Thursday 10 May 2018


I have started another blog on WordPress: thoughtfully catholic. My latest post there is-

Deus Vult! Defending Christian Civilisation.

Sobieski sending message of victory to the pope vienna
It is worth noting that, from the point of view of Christianity as such, it doesn't matter that much if an existing Christian civilisation should crash and burn. That is, if the civilisational models operating in Europe and in countries founded by Europeans (the West) succumbed to the challenges facing them the faith would continue to flourish, and build new civilisational models, in Africa and Asia. Such a loss would be tragic from a human perspective because despite their many shortcomings the Western cultural experiments all possess things of great value for humanity. More seriously, to the extent that such collapses cut off Westerners from access to the Good News about Jesus Christ and to the sacraments it would be a major loss and a grave danger to the eternal well-being of millions of souls. Nonetheless, what it would not be is an existential threat to the Catholic Church.
It follows from this that no one has a religious obligation to defend an existing Christian civilisation from threats against it although they may, as members of civil society or of the armed forces, have a patriotic or cultural duty so to do. This is important to bear in mind as in the years since the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York in 2001 there has been an increasing attempt to describe the conflict between the West and Islamism as a clash of civilisations between Christianity as such and Islam as such.
Until 2001 the idea that there was such a thing as Christian civilisation at all was going out of favour. Religion was assumed to be withering away and its role in forming and nurturing the key values and institutions of the West was assiduously being written out of history as seen, for example, in the refusal of the European Union to acknowledge the historic role of Christianity when it formulated its ill-fated proposals for a European Constitution.
All that began to change when the West perceived itself as being under attack and recognised in Christianity an important bulwark in its defensive strategy. There are, I think, three distinct strands to the argument that Christian Civilisation exists and that Christians (and others) should mobilise to defend it. First, and most vocal, are those political movements often described as far-Right or hyper-nationalist who would describe themselves as intensely patriotic. Although they have revived the old Crusader battle-cry Deus Vult! (God wills it!) the folk memories they draw upon are the defensive victories won in Europe against successive waves of Muslim invaders.
In particular they recall the Battle of Poitiers in 732 when Charles Martel defeated an invasion of France by Muslim armies who had already conquered Spain. Also called to mind are a succession of Catholic victories against the Ottoman Turks some seven hundred years later, especially the Siege of Malta, the naval Battle of Lepanto and the land Battle of Vienna which between them kept Europe Christian. During this long epoch of history the series of wars fought on or about the European continent were existential matters for the Church. Defeat for Europe would have meant the destruction of Christianity and, therefore, no possibility of anything like the world we know today emerging.
The far-Right presents a highly simplified view of history and links it to a simplified view of today's challenges. Essentially it argues that the greatest threats facing Christian civilisation now are Muslim immigration and Islamist terrorism and that these threats are merely the continuation in modern times of the threats from the past because, as they see it, Christian societies and Muslim people are radically incompatible with each other. Beneath or behind this particular anxiety lies a suspicion of all non-Western immigrants whether they are Muslims or not. That is, for them the defence of Christian civilisation segues into a concern to keep their own countries ethnically monocultural.
The second strand is that of some academics and public intellectuals. They argue that Christianity indeed is the soil from which the West has drawn up the nourishment needed to provide all its currently dominant values as well as its artistic and architectural treasures. They see this currently under threat in part from Islamism but also from ennui. By which is meant that the societies are dying from within. They do not reproduce themselves, children are increasingly rare, and in order to care for the very young and the very old (and to have new children) it is increasingly necessary for such societies to import foreigners to do just those things. It is, moreover increasingly uncommon for the middle-classes to take up military careers or for their governments to maintain large standing armies. In short, the West is unwilling to either reproduce or to defend itself and societies who do neither are not long for this world.
