Sunday 23 December 2012

Season to be jolly?

In a secular NHS can a Christian nurse, without proselytising, deliver something unique to her or his patients over the Christmas season? At first sight the answer to that would seem to be a clear No. There are no uniquely Christian virtues, anything a bad Christian can do a good Atheist/Jew/Muslim could do better. And even if such virtues did exist they would be for life and not just for Christmas. A virtue only spanning twelve days of the year would be a curious thing indeed.

To answer the question we need to start, as we always should, with the patient and what they need and can rightfully expect from those caring for them. As Christmas approaches the loved ones of patients and NHS staff at all levels make detailed and sometimes quite heroic plans to ensure that people can spend all or part of the big day where they want to be, at home or with those dear to them outside of a clinical setting. Left behind are the very sick, those with unmanageable symptoms, such as nausea or pain, the dying, the very poor who are better off in hospital, those whose nearest and dearest are nearly as frail as themselves and those with no one nearby who cares enough to take them out. The last two categories, in my experience over the last quarter of a century or so, has grown noticeably. It used to be the case often that nurses outnumbered patients on Christmas day. No more.

And here the category difference between those who celebrate "the big day" as a time of family, friends, giving, receiving and jollity and those who mark the birth of the Christ child comes into effect. Christians are not averse to all these convivial things, far from it, but for us the "big day" is Easter. Christmas is the necessary prelude to Passion Week. The shadow of the Cross always lies across the crib. The insight that suffering and death is intrinsic to life is not unique to Christianity, Buddhism has it at least as fully. What Christianity uniquely brings to the feast is that not only is there an inevitable shadow but that it is this very thing which is the sign of hope, of resurrection from affliction. Christians are Easter people and Alleluia is our song, as St Augustine put it.

The philosopher Simone Weil made a distinction between affliction and suffering In the realm of suffering, affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. It is quite a different thing from simple suffering. It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark Those who remain in hospital or hospice on 25 December are almost inevitably bearers of this mark.Be it pain Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain. other symptoms or persistent and inescapable loneliness and the spiritual desolation which it bears. Affliction is a state which only the afflicted inhabits. Not even the most empathetic nurse or carer, not even one marked by affliction themselves, can enter into an individuals own Golgotha. They are in the valley of the shadow of death even, perhaps especially, when they can expect to live for many more years yet.

To the task of caring for such people in the Christmas season nurses bring as many different skills as there are different nurses. The season can be a burden for those who have an expectation that it is a season to be jolly, to be with loved ones, to be happy the livelong day. Expectations which they are unable to meet in any single respect. Christian nurses do not have any special gifts aof sympathy or sensitivity that others do not. At this time of the year though what we can bring, as Easter people is the sense that the outward and visible signs of the celebrating world mask more than they reveal of the Christmas message. One does not fail to mark Christmas rightly if jolliness is beyond our grasp. Christmas, indeed, is one test that no one can fail. In practical terms that means not, as a nurse, feeling the need to console a patient for "missing out". It is a case, perhaps, where doing less can achieve more.

Or, to say the same thing in seventeen syllables-

Valley of death. Grim
Shadow. Skulking dog in gloom.
Sunlight shaft piercing. 

Monday 17 December 2012

The real meaning of Christmas haiku

           Valley of death. Grim
          Shadow. Skulking dog in gloom.
         Sunlight shaft piercing. 

Saturday 15 December 2012

The Logos in sight.

 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

John 6 

For St John the Theologian seeing or looking upon Jesus is an important part of the Good News. It can be seen as a running theme through much of his Gospel account. Almost the first words he reports our Lord saying are "come and see", words which St Philip echoes on his first evangelical mission to St Nathaniel. Our Lords final reported words. to St Thomas, in what was probably the originally planned final chapter (20) are “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20 John does not use words without a purpose nor does he write without a schema in mind. At one level he appears to be saying that with the Ascension one mode of access to the Saviour, with the eyes, is closed and henceforth the believer is less richly gifted than the Apostolic generation of His followers. Indeed the opening of his first letter points clearly to this theme   1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 1 John 1

St John can believe firmly, fully and truly because he has seen. Is he calling upon us to believe in the same way simply because we trust implicitly in his witness and the testimony of the other Apostles? Perhaps he is, but he is also more subtle than that. Different kinds of people will believe the same thing for different kinds of reasons. The words of the Evangelists carry conviction for those who find good cause to believe them reliable reporters. Others will approach from the opposite angle and seek to establish the reports accuracy before crediting the reporters (and who nowadays trusts a reporter?). For these St John provides pointers to the sort of direct experience of Jesus which will have the power to convince. In the chapter containing my opening quote there is guidance to experiencing the Incarnated Christ in the Eucharist, but this is about taste, touch and sensation as a form of the Divine encounter it does not address the experience of looking on the Son.

