Tuesday 29 September 2015

Our Lady of the Window-A Vision

stained glass shadow.jpg

The declining sun lit up her sweet-sad smile, the folds of her blue mantle glowed softly. Below, the stone-flagged nave was dappled with multi-coloured shadows. For over a thousand years her delicate, fragile eyes had looked benignly on the people who passed backward and forward through her Son’s cathedral.

Many of these had scurried across the shaded space ignoring her. Others, half-aware of her presence and of her beauty had snatched hasty glances at her. Occasionally one or two individuals had stopped as if transfixed and had drunk their fill of the gifts of light which flowed through her and into the hearts of each woman or man who would accept them.

There was no one upon whom she did not smile; the empty headed and the wise, the ambitious and the contented, children of the pharisees, heirs of the Apostles. If the smile did not benefit each equally the fault lay not with the giver but with the recipient. People who will not be smiled upon will walk in a gloom of their own making.

Over that same thousand years too she had gazed upon the altar at the Eastern end of the nave. There the life, death and resurrection of her beloved Son had daily been made present in the midst of a mostly indifferent world. A spiritual truth become visible, like herself, under the veil of material forms. She did not weep at the sight, her weeping was done. Now her eyes were forever fixed on Him and would be though altar, window and cathedral should pass away into destruction.

In the city behind her as in the church before her much had happened since the first sunset had lit up her first smile. Crowned heads had risen and, quite literally in some cases, had also fallen. Fields had turned into factories, shepherds had become hirelings. Revolutions and wars, baptisms and marriages, martyrs and their murderers all had now slipped into the irrecoverable past. Sometimes the sound of cannon-fire had been heard, bombs too had fallen from the skies. In their houses the people of the city had trembled. Amongst them, some few in every generation, had been those who trembled more for her than for themselves. Hearing the explosions they had called to mind her delicate tracery, her thin, ancient, finely crafted glass. They knew how easy it was to destroy beauty, how difficult it was to create it, how impossible to restore it.

These few were the ones who had discovered the great secret, the window of our Lady was also a gateway. She was a channel who conveyed light to them and from them. She was more than the sum of her parts, the unmatched craftsmanship of medieval artisans, the materials of the builders, the vision of the Gothic architects, just as the light she conveyed was more than mere radiance from the sun. Anyone standing in the blue shadow of her mantle who turned dappled eyes towards her, accepting her gifts, found themselves lifted out of time and into eternity. That light from heaven transformed itself into heaven’s light within which flowed back through the gateway to its divine source. They became, if only for a moment, mirrors reflecting back the perfection which reached into them. And because the source was generous and gave abundantly when they left the window behind them they too became channels pouring out light to their neighbours in the form of selfless acts of love.

Our Lady of the Windows had sisters and because fragility and vulnerability was a necessary part of their beauty and usefulness some of these sisters had been shattered. Men marching beneath black flags or red ones had smashed them in the name of God or in the name of No God and they had vanished from the world forever. Yet the divine purposes had not been frustrated, He has many channels by which His light might be conveyed. But woe to those by whom that destruction has come. The gates which they have closed have been their own gates, their own path from darkness. They have locked themselves into their own dungeons. Woe to those who prefer ugliness to beauty, anger to gentleness, destruction to creation. They walk in hell already and it is a hell composed of their own hatefulness.

There are times when our Lady of the Window is clothed with the sun and there are times when she is crowned with the stars. She is a daughter of light, a dispenser of light. She is not, it is true, a creator of that which she shares but she draws people towards the One who is that Creator. May we too walk in the shadow of her mantle and be drawn through the sweetness of her smile into the presence of the Father of Light.

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Friday 11 September 2015

And All the Holy Angels

christ in the garden of gethsemane 1584 Paolo Veronese.jpg

The nuns in St Bernadette's convent were praying a novena to the Blessed Virgin Mary when the little saint was noticed offering her petitions in the chapel of St Joseph.
"But you are mistaken sister" she was told.
"Oh," Bernadette smiled "In heaven no one is jealous."

Of course the Lourdes visionary was right but if the heavenly angels were ever to be envious I suspect it would not be of their captains St Michael and St Gabriel but of these guys-
"Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him" (Matthew 4:11)
"And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him" (Luke 22:43)

To serve the suffering and sorrowful Jesus in the desert or in the garden where He experienced such agony of spirit is surely a great privilege. Think what a joy it must be to know that the lesser has comforted the greater, that the almost nothing has brought strength to the author of all, the recipient of love has shared that love with its divine author and so brought Him relief in His sorrows. St Thérèse of Lisieux said "disinterested love is for us to console Jesus, not for Him to console us" and those angels who have chosen to serve God exist only for the purpose of disinterested love- "Are they not all ministering spirits sent to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?" (Hebrews 1:14). It therefore seems that those fortunate, those blessed angels who ministered to our Lord after His forty day fast and before His Passion fulfilled their role in a way which no other angels could ever equal or surpass.