It doesn't really matter much what policy proposals these academics come up with because; firstly, they can't be transformed into concrete action for about thirty years when their students enter positions of power (when it will be too late anyway); and secondly most academics and public intellectuals are still wedded to a belief system that hates the West in general and Christianity in particular so it is their students who will most likely hold the most power for the longest foreseeable time.
The third strand consists of Christian thinkers and, above all, of the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, gave much thought to the reality of Christian civilisation. For him the greatest threat to the civilisation came not from Islam but from the godless materialism that flowed from Enlightenment thinking divorced from its Christian roots. A people whose yearning for spiritual answers to their deepest needs is answered by increasing the output of flat screen TV's and smartphones is inevitably going to succumb to ennui. The West simply fails to recognise that humans are hardwired for spirituality and more than that it systematically seeks to exclude the spiritual from the public square and the school curriculum. And the will to live will decline when the reason to live is simply to consume. The defence of Christian civilisation is impossible, whatever external threats it may confront, if its internal value structure is radically anti-human and, indeed, with state-sanctioned abortion and euthanasia, anti-life itself.
The Ratzinger Option then is 'be the change you want to see.' The way to defend Christian civilisation is to be thoroughly and genuinely Christian and also wholly and entirely civilised. That is, we must conform to the values of Christ, we must be respectful and loving to our neighbours and we must value life as a gift of God from the moment of conception through to the time of natural death. Against this is the far-Right option which is, in the immortal words of Stan Jablonski, 'let's do it to them before they do it to us.' Which effectively means making ourselves into the mirror image of our supposed enemies. The Islamists use violence, so will we. Religious minorities are being persecuted and driven out of some Muslim countries, let's do the same here. Religious slogans are being used as tools for mobilising the masses in the East let's do the same in the West. And so on.
Some, including perhaps the aforementioned academics, might advocate a pragmatic combination of the two strategies. Let the plebeians become Christian in order to sustain society against its multiple challenges just so long as the intellectual and monied elites can continue to scorn the religion and its moral values in their private lives, and let the State take some robust measures against domestic and foreign enemies.
I am not, thank God, a pragmatist. I am a Catholic. Not surprisingly, then, I will go with the Ratzinger Option. To which I would add this: In his, sometimes obscene, novel Submission the writer Michel Houellebecq has one of his characters say "..the true divinity of the Middle Ages, the beating heart of its devotion, wasn't God the Father, wasn't even Jesus Christ. It was the Virgin Mary.." If we focus on the word 'devotion' then this statement can be seen to contain a great truth. The strength of the Church comes from Christ, the strength of her members comes from the Holy Spirit. Yet it is true that Christianity, and therefore also the societies that Christians inhabit, are at their most flourishing when genuine devotion to Our Lady is widespread and deeply held. Mary in herself is the most perfect of all possible icons of how humans should relate to each particular Person of the Blessed Trinity and to the One God. When she is the focus through which we honour Him then Christian civilisation is at its strongest and most enduring.
The weapons which we must take up if we wish to defend Christian civilisation are the rosary and the pilgrimage to Lourdes or Fatima or the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A Marian Europe, a Marian America, a Marian Australasia, these are the civilisations that will endure and triumph. After the Battle of Lepanto the Blessed Virgin received the title Our Lady of Victory for a reason. What was true then is true now. We can speculate as to why Our Lord particularly wishes to receive honour and channel grace through Mary but that He does so is certain. All we can know for sure is that God wills it, Deus Vult!@stevhep