Does the Theologian provide such pointers to the experience of seeing Jesus as well? I think he does in two ways, via the fullness of the Incarnation and via the absence, as it were, of the Incarnation. Firstly, St John gives a vivid account of the Passion. Pilate displaying the scourged Saviour says "Behold the man" and again "Behold your King" (John 19) and then he delivers Him over to be crucified. And as He is taken down from the Cross the Theologian concludes his account with the words “They will look on him whom they have pierced.” There are different ways of reading the Gospels. One, perhaps the most widespread, is to study them for meaning. Another is to inhabit them, to enter into their life with our own lives. For the first generation of Christians, mostly illiterate perhaps, the Gospels were heard spoken by those deeply moved and convinced by them. Sometimes, indeed, spoken by eyewitnesses to the events described or fellows of the Apostles. For those hearers those accounts were inhabited. They almost literally saw them. As they took them away in their minds and hearts and meditated upon them in the days and hours after they could experience a good deal of what it meant to look on the Son, broken, bruised and bleeding, and so believe in Him, entering thus upon eternal life.

For me, however, the clearest description of the Son and the most direct way I have found to look on Him is to be found in these words that the Theologian addresses to us-

 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 1 John
What form could the Son have before there was form at all? Before there were forms there were Persons. One Person, who later could be described "he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him." Isaiah 53, was first the Logos. Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher spoke, long before Christianity, of the Logos in this way All things come out of the One and the One out of all things. ... I see nothing but Becoming. Be not deceived! It is the fault of your limited outlook and not the fault of the essence of things if you believe that you see firm land anywhere in the ocean of Becoming and Passing. You need names for things, just as if they had a rigid permanence, but the very river in which you bathe a second time is no longer the same one which you entered before. The Son is the rational principle underlying God's creation because He was first of all a Divine Person of the Blessed Trinity. To look on the Son and believe in Him means to look upon the self giving principle that empties Himself that we may be full. Who empties Himself for love, in love and through love. Who uses love to render hate void and weakness to overcome strength. Whom darkness can neither overcome nor comprehend. To look upon all this with thankfulness is to do all that is required to see the Son and enter in upon His promises.

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Joyful Mysteries haiku

The Annunciation 

Hail full of grace. Hail
pure chosen one. Mystical blue rose.
Bud fills with Life's source.

The Visitation 

Heart, babe leaps, Spirit
Descends, Inspires. Mary's voice.
Bearing God. Visits.

The Nativity

Struggle to find place.
Indifferent city. Poor child
Born. Mother smiles

The Presentation 

Temple sacrifice 
Lamb, first and last. Jesus. Law
Fulfilled. Bless Him.

Finding in the Temple

Lost, not lost. Sought where
He was not. Found where He was
Always. Fathers House.

Thursday 13 December 2012

Advent 5 haiku

Slightly out of sequence I know

Jesus light of life.
Mary Stella Maris. Your time
near. First Christmas dawns.

Warm hope nestles in
Welcoming womb. Life stirs. Born
to cold world. Bells ring.

Borne in womb through cold
dark way. Born as joy. Mary's Son
Among us, Saviour

Seasons crown. Year's end. Christmas
draws close. Child chuckles.

Winter born babe. Child
with promise. Gift of hope. As we
rejoice heartsongs rise

Christmas haiku

Blackbird, white cold snow
Bleakness  Wind bites. Night now
Here. Mary gives birth

Saturday 24 November 2012

St Ives in nature

So, not a religious post really just a couple of haiku after a quick break in St Ives, Cornwall famous for the quality of light which its sands and the Atlantic Ocean combine to produce.

St Ives

Light. Waves strike sand
Yellow sand. Reflects upward
Light meets eye. Bright eye.

St Ives in Autumn

Faded year, light holds.
Bright sand charms dull ocean. Light
Reflects. Spirit leaps

Friday 19 October 2012

Mysteries of Light.

Baptism in the River Jordan 

River flow brings life.
White dove glistens in sunlight 
confirming promise

Manifestation at Cana

Still water ferments
Through love transforming into
pure flowing red wine

Proclamation of the Kingdom of God

Mountaintop outline
Rising-suns rays shining. Song
of life sweetly trilling

The Transfiguration 

Suddenly He changed
glorious transformation. Inner
light seen. Winter ends.

Institution of the Eucharist 

Vines fruit ripening 
to transcendent purpose. Grain
reaped. Friends eat.

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Tuesday 16 October 2012

Sorrowful Mysteries, 5 Haiku

Syllabic meditating as days shorten. Poems open mindful heart door.

The Agony in the Garden

Night sweats blood. Lamb waits
Spring sacrifice. Sleep under
stars nears awaking.

The Scourging at the Pillar

Behold as blood flows
The Man in full throes of Passion
Kingdom of earth's growth.

The Crowning with Thorns

Hails King with taunting.
Crowns King with scalp tearing barbs 
New seeds bursting through.

The Way of the Cross

Burdened beneath tree.
Sinks below scorn. New growth
Struggles against gravity

The Crucifixion 

View from a hill. Death
with dishonour. Winterlike 
dark descends. Awhile.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Witness to Hope

If the story of the Christian faith is about suffering, death and the power of God in the resurrection then the 20th Century story of Nagasaki and Auschwitz is about suffering, death and the power of Man in destruction. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan Priest, in a unique way embraced both places. With his life he witnessed for the Christian faith in the first and with his death he witnessed for precisely the same faith in the second. He displayed the hope that is present and gives added joy to the springtime of peace and the hope that is present and gives the only joy in the winter of unchecked human cruelty and evil passions. Some will see this as no more than a great sign that, at its best, the human spirit is indomitable. Believers will see in it the power of God's Spirit at work in the hearts of men.

