Sunday 16 October 2016

In the Shadow of Medina

Christian & Islamic Visions of an Heroic Age

The English historian Tom Holland, through his book In the Shadow of the Sword, gives an overview  of several crucial centuries during which the Middle East was fundamentally and world-changingly altered. The epoch in question, late antiquity, saw the effective end of two ancient empires, Roman and Persian, as well as the emergence of a new one, the Arab. These events were of profound religious significance as well as being geopolitical earthquakes since each empire was associated with what are now, in 2016, distinctive religions Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Islam respectively. Mr Holland's approach aroused some controversy because he discounted as unreliable most of the accounts which we have of the rise of the new empire on the grounds that they were first written down some two centuries after the events which they describe. As these accounts represent not only a story of Arab conquest but also the foundational mythos of Islam itself this is rather delicate ground upon which to tread.

Relying on the scant resources which are more or less contemporaneous with the remarkable transformation of the region Tom Holland develops an explanatory hypothesis which is admittedly speculative or, in his own word, 'provisional'. It is well beyond my competence to comment on these matters I was, however, struck by some things which are present clearly in the Holland version and in a more veiled form in the 'official' narrative. Firstly, it seems clear that the career of the founder of Islam can be divided into a period where he proclaimed the new faith in the face of opposition before a flight (hijrah) to the city now called Medina where, in phase two, he and his emigrant companions (muhajirun) set about building a State and expanding its frontiers. Secondly, the essential groundwork to what are now orthodox Sunni Islamic doctrines and practices began to appear in written form in southern Iraq during the era of the Umayyad Caliphs some decades after the Arab victories.

So, why am I writing about all this in a Catholic blog you ask? I think that if we look at the way in which our respective orthodoxies began to be formed we can see crucial and irreducible differences between Catholicism and Islam, differences which still matter today and cannot be wished away by airy references along the lines of 'we all worship the One God'. Leaving aside conspiracy theorists like Dan Brown, the new atheists and liberal theologians it is generally accepted that the basic framework of Catholic orthodox belief, its core texts and fundamental doctrines, were in place before the Emperor Constantine revolutionised the relationship between Roman Church and Roman State. This means that Christians being excluded from power first addressed themselves to questions of meaning and thus engaged from the outset with the ideas of philosophy, something we can see in St Paul and St John within the canon of the New Testament itself. As an aside I would note that although we are frequently told that an advanced Islamic civilization exported philosophy to a backward Western Europe it is the case that philosophy helped to form Christian thought from the beginning whereas Muslim philosophers had to deal with an already existing and sometimes hostile body of Islamic orthodox thought when they began their work.

I digress however, another consequence of powerlessness was that the Church could appeal to the marginalised and excluded as being of their number itself. Combining these two elements early Christian thinkers focussed on the texts and examples from their own history which most addressed their own radical powerlessness and exclusion and developed their theological doctrines on that basis. There are few things more inspiring than the example shown to us by heroic figures whom we can imitate. For the formation of the Church's self-image the icons which they looked to were the life of Jesus, who was arrested and executed (without resistance), and the history of the Apostolic era where the primitive Christian community was persecuted (also without resistance) and scorned. For the Church as Church it's history of being the patient victim of misused power became the heroic age towards which it looked as the gold standard for guidance about how to behave in every age.

Several centuries later Iraqi Muslim scholars found themselves in a radically different situation when they came to mould their inchoate mass of ideas and texts into a single universally useable form. While they themselves might be out of power their rulers were all professedly Muslim. Consequently they had every reason to develop doctrines that could and should be adopted and implemented by the Caliphal State. Therefore the heroic age towards which they looked was post-hijrah Medina and the behaviour of their religion's founder together with his empire-building companions and successors among the muhajirun. This was logical enough, the founder had faced problems and difficulties which could be seen as analogous to those of their own situation. As he, the founder, was inspired by God but the Caliphate's current rulers obviously were not the presumed example of the founder could be used as a stick with which to beat the rulers into changing their behaviour.

Like Christianity it was the case that Islam too made its appeal to the marginal and excluded but it did so in the context of a very different situation. In its early centuries to become Catholic was to risk persecution, during the equivalent era of Islam becoming a Muslim was a way to escape persecution or, at any rate, punitive taxation. Looking towards different icons of heroism and having different relationships with the State inevitably led the two orthodoxies down wholly divergent paths where the notional shared belief in the One God became very much a second order question.

It would be a profound mistake to suppose that these different origins are no more than an interesting historical background. They are profoundly important for the essential natures of the two great faiths and for the societies influenced by them. Islam, as it began to be understood in Umayyad Iraq, had no Christ Crucified and no suffering pilgrim Church or their equivalents nor does 21st Century Islam. And that matters, it matters a very great deal. In the shadow of Medina Islam is a religion which understands the use of State power and Law not from the position of an outsider who needs to fear it but from that of an insider who may wield it. To that extent it is the polar opposite of Christianity regardless of its monotheism. Friendship between Christians and Muslims there may be and co-operation between religious leaders there should be but one can only underplay the differences in belief by sacrificing basic elements of one's existing identity.

There is a 'new thing' in the world though. Today there is a large and growing Muslim population living outside Muslim lands. The original viewpoint of Islamic orthodoxy had in mind a model where the Caliphate, the House of Islam, stood in relation to those outside its borders as potential conquerors and Muslim minorities would also be ruling minorities. That has not, fortunately, transpired so the Muslim diaspora has to work out a doctrinal and theological modus vivendi for flourishing in non-Muslim lands into the foreseeable future. One approach, the most highly publicised, is to renew the pattern of conquest and incorporate Western lands into a new Caliphate. The idea that this might succeed appears to us as vanishingly unlikely, no doubt, as the prospect of an Arab Empire appeared to seventh century Romans and Persians.

There is another possible approach though. The powerlessness of minority Muslim communities has some resemblance to that of the early Church. This makes the pre-hijrah experience of the founder of Islam and his companions much more of a suitable icon for them than the Medina model. The time of persecution and meekness in what tradition names as Mecca (though Tom Holland dissents) will be much more serviceable to diaspora Muslims than any muscular assertion of a power which they do not possess and are unlikely to possess any time soon. Certainly there are many, to put it mildly. 'difficult' passages in the Quran which they will require to reinterpret creatively or subsume to milder ones but Christians are in no position to get sniffy about difficult Scripture passages in anybody's religion. This will be a dangerous enterprise for Muslims to embark upon (and it goes without saying that in my opinion Christianity is a superior option to any redaction of Islam) because it will spark a violent, literally violent, response from Muslim conservatives.