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The painting is Sobieski Sending Message of Victory to the Pope by Jan Matejko

Saturday 8 July 2017

A Time To Every Purpose....

Catholic Scot has achieved a landmark of sorts. After years of (more or less) patient effort and 210 individual posts the site has now received 100 000 unique visits. Which seems as good a time as any to being the project to an end. This, then, is the last ever Catholic Scot blog. I am neither an original thinker nor an especially good writer and there are others who are far better able than I am to explain and defend the Christian faith of the Catholic Church. I happily leave the task in their competent hands.

It has been my hope to do no harm with this blog and to do nothing to increase the amount of hate in the world. To the extent that I have most certainly failed I am more sorry than words can say. I also have some small hopes that I may have done a little good. If that is so, and it might not be, then I express my gratitude to the Holy Spirit the source of any and all the good which I might do in this life. I am enormously grateful also to the small band of readers who have followed and encouraged me here and on social media through all my vicissitudes of style and subject.

I entrust them and all my readers, friend and foe alike, especially you who are reading this now, to the guidance and protection of the Theotokos, Mary Queen of Heaven, Star of the Sea, Strength of the Weak. May she infuse her gentleness into every aspect of your life and bring you to the haven of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The peace of the Lord be with you.


Thursday 6 July 2017

A Restlessness Which Leads to Peace

You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You
(St Augustine, Confessions I)

The 20th Century Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck said 'the point isn't the search, but rather the distress and unease which motivate the search.' This is a fairly sound observation. We are, each of us, individual subjects who seek in external objects the means to bring us that state of happiness which is necessarily an internal experience.

It is as if we were responding to a feeling of hunger by going dancing or shopping for new shoes. These can be such effective distractions that we forget our hunger. Nonetheless however busy we keep ourselves or however much we immerse ourselves in company there will always be times when we are alone and undistracted. It is then that we once again become aware of the gnawing emptiness at the centre of our being.

If the best response to hunger is eating then what is the best response to that distress and unease which proceeds more from the mere fact of being alive than from any one specific cause? My supposition here is that from the moment we first become conscious of ourselves as individuals until we draw our final breath we are always more or less uncomfortable about something. Since, during the course of a normal lifespan, every one of these particular somethings will change thousands of times the source of the discomfort does not rest in them as such but in our responses to them.

As I understand it (and I may be wrong) Zen argues that the problem lies in the human use of imagination. We do not experience reality as it exists in itself but only things which have been through a process of distortion by our thoughts before they present themselves to the observing part of our mind. That is, when looking at a thing or persons our ego, to put it crudely, asks and answers the question 'what's in it for me?' And then presents the image plus conclusion to the observing mind. Much of this processing happens below the level of consciousness and is practically instantaneous so that we are not aware of it, only of its results.

Additionally at any given moment we will, at some level, be thinking about the past or the future. Neither of these things have any real existence. Only the present moment exists. What, therefore, we hold in our minds is something which is both unreal and subject to ego centred imaginative distortions. The distress and unease which leads to a search for something to bring peace is a product of the radical strain we experience through inhabiting a reality which we never accurately recognise or appropriately respond to.

Much of this is good psychology and can be adapted fairly easily to Catholic belief. However Zen (again with the 'as I understand it' limitation) goes on to conclusions incompatible with Christian belief. Letting go of all our illusory thoughts, feelings and beliefs and being present fully and only in the moment we become aware that emptiness is the nature of being and that's all right. Our Self has no objective existence but is just something that comes into being and passes away with the moment, like the moment. The observing mind is simply the underlying Buddha nature of the moment and all it contains and of every moment. Realising our Buddha nature is to become one with all that really is and so our distress and unease, the products of imagination, melt away. Since we are oned with All we feel compassion for All and this compassion will be manifest in all the acts which we perform within the moment in which we happen to be.

While this Zen vision is not as nihilistic as some Christians claim it certainly lacks the Divine spark. If we are fully present in this precise moment then part of the reality we must encounter will be God. Not an abstract deity which is just another label for 'Buddha nature' but the personal God who loves me, who became Incarnate for me and suffered death for me on the Cross. This 'now' we are living in is not just something we observe it is also someone towards whom we are always relating, a relationship of love.

It is true that He is not the God of our imagining, the God we rebel against, the God whose existence we deny, the tyrant God. He is as He is and to know Him as He is we must let go our illusory thoughts about Him. It is true also that He may choose to be present to us in the form of absence; but this is a function of our relationship, it is the form He knows to be best suited to me at this time to help me understand Him better and love Him more. But He will appear to us under more than one form, as the sacrament of the altar, as the action of grace in our hearts, as 'something understood.' He is always with us.