During his time in Nagasaki Father Maximilian was responsible for the creation of a monastery whose location subsequently enabled it to escape the force of the nuclear blast that destroyed that city. It remained, it endured, it was a sign of hope amidst devastation and destruction. In Poland he and many of his Polish Catholic colleagues gave hope to the thousands of Jews whom they sheltered and for whom he was incarcerated in Auschwitz. Finally on earth he gave hope to the man whom he volunteered to replace as a victim of reprisals by camp authorities for a presumed escape. After three weeks of starvation he was finished off by an injection of carbolic acid. 

At Father Maximilian's canonisation John Paul II said "Maximilian did not die but "gave his life...for his brother." In that death, terrible from the human point of view, there was the whole definitive greatness of the human act and of the human choice. He spontaneously offered himself up to death out of love." The Saint went to Japan not because it would benefit himself in any way at all but because he believed, rightly or wrongly, that proclaiming the Good News about Jesus and about devotion to Mary Immaculate (the great love of Maximilian's life) would be of immense service to the Japanese people. He and his colleagues offered shelter to Polish Jews not because this would bring some benefit, on earth or in heaven, to the Franciscans but because it was the right thing to do. And he offered himself in exchange for a married man and a father because dying for love that life may more abundant is the Christian way. 

In the life and death of St Maximilian we see an icon of Jesus Christ. There are those who ridicule the whole "saint making" process of the Catholic Church seeing in it a presumption on the part of the Church in dictating to God who can or cannot be in heaven. This is a fundamental misunderstanding. The process of canonisation is not about putting people into the Blessed Place, it is about discerning some of those whom God has already placed there and then celebrating the fact. Most importantly it is first and foremost about those of us still here on earth. Each canonised saint is in one way or another, like St Maximilian, an image of Jesus. By studying their lives and imitating or admiring them we can grow ever closer to the Divine original. This is one reason why Blessed John Paul II presided over so many canonisations. By presenting to modern people modern saints, to indigenous people indigenous saints, to the disabled disabled saints to the lost saints who eventually became found the Church makes clear that Jesus because He is unchanging is unchangingly relevant in a changing world. He is hope without end especially to those whose hopes have been ended by human injustice and sin.   

This is the original of the article published at The Guardian
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Tuesday 14 August 2012

Within You Without You

Reflection on Mark 10:13-15

 [13]And they brought to him young children, that he might touch them. And the disciples rebuked them that brought them. 
[14] Whom when Jesus saw, he was much displeased, and saith to them: Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God. 
[15] Amen I say to you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, shall not enter into it.

Our Lord is clearly telling us here that before we can enter the kingdom the kingdom must first enter us. Elsewhere in Sacred Scripture we can see this point illustrated by analogy with the simple act of knocking upon a door.

 [20] Behold, I stand at the gate, and knock. If any man shall hear my voice, and open to me the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

Apocalypse 3:20

 [7] Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and you shall find: knock, and it shall be opened to you.
 [8] For every one that asketh, receiveth: and he that seeketh, findeth: and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened. 

Matt 7:7-8

So what is this kingdom that we must first receive before it can receive us? Well, a clue surely is to be found in the nature that we must have in order to receive it, that is we must be as a little child. And a further clue is to be found in that it knocks before waiting for us to decide to let it enter (or not). A little child is vulnerable and can be compelled to many things but the little child who receives the kingdom is not so compelled. So the kingdom is characterised by both power and gentleness in relationship to the one whom it courts. The kingdom is great, the child is small, the door is shut and only the child can will to open it; the inherent gentleness of the kingdom prevents it from opening it itself. That is, the omnipotence of God can be foiled by the weakness of the infant because the greatest of the powers of God is love and this can never be compelled.

So, the kingdom is a suppliant and a lover. What else can we deduce about it? The kingdom is a shared meal between friends, the invited and welcome guest with the delighted host. I with him and he with me is not simply stating the same thing twice. It is making clear that the kingly guest receives from his host the things of loving friendship and also gives the things of loving friendship. The place where they meet is a privileged space not because the great is humbled or the humble elevated but because each is naturally what they are by nature; loving souls being loving the one with the other, without interruption, in perfect happiness.

For the kingdom which enters in to be the same as the kingdom which we enter then a transformation must occur. We must be changed. Having received the loving suppliant so that He is within us then we must enter into Him for it is He, Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, who is indeed the Kingdom Himself. And we can do so only by becoming one with Him, by becoming, in a mystical sense, Him Himself.

 [18] But we all beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord.

2 Corinthians 3:18

And this is another truth about the kingdom. We behold it.

 [17] That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and of revelation, in the knowledge of him:
 [18] The eyes of your heart enlightened, that you may know what the hope is of the glory of his inheritance in the saints.

