Monday, 21 April 2014

A Christian Country?

David Cameron the Prime Minister of the UK, it must be noted, is first and foremost a politician. This means that his words generally mean more than, or less than they appear to mean but practically never mean what they appear to mean. So when he says-

"I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith "

It is worth asking the question 'what meaning or meanings does this conceal?' 

To my mind, such as it is, Mr Cameron has, no doubt intentionally, hopelessly confused three different strands of thought only one of which is unquestionably true. The fundamental ambiguity rests in his use of the word 'we.' To whom does it refer? The individual believer? The State? UK society at large?

What is true is that each Christian as an individual is called upon to bear witness to their faith. This is primarily expressed by the way they live their lives. The fruits of the transformative power of Christ should be manifest in the way that Christians are pure love to each person whom they encounter. 

The first confusion lies in the use of the word 'evangelical.' By virtue of their vocation to the faith a believer is to be evangelical which is not the same thing as 'an evangelical.' Evangelicalism is a particular form of Christianity, it believes certain things and acts in certain ways which other parts of the Christian family have difficulty in accepting as authentic manifestations of the Holy Spirit. It is, however, a current of opinion which has sometimes been more or less easily co-opted by the political Right and I suspect that Mr Cameron used the word intending to defend it in the first sense but also to send a signal to Evangelicals that he is on their side if not in their tribe.

The second confusion and that liable to cause most offence is in the possible application of the 'we' to the State. The State has no business to be Evangelically Christian. Not because, or not just because, we are a multicultural, multi faith, diverse country. But because State functionaries are appointed on their ability to perform their statutory tasks and it would be absurd to apply a religious belief test in addition to a competence test in giving people these appointments. It would be still more absurd to expect non-believers to fulfil a Christianly evangelical role if they themselves are not believers. The best that the Christian Church or the ecclesial communities of the Reformation can expect from the State is a recognition of the special role they have played and continue to play in UK and European society.

David Cameron remains a politician. The debate he has stirred up really does nothing to help the Christian faith or to impress upon the minds of those who hear him the Good News about Jesus Christ. But it probably does help the Conservative Party bring on board Evangelicals and those for whom the words 'Christian values' is a shorthand way of saying 'everything was better in the 1950's'. And that is all he cares about. 

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Sunday, 20 April 2014

Friday, 18 April 2014

It Shall Not Return to Me Void

10 And as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return no more thither, but soak the earth, and water it, and make it to spring, and give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater:
11 So shall my word be, which shall go forth from my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall do whatsoever I please, and shall prosper in the things for which I sent it.
Isaiah 55

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God
John 13

Jesus, and after Him the Apostles and Evangelists, was very insistent that His life and mission were a fulfillment of the prophecies contained within the Old Testament Scriptures in one form or another. Given that His and their audience was in the first instance Jewish that made perfect sense. Is it really a matter of any importance to us who are not Jewish now 2000 years or so later? For Christians the sequence has become somewhat reversed. The Jews already believed in the Scriptures and could then go on to believe in Jesus, Christians believe in Jesus and then go on to believe in the Old Testament. Most of the world, however, is neither Christian nor Jewish so what do the words of angry old Jewish men from 3000 years or so ago mean to them? Well, one answer might be that if we can discern in the prophecies genuine predictions about events which were only fulfilled much later we could conclude that there is indeed a supernatural power at work in the world and that the things which Christians say about that power have some basis in human history. Which means that their claims are worth paying earnest attention to.

 There has been much learned discussion about who the author(s) and editor(s) of the Book of of Isaiah might have been. What is beyond doubt is that it was written a very long time before the Gospel events took place. It could be argued that Jesus and the Evangelists consciously modelled events or their descriptions of them in order to appear to fulfil well known passages of Scripture which the Jews had, perhaps, previously applied to the Messiah whom they were expecting. I think this did to some extent happen, it was no accident that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey after Zechariah had written his prophecy about the King doing just that. However, I do not think that this can apply here to this particular prophecy of Isaiah since the elements within it correspond to the internal truths of our Lord and His mission which would make them applicable even if He has behaved in significantly different outward ways.

In the prologue to his Gospel account St John wrote "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...And the Word became flesh and lived among us." So Jesus is the Word that went forth from the mouth of God. He did not return void.