If we are fully present in the God breathed 'now' and in all the 'nows' of eternity then this Love will grow as a reflection of His. And as His was a self-giving, sacrificial love for all that He had created, more than a passive compassion, then so must ours be. The restlessness that drives us to find rest in Him gives birth to the love that seeks to bring peace to all whom we encounter.

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The Charlotte Joko Beck quotation is from a talk called The Search in her book Everyday Zen

The picture is a detail from The Conversion of St Augustine by Fra Angelico 

Sunday 2 July 2017

What Does 'Deny Yourself' Mean?

Jesus also said to all the people-
"If you wish to be a follower of mine deny yourself and take up your cross each day and follow me"
(Luke 9:23)

To clarify this saying of our Lord the following questions may be helpful-

  • Who is the 'You' that must deny their own self?
  • What is the 'Self' that must be denied?
  • Is the 'You' that takes up the cross daily the same as or different from the first 'You'?

The third question might seem odd unless we consider the very next words of Jesus-
"For if you choose to save your life you will lose it, and if you lose your life for my sake you will save it."
(Luke 9:24)
So, the 'You' that carries the cross must be one who has, in a mystical sense, died and been reborn and thus might or might not be identical with the first 'You.'

It was, I think, Plato who used the analogy of the block of marble and the sculptor. An ordinary observer only sees a lump of stone. The sculptor, however, sees a perfect image surrounded by rubble. This parable may help us to answer our first two questions.

The initial 'You' is the person who still retains the stamp of their Creator's mark upon them (and all that He made was very good indeed.) The 'Self' is the rubble which that 'You' has collected during the course of its life. To mix my metaphors then, the 'You' becomes a kind of magnet whenever it acts contrary to the Divine image at its heart. As such it attracts all kinds of rubbish and detritus which affixes itself so closely that it becomes, as it were, a second skin totally covering the original shape of the 'You.'

Only the sculptor, the Holy Spirit, can now see the perfect image of the 'You' as it might become when liberated from the rubble of the 'Self.' By a gift of grace He can enable this trapped 'You' to partially glimpse its own true potential. Then together, Spirit and new awakened 'You,' can cooperate in the task of shedding this accumulated rubble of habits, attitudes, ideas and sensual desires which cling so closely to the fallen 'You.'

This process is akin to being flayed alive, so closely united has the second skin become to the first that it is not easy to know where one ends and the other begins. So, the experience of being sculpted by the power and mercy of God is an inevitably painful one. It may be helpful to know that the 'You' is not trying to gain something new and difficult to obtain. On the contrary it is trying to lose something which should never ever have been there. That is, the 'You' is simply realising what it would always have been had it not yielded to desires which proceeded in the first instance from the sensual part of the soul.

This brings us to the third question. The second 'You' is the you that a person would always have been had they not fallen. Thus it both is and is not the same as the first 'You.' Only by the grace of God, the Blood of Christ, the sacraments of the Church and a firm act of will on the part of a converted person can such a recovery be effected.

As I myself make this journey of rediscovery and realisation I offer the prayer "Lord Jesus Christ, incline my heart to follow Your will." (cf Psalm 119:36)

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The painting is San Francesco by Benozzo Gozzoli

Thursday 15 June 2017

Near Pavilions

Thou shalt hide them in the secret of thy presence from the pride of man: 
Thou shalt keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues.
(Psalm 31:20)

If we get into a ferry boat in order to row from one side of a river to the other our oars will spend some time in the water and some time in the air. Keeping them constantly buried in the water may cause us to thrash about quite spectacularly but it will get us no closer to the far bank. We shall, instead, go wherever the current wishes to take us. Waving them about continuously in the air might cause them to glint and shine in the sunlight giving any spectators a rare pleasure in the sight, Once again, though, it is the current and not ourselves which will decide our final destination.

In order to reach the good earth of the farther shore, then, it is necessary for us to combine the two elements of air and water. This is by way of an allegory for humans who are composed of both flesh and spirit. If we give ourselves over entirely to the demands of the flesh alone then we shall sink below the level of being fully human. If we aim at being pure spirit we might be more than or less than fully human. But we are not created to be more or less human, we are to be simply human and thus fully human.