Ephesians 1:17-18

The kingdom is light. It enters us through the eyes of our heart. It fills our heart with such a superabundance of light that we become light ourselves and so we become of the realm of the King ourselves. And the first step is to receive the light.

 I write this on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and in this matter of the kingdom as in so much else she is our guide and exemplar. At the Annunciation she received the kingdom within her in the Divine Person of the Son of God and at the Assumption she entered definitively in the Kingdom of light. May her example guide us and may her powerful intercession aid us as we seek in our little, little way to follow her path of conquest through submission to light and love. Amen

Monday 30 July 2012

We must respect our opponents' humanity

It occurs to me that I never got around to posting my Guardian article published in the wake of the Arizona shootings last year. This is that

Sarah Palin
Comments by and about Sarah Palin over the Arizona shootings have underlined the importance of civility in the public sphere. Photograph: Randy Snyder/Getty Images

The question: Does civility matter?

The opening lines of the Buddhist classic the Dhammapada are "Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox." Thought precedes words, words precede deeds. Does Sarah Palin precede the terribleshootings in Arizona?
Arguably anyone who answers that question by saying "yes" could be accused of creating a climate which legitimises the assassination of Palin herself. Incivility is a vicious spiral. It is a continuation of war by other means. The point of attack speech is not to convince but to defeat by humiliation or other means. It proceeds from the conviction that our rightness, the rightness of our cause is more important than the mere persons of those who disagree with us. If our opponents are not people but "wing-nuts" or "lifestyle gays" then it doesn't really matter what we say. If they are cut they do not bleed.
It seems to me that for a Christian the starting point should be Christ. Not so much "what would Jesus do?" as "why did Jesus suffer?". I have never met a person that Jesus did not die for, I have never spoken about a person that Jesus did not love. When I am thinking about my best friend's best friend then I think differently than if I am thinking about some warmongering hockey-mom that wants to nuke Iran. And that should be reflected in how I write, how I speak, how I act.
Back in 1984 the IRA exploded a bomb in Brighton that very nearly killed Margaret Thatcher. Over the course of the next few days I lost count of the number of people I heard saying, on the street, in buses, at supermarket checkouts, how much they regretted that the IRA had failed to achieve its aim. These were not Republican sympathisers, these were people who hated Thatcher and without willing the means, terrorism, willed the end, assassination. And that at a time when dialogue had not been coarsened and brutalised in the way that appears to have happened since the culture wars began in the US. Which brings us back to thoughts preceding words preceding deeds. Unexpressed hatred is no less dangerous than its expressed variety, arguably it is more so. The supreme incivility does not consist of calling someone less than human. It consists in believing that someone is less than human.
In debate and discussion I usually (actually always) start from the assumption that I am right and that those who disagree with me are wrong. It seems pointless to argue from a point of view otherwise. What I do not begin with is the assumption that my correctness makes me a superior form of creature to those whom happenstance has placed in the camp of error. Being right is not the same as being better. And if I am not better than my interlocutor, why act as if I was? Civil discourse does not proceed from respecting your opponents' beliefs, which in the case of atheists are ludicrous tosh, but in respecting your opponents' humanity. Once you do that, your finger never tightens on the trigger.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Orange Dreams

I submitted this to the Guardian perhaps over optimistically

Reading Andrew Browns recent piece on Creationism at the Giants Causeway on the weekend before the big Orange Order 12th of July parades brings about an interesting juxtaposition of ideas. Andrew writes of the Young Earth Creationists-

 the world will not take much notice of my preferences, or yours. If we are to change it, we need reasons and explanations, not just wants. And we can't get the reasons and explanations that we need without reaching outside science, and outside the market. To the extent that creationists, too, are trying to do that, we should sympathise.

Which reminded me of these words of Patrick Pearse The Orangeman is ridiculous in so far as he believes incredible things; he is estimable in so far as he is willing and able to fight in defence of what he believes. It is foolish of an Orangeman to believe that his personal liberty is threatened by Home Rule; but, granting that he believes that, it is not only in the highest degree common sense but it is his clear duty to arm in defence of his threatened liberty.

Whilst Brown and Pearse are an unlikely pairing, one a dewy eyed romantic with mystical leanings the other an Irish Republican, they both point to an almost universal reality. People have a need to explain the world to themselves and to explain themselves to themselves. Many of the religious, philosophical or political belief systems which we have do not consist of people making things up, the "imaginary friend syndrome", they consist of people encountering facts which contain for them some kind of emotional content. The facts may be true facts but the importance they have for the one who attaches themselves to them in a partisan fashion is that they convey a personal emotional "hit". They are facts which make us feel that we understand more than we did before we encountered them.

I think that it is more or less inevitable that most of us seek out such emotional truths or at any rate encounter them. And our immediate and passionate attachment to them is also practically inevitable. What follows on from that, however, is much more dependant upon personalities or the contingent circumstances in which we dwell. The Young Earth Creationist and the Orangeman stick doggedly to their facts and will forever combatively assert them against all other facts for which they feel no positive emotion. The parade they make of their attachment through the public streets, and especially the "enemy" streets, is a statement that the explanation that they have found is the end of the search for meaning, take it or leave it.