The Word, like the rain, 'gives seed' in this fashion- Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24) Jesus, before He could return to the Father had, like the wheat grain to go into the earth, the Sepulchre where He was laid on the first Good Friday, before He could become fruitful and then ascend to where He had been 'in the beginning' As the rain soaked the earth to make this possible for the seed so did He pour out His Precious Blood like torrents to make the seed sprouting from that earth suitable to be harvested by His Church.

If He is the seed He is also the sower "He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man"(Matt 13) That is, Jesus is both the High Priest who offers the sacrifice and He is the sacrifice which is offered. As Isaiah wrote "So shall my word be, which shall go forth from my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall do whatsoever I please" so the Letter to the Hebrews responded  ‘See, I have come to do your will.’ is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."(Hebrews 10)

Isaiah also talked about giving 'bread to the eater.' And what is Jesus? " I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’"(John 6) The seed which is sown and then dies becomes fruitful and transformed into the true bread that nourishes. Life proceeds, and proceeds abundantly, from out of that one death. And to whom does it proceed? "To the eater." We all eat and need to eat and that bread is made available to all, though not all choose to eat it. Some prefer death to life because the bread is not to their taste.

But to those who choose life Isaiah continues with his prophecy. And as his words about Jesus came true let us hope that these words about you also come true-

For you shall go out in joy,
    and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall burst into song,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle

Isaiah 55

The Lord says 'I sent it' The rain, the seed, the sower, the bread and the joy and peace all proceed from God. Mary sang "he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." (Luke 1) Which is to say that He sends freely but only those are fed who know themselves to be hungry, only those who are aware of their nakedness are clad, only the ones who know that they are dead can be made alive, The seed was first sown in the virginal heart of Mary when she said behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word (Luke 1) only after this was the Word incarnated in her womb. She is in this an example to us all. For there is this difference between us and the earth in which the seed falls. The seed grows or fails to grow in the earth in response to purely mechanical factors, the nature of the soil, the temperature, the amount of rainfall and so on. The seed of the Word grows or fails to grow within us to the extent that we echo or fail to echo these words of the Blessed Virgin 'be it done to me according to your Word'

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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Wisdom and Bitter Tears

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
    and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

Psalm 51:6

61 The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ 62 And he went out and wept bitterly.
Luke 22

There is an idea that the acquisition of Wisdom is a feelgood thing. The purpose of acquiring it is to affirm our own essential goodness and rightness. Peace of heart is the result of discovering that actually we are not the sum of our failures but truly good people. Over against this Christianity with its desperately unfashionable insistence about the need to repent and repudiate our own wickedness is seen as an enemy of Wisdom and self-affirmation. And yet, somehow, many of these seekers after Wisdom are happy to say that Jesus was a wise teacher whose followers have misrepresented His teachings.

I think that it is true that we learn the deepest and most valuable wisdom in the secrets of our heart and that in a way without words. When Jesus looked silently at St Peter He imparted a wisdom teaching to the Apostle. The fruit of that Wisdom was tears. Here we come to the crucial difference between the Wisdom of the Christians and the wisdom of self-affirmation.

The heart is a secret not only to outsiders but also in no small measure to the one who possesses it. A silent wisdom can enter into it and grow and we can be unaware of it until the moment it suddenly bursts forth into flower-
26 He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  
Mark 4
The eyes of Jesus conveyed a message to Saint Peter that had the effect of bringing to its culmination that process of growth which had for so long been taking place within his secret heart. A memory is a more complex thing than we often allow for. Every single thing that is recalled carries with it a host of other things that are associated with it.

In remembering the words that Jesus had uttered He also recalled, consciously, unconsciously or subconsciously, the person who had uttered them, their friendship, His many acts of kindness and healing, the meals they had shared, the friends they had in common-not least the Blessed Mother of the Lord- the teachings, the baptisms, the journeys, the love He had freely given. For memory is not a thing of the discursive mind only, with feeling we remember feelings, with emotion we recall and re-experience feelings. In a moment of time, or perhaps in an experience wholly outside of time and space, the Apostle felt all these things rushing upon him. And over and against all this was his act, now three times repeated of denying that he knew the man Jesus or had anything to do with Him.