Objectively the spirit is superior to the flesh but, for us, the two are firmly united. Therefore while our flesh must be under the control and direction of the spirit it must also be given what is due to it. If God had intended us to be wholly and entirely spirit then that is how He would have created us. In our journey to the further shore we must unite water and air, flesh and spirit in the service of a purposive will which aims at defying the current of the world in order to fulfil God's purpose for us.

In practical terms this means that for every period of time necessity causes us to be immersed in the things of the world we must find a balancing time when we are exposed to the healing light from above. This does not need to be an equal amount of time in chronological terms, since the world and the Divine wield powers of different force over us, but it does need to be a deliberate and daily repeated act of our will where whether we feel 'spiritual' or not we allow ourselves to seek for and rest in the secret pavilion which God has set up in our heart.

There is no magical one-size-fits-all formula which will guarantee happiness and serenity to all who use it. Not only are we all different from each other we are even different from ourselves, varying widely over the course of just a single day as to what does or does not speak meaningfully to us. In general then it is sensible to lean heavily on the wisdom of those who have made the ferry-crossing before us and have left behind the boat and the oars most suited to our purpose. That is, the Church offers to us multiple ways of reaching the pavilion and we should use the ones which our experience shows will most help us. Daily attendance at Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, attentive and meditative reading of Sacred Scripture are only some of the tools which we can use to help us cross to the other side. And if we do not use them we will be taken instead to where we do not want to go.

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The picture is Jesus Calming the Storm from Gospel Book of Otto III

Saturday 3 June 2017

The Silence of Pentecost

 And I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete, that he may abide with you for ever. The spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, nor knoweth him: but you shall know him; because he shall abide with you, and shall be in you
(John 14:16-17)

St Luke in his dramatic account of the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41) focuses, naturally enough, on those whom the Spirit had called to active life. The disciples who spoke in strange languages, St Peter fulfilling his Apostolic function as preacher. We can be sure though that amongst those gathered in the Cenacle there were some followers of Jesus, like Our Lady, Mary of Bethany and St John, who were contemplatives. For those whose mission that day was to talk the Spirit appeared as a tongue of flame. Perhaps for the contemplatives it was more akin to an arrow point which was to descend and transpierce their hearts with the fire of divine love.

We each have a unique relationship with the Father through the Son, and the Holy Spirit guides us into that on the path which He knows to be best for us. We can, perhaps, infer from the Gospel how it was that He guided those saints whom He called primarily to the inward, silent life on the day that the Church, with all her vocations, was born.

In the first book of his two volume history of the primitive church St Luke tells us how the Blessed Virgin responded to the things of God "Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart" (Luke 2:19) and "Mary said: My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour." (Luke 1:46-47) Which is to say that the Theotokos held all these things before the eyes of her heart and this led her to pour out to the Almighty her grateful thanks and abiding joy. Her lips sang sometimes but her grace-filled spirit sang all the time. Perhaps on this historic Pentecost it was for her Son above all that she was grateful as the Spirit led her ever deeper into knowledge and understanding of Divine things. Mindful also of the commandment to love her neighbour as herself she no doubt too reflected with thanks on the new children which Christ had given her from the Cross. All who could be called a beloved disciple of Jesus were also now beloved children of Mary.

Tradition has identified Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany though some now dispute this (primarily for political reasons.) However that might be, of her Luke says "a certain woman named Martha, received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sitting also at the Lord's feet, heard his word. But Martha was busy about much serving" (Luke 10:38-42) If Mary sould sit still and give her undivided attention to the Son in the midst of all the bustle created by her sister and the Apostles it would not surprise us to learn that she did precisely the same thing when it was the Spirit that called for her entire focus. An upper room filled with busy Martha's would not distract her from the one thing that mattered.

