreservedly A Good Thing is something I have challenged on my other blog. For our purposes I would say that love translated into intention and act always has to be evaluated in the light of how it fulfils its purpose. What this purpose is might be more easily be discussed if we consider that another conclusion we can draw from the mirror of Christ Crucified is that 'Man is dependent.'

An archaic meaning of the word dependent is 'hanging down' so Jesus is literally dependent upon the Cross. More generally though it is true to say that humans are wholly reliant on the objects of the universe. They need air to breathe, food to eat, materials for homes and clothes and so on. More than that before our Lord was in a position to say 'it is finished' and complete His mission through death He first had to address the needs of His mother and the beloved disciple, placing them into each others care.(John 19:26-27) It might be said that a sub-category of 'Man is dependent' could be rendered as 'Man is necessarily social.' That is, humans depend not only upon things but upon each other. Or, to be more personal I depend upon others and others depend upon me. This applies even to hermits or misanthropes since our present state of being incorporates our entire personal history and human life begins as dependent from the moment of conception in the womb of another person. Also what we do now may intentionally or unintentionally have an impact on another person in the future.

These things taken together, Man as lover, sinner and dependent, have implications. For people on the Left this is a fairly uncontentious statement when it applies to the environment, where humans are called to be stewards and to put curbs and restraints upon their appetites in order to prevent the destruction of things and its incident impact upon humans. However, it becomes contentious when applied to societies and individual people. For the Right the reverse is true, they are often happy to despoil the planet but insist upon particularly strict form of outward behaviour and morality. As a Catholic I would say a plague on both your houses, we must protect both the planetary and the human ecology. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it-
 "The book of nature is one and indivisible; it includes not only the environment but also individual, family and social ethics. Our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others"
(World Day of Peace 2010)

In Part 1 I suggested that divorce and homosexuality are taken as test cases, modernist thinking see's affirming them as being necessary to their project of maximising human happiness through maximising human independence. But, since we are dependent creatures independence necessarily has its limits. In relation to God we cannot be independent, in relation to each other we should not be independent. This is not to say that there is not a place for human privacy, for solitary communion with God and with our own souls. Christ Crucified was alone and, for the most part silent so we can deduce another human feature to be 'Man is an individual.' Again, though, this is a qualified truth which needs to be considered together with the truth's of dependence and sinfulness. Given these truth's maximising independence under the illusion that autonomy is either achievable or desirable is simply going against the grain of what human nature actually is. That we may, or many of us anyway, may want this license to behave as we will is a sign of our sinfulness, not of our inborn thirst to be free from the constraints of obligation which love when not disordered by sin places upon us.

The Catholic arguments, then, against divorce and homosexuality proceed from the assumption that these are lesser goods which disordered affection places above Good as such which we should be pursuing. The family, open to new life, nurturing and caring for existing life, centred upon the married couple is the basic human unit which is divinely designed to meet human needs and allow for the most optimum flourishing of the human spirit. All human life, even celibate life, is ordered around the family to support it by deeds, sacraments and prayers. Anything which seeks to dissolve this unit institutionally or legally is an enemy to real human freedom because it strikes at the roots of real human nature.

Of course, because of the ever present reality of human sinfulness many human families fall well short of their potential and can sometimes become the source of real suffering, torment and cruelty. 'Man is a creature who suffers' is another vision we see in the mirror of Christ Crucified. Suffering and sorrow is an inescapable part of the human condition, no structures or reconstruction of society will end that because all of them, each of them, will be corrupted by the sinfulness of the humans who run them if not in the beginning then certainly by the end. The most we can do is create the best possible structures, inculcate the best possible values in our children and young people and offer fervent prayers to our merciful God. Structures which uphold the family but which minimise the suffering caused by dysfunctional families or by disordered sexual desires through offering protection against violence, bullying and unjust discrimination offer better possibilities for humans to fulfil their potential as people who are loved and lovable, sinners and lovers, dependent and individual, capable of suffering than those which sweep away all these truths and replace them with the falsehood that humans are autonomous individuals and that individual love, unpredictable and changeable, should always win.