I think, nonetheless, that if Muslim thinkers and writers outside the House of Islam can create a form of their religion which escapes the shadow of Medina and embraces the example of Mecca then they will be doing their faith and the rest of the world a great favour. They will also be demonstrating a great truth that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.

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The picture is The Rawdah Mubarak in Medina where the founder of Islam is reputed to be buried.  

Wednesday 14 September 2016

A Better Resurrection

My life is like a broken bowl, 
A broken bowl that cannot hold 
One drop of water for my soul 
Or cordial in the searching cold; 
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing; 
Melt and remould it, till it be 
A royal cup for Him, my King: 
O Jesus, drink of me. 
(Christina Rossetti)

It stood among the tumbledown, discarded jumble of the family in a rarely visited room at the back of the house. Every now and again someone would come in to add new junk to the pile of unwanted things. More rarely a servant would seek to retrieve something useful from the mass or a child would look for an unusual object with which to play, allowing her imagination to make up for the deficiencies and blemishes of the unwanted-by-grown-ups item chosen.

The broken bowl sat upon a shelf and she was a sad sight to behold. At some time in the long, long distant past careless hands had let her slip from a great height and she had fallen hard upon the tessellated floor. The favourite of her mistress an attempt had been made to put her back together but it had not been a success. Great gaps were left in her fabric and long cracks, visible and ugly, criss-crossed her face. For sentiment's sake she had not been cast out into the darkness but had been allowed to remain, if only just, within the family home.

Yet what use was a broken bowl? However perfect she had been when leaving the hand of her maker now she was marred and unable to fulfil the purposes for which she had been created. Yet she waited, patiently she waited. Who knew but that at some point her time would come. Perhaps the accident would turn out to be a happy fault and a new and better destiny awaited her. No one could see what good she could ever be but many things that seemed impossible to men nonetheless were true.

Night had long fallen after a pleasant day in early spring. Still she sat on her shelf. Still she waited. Still she was patient. Suddenly the room was infused with a transcendent light. A tongue, as it were of fire, descended upon her and a fierce heat penetrated every fibre of her. She was melting and being transformed from above. Every molecule, every atom danced and moved and changed. Broken no more, dullness and dust banished and clear brightness shining from her.

The next day Kyrios the Greek servant came into the lumber room grumbling to himself as was his way when made to work harder than he liked.
"Quickly he says. We need another cup he says or we will not have enough for all the guests. Where does he think I can find another cup at this time? Am I a miracle wor..."
Suddenly he stopped. He had seen the reforged bowl. His jaw dropped and his face, never handsome at the best of times, acquired a gaping, stupid ugliness. Picking the bowl-turned-chalice up almost reverentially he appraised it with expert eyes.
"The gods must highly favour this banquet" he said (his Judaism being only skin deep) "they have left us this golden thing which will perfectly suit the Principle Guest." Kyrios then hurried away with the reforged bowl to add it to the table setting for the newly arrived party of pilgrim guests,

The meal proceeded, in turns solemn and merry as often happens when friends gather together to celebrate their friendship and recall their shared sufferings. Finally the Principal Guest took up the reforged bowl. After thanking God He raised it saying
"This is my blood"


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The painting is The Grail Damsel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Thursday 8 September 2016

The Birthday of Our Lady

One is my dove, 
my perfect one is but one, 
she is the only one of her mother, 
the chosen of her that bore her. 
The daughters saw her, and declared her most blessed:
the queens and concubines, and they praised her.
(Song of Songs 6:8)

Since ancient times Christians have understood the mystical sense of the Song of Songs (also known as the Canticle of Canticles) to refer to the relationship between Jesus and His Bride the Church. Generally what can be said of the Church can also be said of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as the first and for a time only Christian Mary literally was the Church of which she is also mother. So, as we celebrate her nativity, what can this verse teach us about our Lady?

Sacred Tradition tells us that Mary was the first child of St Anne but not, perhaps, the only one. She was, however, in a unique sense the Daughter of Zion. The Chosen people of God, as a people, gave birth to only one daughter and that was Mary. Through her the fulfilment of the Covenant relationship between God and Israel would enter the world. She was therefore both the only one and the chosen one of the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It could also be said that she was the only pure child of the human race since Mary, uniquely among us all, was through the merits of her Son, conceived fee from the taint of original Sin. This makes her, in Wordsworth's evocative expression, 'Our tainted nature's solitary boast'. (Jesus, of course, was perfect by nature not by grace.) We can also think of Mother Earth as rejoicing in the birth of Mary ' for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God' (Romans 8:20-21)

The daughters who call her most blessed, as St Elizabeth did, are all the children of God who have received the Spirit with gladness and see in Mary the light before the dawn, the one whose faithfulness and love will bring heaven down to earth. Mary is she in whom the Father delights, to whom the Holy Spirit is espoused and from whom the Son is born. The word 'most' is a superlative which means that no one ever was or ever shall be more blessed than Mary. None more blessed with joy as the mother of Jesus. None more blessed with the Cross as witness on Calvary of the Passion and Death of her beloved Christ.

The Queens who praise her stand for all who are involved in the world, the workers, students, parents, homemakers who find time each day to turn to God with thanks and prayers. For who can praise God without also remembering beloved Mary full of grace who has found favour with God?(Luke 1:30).

The concubines who praise her stand for all those deeply sunk in sin who have been or are being led from vice to virtue through our Lady. As a model and icon she stands without rival in inspiring us to change our ways, to conform ourselves to her and through her to Christ our Lord. As our Advocate she stands before the just judge, her Son, who can refuse her nothing. As mediatrix of all grace she sends to us the Holy Spirit who revives us and leads us via repentance, contrition and conversion to the Father.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is gentle as a dove. She is also like the dove of Genesis 8:11 who brought to Noah the bough of an olive tree with green leaves on it. Its coming was a sign of hope, the bough symbolised the Cross, the leaves the new life in Christ and all of these can be found in our Lady. She is perfect in her response to the grace of God which fills her so completely and so is without sin or stain. And she is but one, the only one, Mother of God, Mother of the Church, Mother of Christians, Queen of Heaven. Our beloved Mary, let us rejoice in her and with her as we celebrate her birthday.

Appare, dulcis filia,
nitesce iam virguncula,
florem latura nobilem,
Christum Deum et hominem.

(Appear, sweet daughter,
Grow verdant, little branch.
You will bear the noble flower:
Christ, God and man.)
From the Morning Prayer of the Nativity of Mary


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The painting is St Anne with the Virgin and Child by Michael Wolgemut 

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Hannah the Mother of Samuel

His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice.
(1 Samuel 2:19)

Often in the Church when we think of holy women we consider them in the context of their relationships. Thus Hannah and St Monica are the mothers of Samuel and St Augustine respectively and St Scholastica is the sister of St Benedict and so on. This approach is not confined to the Church, there was much feminist criticism during the 2016 summer Olympics that commentators referred to the marital or parental status of female competitors but not that of male ones.