About this same Mary the Evangelist St John wrote "Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of right spikenard, of great price, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment." (John 12:3) This was an act of much self abasement and a devotion of things of great value and beauty to God. Many of those seeing it, especially the traitor Judas, decried it as needlessly extravagant but the Lord praised it highly. It was impractical and unworldly and on Pentecost day when we recall the eminently practical business of preaching in all the tongues of the world and converting souls to the Church we should remember too the witness borne by the Magdalene. Through silence, humility and the creation of beautiful things in the service of worship the Holy Spirit works just as effectively and powerfully as He does in all the other charisms which He gives to the faithful.

Not many days before the Holy Spirit descended, by the Lake of Tiberias, St John was the first of the Apostles to recognise the Risen Messiah "That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved, said to Peter: It is the Lord" (John 21:7) The quick eyed love born of contemplation gave the young Evangelist a power of discernment greater than that of his companions. On this same occasion St Peter had been confirmed as chief of the Apostles and shepherd of the Church which is why, within a few weeks, it was he who preached to the people at Pentecost. We see here, again, that different people are led in different ways by the Spirit, some to be active leaders and teachers, others to be devoted to quiet love and contemplation. Peter laboured to give us the Church, John allowed the Spirit to flow through him and gave us the most sublime of the four Gospel accounts which we now have.

It is sometimes asked what useful purpose the Catholic contemplative orders serve. I like to think that on that birth day of the Church the efforts of the missionaries on the streets of Jerusalem were strengthened by the prayers of the contemplatives in the Cenacle joined to the power of the Spirit. Furthermore, whenever from time to time the active disciples and the new converts ascended to the Upper Room the sight of the contemplatives absorbed in silent prayer both inspired them more and filled them with a sense of the peace of Christ which passes all understanding. And as she began so has the Church ever continued down to this day with the devoted lives of those called to bear silent witness to the faith through an enclosed vocation serving the spiritual life and health of Christians in a hidden but powerful way.

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The picture is from a 15th Century Belgian Book of Hours in the Morgan Library

Thursday 1 June 2017

Alienated From God

Not where the wheeling systems darken, 
And our benumbed conceiving soars! - 
The drift of pinions, would we hearken, 
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors. 

The angels keep their ancient places- 
Turn but a stone and start a wing! 
'Tis ye, 'tis your estrangèd faces, 
That miss the many-splendored thing.
(Francis Thompson)

The ideas conveyed by this poem, 'In No Strange Land', are fairly simple and straightforward; that God and His kingdom are all around us and that it is our self-induced blindness not His absence that cause us not to see Him. In commenting about it, then, it is easy to fall into banal commonplace remarks. This though would be to do a great misjustice to the poet who was intent not so much to convey ideas as to share with us his deep anguish and suffering.

The reality which he and we experience is that of estrangement. One senses that he is speaking to us with his body all bruised and battered from repeated assaults against the prison door seeking by the strength within him to tear it open. He does not experience despair but he does know the taste of bitter failure. It is no consolation to him to know that it is he himself that shut, barred and bolted the door. Before it opens he expects to experience more anguish, more distress, more suffering yet.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder) 
Cry- and upon thy so sore loss 
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder 
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Only when he is at his most extreme end of pain, so sad that he cannot be sadder, does he believe that his eyes will be opened, the door will be unlocked, the light will infuse his being.

Again, there is a temptation to say certain things which are theological truths but which in this context appear trite. Yes, he requires to be fully converted, to repent, to do penance. And yes, even then it is by God's grace not by His own labours that he can hope to see the face of God in Jesus Christ. But we do not know the state of his conscience, like Job's comforters we may be sharing platitudes which miss the mark.

It may be that it is his vocation to throw himself passionately against a locked door and bruise himself. This, not as a punishment nor in order to gain a reward but just because that is God's purpose for him. If he sat in stillness and quiet awaiting the Spirit to descend he might be defying God's will. And others if they did not so sit but imitated the poet would in their turn be defying the Father's will since He does not have the same purpose for each of us.

