Wednesday 28 October 2015

Jesus-Why Bother?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The picture is Saint Andrew and St Thomas by Bernini

Friday 23 October 2015

St Ælfric's by Night-A Christian Ghost Story

churchyard by night.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Monday 19 October 2015

Martha, Martha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday 16 October 2015

Repentance-Why Bother?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The painting is The Penitent Magdalene by Mateo Cerezo 

Tuesday 6 October 2015

St Edmund Campion: Priest & Martyr

The most high profile of England’s martyr priests to be executed during the time of Elizabeth Tudor was certainly St Edmund Campion who died 1 December 1581. During the year or so of his mission he preached the Word and administered the sacraments to recusants while being hunted for his life by pursuivants (the Elizabethans had a wonderful way with words.) St Edmund’s fame, or notoriety, arose because of two documents which he wrote while on the run. First a short letter, called by his opponents Campions Brag, which contained a challenge to debate the issues between Catholics and Anglicans at his old university of Oxford. Secondly, after what became known as the Uxbridge Conference with fellow recusants, he wrote, in Latin, Ten Reasons which outlined the arguments he would have made had such a disputation been permitted.

These were angry and passionate times and St Edmund’s writing style was combative, that of his opponents if anything was even more so. There is little that modern readers might find edifying in the polemics of that time. The Brag however ends on this note-
I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to Almighty God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us his grace, and see us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.
Perhaps unconsciously Dr Rowan Williams, when he held the title of Archbishop of Canterbury, echoed this idea as, in 2010, he commemorated the Carthusian martyrs to Henry VIII-
If Henry VIII is saved (an open question perhaps) it will be at the prayers of John Houghton.  If any persecutor is saved it is at the prayers of their victim. If humanity is saved, it is by the grace of the cross of Jesus Christ and all those martyrs who have followed in his path.”

Although many great and terrible wrongs can be laid at the feet of those who call themselves Christian there remains at the heart of the faith an irreducible core which can be ignored but cannot be denied. There is an obligation to forgive, to love and pray for those who hate us and to acknowledge that every child conceived in the womb is a person for whom Jesus died on the Cross. Christians cannot despise any of their fellow humans. The recusants who were involved in activities like the Gunpowder Plot and Anglican Elizabeth’s chief torturer Topcliffe (like the Queen herself) may have forgotten this but fortunately for the reputation of Christianity St Edmund and many like him did not.

It is relatively easy to preach high sounding sentiments but the challenge is to live them out in the little details of life. Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited, wrote a masterly biography of Campion which recounts many such instances. Perhaps the most outstanding is the case of George Eliot, not the author but a spy whose treachery and perjury brought St Edmund to the scaffold. Visiting the martyr in gaol Eliot asked for forgiveness not because he feared for his immortal soul but rather for his mortal body since he had grounds to think that certain less saintly Catholics than Edmund were likely to seek vengeance for his treachery. Although still in agony from the rack and other tortures which Eliot had delivered him up to Campion’s reply is a classic of its kind-
You are much deceived if you think the Catholics push their detestation and wrath as far as revenge; yet to make you quite safe, I will, if you please, recommend you to a Catholic duke in Germany, where you may live in perfect security.”

There can be few more Christlike images than that of a man who, bearing the marks of suffering upon his body, takes anxious thought for the well-being of the person who holds chief responsibility for those marks. As it happened Eliot did not take advantage of the offer and returned to his trade of spying but St Edmund’s gaoler, Delahays, who heard the conversation was so moved by it that he converted to Catholicism. We can hope that in this country never again will we be visited by such an evil as religious persecution but perhaps more than that we can also hope that in every evil that does visit us we will never lack for Christians filled like St Edmund with the spirit of forgiveness and generous love. By the grace of God may we ourselves be such Christians.


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