The Gospels are insistent in recording that this Prince of Apostles did not simply weep but that he wept "bitterly." These were tears of a man whose heart was breaking. His worldly human heart was being broken on the rock of his secret spiritual heart. He was growing in wisdom. He had heard many months before the words that so many of us have heard since Whosoever shall seek to save his life, shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose it, shall preserve it.(Luke 17:33) Perhaps, like many of us, he had nodded along to it and thought 'yes, thats right'  but had left that thought in his head and not driven it down into his heart. But in that secret interior place of his the seed did fall and silently grew. Now, here on the very night his Lord was betrayed and arrested he had sought to save his life and had surely lost it by his own triple denial. The sad eyes of Jesus conveyed to him that truth but they conveyed something else too. They unfolded to him the wisdom in his secret heart. His bitter tears were not only a sign of regret, a sterile thing, they were his birth into a new kind of life.

It is not wisdom to affirm that we, as we are, are basically alright. We may do good things, cherish good feelings, have good thoughts be, in the conventional worldly sense, good people. But that is not enough. The pain that we feel, the wrongs that we do, or desire to do, are not always or even often the fault of somebody else. We are broken and need to be fixed. We are imperfect and cannot make ourselves perfect. We are small and weak and, however many friends or loved ones we may have, we are ultimately alone inside our own heads and hearts. Or, at least, alone as regards others of our species. The unfashionable wisdom of the Christians teaches you what you already know to be true, self-affirmation is not enough, and also what you may not yet know to be true. There is One whom you can invite into your life. He will come when you ask. And then you will no more be alone or weak or small, your imperfections will be transformed into perfections, in eternity if not in time, and your brokenness will become wholeness now and forever. He will delight in you and you will delight in Him. His affirmation is all that you need.

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Saturday, 12 April 2014

A Gentle and Peaceful Spirit

3 Your adornment should be not an exterior one, consisting of braided hair or gold jewellery or fine clothing,
4 but the interior disposition of the heart, consisting in the imperishable quality of a gentle and peaceful spirit, so precious in the sight of God.
1 Peter 3

This comes from the advice that St Peter gives to Christian wives. If I was offering a literal response to the passage then I would be obliged to explain it, if I were a Conservative, or explain it away, if I were a Liberal. Since I am responding to it at a spiritual level then I can cheerfully ignore these vexed questions altogether. I have, I think, some warrant for doing so. Ancient Christian tradition has characterised a number of things as feminine. The soul of each believer, male or female, is referred to as 'she' with the notion that the soul is a bride to the bridegroom Jesus. The Church too is often referred to in similar terms. Scripture itself characterises Wisdom as a woman (Proverbs 8) And, of necessity, Mary the Mother of God is a woman. So it is reasonable to suppose that these words from the Prince of Apostles have universal applicability.

The central point of the passage is, I would suggest, to be found in the words  the imperishable quality of a gentle and peaceful spirit . These qualities are the leaven which leavens the whole disposition of the Christian heart which is adorned by them. It is an interior beauty which bears fruit not only in the relationship between a person and their God but also in the outward actions of that person-
 The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good
Luke 6

A peaceful spirit is not only one that is peaceable and at peace she is also peace itself. She manifests her peaceableness through deeds and words. A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Proverbs 15) Where voices are raised she speaks softly, where tempers are hot she is cool, when demands are insistent she is undemanding. She serves peace before she serves herself. She is at peace because wherever she is and whatever she is doing she has within herself what St Catherine of Siena called the interior cell into which she can retire at will. Catherine suggested that the advice of Jesus would be this  “Dearest children, if you wish to discover and experience the effects of My will, dwell within the cell of your soul”  (Letter 41) A heart which communes with Jesus as with a friend cannot but be serene and still and at peace.