King David was inspired by God to build a Temple for Him in Jerusalem. But having implanted the desire in David the Father then forbad him to execute it. It sometimes happens that we are moved to attempt the impossible and then fail. God is love itself, and God is justice itself but we are too limited to understand what these things in their fullness really are. If He seems unloving and unjust to us and we go on doing His will anyway because it is our greatest desire to serve Him then perhaps we can understand this poem a little better. And pray for the soul of poor anguished Francis Thompson.

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The painting is Pandemonium by John Martin 

Wednesday 31 May 2017

Why Are We So Foolish?

 Why do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which doth not satisfy you?
(Isaiah 55:2)

During the course of our lives the one object which puzzles us more often than anything else we encounter is likely to be our own self. Why we do the things which we do is often opaque to our reasoning, logical consciousness. We continually pursue things, people or experiences which have repeatedly proven themselves unable to give us satisfaction in the apparent belief that this time it will be different. What's that all about?

It is conventional for religions (and not just Christianity) to depict the normal life of wordlings, a wonderfully expressive word, as being a continual nightmare of sorrow and pain. This, of course, is not the full story. It is no doubt true that at a deep place within ourselves alienation from God produces great distress but most of us live on more shallow levels than that. Occasional intimations from out of the depths may alert us that all is not right but more immediately our direct experiences of anguish and grief alternate with those of delight and pleasure.

It is through our senses that we encounter the world and our sensory experiences have a power and immediacy that can overwhelm and subdue all the other facets of our personality. We know that if we give way to this or that sensual urge then within a measurably short period of time we shall experience a surge of pleasure which is not obtainable in any other way. Although Memory and Reason inform us that the medium to long term consequences of not resisting such urges will be bad; and although Mind tells us that we are, as humans, more than merely the sum total of our sensual experiences we nonetheless give way to them because the present moment and its pleasures is certain in a way that nothing else is.

The Church, which has a role to play in directing people towards higher things, can be tempted to counter morally bad sensations with good ones. Dancing around waving your hands and shouting Alleluia to the backing of of pounding rock track while under the impression (possibly correct) that the Holy Spirit is at work in you is preferable to the more purely carnal alternatives. Nonetheless useful as such exercises may be the primary function of Christianity is not to offer a good apple in order to replace a bad apple.

 While what the Church does offer, Jesus, is certainly our daily bread He is also, as the old translation puts it, our supersubstantial bread too. If our sensory experiences are the base upon which we build ourselves as individual humans the spiritual realm is the source and summit of our lives. Against the visible and the immediate the Church points us towards the hidden and the eternal. In yielding too much too frequently to our senses we drown out what is not only deeper and higher within ourselves but that which is the best of ourselves.

To purchase this bread and labour for this satisfaction we must pursue the path of self-denial and self discipline. Our Lord put it like this "So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the earth, and should sleep, and rise, night and day, and the seed should spring, and grow up whilst he knoweth not.  For the earth of itself bringeth forth fruit, first the blade, then the ear, afterwards the full corn in the ear" (Mark 4:26-28) That is, the Spirit will work within us, the corn will become bread, if we do not keep disturbing the earth. We allow God's grace to do its work when we stop avidly seeking sensation and start patiently, faithfully and lovingly giving Him our full attention out of the stillness of silence.

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The picture is Wise and Foolish Virgins by William Blake

Sunday 28 May 2017

The Gravity of Ascension

We believe we are rising because while keeping the same base inclinations (for instance: the desire to triumph over others) we have given them a noble object.
We should, on the contrary, rise by attaching noble inclinations to lowly objects.
(Simone Weil)

The time between the Ascension of the Lord and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost affords Christians the opportunity to reflect upon the necessity for grace. Without the Spirit we cannot ourselves ascend after Jesus. There is a gravity which draws us downwards to the things of the earth. Only God's grace within us can overcome this powerful earthbound force.

The absence of active grace opens up a void inside a person. Our Lady and the Apostles recognising this emptiness responded by prayer, vigil and a patient waiting for God to act upon them in a time and manner of His choosing. That which is best for us is that which He desires to give us.