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The painting is Crucifixion (Escorial) by Rogier Van der Weyden

Sonnet for our Lady of Light

In my own darkness, alone and stumbling,
Seeking that which is hidden by my choice.
Crying aloud, frantically praying
To emptiness which will not hear my voice.

Am I ever doomed to wander this way?
Lost and despairing as the devil mocks.
A ship amidst tempest and stormy spray
Rushing swift upon deadly shark-toothed rocks.

No, it shall not be. Light there is I know.
It is you, my love, to you I now turn.
You shine brightly showing the way to go.
Frantic now with joy towards you I run.

Our Lady of Light, my sweetness and life
You are victory of hope, end of strife.


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Saturday, 15 August 2015

Sonnet for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

 Far,  far   from   us  you  do   seem   to   fly
 No   more   can   we   share  a  loving   meal
Your  vision  is  now  banished  from  the  eye
 That   kind,  soft   touch  of  yours   we  cannot  feel

Are  we   always   to   be   so   sore  bereft?
Abandoned   here   below weeping alone  .
Unconsoled.  ever   in   grief   to   be   left
 To   be   dark,  in that place   where light  has shone

 But  it is not  really   so, my  love
 Gone   in   seeming  you  only   seem   to   go  .
 On   great  ardour's wings you  soar   high   sweet  dove
 Then   plunging   in my  heart  your  torrents   flow.

 We   assumed  you had  left   us   mother   divine
 But, ah  dear  Mary,  forever  you are  mine.

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Monday, 10 August 2015

The Two Mirrors: An Allegory

 Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
Hamlet Act III, Scene 2

Once, long ago, our Noble Lord was hung upon a tree and died thereon. Strange to relate at certain seasons the tree and Him upon it are made present among us. At such times His lovers are mysteriously enabled to drink His blood as if it were wine and to eat His flesh as if it were bread gaining great strength thereby.

For the most part though our Noble Lord is hidden from our senses. During these times two great and rival companies re-enact His Passion for our benefit. These are the Dark Companions, who are always the most numerous, and the Companions of the Light, who are always led by a most wondrous sweet Lady.

The Dark Companions fully and perfectly reconstruct among us the instruments of our Lord’s death. They are the most perfect liars, they are filled with envy and spite, they are consumed with anger. Of sympathy they are naked but nonetheless they are well clad, covering themselves with mockery and cursing.With all this and much more besides they present the play “The 50 Dark Moments of our Lord's Passion.” Always they receive the just reward for their performance.

Whenever the Dark Companions appear together assembled the Companions of the Light timidly run away. Presently though they are rallied by their womenfolk, and by one woman above all other women. Led by her they enter into the heart of our Lord’s Passion. They make present among us most perfect love, patience, grief at the evils men do and steadfast but tender endurance. Their play is “The 50 Moments of Light" It is not always obvious to human eyes but it is certain that they too receive the just reward for their performance.

When these plays are not being played the actors are among us as ordinary folk. It is a passing strange thing but whether acting or not the Companions alway remain true to their parts. Darkness never departs from the words and actions of the Dark Companions. When not being professional liars they are amateur ones; doing it, as it were, for the fun of the thing. The Companions of the Light for their part likewise are always loving, never counting either the cost or the benefit to themselves.

While it is true that the Dark ever claims the most numerous following a thing of great joy and wonder occurs from time to time. Moved by continually reflecting upon our Noble Lord in His agony and upon our most sweet Lady at His feet there are some who forsake darkness and become Companions of the Light. They abandon envy, anger and hate and humbly seek to follow the path of patient loving endurance. There is tremendous rejoicing and celebration when even but a single one of the Dark Company takes this step.

While the Dark Companions ever brood upon past wrongs and present jealousies it is not so in the Light Company. They never reproach their new companions with the deeds of their Dark past. They, and the Lady above all the rest, are ever gracious and kind to them. Our Noble Lord does not withhold even His Body and Blood, it is said indeed that He shed His most precious blood especially and above all for those who have walked in the darkness.

When our story will come to an end I do not know. But of this I am certain; victory will belong not to the many but to the few. The key to this victory will not be the power to inflict suffering and death but rather the power to endure it with patience, kindness and love.

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The painting is Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier Van der Weyden