When asked by St Bernadette what her name was our Lady of Lourdes replied I am the Immaculate Conception (Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou.)  She might have said 'I am she who was immaculately conceived' but she did not. This suggests that there was such an inextricable link between herself as a person and the phenomenon of the Immaculate Conception that the two could be identified as one. When I say that a peaceful spirit is peace itself I am suggesting a similar identity between the spirit and the phenomenon. This would be hyperbole if we were merely to consider the spirit of a person as being both unique to them and wholly independent (autonomous in the favoured word of our era.) But we cannot so consider a person. Unique, yes certainly. Wholly independent, no, never. A person is always in bondage either to their desires in this world or to the transcendent love who is ever present in all worlds and times. And she who casts herself unreservedly as a bride into her beloved Divine Bridegroom's arms becomes one person with Him. As He is peace itself in His essence she becomes peace itself through participation in Him. As St John of the Cross put it-
 the soul seems to be God rather than a soul, and is indeed God by participation; although it is true that its natural being, though thus transformed, is as distinct from the Being of God as it was before.    
Ascent of Mount Carmel

A gentle spirit is not only gentle in what she does but she is gentling and also gentleness itself. Gentleness is a thing of delicacy. It is a light touch, it allows another person to be themselves yet offers them the strong external support which they need to be just that. In some ways it is a quality easier to define by what it is not. It is not harsh, or authoritarian or cruelly judgemental. It is the softest of the human qualities and requires great strength to be lived out. The gentling qualities of the gentle spirit may have been at the forefront of St Peters mind when he recommended this as the path for Christian wives to convert pagan husbands. However that might be it is a spirit which has an effect on all those whom it encounters. One effect on the hard and the obdurate is that they seek to bully and dominate all the more, they mistake gentleness for weakness. In this they display not only their wickedness but their lack of wisdom. The reed may bend but she does not break.

Imperishable quality. The longer I have been ill the more I have come to see the difference between that which perishes and that which does not. Even those without a belief in God, or specifically the God of the Christians, may see that while our insignificant human lives might come and go peace and gentleness remain forever as qualities which lie at the heart of what it means to be a good man, a good woman, to be goodness itself. The things which pass away are spasms, the passions of anger, envy, spite, lust and so on. That which endures, the kindnesses we remember, the heroes who have captured our hearts, is founded not on passion but upon values which flow from the steadfast spirits of gentleness and peace. Where the fruit is tranquility the tree on which it grows is the true Tree of Life.

Over the years I have read many (too many?) spiritual books, articles and guides. One feature they often have in common is that they spend a lot of time describing in glowing terms the beauty of the destination and very little time giving you practical advice on how to get there. Now I am writing I begin to see why that might be. The destination is not a place, it is a relationship. We are all different, unique as I said earlier. How can I say what the best way for you, the unique and only you, might be to enjoy the closest possible relationship with the One who made you to be what you are? It might help if I told you what works for me you say. Well, it would be presumptuous to say that anything has worked for me. I have done so much that is foolish and wrong, I have lived so long in darkness. Tomorrow might see me, for all I know, plunged into ever deeper darkness, ever more culpable follies. Besides, it has often been borne upon me, sometimes painfully so, that I am not like other people. I am odd, although the word 'weird' has been used with rather more frequency. So my guidance might be worth less than nothing.

I will, notwithstanding, make a recommendation. I do so not because I place any confidence in my own judgement, I am not at least that foolish, but in the judgement of those great Saints before me who have made the same recommendation. It is towards the figure of Mary, the Virgin Mother of Jesus, that I look. She is the gentle and peaceful spirit par excellence. She, the Immaculate Conception, is so at one with her divine Son that she is Gentleness, she is Peace and she leads us to Him and points us towards Him, and pleads for us with Him and for Him with us. Invite Mary into your heart and you will be invaded by peace, occupied by gentleness. She will lift you up from this perishing world and place you into the embrace of the imperishable and Divine  Bridegroom.

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Thursday, 10 April 2014

What I Desire

Psalm 27:4
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
4 I have asked one thing from the Lord;
it is what I desire:
to dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
gazing on the beauty of the Lord
and seeking Him in His temple.

The sound, and sometimes the fury, generated by 'muscular Christianity' and its activists can sometimes conceal the fact that the Christian faith has at its heart a contemplative dimension. This psalm points us towards that dimension and reminds us that the Temple cult in Jerusalem, which also has a reputation for activism often involving swords, had a gentler aspect also.

