Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Jesus-Why Bother?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, 23 October 2015

St Ælfric's by Night-A Christian Ghost Story

churchyard by night.jpg

She was a very modern vicar. Traditions and superstitions that got in the way of kindness and tolerance were discarded by her for kindness and tolerance were her religion. Being thoroughly modern she made no provision for technological failure. So when, one November evening, the electricity failed she was at a loss about what to do. Eventually she remembered that there were candles in the church and she dug out the torch left by her predecessor and set out from the presbytery.

The wind was blowing dead autumn leaves across the churchyard. Like shrouds they piled up against the West side of the gravestones. The owls and the rodents had resumed their nightly battle of wits with violent death as the stake. The vicar found herself muttering involuntary prayers as she hurried through and half-laughed at her reversion to the pre-modern little girl she had once been.

St Ælfric in the Marsh was an ancient building, it was already old when Henry VIII decided to change the religion of his people. It had seen many modern vicars in its time and many different modernities. It had spent more centuries without electricity than with it so power cuts did not unduly affect St Ælfric.The vicar stepped into the porch and automatically flicked the light switches in the vague hope that the church was on a different circuit to the presbytery. It wasn’t, the darkness was profound.

She pointed her torch in the direction of the Lady chapel, where people with a faith as ancient as that of the church they worshipped in still placed votive candles, and she started trudging towards it. After a while it occurred to her that she had been walking for a long time given that St Ælfric’s was such a small building. She flashed the torch round about her. Everything seemed normal and she guessed she must be about halfway between the porch and the chapel. More time passed and her brisk tread became hesitant. Once more she paused to inspect her surroundings. She seemed to be in precisely the same position as she had been before.      
“I must be walking in circles somehow” she thought “It’s very strange.”

Touching the wall of the church with her right hand to keep herself straight she continued her unusually prolonged expedition prudently turning the torch off to save the dying battery. After a while she had to move the hand to help support the weight on her left shoulder. For a while she struggled on before she thought to ask herself what that weight might be and how it had got there. It seemed to her that she had been carrying it for a long time but she had no memory of how or when it came to be there. Kneeling painfully down she placed the thing on the floor and flashed her torch at it.

Slowly she moved the feeble light up and down, down and up and then down again. However often she looked at it it retained the same appearance. It was large and crudely made out of wood. It was a cross. The vicar gulped several times.
Who needs candles anway?” she asked defiantly out loud and turned to make her way back to the reassuringly normal graveyard. Then she stopped. As clearly as if they had been spoken she became aware of the words-
You can leave, but then you will never know the answer.”

She stood for a moment in the faint light from the stained glass windows. Several layers of modernity were shed. A choice was being made. Was she a woman of faith above all or was she a creature of technology and artificiality. Weeping slightly she turned again, picked up her cross and struggled on through the darkness. After what seemed long ages she sunk under the weight and sobbed without restraint. Then, a gentle healing presence surrounded her and slowly she stood up once more. Her burden had become lighter somehow. But the darkness was still dark and the way still seemed long.

Suddenly she let out an un-vicarlike expression. She had stubbed her toe on something. Carefully exploring the dark area in front with her foot she discovered that she was standing in front of a step.
I must have veered off the way to the Lady chapel and come to the sanctuary instead.” she thought.
Firmly shouldering her cross she began to climb. More time passed. And then she found the light.


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Monday, 19 October 2015

Martha, Martha.

In the multitude of my thoughts within me thy comforts delight my soul.
(Psalm 94:19)

Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful:and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
(Luke 10:41-42)

Both David (the psalmist) and Jesus draw a contrast between the drain on resources caused by multiplicity and the peace to be derived from simplicity. David describes an internal environment and Jesus an exterior one but, of course the two are intimately linked.

Martha's busy-ness was concerned with the tricky task of being a good hostess for an horde of visitors which meant having to juggle several balls in the air at the same time. Mary was simply concerned about sitting at the feet of our Lord and learning from Him.

Anyone who has tried meditating will recognise David's description. Our body may be as still as Mary's but our mind is, like Martha, bustling around like a shuttlecock from one thing to another and, very often, back again. The key difference, though, is that Martha's activity is purposeful and useful whereas the thoughts rattling around inside our head are often neither. Both of the sisters are focussed on Jesus, just in different ways. A contrast is often made between Mary as emblematic of the contemplative life and Martha of the active one. This is true so far as it goes there is, however, what Al Gore would no doubt call 'that little known third category' where action follows contemplation.

Had Martha sat at the feet of Jesus before performing her hospitable tasks then her multiplicity would have been secondary to her simplicity. Not simply second chronologically but also she would have become in some sense detached from her actions, performing them diligently but with a part of herself still dwelling by her Lord. Because, however, she performed them as an alternative to listening to Him then her affection for Him and desire to hear His words were among the other balls she was juggling and not always appearing as the most important ones either. Nonetheless, focussed or unfocussed both Martha and Mary were primarily motivated by love of Jesus and  'love covers a multitude of sins.' (1 Peter 4:8)

What David describes is a mind juggling umpteen balls at the same time and a soul delighted by the comforts of God. As I mentioned in a previous blog (Repentance-Why Bother?) words change their meaning over time. The 17th century translators of the Authorised Version understood comfort to mean something different from what their 21st century readers might suppose. At its root is the same word used in fortress, fortification, fortified and the like. Literally it means "strong together" and would have been used in the sense "strengthen greatly." So David should be understood to be saying something like "In the multitude of my thoughts within me thy strengthening helps delight my soul."