It is, I think, true that we are more prone to think of women in relational terms; that they inhabit a complex web of familial relationships which play a significant role in defining them. More or less implicit in this is the notion that these relationships should be a priority for women and that things like sport, business or academia should take second place. Men, by contrast, are considered as free-standing individuals who make the world by their unaided efforts and for whom this world-making is and should be their priority.

This is undoubtedly an unbalanced approach but, I believe, it would be perverse to attempt to counter it by censoring out reference to these relationships. We should, rather, change our attitude towards men. Samuel was the son of Hannah as St Augustine was of St Monica; St Benedict was St Scholastica's twin sibling. These men were no less defined by their relationships than the women were by theirs and, indeed, Samuel and Augustine owed more to Hannah and Monica than their mothers did to them. It takes a village (and a family) to raise a boy every bit as much as it does a girl. Men are not free-standing, individual world-makers they are sons, brothers, fathers, husbands and without these relationships to sustain and nurture them they would not only be low achievers they would be spiritually and emotionally deprived human beings.

It might be contended that it is precisely because men did not prioritise their relationships that they were able to go out and create modernity through exploration, innovation and risk taking. So much the worse for modernity. We are mistaken if we think that material gains and benefits outweigh spiritual and emotional losses and a slower pace of economic and scientific development is a price worth paying for a world in which both men and women are fully engaged in a complementary way with the lives of their families.

To put it another way, what we require is a civilisation of love. By its very nature love is a relational thing which, moreover, is characterised by sacrifice of self in the service of ones obligations towards the beloved. Which brings us to Hannah, the mother of Samuel. There is something poignant in the use of the word 'little' to describe the garment which Hannah took with her on her annual trip to see the infant son for whom she had so longed. Those of us who live in the post-industrial revolution era may miss the significance of the word 'made' but this robe was not a shop bought, factory produced thing. Hannah put it together herself and we can picture her bending over it for hours. Every little action associated with its making would have been charged with love. No doubt she would have shed tears over it, tears of devotion for her son, tears of pain at the long separation from him.

Yet this separation was not forced upon Hannah by a jealous and demanding God it was a freewill sacrifice which she made and sustained in gratitude and love towards the One from whom Samuel had come as gift. The child had been put into the service of the Lord's worship at the Ark of the Covenant in Shiloh as a grateful response by Hannah to the way that God had heeded her prayers. This was by no means a usual thing in Israel, Samuel was the only child so placed, nor is there any suggestion that the Almighty had demanded this as a quid pro quo for ending Hannah's childlessness. The supernatural virtue of Justice consists in giving each their due beginning with God and descending to the least and most vulnerable of His creatures (such as the unborn.) Hannah showed herself to be a just woman because she retained nothing for herself giving to the Lord that which was most precious to her and giving to her son all the love and prayers which she could. Each year she added to that to the extent of a little robe made by her own hands and touched by her tears.

As well as being poignant there is something beautiful in this scene which Scripture paints for us. The poet Keats tells us-
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all  
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
The nearer we approach to the perfection of a supernatural virtue like Justice, Truth or Love then the more beautiful we and our actions become. Compared to this annual pilgrimage of Hannah no amount of world-making, medal-winning, scientific breakthrough-ing by men or women has a tenth part of its loveliness. We should stop apologising for drawing to attention the fact that women are mothers and start apologising for all the times we have failed to recall that men are sons.

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The painting is Hannah presenting her son Samuel to Eli by Jan Victors

Sunday 14 August 2016

The Coronation of Mary-A Vision

The King’s daughter is all glorious within: 
her clothing is of broidered gold.
She shall be brought unto the King
(Psalm 45:13-14)

As I lay my Rosary aside on Assumption eve suddenly heaven was opened before me and I saw our Blessed Lady St Mary sitting in a room in the Father's house. It happened that the most Blessed Lord granted me the gift, through the Spirit, to understand what I saw and how glorious it was.

It seemed to me that with the eyes of her inward vision our Lady was rapt in blissful contemplation of the uncreated One who is Three. With her outward eyes the Virgin Mother looked with delight on the things of her heavenly home. Suddenly a voice behind her spoke-
"Hail, full of grace"
St Mary rose and turning round she smilingly said
"Behold again the handmaid of the Lord."
Facing her now was St Gabriel the Archangel and he shone with the glory of love and radiated the power of compassion.
"He awaits you within and I am to guide you to Him."
"Be it done to me according to your word."

And I saw them depart the room and enter an antechamber of the Palace of God. There were many glorious things in it and it seemed to me that the most glorious sight to be seen were two people of venerable and saintly appearance.
"Hail, the Immaculate Conception." they said together.
As St Mary cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be St Gabriel spoke again-

"You are the Morning Star, the light that heralds the dawn. At your conception the darkness that covered the world was pierced by the first bright gleam since the Fall of your ancestor Adam. Free at your first moment, by the gracious and fitting gift of God, from any taint of Original Sin you are our Lady of Light and a sign of hope to all of fallen humankind."
And Mary went forward embracing with joy the two that had saluted her whom I would call St Joachim and St Anne but whom she called "Father" and "Mother."

Then they all processed into an ante-chamber more splendid than the last. In it stood a woman whose face was still marked with the signs of long sorrow patiently borne and with her a man clothed in camel's hair.
"Hail Mediatrix of all Graces," they said together.
As St Mary cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be St Gabriel spoke again-

"You are the Mother of divine grace, the spiritual vessel, the singular vessel of devotion. Through your presence, the sound of your voice and the Divine One whom you carried in your womb a saint was filled with the Holy Spirit and enabled to see the things of God and to speak clearly about them offering Him praise and thanks. Through you too an unborn child, and the Lord loves all such, leapt with joy and was filled with the Spirit of God. Grace, which fills you, overflows through your hands to those to whom you will to give it from now until the end of time."
And Mary went forward embracing with happiness the two who had saluted her whom I would call St Elizabeth and St John the Baptist but whom she called "cousins."

The procession now entered the most splendid ante-chamber that I had yet seen. In it was a man, upright, honourable and just and he leant upon a flowering staff.
"Hail, Cause of our Joy." he said.
As St Mary cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be St Gabriel spoke again-

"You are the Mother of God, the Mother of Christ, the Mother of the Saviour. Through your consent the Word of God was made flesh in your womb. Through your motherhood Jesus entered the world. You are she who brought the devices of satan to nothing. Without you there would be no hope, no life, no light in the hearts of women and men. Truly upon your fiat is founded all the joy and happiness of humankind."
And Mary went forward embracing with gladness the one who had saluted her whom I would call St Joseph most chaste and whom she called "husband."