 The word 'desire' has various connotations, not all of them good. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says 'Be a warrior and kill desire, the powerful enemy of the soul.' The Buddha suggested that desire was the cause of all suffering. Christianity tends to look upon emotions or feelings in relation to their objects rather than in isolation. Anger, for example, is a cardinal sin unless it is directed against a legitimate object where it becomes a source of strength for a succeeding action. Desire, then, when it is directed towards the possession and enjoyment of a temporal and material object as an end in itself is bad or at best neutral. When directed towards a transcendent and spiritual object or Person then it is not only an unqualified good but it is a strengthening factor in helping us to secure that object or Person and therefore to be secured by it or by Him.

This kind of desire is spoken of elsewhere by the psalmist 'As a deer longs for streams of water, so I long for You, God. I thirst for God, the living God.' (Psalm 42) 'God, You are my God; I eagerly seek You. I thirst for You; my body faints for You in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water.' (Psalm 63) This is desire expressed as urgent necessity, as dehydration prompts a person to seek water so a realisation of our spiritual barrenness should prompt us to seek Him who can 'turn a desert into a pool of water, dry land into springs of water.' (Psalm 107)

To achieve his object the psalmist has one powerful instrument- 'I have asked.'  He prays. To ask is to receive. To want to ask is to have the assurance of success when we do ask. The desire for God comes from God and it is inconceivable that He would thwart His own wishes. Only we have the power to do that. Once we recognise His presence in our hearts urging us towards Him in an ever more intimate union and exchange of love then we can choose to accept His gift and respond to it or we can reject it. The desire to preserve this life and its passing glories is, indeed, a powerful enemy of the soul. 'whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it' (Luke 9)

The 'house of the Lord' referred to in the psalm is the Jerusalem Temple. In the most sacred part of that building, the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant was situated. And the One God of the Universe abode within the Ark in a special way. That is, although He was everywhere and upheld everything His awesome glory and power was manifested in a singular, concentrated fashion in this one place. When the psalmist spoke about dwelling within that house all the days of his life whatever literal meaning he had in mind his spiritual intention was perfectly clear. He wished to be, heart and mind, body and soul in the most intimate possible contact with the beloved object of his most powerful of desires all of the time. And when his energies flowed into that relationship the beloved's energies would flow back in return. These would bear a powerful fruit as the psalmist wrote elsewhere 'Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me
all the days of my life.' (Psalm 23)

The form this relationship, which I have described in active (not to say sensual) terms, takes is quite literally contemplative 'gazing on the beauty of the Lord.' The God of the Israelites was invisible, the Ark of the Covenant was concealed from all but the High Priest and that only once a year. So the psalmist was describing a spiritual reality in the form of a material metaphor. It is difficult for us to describe such realities in any other way. Later in the psalm he invoked another such image which the King James Version renders as 'When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek.' (Psalm 27:8) The what of the relationship is thus made clear. The how of the relationship the same version subsequently describes in these terms 'Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.' (Psalm 27:14)

The Jerusalem Temple has long been destroyed yet the call for Christians to seek Him in the Temple is not an historic curiosity but a current vocation. And this in two ways 'Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body.' (John 2) Contemplating Jesus in the Gospels, in prayer, in meditation, in His Saints is one way that we can seek Him. 'Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you.' (1 Corinthians 6) Looking inwardly to 'that of God in everyone,' as the Quakers put it, communing silently with the grace of God at work within our souls is another way of seeking Him in His Temple.

There is no real conflict between the notion of an activist 'muscular Christianity' and that of a contemplative one. Some individual are drawn more towards one path than another yet it is always the case that we only drink at the fountain of His grace in order to give us the strength to do that which we must do, and we can only know what that doing is to be if we have drunk at that fountain. The body of Christ is always in balance, although often enough that balance gives the appearance of tension. It is however not the tenseness of a conflict, a Pope Benedict versus a Pope Francis, it is the tension of a creative process forever giving birth to Jesus in the world and in the hearts of believers.

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Tuesday, 8 April 2014


38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8

The Apostle Paul is very quotable and these two verses from his Letter to the Romans is an example of him at his expressive best. What is, I think, seldom noticed is the absolutely crucial role played by the words "I am convinced." Everything that follows depends upon them and could not be uttered without them. Nor could we the readers give our assent to them, always supposing that we do which is not a given, unless we also were able to utter the same three words.