For most of people, though, a vacuum is an abhorrent thing and we rush to fill it up with something, anything. The philosopher Simone Weil argued that the tool which we use most frequently for this purpose is imagination. In place of the true God, who has chosen to make absence His way of being present to us, we invent another god, or many gods to fill up that empty space.

One of the techniques which we use is to pretend that our wrongful desires, such as the longing to gossip maliciously about friends, family and colleagues, serve a good purpose. We are, after all, decrying their vices in order to implicitly praise the opposite virtues. Likewise if we respond to the angry and suspicious by being aggressively self-assertive in return it is because we are in the right and they are in the wrong.

This is transparently self-deceptive and we rarely convince even ourselves. Moreover when such behaviour becomes habitual not only do we not rise but the gravity of what we do drags us down until we are wholly of the earth earthy. Frequently repeated actions change who we are and how we think. And when those actions are founded upon self-serving fictions and our basest inclinations then they not only lead us to hell they become themselves, for us, a present hell of perpetual anger, maliciousness and distrust.

If we have families, jobs or studies to occupy us it is unlikely that we can set aside as much time for prayer and vigil as Our Lady and the Apostles did. While doing as much of this as we can we can use the rest of the time "attaching noble inclinations to lowly objects." Here the philosopher echoes St Therese of Lisieux who wrote "I applied myself above all to practice quite hidden little acts of virtue; thus I liked to fold the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and sought a thousand opportunities of rendering them service." We rise then by doing the littlest of things for the sake of love and only for love. This is not an act of the imagination, we recognise these things for what they are, it is an act of the will which we make to overcome gravity while waiting for transforming grace.

Even the desire to do good is itself an action of the Spirit within us. Yet as He is infinite His presence can take an infinity of forms and grace be be present as a passive or hidden force in our hearts. It resembles the story of Jesus asleep on the boat (Mark 4:35-41) The ship cannot sink so long as He is aboard but it can be severely tried by the fury of the storm. In His own good time (perhaps sped up by prayer) He awakes and by His active power brings peace and "a great calm." So too with us, we cannot ascend to the spiritual heights without His active grace but by cooperating with His hidden grace through 'lowly objects' we can bring ourselves to Pentecost.

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Saturday 27 May 2017

Mary & the Poets: 5 The Air We Breathe

Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
       Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
        God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so
(The Blessed Virgin Mary compared to the Air we Breathe)

This is a long poem by Gerard Hopkins which I can only briefly touch on here. I highly recommend that people read it in full when they get a chance.

Our Lady has one task, the unique privilege of being the channel through which the Glory of God, the Word of God, enters the world as flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone while yet remaining wholly Divine. This is not a vocation that began at the Annunciation and ended at Christmas. Mary and Jesus were intimately united throughout their lives on earth and death cannot defeat such a union. God does not change His ways, if He came to us through Mary once then He comes to us through her always.

She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
      Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.

The Blessed Virgin is mediatrix of all grace. Through her hands flow the gifts of love, forgiveness and mercy which the good God pours out upon the world. One cannot add to His gifts so she herself is part of that gift. She comes to us with God's grace. She enters our lives with her gentleness, her smile, her maternal solicitude. With her presence the gift is fully complete and we enter into the life of Christ with her by our side.

A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
   What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
       Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

If we saw God as He is we would be terrified by His power, by His glory, as the children of Israel were at Mount Sinai when Moses ascended to receive the Decalogue. So He comes to us as a child with a mother, as the Crucified One comforting the stricken Mary. Where He is she is. And when we see Him through her eyes, in her presence, it is the human Christ we see. We learn to love Him as she loves Him and this perfect love casts out fear.

World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
       Fold home, fast fold thy child.

Holding fast to Mary we can be raised by her to her Divine Son. Mary is our mother as she is His mother. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as can become like children. Mary was protectress, teacher, wise counsellor to Our Lord in His childhood if we make ourselves children for the sake of the kingdom then she will be our Protectress, Teacher and Wise Counsellor too.

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The painting is The Virgin of the Navigators by Alejo Fernandez