The joyful procession entered into the fourth ante-chamber and as they grew nearer to the throne of the King so the light through which they walked grew in beauty and loveliness. A venerable man, dignified and kindly stood beside a woman of great devotion and service.
"Hail Seat of Wisdom," they said together.
As St Mary cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be St Gabriel spoke again-

"You are the Mother Most Amiable, the Mother of Good Counsel, the Virgin Most Prudent, the Virgin Most Faithful. To your care and guidance was entrusted the Son of the Creator. To you He was obedient, in you He trusted. You ever willed to do what the Grace of God within you willed to do. In your humility you were obedient to the Father in all things and at all times. These are the things of wisdom and truly you are wise."
And Mary went forward embracing with delight the two who had saluted her whom I would call St Simeon and St Anna but whom she called "friends."

After this the procession entered into the fifth ante-chamber which was suffused with the light and presence of God whose royal seat was now so near at hand. In that chamber I could see a man cheerful, benign and authoritative.
"Hail, most gracious Advocate," he said.
As St Mary cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be St Gabriel spoke again-

"You are the Virgin most powerful, the Virgin most merciful, the refuge of sinners,comforter of the afflicted, help of Christians. With the eyes of loving mercy and kindness you saw an unmet need and through your prayers moved your Divine Son to turn water into wine, You gave the wise counsel to 'do whatsoever He saith to you'. For all of time you will give this counsel to the world and too you will seek and find the disconsolate and bring their needs before the Lord. Never shall you do so in vain for He loves you and will give heed to all your petitions."
And Mary went forward embracing with amiableness the one whom I would call the steward of the feast at Cana in Galilee but whom she called "neighbour."  

Then they entered the final ante-chamber filled with that happiness of heaven which is ever perfect and ever growing. There stood a woman who resembled the Virgin and who bore upon her face the signs of great suffering and greater joy.
"Hail Queen of Martyrs," she said.
As St Mary cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be St Gabriel spoke again-

"You are the Tower of David, the Tower of Ivory. You are the foremost among those who have endured agony for the sake of the Kingdom of your Divine Son Jesus. You are she through whose soul a sword has pierced. Upon the hill of Calvary, beneath the Cross of Christ you endured in height, in length, in depth all the agonies of your Son. His pain, His abandonment, His death which in a manner you shared. You endured too the agonies of a mother who sees her only one, her beloved, her dear one, dying before her eyes. Because of this you are close to all who suffer and especially to those who suffer for the faith. In all ages of the world the persecuted people of Christ will turn their eyes to you, raise their prayers, sighs and lamentations to you and you will send them consolation and present their cause to the Lord, your God and their God."
And Mary went forward embracing with love the one whom I would call Mary, the mother of Salome, but whom she called "sister."

And then they all with exceeding great gladness entered into the inner sanctum of the Palace of God, the throne room of the King. And, behold! the King Himself stood waiting for them. His clothes were as white as the light and His skin shone like the sun. This shining did not conceal but rather revealed the more those wounds upon His hands and feet which cruel men had inflicted and His brow still bore the marks of barbed thorns. St Mary humbly sank to her knees before Him and said-
"My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour."

The King stretched forth His maimed hands and tenderly raised her to her feet.
"My, Son" the Blessed Virgin said.
"My Mother," Jesus replied. He gently led her to a great throne that stood to the right of His own and placed her upon it. Then St Michael the Archangel clad in armour and shining with the glory of justice and radiating the power of virtue, came forward bearing a crown. Our Blessed Lord took it from Him and loving placed it on the brow of Mary, Queen of Heaven. At that the cherubim and seraphim, all the choirs, rank upon rank, of the angels and all the saints and martyrs of the Kingdom of God burst into songs of gladness, rejoicing and praise.

It was given to me to know that the crown had been made of the most precious elements in all the created universe. And looking closely at it I could see that this was indeed so. The crown of our Lady and Queen consisted of nothing more or less than these four word "My Son, My Mother"

Then the vision faded and vanished. Looking around I saw that it was now Assumption morning and I took up my Rosary once more offering up my prayers with deep gratitude to the Good God who has given us such a Good Mother.

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven: 
A woman clothed with the Sun, 
and the Moon was under her feet, 
and upon her head a crown of twelve Stars
(Revelation 12:1)

Paintings featured are-

The Coronation of the Virgin, by Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder, by Jean Colombe, from the Worshipful Company of Skinners Book, Lady of the Assumption by Bartolomeo della Gatta. The Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico, by Lorenzo Monaco, by Jean Fouquet, by Fra Angelico (again.) The Assumption of the Virgin by Michel Sittow

Monday 8 August 2016

I Hate My Life!

If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not carry his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple
Luke 14:26-27

We can, I think, draw a useful distinction between harshness and austerity. Many commentators on these words of our Lord have gone to great lengths to demonstrate that they are not as harsh as they appear at first sight. This is necessary work but in performing it too often the austere nature of the programme outlined by Jesus has been under-emphasised. By way of redressing the balance I propose to completely ignore the harshness aspect and focus instead on the austerity. To do so I will be using (apparently) erotic poetry to help me.

I sleep, and my heart watcheth;
 the voice of my beloved knocking: 
Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove
Song of Songs 5:2
Our lives are usually wrapped up in immediate earthly concerns to do with ourselves, our families, our work, politics, celebrities and so on. We are asleep to the things of the spirit with our active consciousness yet there is a part of our being which is awake and alert. At least once and sometimes many times the Lord will come and whisper to us as we are sunk in material slumber. Our heart will leap in joyful response and wake the totality of our being to the Presence that seeks us. What happens next?

I have put off my garment, how shall I put it on?
I have washed my feet, how shall I defile them?
Song of Songs 5:3
We do not respond instantly to the call. Instead we think of this thing and that thing. Our everyday concerns, mundane earthly matters intrude between us and our Divine lover. Often that is where it ends. We remain in bed and fall asleep again. Yet, sometimes eventually after dealing with these trivia we are sufficiently curious to make our tardy way to the doorway from which our lover called us.

I opened the bolt of my door to my beloved: 
but he had turned aside, and was gone.....
 I sought him, and found him not: 
I called, and he did not answer me.
Song of Songs 5:6
And this is the message that Jesus was hammering home. If we do not cast aside the things of this world when He calls us, if we do not hate them, then we shall lose Him altogether. It is not that these things are bad in themselves. On the contrary some, like loving ones parents are positively virtuous. No, what they are are the things of sleep and He invites us to the things of wakefulness, the better part. Once we know Him and are united to Him we can return wakefully to the things of sleep and so bring what was dead into life by infusing it with His Spirit.