It is to my mind significant that the Apostle preferred to say 'convinced' or as it is sometimes rendered 'persuaded' rather than saying "I am certain" or "I know" or "I believe". Some translations, it is true do miss out on that shade of meaning, and God knows I am no expert on Greek, but the consensus seems to be that the original word used pepeismai conveys the same sense as the one I am using. Why is that important? Well, because it carries certain implications. Firstly it suggests that St Paul required persuasion, that is he was resistant to the conviction which he now advances. Second that the idea has a persuasive power backing it up, that is evidences which can change the mind of a person. Thirdly, and finally, that the idea once accepted has the power of an accepted fact, like gravity or the need to drink when thirsty, to become one of the foundations upon which we ground our way of being alive in this world, because a conviction is not just a belief but it is a belief for which we are willing to die. 

How did the Apostle become convinced and is there anything in his path to conviction which is relevant to those of us today who seek to know whether the quote at the top of this page is a truth statement or not? If the answer relates to probably the most famous Pauline incident of them all then the answer to the relevance question would seem to be a resounding No-

‘While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” Then he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.” Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 I asked, “What am I to do, Lord?” The Lord said to me, “Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.” 11 Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.
Acts 22

Granting that God does from time to time intervene in such ways it is certainly only rarely that He does so and if we refuse our belief in the proposition that our union of love with God through Jesus is unbreakable by any outside force (our own unfaithfulness can break it in a heartbeat though) until we ourselves have such a Damascene experience then we are effectively ruling out such a belief altogether.

But was this the only evidence, compelling as it might be to its recipient, which St Paul relied upon? Probably not. There is also this-

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 
2 Corinthians 12

It is generally accepted that the Apostle was here speaking about his own mystic experience. At first glance this seems as exotic an evidence as the first and therefore equally redundant so far as ordinary folk go. Such raptures though are, I think, rather more common than you might suppose. The vividness of the Saint's experience and its visual nature make it simply an heightened example of a more frequent occurrence. Many quite ordinary people are rapt up through prayer or contemplation into spiritual experiences or encounters which carry with them every bit as much the power to convince, to persuade, as that which the Corinthians heard about some 2000 years ago. The weakness of all this, viewed from the outside, is that in order to be engaged in such prayer or contemplation in the first place you require either a basic level of faith or the desire to possess it. So the encounter simply confirms what you already believed or wanted to believe. This is not, may I say it, a weakness viewed from the inside because these encounters are so solid and so real that it would be irrational to resist conviction in the truths they convey.

Additional forces operated to persuade the Apostle. He writes about them in the verses preceding those we are discussing-

24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Romans 8

The idea of hope as proof seems startling but the idea is summarised neatly in the Catechism The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man. Or as the philosopher Simone Weil put it-
At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being.  
Human Personality
The idea being that the feeling described by the Apostle as hope is an universal one, each human person experiences it and seeks to find something in life which will correspond to it, and in Jesus we find the only figure who meets that need fully. The universal existence of hope suggests that it must be implanted (or evolved) within us for a reason and that there must be something in the world we encounter which corresponds to it and fulfills it as food to hunger and water to thirst. Against this it can be argued that hope as here defined is far from universal or alternatively that other figures, the Buddha, Krishna, Karl Marx or the founder of Islam for example can be found who in their philosophies or through their personalities meet this need at least as well as Christianity.

Did anything else work to persuade the Apostle? Well, there was this-
14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
Romans 8
It was a basic assumption in the primitive Church and since that each member of Christ only becomes so because they have first received the gift of the Holy Spirit. St Peter described it in this way-
15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
Acts 11
Underlying all the previous evidences that worked to convince the Apostle was this one fact. God sent His own Spirit into St Paul's heart. The response intellectually and emotionally of Paul to that encounter continued to unfold itself over time as that encounter prolonged itself over time. What, ultimately, persuaded him about the nature of God's love was God's love itself. He experienced it and then he tried to understand it and then he tried to express it. The fruits of that loving exchange are to be found in the words that stand at the head of this blog. Is that persuasive for anyone apart from the Apostle himself? No. Somebody elses internal experience might be interesting to read about (or deadly dull) but it carries no power to convince unless it corresponds to something within ourselves. If the Holy Spirit was the agent of conviction for St Paul then He must also be the agent of conviction for us if we are to believe the Apostle. And if we don't have Him what are we to do? Ask ourselves if we desire Him. Do we want to be convinced? Do we possess that universal hope, the aspiration to happiness, the expectation that ultimately good and not evil will be done to us? If the answer is Yes then we can only implore from our depths that we receive this most sweet guest. He will surely come.
Turn ye unto me, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will turn unto you, saith the Lord of hosts.
Zechariah 1:3 