More commonly I think is the experience of finding fulfilling facts but not thereafter entering into a solemn pact and covenant to ignore all subsequently encountered unfulfilling facts. Not least because all our fulfilment is only ever partial at best. We still hunger and thirst for more and better explanations and this need fuels our continuing search. We resist the notion that there are no such universal explanations, and those who believe such a notion are themselves simply attached to an emotionally satisfying truth. Another unlikely pairing, Marx and Augustine, perhaps have between them described this as well as anyone ever has.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.

 You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.

The important question each of us needs to answer is not so much "are the facts that I believe true?" but "are the facts that I ignore unimportant?" No universal explanation can ultimately satisfy us if, deep down, we know we are suppressing inconvenient truths in order to attach ourselves to pleasing ones.

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Monday 9 July 2012

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Enter the Logos (Pt 2)

At first glance to say "follow me" is much the same as saying "come and see". The Theologian, however, is laying another aspect of his Divine Master before us. Here it is the case that Jesus deliberately seeks out Philip and issues a specific invitation to him. What the Theologian tells us about geography is significant. Jesus is a Galilean from Nazareth, Philip is a Galilean from Bethsaida, at this point they are situated in Bethabara beyond the Jordan and Jesus has taken the decision to return to Galilee. In the Gospels Galilee often stands as a figure for the normal everyday working life of ordinary folk by contrast with the high tensions and festivals of Jerusalem. Philip and his companions have taken a time out from their ordinary lives to seek out the truth and meaning towards which John the Baptist points. Now our Lord seeks him out and invites him to return to the normal and the ordinary but to experience it in a different way. Philip will return to Galilee changed by baptism and will lead a life who's guiding principle has now become the following of Jesus. A Jesus who is present amidst the fishermen and tax gatherers, the sowers and the reapers. It is an invitation that tells us that Jesus is the incarnated one. He is in our midst as one like us and also as God Himself. He is our bridge, He is our vital link between the inward and the outward, time and eternity. He is the strong become weak that the weak might become strong. He is Emmanuel, God with us.

And who is the "us" that Emmanuel is most with? Nathaniel is our model here. " Israelite, a true one; there is nothing false in him." To travel in friendship with Jesus to and through Galilee there must be no barriers within ourselves to truth. A true Israelite is not one who pretends. Nathaniel says what he thinks, that is honesty. It is not stubbornness though, what he thinks will change as the facts change. The kind of charge that Jesus will later bring against the Pharisees is not that they are blunt but that they stand by their bluntness in pride rather than examine the possibility that they might have made a judgement based on inadequate information. Nathaniel is honest enough to adhere to things as they are, or as they become, rather than simply sticking to his previously expressed opinion as being once right always right. The prestige of the Pharisees amongst first century Jews rested precisely upon their reputation for honesty and truthfulness. Jesus in his description of Nathaniel and not Pharisaism as true Israel is making the point that inflexibility and an obstinate refusal to see is not truth it is falsehood elevated to a system. 

 “Before Philip called you, you were under the fig tree and I saw you. The Theologian allows us to see two things here. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, Jesus possesses great powers which suggest His divinity. Secondly, that He chooses to act through human agency. He could have called Nathaniel Himself but He did not. Philip performed that noble task. This I think links us back to the words of our Lord to St Peter. Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, has a mission as a human among humans using human means. He could, as it were, short circuit everything and achieve all His ends by direct Spirit to spirit contact but the Father does not will it so. It is His intention to save us and unite us to Him not as disembodied entities but as fully human persons with bodies as well as spirits, with weaknesses as well as strengths. And in service of that project He Himself takes on our frailty and uses that frailty itself; directly Himself and indirectly through His Apostles, disciples and friends to bring about the fulfilment of His plan. It would no doubt be more satisfactory to human imaginations if He used only perfect means to achieve perfect ends but He does not. He uses very imperfect means sometimes. Which is to say He uses you and me. If we are willing to do as Philip did. will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.  And so we come to the end of the Seven First Words. And the end is a promise. The promise of a new beginning. If, like Nathaniel, we follow Jesus into the Galilee of the everyday our journey will bring change. He does not promise and ever repeated sameness but an ever deeper and truer vision of Himself. However long we gaze upon Him He will never cease to be the carpenter from Nazareth. But we ourselves will change and will see that the fullness of divinity and the fullness of humanity are, in Him, not two things but one. And by His gracious gift when He looks upon us He can see that what He is by nature we have become by adoption on the day that we have, in our hearts, understood the question What are you looking for?”

