Saturday, 13 December 2014

Sense & Sensuality

                                     Allegory of Modesty and Vanity by Bernadino Luini

And the servants of the goodman of the house coming said to him: Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? whence then hath it cockle? And he said to them: An enemy hath done this. And the servants said to him: Wilt thou that we go and gather it up?  And he said: No, lest perhaps gathering up the cockle, you root up the wheat also together with it.

In the last time there should come mockers, walking according to their own desires in ungodlinesses. These are they, who separate themselves, sensual men, having not the Spirit

Because I have a short attention span I've always had a soft spot for the Very Small Books in the Bible. I'm especially fond of the Old Testament books of Ruth and of Jonah. They are good stories and, apart from their religious content are full of little vignettes of human emotion from tender love to extreme crabbiness. The Very Small Books of the New Testament are more 'difficult' since they lack narrative and touch on deep spiritual and theological themes which you can't really get to grips with unless you have a good working knowledge of the ideas contained in the rest of the NT. Nonetheless the Catholic Epistle of St Jude the Apostle has several things going for it, its only 25 verses long, it illustrates the wheat and tares parable of our Lord and it is attributed to the patron saint of lost causes who is an appropriate patron for this little cottage blog that dreams of international stardom.

Essentially the letter concerns the presence within the body of Christ of those who do not truly belong to it. While it hints that there may be doctrinal disputes involved ("denying the only sovereign Ruler, and our Lord Jesus Christ" v4) it firmly lays the blame for those disruptive tendencies at the door of disordered desires. Like the Didache but less explicitly it presupposes that there are two ways, that of life and that of death the former rooted in the spirit and the latter in sensuality. St Jude gives a list of historical precedents for this kind of thing finishing with a threefold peroration-
Woe unto them, for they have gone in the way of Cain:
 and after the error of Balaam they have for reward poured out themselves,
 and have perished in the contradiction of Core
This echoes the first verse of the Book of Psalms
Blessed is the man
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers
Except that St Jude casts in a negative way (woe unto them) what David had cast in a positive one (blessed is the man.) It is significant that the three examples which he highlights relate examples of human vices specifically and directly to religious actions. The story of Cain (Genesis 4:1-16) displays anger and envy which leads to murder, this stems from the fact that the sacrifice offered to God by Cain's brother Abel is more pleasing to God than Cain's own offering. Balaam acts as a prophet-for-hire, that is although he has received a great gift from God, that of prophecy, he is willing to misuse that gift on behalf of the enemies of God if they pay him enough (Numbers 22.) Greed then is one of the traits that can lead us onto the way of death, doubly so perhaps if we abuse our God given charisma in the service of wickedness.

The episode of Core or Korah is probably less well known these days but it serves the author as a useful hinge since it illustrates both ways, that of life and that of death, thus giving us an early preview of his later positive prescriptions. Basically Korah leads a rebellion against the divine ordinance that reserves the priesthood to Aaron and his family "They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3) So Korah and his followers stood with censers swinging to offer incense to God and Aaron and his sons did the same with rather unpleasant results for Korah et al. Here the sin described is envy (again!) aggravated by pride. This example was and is much to the point insofar as it relates to the Church. There are different roles within the body of Christ, the priesthood of all believers does not mean that each believer is called to fulfill the same function as each other believer. Some are called to be Apostles, some presbyters, some prophets, some teachers and so on. To aim at exercising a charism which God has not gifted you with is not obedience unto life but rebellion unto death.

                                                    Allegory of Chastity by Memling

St Jude's prescription for life is twofold, right belief (orthodoxy) as a necessary foundation for right action (orthopraxy.) While history and, no doubt, our own personal lives clearly evidences that there is often no real connection between what we profess to believe and what we actually do the theory here is that what we really and truly hold as our heart-beliefs is reflected in our outward actions, for better or for worse. Thus if we internalise orthodoxy we shall externalise orthopraxy. At this point the non-orthodox among you will begin to get red or purple in the face and evince a desire to jump up and down yelling irately that one does not have to be a Christian to 'do the right thing.' This is both correct and wrong, but not in equal measure. The correctness consists in the fact that heart-belief, to the extent that is good and virtuous, is always and only prompted by the grace of God. When your heart is aligned with His promptings and cooperates with them in your outward actions then you can to a greater or lesser extent be credited with orthopraxy. However, there are limitations to this if your response to grace is made while unconscious of the presence of grace since you attribute its promptings either to yourself, your sound reason, your innate goodness, or to the effects of the good example set by others, perhaps beginning with your parents. This means that the good actions you perform are limited to what, say, your reason finds to be a suitable response to the partly understood promptings of God felt in your heart. What you don't offer then is gratitude and praise to Him who is the source of both your will and your actions, nor can you strengthen yourself in continued good doing through a personal relationship with Him, through faith, in prayer and in the sacraments. Heartfelt orthodoxy is the only basis upon which consistent orthopraxy can be based which is not the same thing as saying that orthodoxy is the only basis for a life of good and generous acts.