The keepers that go about the city found me: 
they struck me: and wounded me: 
the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.
Song of Songs 5:7
This is what it means to carry the cross. In a world asleep when we wander around, awake and in search of our Beloved, we can expect to be buffeted. The words found, struck, wounded, took away, express the sorrow, pain and humiliation that we can expect from life. We can escape from this if we fall asleep again and abandon the search, if we embrace with love those things we had begun to hate for the sake of the Beloved. But then our heart will remain awake and impart its restlessness to us, the sense that there is an emptiness where wholeness should be. Alternatively we can shoulder our cross and persevere. Why though? To what end are we journeying?

I am become in his presence as one finding peace.
Song of Songs 8:10
A peace passing all understanding, a transcendent peace will possess our souls, fill our spirits and rejoice our hearts when we encounter the Beloved and contemplate Him with adoration. The fullness of this experience must wait until we have put of mortality and been clothed with immortality, left time and definitively entered eternity. Nonetheless we can experience in part now what we will enjoy to the full then. The Beloved is to be found in the Sacrament of the Altar, in the Eucharist we can meet Him, consuming the One whom we long to consume us. In Tabernacle and Monstrance we can sit at his feet like Mary of Bethany, drinking in His peace and love. In prayer we can meet with Him and share the silence of deep things beyond speech. In the saints, those who are in heaven and those who are our neighbours, we can catch glimpses of Him. And in Mary, His Mother, the mirror of perfection, seat of wisdom, Queen of Angels we can find a sure way to the Son of the Father.

The austere way proposed by Jesus is not austerity for the sake of austerity. It is a simple truth that she who travels light travels fast. Let us cast aside all that is superfluous that we might the sooner catch up with the Beloved and become one with Him, now and forever.

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The paintings are The Church as Bride of Christ by the Illustrator of Petrus Comestor's Bible Historiale and Christ as gardener appearing to Mary Magdalen by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostanen 

Tuesday 2 August 2016

A Simple Method of Marian Prayer

The Method

  • First, obtain some Rosary beads.
  • Begin by praying + In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. 
  • On the first bead pray-
Dear and Most Blessed Lady Mary
As you brought Jesus to St Elizabeth when you visited her bring Him also to me.
As, by the Father's will, she was filled with the Holy Spirit at the sound of your voice send the Paraclete also to me.
That, strengthened by the Blessed Trinity and accompanied by you, I may bear my cross in life, through death to the Glorious Resurrection
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

  • On the next beads pray the Our Father the Hail Mary the Glory Be and Hail Holy Queen (these prayers can be found at CatholiCity.Com)
  • On the small beads pray Immaculate Heart of Mary, I trust in you.
  • After ten such prayers (a decade) on the large beads pray And after this our exile show unto us the Blessed fruit of thy womb Jesus, O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
  • Once you have prayed five decades you can either keep going for as long as seems right or finish with the following prayers-
  • Hail Holy Queen
  • Our Lady, the Mystical Rose, pray for us
  • Our Lady, Refuge of sinners, pray for us.
  • Our Lady, Help of Christians, pray for us.
  • Glory Be.

The Rationale

I've written a lot about the benefit of going to Jesus through Mary. Rather than repeat myself here I invite you to check out my posts which are tagged with Blessed Virgin Mary especially, perhaps, With Mary to Jesus.

Practical Tips

  • While praying you may find it helps your focus if you look at an image of our Lord and our Lady or at a Crucifix.
  • As a symbolic way of uniting your offering with Catholics across history and around the world you could pray the second Hail Holy Queen in Latin as the Salve Regina.
  • To slow the prayer down and make it more contemplative you could link it with your breathing. Pray the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the indrawn breath and I trust in you on the outgoing one. Do remember to breathe normally when you get to the And after this etc. part though.
  • If you are accustomed to meditating on a mystery while using the Rosary beads because this prayer is shorter than the normal Rosary I suggest that you consider just one mystery for every five decades. You can find subjects from the opening prayer, not just the Visitation but also the mysteries of the Trinity and your personal relationship with each member of it, dying to self and so on.


The central terms of this prayer are the Immaculate Heart and our trust in it. What does this mean? We know from Scripture that our Lady pondered the things of God in her heart. It is possible then to deduce the qualities of the Immaculate Heart of Mary as being love, for the Blessed Trinity as God, for the Incarnate Son as her own child Jesus and for all of her neighbours as being beloved by her beloved. Mary's heart is also reflective and contemplative. It is sinless and filled with prayer. By expressing our trust in it we are saying that our own hearts, timid, uncertain and sinful as they are, long by being united to Mary to become like her; above all in devotion to Jesus who is our salvation. Mary is Mediatrix of Grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit flow through her hands, through our prayer of trust in her Immaculate Heart we express the hope that the grace of conversion may come to us so that our own hearts will increasingly resemble hers so that she will be able to present us to Jesus as beloved children and not as sinful, self-willed rebels.

The Marian prayer par excellence is of course the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It has been highly praised by Popes and Saints. Our Lady herself has encouraged it in her appearances to visionaries around the world. I do not offer this prayer in any sense as a rival to it. For those who already pray the Rosary this can be an addition to their prayer armoury. For those who do not yet pray it for one reason or another it can help them express their devotion to our Blessed Mother and may perhaps lead them in time to the Rosary itself. All I can say for certain is that I myself have found it useful in helping me to grow in love towards Jesus and Mary and hopefully also in uniting my will the the sweet will of Mary which is always united to that of her Divine Son Jesus.

This post is a companion piece to my earlier blog A Simple Method of Contemplative Prayer

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The painting is Immaculate Heart of Mary by Smith Catholic Art

Thursday 21 July 2016

Mary Magdalene-The Scarlet Woman

Most blessed lady, I who am the most evil and sinful of men do not recall thy sins as a reproach, but call upon the boundless mercy by which they were blotted out. 
(St Anselm, Prayer to Saint Mary Magdalene and Our Lord)

From the early Middle Ages the Latin Church began to associate a number of different Gospel stories, the nameless woman who was a great sinner (Luke 7:36-48) and Mary of Bethany, with the figure of Mary Magdalene who had been first witness to the Resurrection of Jesus. Feminists, enemies of Christianity and liberal theologians always present this association as if it were a misogynist scheme by the old white men (now dead) of the Catholic Church to slut-shame a feisty independent woman disciple of Christ. As a plot it failed miserably since the Magdalene became, after our Lady, far and away the most popular female saint of the Middle Ages. This was not despite but because she was seen as a reformed sinner. Most Catholics then as now could empathise with one who had succumbed to temptation, especially sexual temptation, and saw in her redemption and closeness to Jesus a significant source of hope for themselves.