Listening to Jesus would have given Martha strengthening help that would anchor her in simplicity whilst she was busily doing many different things. Her multiplicity would have proceeded from a unity and returned to it. By not listening she discovered herself to be in the midst of multiplicity longing for simplicity but without the strength or wisdom to find her way to it.

Something similar applies to our own 'multitude of thoughts.' Whether we are in contemplative or active mode without a divinely inspired core they will be diversity without unity. Thoughts will head off in all directions; sometimes they will collide, sometimes they will go down dead-ends and often they will just circle round and round and round.

Divine comfort, which is an action of the Holy Spirit, will nor necessarily stop any of that (although on rare occasions it probably will) but it will change the way we experience the phenomenon. We can be Martha's without the angst. This multitude does not possess the power to command our attention, all that it can do is request it. Hard as it may be to believe we do have the ability to refuse those requests. Letting thoughts pass us by without our focussing upon them is only an effort if we have nothing else to focus upon. And the Spirit giving 'delight to my soul' is a powerful counter-attraction.

The advantage that Mary possessed was that she was fully aware of the presence of Jesus. He filled her sight, her hearing, her mind and her heart to the exclusion of all else. We are seldom so obviously blessed.Yet, nonetheless, if we have made the basic decision of faith in favour of Christ and His Kingdom and if, where possible, we have been strengthened by the sacraments then He is a permanent guest within our own hearts. Only unrepented mortal sin can drive Him away from us. And if He is within us then we, if we listen (which is the one thing needful), can hear Him always. And that is a comforting thought.


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The picture is Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Vincenzo Campi

Friday, 16 October 2015

Repentance-Why Bother?

In religion as in politics very often the one thing which makes you most popular also makes you most unpopular. Putting forward a demand or a slogan mobilises both support and opposition and, usually, the more extreme the demand the more extreme the response. A central plank in the programme proposed by Jesus was repentance; words change their meaning over time and for us that word calls up the idea 'feeling sorry for being naughty.' What it meant at the time was something like 'turn your entire life upside down.' Or, more theologically, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily" (Luke 9:23) This won for Him, as it did for His forerunner St John the Baptist, an enthusiastic hearing among those who felt the need to change their lives. It also earned Him the enmity of those who were convinced that they were doing just the right thing already and didn't need to be rebuked by an upstart carpenter's son from an insignificant little town in a despised region.

Is the demand a sensible one? Did they need to revolutionise their lives, do we? Will we gain more than we lose if we do? The Christian proposition is that without repentance we will necessarily be, at our deepest level, unhappy and unsettled. With repentance united to faith in Christ we may experience deep sadnesses, traumas and sufferings but in the most interior level of ourselves we will be at rest. Against this is the idea that life is inevitably a blend of light and shade and that we should enjoy the light when we have it and endure the shade when we must and that anyway most of our lives, whatever we do, will be spent in a neutral zone between the two things. To abandon the living of normal life in pursuit of the chimera of happiness proposed by Christianity is a tremendous gamble undertaken on very slight evidence.

There are two arguments which, I think, bolster the Christian proposition. They are of course desperately unfashionable but for nonetheless well worth considering. Firstly, each human person is possessed of a conscience. This is not something which is purely a product of education and culture nor of unaided reason though each of these things play a part in its formation and outworkings. Conscience, like the heart and lungs, is something which we are born with and which develops and grows over time. That growth can be organic, natural and healthy or diseased and corrupted but it can only work with and upon the material originally present.

A life lived in harmony with the conscience is, in essence, a happy life. Whatever tragedies or disasters may overcome the person with a clear conscience they have at least an awareness that these experiences constitute trials not punishments. They have no fear of a just condemnation. Where one ignores, overrides or casuistically misrepresents ones own conscience then life will be, in essence, unhappy however many triumphs or riches one may gain. As the psalmist put it  'They have not called upon God: there have they trembled for fear, where there was no fear.'(Psalm 52:6 Vulgate) That is, where one is at war with ones conscience that war is uninterrupted, sometimes open, sometimes hidden (to paraphrase Karl Marx) and there is no rest. The promise of Jesus ' Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28) is only open to those who recognise that they are burdening themselves with unnecessary strife and see in repentance and in the Christ the way to unburden themselves.

The second argument is that we are creatures of eternity as well as of time. Eternal life is not something that begins when we shuffle of this mortal coil, 'pie in the sky when you die,' This moment is a part of eternity and if you live in this moment then you are touching the eternal whether you know it or not. We are so immersed in the temporal order that our awareness of eternity is usually covered over by layers of distraction, often made by our own desires and carnal appetites. Now and again though, by the grace of God, we have flashes of insight, apprehensions of the transcendent when, lifted out of ourselves, we perceive the divine infinite order without and within ourselves. Such achingly beautiful moments serve both to show us that we are exiles from that realm and give us hope that we may come to dwell more fully within it.

Taken together the testimony of conscience and the glimpses of eternity give us an impetus to repentance. It is only by effecting a turning upside down of our present lives that we can gain the gifts of a clear conscience and of being ever more closely attuned to that eternal life which is our natural home. The conviction that we need to change is a necessary beginning but it does not of itself tell us how we should change. For that you will need to read my blog Jesus-Why Bother?

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The painting is The Penitent Magdalene by Mateo Cerezo 

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