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Friday 22 June 2012

Enter the Logos [Pt 1]

For many centuries the author of the fourth Gospel has been known to the Orthodox East as Saint John the Theologian. It is an apt title, his is the most highly structured of the Gospel accounts we possess. Each word, each incident serves a purpose and fits into a pattern. They signify themselves and beyond themselves. It is no surprise then to see that the first seven utterances of Jesus in the Gospel of St John, all contained in Chapter 1, constitute in a way an effective summary of our Lords mission and the life of the Church and the Christian. These are His seven first words-

“What are you looking for?”
“Come and see.”
“You are Simon, son of John, but you shall be called Cephas” (which means Rock).
“Follow me.”
“Here comes an Israelite, a true one; there is nothing false in him.”
 “Before Philip called you, you were under the fig tree and I saw you.”
 “You believe because I said: ‘I saw you under the fig tree.’ But you will see greater things than that.
 Truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
(Christian Community Bible, Catholic Pastoral Edition)

His first words are directed to St Andrew and one other (possibly the Theologian himself) who follow after Him because He has been pointed to as the Lamb of God. Few people in the world today know nothing at all about Jesus. The disciples who left John the Baptist to find out more about the Lamb had no clear idea what this title meant and still less did they have an understanding of the One who bore that title. We also when we begin to walk after Jesus, not to obey Him but to question Him, have no clear idea whom it is we are behind or what power for us He carries within Himself. So He first questions us and not we Him. What are we looking for? Truth? Peace of heart and mind? Love? Rest of soul? Perhaps all of these things, maybe others beside. We do not need to know in detail what it is that we seek. All we need to know for certain is that we are restless and will never be at rest until we find that one thing we need. Nor, at the beginning of our journey, do we need to know or affirm that we will find that certain rest in Jesus. What we need is to acknowledge the reality of our permanent restlessness and express the hope and desire that in knowing Jesus we will come to know just what it is we are looking for. Something we can only really know in full at the moment when we see that we have found it.

"Come and see," it is an invitation to abide with Jesus. It is a journey from where you are now to some other place. It is the promise of a vision at journey's end of something unseen before by your eyes. How can we, thousands of years later, accept this invitation for ourselves and walk where St Andrew walked and see what he and one other, beloved of the Lord, saw? We must make the same decisions which they made, for then we shall be in an identical place with them. They first accepted the authority of St John the Baptist, they believed him when he pointed and said "Behold the Lamb of God". There are a cloud of witnesses before us who point in the same way, some famous some perhaps known to only a few within our own little circle. If we accept on the authority of the sanctity and purity of their live's, of the fruits they have borne, that they are a powerful testimony to the One who has changed them then we can seek to learn more about that One also. That is the first decision. The second is a twofold abandonment. Having heard John's witness the companions straightway abandoned him. Later he would say of Jesus  It is necessary that he increase but that I decrease. (John 3:30). In a purely human scale this has an inescapably sad ring to it but John himself gave this as a reason for him greatly to rejoice. Indeed, he said that his joy was now full. For if we abandon a truly faithful witness to fly to the heart of Jesus we will find, amidst other treasures, that same faithful witness only now we will understand them better and love them more.

Almost simultaneous with their abandonment of St John the companions abandoned themselves. The direction of travel they left to another. To another they gave the guidance of their eyes so that they would come to see what He put before them to gaze upon. On the apparently slender basis of John's brief witness and Jesus's brief invitation they struck out in a new direction, impelled by a divine restlessness and buoyed up by a divine hope. It has been the fate of many over the centuries deceived by charlatans, misguided by rogues, to set out on similar journeys only to end up bitter and crushed, robbed, deceived, betrayed and themselves abandoned. Indeed, a few short years later that seemed to be the experience of the companions themselves as they saw their beloved one dead upon a Cross. This was, ultimately, what Jesus was calling upon them, and us with them, to "come and see". If we abandon all and stumble at the Cross then we lose all. And if we, with Mary, stand firm at the Cross then we gain all. But for us, without the firmness of a perfect faith, it is always a gamble. If we make the same decisions as the companions then it is a promise that we could see what they saw and abide where they abide. It is not a guarantee that we will though. A journey is not itself an ending.

His first words to Simon are of an altogether different kind. He looks at him and immediately gives him a new title. He is to be the Rock. Almost at the beginning of the Gospel Peter becomes the Rock at the command of Jesus. Almost at the end he becomes the Shepherd “Feed my lambs.” “Look after my sheep.” “Feed my sheep" (John 21) The word reported by the Theologian  are never without significance or purpose. If he places Simon Peter in a special place then it is a sure sign that his Divine Master had done so before him. Each of us who seeks Jesus has a reason for doing so, we desire something or a something from Him. But it is a two way relationship, He desires something or a something from us also. And that something is different for each one of us. Some, and not the least important in the Kingdom, spend their lives and fulfil their purpose in obscure well doing, prayer, service, in solitude or in the midst of a bustling family. Others are called, not by themselves, to live prominently. To lead, to guide, to discipline, to exhort, to command. If the first word of Jesus was to call for followers his second was to establish a hierarchy amongst them. We cannot, if we are faithful to the words of Scripture, pretend that the Jesus Community consisted of one Saviour and an undifferentiated mass of followers. It consisted of first Jesus, then Peter. As it was so it now is in the Church He left established with His blood and upheld through His Spirit and that of the Father.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Pointless Images

36 Bend my heart to your instructions, not to selfish gain.
37 Avert my eyes from pointless images, by your word give me life.
Psalm 118/9 (New Jerusalem Bible)

In an era where English was used in a more elegant fashion the translator might have written "incline my heart" or possibly "sway my heart". What is at issue here is a change of direction in our life's journey and our willing acceptance of a guiding force or power to be the focal point of our heart compass. To talk about a heart swaying is to acknowledge the always real possibility of first bending one way and then bending back upon oneself to return back whence we came, and beyond, upon the road we so need to abandon. To talk of an inclination is to consider that whatever weaving goes on the final destination towards which we aim remains constant. Simply to bend suggests the adoption of an awkward and difficult to retain posture. Which may not be entirely inappropriate for the plea that David is making here is for assistance in doing something that we cannot do ourselves alone.