So how according to St Jude can we know of what right belief consists? He gives us two hints firstly by talking of the faith once delivered to the saints (v3) and then later where he says be mindful of the words which have been spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. (v17) It is worthy of noticing that in a short letter saturated with references to the Old Testament he does not suggest that Scripture alone should be the source from which orthodox belief is derived. In part this might be because as well as the biblical sources he uses our Apostle also quotes or refers to apocryphal or non-canonical sources such as The Assumption of Moses, the Book of Enoch and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. It is as if he is saying to the Christian community that there are a wide variety of written sources from which we can draw nourishment some of them contain this or that element of God's revelation to Man and some contain material which is edifying or useful but not revelatory and thus non-binding. The only sure fountain from which we can drink the water of salvation in all its purity is the teaching of the Apostles and the traditions which they have handed down (or for his contemporaries are still handing down since, of course the Epistle he was writing was part of that deposit of faith then being laid down.) In short, the Christian faith is Apostolic before it is scriptural.

Some one thousand eight hundred years later Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman reflected on this very question. In Apologia pro Vita Sua he wrote  the sacred text was never intended to teach doctrine, but only to prove it, and that, if we would learn doctrine, we must have recourse to the formularies of the Church.  His argument being that the complex, multi-layered, multiple genre containing Bible is not a thing which any individual can safely use to deduce the entire structure of belief from. We require to understand it in the same way that the Apostles guided by the Holy Spirit understood it (and in part wrote it) for which purpose the only available source to us is the continuous understanding of the Church which those Apostles founded and which continues in unbroken succession to this day. More than that in a sermon Faith and Private Judgement he described the process by which the contents of the Christian religion were received by the Church in its epoch of foundation. ...either the Apostles were from God, or they were not; if they were, everything that they preached was to be believed by their hearers; if they were not, there was nothing for their hearers to believe That is one did not analyse their words accepting this and rejecting that, this was a straightforward either/or choice. One cannot describe a religion based on Scripture Alone in the same way that one can describe that religion based on the Apostles because in the former one uses one's private judgement and the final arbiter of doctrine is personal opinion while in the latter it is the opinion of the Apostles which is to say the Holy Spirit to which one submits.        

So, having received the Apostolic faith what do we do with it, how does it express itself in action? St Jude gives us this description You, my beloved, building yourselves upon your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ (vv20-21.) Here the Apostle touches lightly upon a sequence of actions which to fully expound would take more space than this blog has and more knowledge than this blogger possesses. You can discern the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love in what St Jude says and of these three the greatest is love so perhaps the most effectual commentary on St Jude's prescription comes from St Paul-

Love is patient and kind; 
love does not envy or boast; 
it is not arrogant or rude. 
It does not insist on its own way; 
it is not irritable or resentful; 
it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, 
but rejoices with the truth. 
Love bears all things, 
believes all things, 
hopes all things, 
endures all things. 

Love never ends

The sensual man (meaning man or woman) whom our Apostle talks about in verse 19 is one whose love is primarily directed towards himself and restricted to the realm of material things and sensations. Over against this is the way of life, the way of good sense, grounded in the spirit and lived out as a life which is primarily directed outward to God and neighbour. For it is a fact that love of necessity is never a solitary thing, it always requires to overflow from the individual, it can only exist by being shared. To hoard it is to lose it, to spend it is to increase it. To the extent that the Church contains both wheat and tares one of the functions allotted to each grain of wheat is, by love, to transform each sensual seed into a new grain of wheat which will flourish and give forth some thirtyfold, some sixtyfold and some an hundredfold fruits of love and life.

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