I, however, have an alternative theory. One of the things which the Gospel tells us about our saint is this- "Mary who is called Magdalen, out of whom seven devils were gone forth" (Luke 8;2.) This is immediately after the story of the unnamed woman so linkage is plausible but more importantly it features the number seven. To the modern mind this conveys nothing but in the ancient and medieval world it was charged with significance. The world was created in seven days, the seven seals of the Apocalypse will be a prelude to the end of days, the Israelites had to drive seven tribes out of Canaan, seven Apostles witnessed the risen Jesus by the shores of Lake Tiberias and so on and so forth. Therefore whenever this number appears in Scripture we are invited to ponder on what significance it may have. Often it is taken to imply fullness so when St Peter asked (Matthew 18;21-22) if he should forgive someone up to seven times a day he simply meant "as often as it is likely to happen."

Pope St Gregory the Great when he reflected upon it came to the conclusion that in the case of the Magdalene it referred to the seven mortal sins. That being so she became a perfect fit with the unnamed woman in Luke because of two things which the Gospel tells us explicitly about St Mary. Firstly, that she had been possessed but that Jesus had liberated her from that. Secondly, that she loved our Lord very greatly. This last was shown by her standing at the foot of the Cross during His Crucifixion. Indeed, the Magdalene is often depicted as wearing red and/or as having red hair. This is not, as some suppose, because of an association with prostitution, but rather because of her association with the Lord's Passion and death. More poignantly after His entombment her love is depicted in this passage by St John the Evangelist-
Mary stood at the sepulchre without, weeping. Now as she was weeping, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, And she saw two angels in white....They say to her: Woman, why weepest thou? She saith to them: Because they have taken away my Lord; and I know not where they have laid him.  When she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing; and she knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith to her: Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, thinking it was the gardener, saith to him: Sir, if thou hast taken him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith to her: Mary. She turning, saith to him: Rabboni (which is to say, Master) 
(John 20:11-16)

So moving is this passage that it has resulted in many reflections upon it by saints, artists, poets and writers. St Anselm for instance wrote-
..And, more than all this, what can I say, how can I find words to tell, about the burning love with which thou didst seek Him, weeping at the sepulchre, and wept for Him in thy seeking? ...So, near to death and hating her own life, she repeats in broken tones the words of life which she had heard from the living. And now, besides all this, even the Body which she was glad, in a way, to have kept, she believes to have gone. 
And can Thou asketh her, 'Woman, why art thou weeping?' 
Had she not reason to weep? 
...I think, or rather I am sure, that she responded to the gentle tone with which He was accustomed to call, 'Mary'. What joy filled that voice, so gentle and full of love....
..At once the tears are changed; I do not believe that they stopped at once, but where once they were wrung from a heart broken and self-tormenting they flow now from a heart exulting..

Jesus said of the nameless woman "Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much" I think it likely that Pope St Gregory connected the idea of this woman's great love with Mary Magdalene's great love and her sins with the Magdalenes seven devils. Critics who focus on the sin forget the love but the Church never did. The idea that these two persons are one might or might not be right but the idea that they were linked in order to denigrate the great and much beloved St Mary Magdalene is most certainly wrong.

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The paintings are Mary Magdalene by El Greco and Magdalene Mourning by Colijn de Coter.

Thursday 14 July 2016

Faith & Knowledge

There are some who like to define faith as "believing in something which you know is not true." Others, less sneeringly perhaps, opt for "belief which exists in the absence of evidence." The weakness of these definitions is that they presume religious belief falls into the same category as, say, belief in a demonstrable fact (Lincoln was President during the Civil War) or an irrefutable theory (gravity exercises an effect on all material objects.) Christian belief, however, is faith in a person, Jesus, based upon what we know of Him as sufficient evidence. St Mark gives us an example of this-
"Jesus led them on, while they were bewildered and followed him with faint hearts"
Mark 10:32

This text describes the final journey to Jerusalem. The Apostles knew that the authorities would use the opportunity presented by having Jesus within their jurisdiction to do Him harm. They, the Apostles, also knew that they possessed no earthly power through which they could resist the authorities and their minds had not yet been fully opened to the spiritual power concealed in our Lord. Nonetheless, because they knew Him as well as they did they followed Him into danger. The evidence of His person itself was enough to give them the faith necessary to walk into hazard so long as He led them. Where they could not see clearly themselves; where their reason and their fears told them one thing they consented to do another because they willingly conceded their judgement to One who could see more clearly, reason more perfectly and conquer fear more completely.

It is of course possible, indeed common, for humans to place their faith in persons, causes or ideas which are not worthy of receiving such an high trust. Holy Church, aware of this, proposes that faith should always be allied to hope and love since an object worthy of these last two is likely to be worthy of the first also. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes-
"Turn your minds to Jesus, the apostle and the high priest of our profession of faith."
Hebrews 3:1
As apostle, which means messenger, Jesus lays before us; through His life, His actions and His words the hope which we, as Christians, can have. The certainty of a new life in Him, by the will of the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit, a new life which begins now, today, in this life and continues through death to eternal life in His blessed presence. As high priest He offered Himself on the Cross at Calvary, a gift of pure love, perfect love, overflowing love for us and for our salvation.

So, our Catholic faith is belief in Jesus based upon our knowledge of Him as our hope, our Saviour, and the foundation of our new life. And these constitute our evidences for belief. How do we gain this knowledge of Him? We encounter Him in Sacred Scripture, clearly and openly in the Gospels, under veiled forms and types in the Old Testament. We encounter Him in prayer, in silence and in stillness. We encounter Him in the sacraments and liturgies of His body which is the Church. We encounter Him in His saints those in heaven and those we live beside here on earth. Each such encounter increases our knowledge of Him and so strengthens our faith, our hope and our love.

Or, at least, they should so strengthen these things. Hebrews once more-
"We have been granted a share with Christ only if we keep the grasp of our first confidence firm to the end."
Hebrews 3:14
The definitions with which I began have this much truth in them: A faith which begins as alive can end as dead. Our life in the Spirit can fade, our joy in Christ can pass away and we can profess our faith out of habit not conviction. The evidences which we once possessed we may possess no longer. If we do not renew ourselves daily in Christ, drinking from the fountain of life and love which flows from His wounded side then we will lose Him. And that means that we shall have lost ourselves too.

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The painting is Christ in the Wilderness byIvan Kramskoy

Friday 1 July 2016

Down With Agitation!