The word "heart" is rich with meaning and evocative power in the context of Sacred Scripture and Christian tradition, the Orthodox talk of "prayer of the heart", the Catholics of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Blessed John Henry, Cardinal, Newman chose as his motto cor ad cor loquitur, "heart speaks unto heart." The heart is the true centre of a person. It is their essence, that within them which points always towards the true, because it is always itself true. In fact, the mystics would say that it is God Himself since only He is ever true and pointing towards truth so that our own heart, the wellspring of our individual life, is God. He is within as well as without. This would mean that heart speaking to heart is not two hearts but one which nonetheless in a divine paradox is not a monologue but a fruitful dialogue. The mystery at work here is that of a unity of being containing a multiplicity of persons. We are each within God and He within us so that we are one. We are each created uniquely by the One to abide within Him in just the fashion that we are suited to and no other. Our individual personhood is not lost in unity, it is fulfilled.

When David, then, talks of our heart being bent by God towards God He is not referring to that in us which is always inclined in that direction. He is talking of the imagined heart, the simulacrum of a heart, that we create and establish as a pointless image for our eyes to gaze upon and our desires to follow. This is ever bent in an awkward posture since we have created it, however unconsciously, with the express purpose of turning ourselves away from the light which disturbs us and towards the gloom where all is cool and not at all challenging to our sensual desires. In a sense he is asking that we be un-bent.

To the contemporary mind bending to instructions conveys the unpleasant, apparently pointless, image of the individual exchanging freedom for servitude. Of all the illusions we cherish that of absolute individual autonomy is perhaps the most precious to us today. We demand our rights a hundred or a thousand times before we place the same pressure on ourselves to fulfil our obligations. Or, at least, we appear to since the world only functions as well as it does, and we within it, precisely because so many of us fulfil our obligations and discharge our duties a hundred or a thousand times more frequently than we evade them. In truth most of us most of the time do the right thing because it is what the heart impels us to do even while our head, our vain imaginings, pushes us in a different way. What David is praying for here is just this, to unite our thoughts and our imagination to our heart. The instructions we seek are the words which will express to our mind what the heart already knows to be true.

It is, nonetheless, the case that when we come under these divine instructions that we constrain our actions or potential actions and must do real violence to our desires for selfish gain. We embark upon a path of struggle. It is a commonplace of spiritual writers to say that in service is our real freedom but we cannot pretend that this is any other than a freedom which is experienced as a constraint, a gain which feels like a loss. The wound that Original Sin has made in our natures allows us to desire as good things that which harms us and to experience as harms those things which are good. This is why David calls upon the assistance of the good God to make this submission to instructions, without Him we cannot follow the path that leads to happiness. He it is that strengthens us to see that submission, service and self-forgetfulness, those paths that lead away from the pursuit of moment to moment pleasure, is the one road that leads to happiness.  If we seek pleasure alone we do not seek happiness, if we seek happiness who knows what pleasures we shall find along the way?

Among the distractions from that one road which assail our heart are those pointless images of which David speaks. It may be a metaphor for the things which blind the eyes of the heart, but, there are too very many actual images, pointless and aimless, which attract and hold the eyes in our head. It is an often used cliché, sometimes employed even by the fiercest of those partisans of absolute individual autonomy, that we are "bombarded with images". And it is true but not the whole truth. Frequently, daily, hourly, we choose many of those images with which to bombard ourselves. We choose what pictures will distract us. We choose what images will strengthen our resolve to commit actual sin and give us new and varied pleasures of selfish gain. It is not a wholly free choice but a choice it certainly is. Whether it be the Shopping Channel or the Pornography Channel it is a means to reinforce the inclinations we wish to reinforce and drown out the heart voice that calls for us to gaze upon that beyond images which contains all images as realities. The Children of Israel rebelled by creating out of their own resources a Golden Calf to worship. I heard an Anabaptist theologian defining worship is "giving your undivided allegiance to". Like the rebellious Israelites we also give our allegiance to what we produce out of ourselves which is a roundabout way of giving our allegiance to ourselves alone. They are pointless images because they are as insubstantial as our own ego's which a moments careless driving or a day's illness can destroy utterly.

So what we need is life and, moreover, a life which will endure the greatest of traumas and disasters and triumph even over the apparently final drama of death. David asks for that single word of God which is life itself. He did not know what that word was when he asked for it. He did know that there was just such a word and that God would one day speak it and liberate His people by it and through it. And He did. The word is Jesus and praised be His name.


Thursday 7 June 2012

Desire, the powerful enemy of the soul

Reflection on The Letter of James 1:13-16

13No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 
14But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 
15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 
16Do not be deceived, my beloved.