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Thursday, 3 April 2014

A Trouble Shared

For nearly a year now I have been experiencing the more or less serious symptoms of an as yet undiagnosed illness. The latest plan, as of today, is to try a bone marrow scan and see what that reveals. One of the consequences of this all is that I have spent more time in doctors waiting rooms and hospital outpatients departments during the course of 20013/4 than in the whole of my previous 50 years put together. It is a besetting weakness (sin?) of mines that I observe life rather more than I participate in it. And it is that part of myself that is responsible for this particular blog.

In my capacity as a crazy solitary mystic I attend appointments stolidly on my own. I wait on my own, I see the doctor or other health professional on my own and I deal with the consequences solitarily. This is the bed which I have made for myself and I am more than happy to lie in it. Of this I make no complaint. I do notice though that I am very much an unusual case. Most people seem to attend appointments, especially in hospital, with a companion. Adults have their spouses or partners, children have their parent (by which I mean mother but it would be un-PC to point out that I have never yet seen a child accompanied only by an adult male.)

As an observation this is fairly trivial and I expect that thousands have noticed the same. There is a reason though why it merits mentioning on a Catholic blog. It is argued by the Church that one reason for devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, is that she helps us to approach more closely and more warmly to Jesus her Divine Son. Others ask 'why not approach Him direct, what do we gain by calling upon Mary?' My waiting room observations amount to this. The doctor will not tell us more if we approach her with a companion, it makes no difference to her, but it makes a huge, life changing difference to most of us. A friend who listens to our anxieties as we wait, a companion who hears what we hear, a mother who rejoices as we rejoice or mourns as we mourn that is what most people seeking health and living with sickness need and dearly desire. That is the least of what Mary Health of the Sick is.

When I personally say that I need or desire no such thing in my dealings with doctors it does not mean, God forbid, that I think others should do without what I in my own idiosyncratic way do without. We are all, praise the Lord different from each other. Yet those Protestants who say that they can happily approach Jesus without recourse to Mary therefore nobody else should have recourse to her either are making precisely the same arrogant "I am the perfect template" assumption which I think should be forever repudiated by all calling themselves Christian.

Mary makes a difference. Being told things that affect the whole of the rest of your life, which might be shorter than previously anticipated, is Big Stuff. Hearing these things on your own and being left for hours or days on your own to digest them is not only Bigger Stuff but, perhaps Way Too Big Stuff. When you are too stunned to respond an Advocate can respond on your behalf. When you are to dazed to weep a Mother can weep for you. When you feel ashamed to beg Mary will shamelessly beg in your place. No child of Mary is ever abandoned.

Does my solitary mystic status mean that I am recommending a devotion which I do not myself share? By no means. One of the symptoms of my mystery illness is that I spend about 12 or 14 hours a day so ridiculously tired that I struggle to put together more than two or three coherent sentences (you may have noticed this already, sorry about that.) In that state (this state?) I struggle to lift my mind to contemplate the Blessed Trinity as it should be contemplated or Jesus the Logos of God as He should be contemplated. But never, never, do I struggle to raise my heart to Mary to love her as she should be loved.

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Monday, 31 March 2014

Typical Woman

The Reluctant Seductress 

[29] Then Achior seeing the head of Holofernes, being seized with a great fear he fell on his face upon the earth, and his soul swooned away. [30] But after he had recovered his spirits he fell down at her feet, and reverenced her and said:
[31] Blessed art thou by thy God in every tabernacle of Jacob, for in every nation which shall hear thy name, the God of Israel shall be magnified on occasion of thee.
[6] Then Achior seeing the power that the God of Israel had wrought, leaving the religion of the gentiles, he believed God, and circumcised the flesh of his foreskin, and was joined to the people of Israel, with all the succession of his kindred until this present day
Judith Chapter 14