Fortunately angels are excellent theologians so that the temptation to envy will be removed when they consider these words of Jesus- "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40)  It follows then that when the angels help us in our distress then they are fulfilling their purpose every bit as much as those who ministered in the wilderness and in Gethsemane. And, indeed, it is no accident that the Gospels show us the angelic ministry at times of temptation and torment for that is their particular place of combat by our sides. When we are vulnerable to our inner demons or tested to the limits of our endurance then the angels are at hand to assist us if only we are willing to turn to them and be helped.

It is a curious thing that most mainstream Christians rarely speak about the angels. It's as if we have to believe in them because they are in the Bible but it's a bit embarrassing to actually talk about them. The result of all this is that although there has been a tremendous growth of popular interest in all things angelic- books, TV series, websites, memes etc.- almost all of it has taken place outside of the Church and apart from the Christian faith. What it reveals is that not only do angels play an important role in God's plan for the cosmos but that also they form an important part in the spiritual life of humans. If this spiritual need or hunger is not met in a way that is consonant with revealed truth and the Holy Spirit then it will be fed by those who have little knowledge of the first and do not accept guidance from the second.

It is all very well and correct for us to say that people need no intermediaries between themselves and God. It is nonetheless true that many people actually want such intermediaries. Aaron and Miriam the siblings of Moses and Joshua his successor could have faced the Lord on Mount Sinai but they were happy for Moses to represent them instead. Simon Magus could have petitioned to escape the consequences of his deeds himself instead he asked St Peter "“Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” (Acts 8:24) And in that they all showed some wisdom because certainly our case before God is helped if we have righteous and noble advocates acting on our behalf.

And so angels have a twofold function- acting as agents of God's will towards us and as our advocates towards Him. Since God's will towards us is always love, overflowing, abundant, infinite love then when the angels approach us on His behalf they do so as guardians, protectors, friends, companions, helpers. If the principle animating Satan and his followers is 'I will not serve' (Jeremiah 2:20) then the opposite principle animates the angelic hosts; they serve, and gladly serve, the loving purposes of their Lord and our deepest and most urgent needs. They are helped in their labours and we in our needs if we turn to them with hope, acknowledge their presence seeking and accepting their help. And we are more likely to do that and to do it rightly and in accordance with the purposes of the Almighty if the Church regularly reminds us of them and teaches us about them.

It happens that when the Church does teach about the celestial hierarchy it reveals a complex and multi-layered reality which consists of a good deal more than simply our guardian angels and the Archangels. But that is a topic for another day. Here I will close with words from one of the Catholic prayers to our protecting spirits-
O charitable Guardians of those souls for whom Christ died, O flaming spirits, who cannot avoid loving those whom Jesus eternally loved, permit me to address thee on behalf of all those committed to thy care, to implore for each of them a grateful sense of thine many favours and also the grace to profit by thine charitable assistance.


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The painting is Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane by Paolo Veronese 

Monday 7 September 2015

Mary the Tabernacle of God

The stream of the river maketh the city of God joyful: the most High hath sanctified his own tabernacle.
Psalm 45:5 (aka Psalm 46:4)

One of the reasons why Catholic and Orthodox Christians on the one hand and Christians of the Reformation traditions (Protestants) on the other have such divergent approaches to the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is because they read the Old Testament in significantly different ways. For the first (and oldest) group the text is chiefly significant because it contains in a veiled form the contents of the New Testament and one studies it to see in shadow what becomes more fully revealed in the light that is Jesus Christ our Saviour. Protestants primarily see it as a record of the relationship between God and His chosen people Israel, a relationship which reaches its summit and fulfilment in the mission of our Lord.

The two approaches are perfectly compatible with each other. Catholics would use both but perhaps place the emphasis more on the typological method, that is looking at the types or figures with which the Holy Spirit has pre-figured the Gospel. Protestants, however, are generally suspicious of typology unless Scripture itself clearly mandates it for a particular passage. This is particularly so with the use of allegory, the fear is that humans will devise their own doctrines and artificially seek to impose them on the Bible by allegorising texts which have a clear meaning and sense without allegory. There is a certain lack of consistency in this approach; the Song of Songs, for example, read literally is erotic love poetry so Protestants tend to read it as an allegory but there is no specific mandate in Scripture to do so.

It strikes me, however, that there is a possible way which allows us to synthesise our understanding to some extent. Even if we grant for the sake of argument that the allegorical method is generally inadmissible there should be no reason why we cannot agree that the use of analogy is perfectly acceptable. By which I mean that if the Old Testament shows God acting in certain ways or upholding certain principles we can assume that He acts in the same way and on the same principles in the New unless Scripture specifically informs us otherwise.

Which brings me to Mary and the Tabernacle of the Lord. The Tabernacle was that structure sitting at the heart of the nation of Israel where God dwelt among His people in a special manner. It first took shape as the Tent of Meeting at the time of Moses and later became the Temple of Solomon. There is no doubt that God dwelt in a special way too in Mary, the mother of the Son of God. I would suggest that the principles which underlay the construction of the first Tabernacle, made by human hands, also underlay the creation of Mary in the womb of her mother St Ann by the hand of God.