There is no sin nor wrong that gives a man such a foretaste of hell in this life as anger and impatience.
(St Catherine of Siena Letter to Monna Agnese)

The 5th Century Greek Bishop St Diadochos of Photiki wrote "those pursuing the spiritual way must always keep the mind free from agitation." Those of us living in tumultuous times for ourselves, for our country or for the world may ask- is this true? Is this possible? It is perhaps the obviously right course of action for those living a contemplative life in monasteries but for those whose spiritual way includes an active struggle for justice and peace in the world  is it not a counter-intuitive piece of advice?

I think that if we are seeking change we ourselves must become the change we are trying to bring about. Aiming to reduce injustice in the world we must ourselves be just. Struggling against greedy materialistic societies we must be frugal in not only our use of resources but in our very desire for possessions. So too with anger and impatience, if we long for a kinder, gentler, more patient world when we encounter situations where none of these things are present we should be kindness itself, gentleness itself, patience itself.

This is fine in theory you might say but can it really be done while we are still engaged in the storms of life? And those who know me might add "physician heal thyself" since I am not always noted for calmness and conciliatoriness in the heat of political disputes. In her letter to Monna Agnese St Catherine wrote "by displeasure against itself the soul will drive out displeasure against its neighbour." Self-awareness is a necessary prelude to a mind free from agitation. As soon as we recognise within ourselves symptoms of conducts or attitudes which we would condemn in others then we need to pause for reflection.

An ancient Catholic practice which has somewhat fallen into disuse is the daily examination of conscience at the end or beginning of the day. This gives us the chance to notice what may have been hidden from us by the dusts stirred up in our whirlwind everyday lives. If that includes, as it surely will, moments of agitation, anger and impatience then we need to acknowledge that, sincerely repent of it seeking forgiveness from God and from our neighbours and firmly resolve to avoid future occasions of sin. This requires not only an act of the will but also small practical resolutions which we can immediately put into action.

One such resolution might be to get into the habit of asking ourselves "what is the most likely outcome?" before we start a conversation, on social media or elsewhere, about some matter of controversy. If the answer is that at the end of the process everyone will be more convinced than ever that they were right and they will have added several layers of anger to their pre-conversation state of mind then we would do well not to embark upon this discussion at all. We should also regularly ask ourselves "why am I doing this?" when we are carrying out a course of action or find ourselves unexpectedly involved in a controversy. And if the answer is, again, "in order to prove myself right" then we need to immediately cease and desist.

None of this means that we are obliged to shy away from the struggle to make the world a better place. It means that we should use our energy positively and constructively, and thus calmly, not negatively and destructively, and thus agitatedly. Looking at our two questions, if the likely outcome is that people will be persuaded to change their minds then go ahead with the conversation. If we are acting because there is a good chance of success then keep on acting. Even so, another key idea to frequently call to mind is "magnanimous in victory, gracious in defeat." Triumphalism on the one hand or bitterness on the other are both negative energies which will defeat our own inner peace more than they will achieve any benefits for our own cause. Magnanimity and graciousness moreover are not enemies of spiritual wholeness but manifestations of it.

Of course these things are difficult to achieve and easy to forget. This is why the daily examination of ourselves in the mirror of Christ Crucified is so crucial to attaining the balance of a life committed to bringing Christ to the world outside and to our own heart within. Writing to William of England St Catherine said "we must be illumined to know the transitory things of the world, which all pass like the wind. But these are not rightly known if we do not know our own frailty, how inclined it is, from the perverse law which is bound up with our members, to rebel against its Creator." Only by holding fast to that which is, Christ, Christ Himself, can we effect change in that which is not, that is, ourselves and the world around us. And, as well as self examination we have another important weapon at our disposal as St Catherine reminded Monna Agnese "when thou canst empty thy time for prayer, I pray thee to do it. And love tenderly every rational being." We should not be daunted by the difficulty of the challenge nor by our own repeated failures for as the Sienese doctor wrote to her correspondent Brother Antonio "to the true servant of God every place is the right place and every time is the right time." It is up to us to make it so.

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The picture is Mary Magdalene in Meditation by Massimo Stanzione.

Tuesday 21 June 2016

With Mary to Jesus

The same night the Lord said to him: Arise, and go down into the camp: because I have delivered them into thy hand. But if thou be afraid to go alone, let Phara thy servant go down with thee.
Judges 7:9-10

In the Book of Judges the nervous Gideon is shown several miracles by God and then given a commision to visit the camp of the enemy. You might think that witnessing the power of the Lord and being personally reassured by Him was enough but apparently it wasn't. Gideon remained timid, the flesh may have been willing but the spirit was weak. The Almighty could have taken offence at this but, as it happens, He didn't. He knows of what stuff we are made, as well He should, and so in addition to all the other things He had offered Gideon He made provision for a companion in the mission. Humans like to have someone to share the burden. We see something similar in Moses being granted the assistance of Aaron. Later Jesus would send out His disciples in pairs. Not that they needed each other to proclaim the Good News, to heal the sick or to perform miracles. No, they needed each other because they needed each other, that's just the way we are.

When Catholics say that Mary is given to us to help in our journey towards Jesus some other Christians argue that since Jesus is both the Way and the destination Mary's role is spurious. I think she is only spurious in the sense that Phara and Aaron and the twinned disciples were spurious, that is to say not at all. God does not change His way of operating. He knows that if we were perfect we could come to Him uncompanioned but it is precisely because we are not perfect that we need to come to Him at all. He gives us the gift of a mother, and of such a beautiful mother, since we know that Jesus is both our saviour and our judge. If we long for the one we rightly fear the other. Like Gideon we may have been reassured in multiple ways that our sins have been forgiven, washed away in the blood of the Cross, yet still we hesitate because we know how terrible they are and how often since we accepted Christ we have repeated them. And then gentle Mary comes to us, smiling and kind. She strengthens our hearts and taking our hands she walks side by side with us in our pilgrimage to her Son. And because she does this we make a pilgrimage that otherwise fear would have prevented us from setting out on. More souls have been saved by accepting Mary's help than ever will be by rejecting it.

Another way of looking at this can be seen if we consider this episode from the Lord of the Rings by the Catholic author JRR Tolkien-
"Filled suddenly with love for this old man, he knelt on one knee, and took his hand and kissed it. 'May I lay the sword of Meriadoc of the Shire on your lap Théoden King?' he cried. 'Receive my service, if you will!'"
(Return of the King, Chap 2)
The hobbit Merry was not simply pledging his service to Théoden, since the king was bound by oaths, loyalty, ancient friendship and love to Gondor service to Théoden automatically also meant service to Gondor. And in this double service Merry rode of to war on the fields of the Pelennor where he played a crucial role in destroying the chief of the Nazgûl. One could not love the king of the Rohirrim without also loving the cause of the people of Minas Tirith.