The story of Judith is one of those which can always be found in the Bibles of the Catholic and Orthodox but very rarely in those of the Reformed tradition. There are complex historical and theological reasons for this which it would exceed my knowledge base to go into. What I can say is that although the early Reformers had doubts about the canonical status of the Deuterocanonical books, as they are called, including Judith they nonetheless continued to make use of them. The classic King James Version of the Bible, for example, included her story in full. And the Church of England Book of Homilies issued in the 16th Century to expound the Reformed doctrines contained in the 39 Articles made frequent reference to these 7 books to reinforce their arguments. It is only later generations of Protestants that began, more or less without debate, to edit Judith and her companions out of the picture.

I often feel when reading her story that if I had encountered it as a teenager then my interest in religion would have started a whole lot earlier than it did. It has so many great elements. It is mercifully short. It features war, battle, siege, seduction and drunkenness and in Judith a feisty heroine who is glamorous, willing to wield a sword with the boys and no mean military strategist. Absolutely none of which interested the theologians and commentators who have written about Judith over the centuries. In keeping with Catholic tradition the chief thing sought when reading the Old Testament is the ways in which it foreshadows the New Covenant. Events and persons are considered as being types or allegorical symbols of events and persons that reached their full significance in Gospel times. Men like King David or the Prophet Jonah are seen as types of Jesus and women like Rachel and Esther as types of Mary. In that sense Judith is a typical woman since in her, the theologians argue, we can see a type or figure of Mary.

You might wonder in what sense the gentle Nazarene Virgin can be compared to the scimitar wielding beheading widow. The key is found in the so called proto-evangelium I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.    Genesis 3:15  Mary is the one who crushes the head of Satan through her son Jesus and the sword of the Gospel, Judith beheads Holofernes, a type of Satan,

However that might be, my interest here is to consider, via the figure of Achior the Ammonite, how Judith exemplifies the manner in which devotion to a handmaid of the Lord is not a diversion from worship owed to God but a super-highway towards it. Achior belonged to those who were traditional enemies of Israel. He was aware of their religion but did not share it. Holofernes, to whom he was a reluctant ally, banished Achior to the Israelite town of Bethulia for daring to suggest that the God of Israel might, in certain narrowly defined circumstances, prove stronger than the King of Assyria whom the Assyrian hosts considered to be the only God upon earth and with power over it. Achior was doomed to share the fate of the Israelites, when the earthly God crushed the heavenly one then he would die alongside those who had vainly put their faith in the God of Jacob.

When therefore Achior saw the severed head of Holofernes and learned that he had died by the hand of Judith he realised that he had escaped from death because the God of Israel had acted through the agency of this heroic and virtuous woman. He fell down and showed her reverence and because of her he converted to Judaism. Here then we have a perfect illustration in type of the value of Marian devotion. Many people, and especially from those Christian traditions which have edited out the Book of Judith, think that by giving praise and honour to Mary we lead people away from Jesus yet Achior perceived instinctively that by praising with due praise one who perfectly fulfilled the role God had chosen for her he was thereby giving honour to God.

All the reasons that Catholics have for honouring Mary stem from her relationship with the Blessed Trinity and above all her Son, the Logos of God, Jesus Christ. We cannot contemplate her without contemplating Him and we cannot honour her without honouring Him. Yet there is this difference, Mary is one of us, the human and only human daughter of a human mother and father. She is Our tainted nature's solitary boast as Wordsworth put it. She is not divine nor is she charged with the task of being our Judge. A great many people have no fear of Jesus and no sense of distance from Him and can pass in and out freely through His gate finding pasture (John 10:9) Yet we are not all the same, some, and it may be the more humble among us, do see the great distance between themselves and Jesus or they see deeply inside themselves just how much they deserve the judgement and ought to fear the judge. For these the Church offers Mary as the ladder which will lift us up gently and lovingly to Him. After all, the Jews did not need Judith to convince them to believe in Almighty God but Achior did. It is the task of the Church to save the Achiors of this world every bit as much as it is to save Jews (metaphorically speaking). And Mary is that Blessed Woman who leads many to salvation by being the most sweet mirror of her Son.

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Tuesday, 25 March 2014