What were these principles? The details for the Tent of Meeting were laid out at some length in two passages of the Book of Exodus. Chapters 25-31 contain the plans outlined by the Lord to Moses on Mount Sinai and Chapters 35-40 describe its actual construction. Significantly the final verses of the final chapter of Exodus (40) concern themselves with God inhabiting the Tabernacle. It would take up to much space to go through every point here but there are some key aspects to highlight-

  • Moses was not just told how to build the Tent but was shown its divine blueprint "Look well, and make everything in due accord with the pattern which has been shewn to thee on the mountain." (Exodus 25:40) Which means that before it existed on earth it was fully formed in God's mind i.e. it existed from eternity.
  • It was to be constructed of the best of all possible materials available, gold, silver, jewels, linen, wools and so on. " Provide thyself with spices, a stone of the best and choicest myrrh, and half a stone of cinnamon, and half a stone of scented cane, a stone, too, of cassia" (Exodus 30:23-24)
  • The most skilled craftsmen (and women) were to be employed on this work and the Lord would fill them with wisdom to complete their tasks. "And now the Lord said to Moses, Here is the name of the man I have singled out to help thee, Beseleel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Juda. I have filled him with my divine spirit, making him wise, adroit, and skilful in every kind of craftsmanship...and I have inspired the hearts of all the craftsmen with skill to carry out the commands which I have given thee." (Exodus 30:1-6)
And once the work had been completed- "When all was done, a cloud covered the tabernacle, and it was filled with the brightness of the Lord’s presence" (Exodus 40:31-32) Solomon's Temple although on a grander scale and intended to be permanent was constructed on the same basic principles as outlined in 1 Kings 6-8 (sometimes known as 3 Kings.) "Nothing in the temple but was sheathed in gold, the altar that stood before the shrine with the rest." (1 Kings 6:22) with the same result "As soon as the priests had left the inner sanctuary, the whole of the Lord’s house was wreathed in cloud; lost in that cloud, the priests could not wait upon the Lord with his accustomed service; his own glory was there, filling his own house." (1 Kings 8:10-11)

Solomon, however, makes a point about the Tabernacle which Moses did not. He says "This I ask, that thy eyes should be ever watching, night and day, over this temple of thine, the chosen sanctuary of thy name; be this the meeting-place where thou wilt listen to thy servant’s prayer. Whatever requests I or thy people Israel make shall find audience here." (1 Kings 8:29-30) So the Tabernacle was not only a place where God manifested Himself in a particular way it was also a privileged place of prayer which was more efficacious than petitions delivered without regard for the Temple. Even directing oneself heart and body towards the Tabernacle from afar was effective "as they fall to prayer, let them but turn in the direction of the city thou hast chosen, the temple I have built there in thy honour, and thou, in heaven, wilt listen to their prayer for aid" (1 Kings 8:44-45)

If all these things applied to the lesser sanctuaries, which hosted God's appearance concealed within a cloud, can we assert that the sanctuary of the incarnate God Himself received fewer or less valuable gifts? St Thomas Aquinas put it like this "The Virgin was elected to be the mother of God, and therefore there can be no doubt that God, by his grace, rendered her fit for it." Like the Temple she existed from eternity in the mind of God as a central element of His plan for the redemption of mankind. She was, from the moment of her conception crafted of the finest spiritual materials, exempted from the stain of sin, filled with grace. By the time of her birth it could be said "how lovely in the sight of heaven and earth was the beautiful soul of that happy infant" (St Alphonsus de Liguori)

What the Gospels tell us of Mary's life lets us see that she had indeed been so gifted. As St Alphonsus put it "The offering which Mary made of herself to. God was prompt, without delay; entire, without reserve." If the Tabernacle were a privileged place of prayer for Israel then, again, how much more so will this be true of Mary. Those in her presence, such as the newlyweds at Cana (John 2:1-11) only needed her to observe their needs for Mary to effectively petition her Son Jesus. Those of us who have distanced ourselves from her and from her Son by our sins can, like the ancient Israelites, direct our prayers towards the Tabernacle that is the Mother of God and be sure that they will be heard.

The principle of analogy holds another message for us here also. Catholics are often asked "why pray to Mary when you can go directly to Jesus?" The ancient Israelites were actively encouraged to make their prayers via the Tabernacle although they could, like Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, have made them directly to the Godhead. Why was this? Well, God knows everything about the humans whom He has made. Very few of us are of the stature of Abraham, we are weak and full of fear and forever going back on our intentions and breaking our promises. To turn ourselves towards God in His fullness is a task too intimidating for us and rather than lose us altogether the Lord in mercy provides us with bridges and ladders. Where the terror of Jesus as the just judge may drive us away the mildness of Mary, mother of mercy and Tabernacle of God, will draw us through her Immaculate Heart and pure hands towards her maker and ours.

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The painting is the Natvity of Mary by the Master of the Life of the Virgin.