There is a popular school of thought which suggests that the major world religions are basically moral codes, guides about how you should live your life, with supernatural bits more or less artificially tagged on in order to reinforce the point. Certainly history can show us examples of rulers of states or heads of families who, irreligious themselves, encourage religion in lesser mortals as a way to ensure their obedience and compliance with the rules. No doubt too there are many practitioners of religion, including religious leaders, who embrace their faith first and foremost out of a love of order, hierarchy, obedience. I think these all miss the point.

Virtue and morality are not burdens that we take upon ourselves to please a demanding and vengeful God. Vice and immorality are burdens that we shed in order to travel more easily towards a realm of perfect love and pure light. The desire for self satisfaction through possessing for oneself material objects or intense sensual experiences or other persons produce more fetters for our bodies and souls than any number of self sacrificing or self denying acts. Jealous anger, frustrated desire, contemptuous disregard for the needs of others these are the things that make of our days a torment and of our desires a prison. It is only when we leave them to one side that we can truly begin to experience a sense of freedom.

Religion, in the Christian sense, is primarily about a relationship of self giving love and the more freely and fully we can give it then the more fully, and fulfillingly, can we receive it. Each desire for selfish goods is narrow and circular, beginning and ending with ourselves, and so limits our potential to receive what is wide. It is not by taking on a moral code that we can come to know God, it is by knowing God that we can take on a moral code which aids us to know Him better and love Him more, a love primarily expressed through serving and loving our neighbours whom He also loves with a perfect love.

The mystical Theologia Germanica has this interesting passage  

If there were no self-will, there would be no proprietorship. There is no proprietorship in heaven; and this is why contentment, peace, and blessedness are there. If anyone in heaven were so bold as to call anything his own, he would immediately be cast out into hell, and become an evil spirit. But in hell everyone will have self-will, and therefore in hell is every kind of wretchedness and misery. And so it is also on earth. But if anyone in hell could rid himself of his self-will and call nothing his own, he would pass out of hell into heaven. And if a man, while here on earth, could be entirely rid of self-will and proprietorship, and stand up free and at liberty in the true light of God, and continue therein, he would be sure to inherit the kingdom of heaven. For he who has anything, or who desires to have anything of his own, is a slave; and he who has nothing of his own, nor desires to have anything, is free and at liberty, and is in bondage to no man.

This, I think, clearly makes the point that the primary cause of our spiritual sufferings is not that an unjust God forbids us to be gluttons or serial adulterers or possessors of unjustly acquired wealth. The primary cause is that we desire to possess when happiness, in truth, consists of letting go. This is the clear example that Jesus sets us, as laid out in Philippians 2 by St Paul-

 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 

The image of God the Son leaving behind the glory of heaven to become not only a human but a human born into poverty is a sign that we too need to leave all to obtain all. A similar image is also, perhaps, contained in the story of  Prince Siddhartha leaving his palace and kingdom in order, eventually, to become the Buddha. The one desire that brings us happiness is the desire to love perfectly and to be perfectly loved. All other desires are lesser and will lead us not to lesser happinesses but to greater unhappinesses.

Note. The title of this piece is from a line spoken by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita 3:43 "Know Him therefore who is above reason; and let his peace give thee peace. Be a warrior and kill desire, the powerful enemy of the soul."
All scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Thursday 22 March 2012

La Bête Humaine

This report on the school shooting in Toulouse is worth reflecting upon

"According to eye-witnesses, the gun then jammed, temporarily putting a halt to the rampage but the killer swiftly changed weapons and headed into the school. He grabbed Miriam as she tried to escape, grasped her hair and shot her. Then, as she bled to death on the floor, he lifted up her head and fired two additional bullets." 

 Miriam was an eight year old little girl. Her killer, an adult man. held her by her hair as she tried to run away and shot her in the head. He was carrying a video camera around his neck at the time in order to film his actions.

If one human is capable of acting in this fashion then all humans are, perhaps, also similarly capable. This suggestion is so revolting that faced with crimes of this kind we instinctively recoil from the notion and say "No, this man was no man but a monster, a beast, a madman!"  In saying that we say nothing. He was not (I use the past tense as he himself was shot in the head) anything other than human and if he was mad, well if one human is capable of becoming mad in this fashion then all humans are, perhaps, also similarly capable.

All selfishness is radical, that is, all selfishness comes from the very root of what, who we are. Selflessness too is radical. In most of us most of the time there is enough of the latter to wage a lively combat with the former. Yet victory or defeat is never final while we live. What Catholics call Original Sin is never vanquished in the living although God in His mercy always gives us the weapons to best it in any and every given situation. We are not compelled to accept these weapons but the more we reject them the more we find other weapons in our hands. The desire to hurt, even to hurt harmless little girls with long hair, is nothing more or less than the prolonged and anguished cry "Look at Me!" Pride makes us selfish. The pride that says we are the best, or the most totally right or the most totally right-on. It is a long way from eight year old little boys pulling the pig tails of their schoolmates to grown men holding those same tresses to welter them with blood. Remember though that even a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.