The same, of course, applies to Mary and Jesus. If she fills us with love, if we are touched by her example and by her person and so pledge ourselves to her she only accepts us so that she can deploy us in the service of her Divine Son and present us to Him as His faithful servants because we are hers. Jesus and Mary are not rival sovereigns with  rival servants like Abraham and Lot. They are a single sovereignty doing the will of the Father competing with each other, as it were, only in love, mercy and forgiveness.

There are any number of different ways of entering into our Lady's service. One is by beginning our day's activities with a prayer such as this-

Dear and most Blessed Lady, Mary.
As you brought Jesus to St Elizabeth when you visited her bring Him also to me,
As, by the Father's will, she was filled by the Holy Spirit at the sound of your voice may you send the Paraclete also to me.
That, strengthened by God and accompanied by you, I may bear my Cross in life, through death to the glorious resurrection in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Frequently through the day, whenever you have a few seconds to spare, you can renew your Marian commitment by quietly or silently offering up this aspiration-
O Mary, guide me to your Jesus.
And then we can rest reassured in the truth taught to us by St Bernard that never was it known that any one who fled to her protection, implored her help, and sought her intercession, was left unaided.

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The painting is Christ appearing to the Virgin by a follower of Rogier van der Weyden

Thursday 16 June 2016

The Gate & the Way

An Evangelical Christian preacher very often, if not always, preaches on the need for conversion. She will invite her hearers to accept Christ into their hearts and be born again. Catholics and other Christians are prone to finding this repetitive and tedious. They have, they think, already made that fundamental choice and are more interested in finding out the best way to translate it into their daily, hourly, lives. By contrast, Evangelicals often find Catholic preaching tepid and uninspiring. Moreover since it often focuses on outward behaviour it can lead an unconverted person to pursue an hypocritical life where they publicly conform with their bodies to Catholic usages but inwardly do not accept them and practice vices in private.

The late nineteenth century Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith reflected on a useful distinction which can be made here. There are Christians primarily concerned with foundation truths and those who mostly deal with superstructure truths-
"Foundation truths deal with the beginnings of things, superstructure truths deal with their development. The first show the entrance to the divine life, the last teach how to live and walk after we are in that life. Without the superstructure truths, the foundations remain bare and crude; without the foundation truths, the superstructure will be tottering and unsafe."
(The Unselfishness of God: Chapter 29)
Growing up she was exposed to much teaching about how she should live but not about why she should make such choices which were radically at odds with the world at large. When she encountered the Revivalist movement she, or at least her faith, went from being dead to being alive. This led her to direct her attention to the exhilarating task of making converts. But that was not the end of the story for her-
"As years have passed on and the foundations of our Christian life have been, as we believe, securely laid we have become more and more interested in the superstructure and now to some of us the old preaching which once we did not understand has become marrow and fatness to our souls. This is not so much because the preaching has changed as because we have changed."
(Quaker Writings: An Anthology)

The obvious thing to say at this point is that the Church needs balance and must find a way to combine both things. How it is to do this is a question above my pay grade to answer. To paraphrase Mr Spock, however, I will say that the needs of the many are often the same as the needs of the few or of the one. That is, each one of us who call ourselves Christian cannot afford to neglect either our own foundation or our superstructure. Specifically we cannot take our calling as an unexamined first assumption. We must continually revisit Christ, Christ Himself, and be born again in Him from out of the death of sin and forgetfulness which we constantly plunge ourselves into.

For Catholic and Orthodox Christians the sacrament of penance (confession) can play an important part in this process of renewal, unless it becomes a routine outward practice with no inward feeling attached to it. It could be said though that if we have many eggs the Lord has provided us with many baskets to put them into. That is, we have multiple ways open to us to return to our Divine source and seek refreshment. As we are each different then we may each find different methods more helpful to us. Prayer is one, daily examination of conscience is another, listening to charismatic preachers is a further option and so it goes on.

For my part I find nothing, outside of the sacraments, more powerful than the Gospel. When I approach it with a thirst for Jesus it always satisfies me. How you read the Gospel and why you read it will powerfully affect the impact it will have on you. When you pick it up longing with all your heart to encounter the Beloved then He will not hide Himself from you. In His divinity and in His humanity He is there, waiting for you, longing for you as you long for Him. Although I read from the Scriptures every day I do not always do so with the same attitude, few of us do. We must consciously call to mind the need to shore up our foundations and then open ourselves to what the Holy Spirit will do through the pages of that wonderful text to bring us to a rebirth in Christ.

Nor must we neglect our superstructures. The Church has produced many saints and their lives and examples can inspire us, teach us and guide us in our journey towards God. And we should recall that not all the saints are in heaven, some are among us still, some perhaps are our neighbours, our priests or teachers. Some, it maybe, do not yet embrace all the fullness of our faith but yet can still show us the effects of grace in the human heart. The Christian life is not only about doing but also about being. Sometimes the fastest way to travel is to stand still and the most deep reaching sound is silence. We can build up our faith lives and strengthen ourselves to help others by occasionally or frequently doing nothing but communing with our Father who is in heaven, His stillness to our stillness, His silence to our silence, His love to our love.

Although it is convenient to think about foundation and superstructure it is only an analogy. There are threads that weave their way through all of our aspects of life in Christ. There is, I think, no part or stage of the Christian life where we cannot offer up this heartfelt prayer which St Catherine of Siena has given to the Church-
"Lord, unmake me, and break the hardness of my heart, that I be not a tool which spoils Thy works"
May each one of us join ourselves to this petition and may the Good God in His mercy answer us.

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The painting is Pilger ins Heilige Land by Alois Niederstätter

Sunday 5 June 2016

Inner Light: Catholic & Quaker

But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days—oracle of the Lord. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. They will no longer teach their friends and relatives, “Know the Lord!” Everyone, from least to greatest, shall know me
Jeremiah 31:33-34

I...directed them to Christ, the true Teacher within
George Fox: Journal

The great insight of George Fox and the early Quakers (AKA the Religious Society of Friends) was that each human person has 'that of God' within them. Overlaid as it may be by passions and material desires there is nonetheless a Divine seed ever present. In silence and stillness we can uncover this presence within and it, or more properly He, can act as an Inner Light which can guide us into fulfilling all righteousness.

It is characteristic of those movements or ideas which the Church defines as being heretical that they are in possession of one or more elements of divinely revealed truth. The problem is that they over-emphasise those elements to such an extent that they overshadow other parts of the same revealed truth and, in due course, end by denying them altogether. This is the reason why Christianity has often been riven with disputes about seemingly trivial points. The defenders of orthodoxy, like St Athanasius, have had the wisdom to see the end concealed in the beginning and so excise the error from the body of Christ before it contaminates the whole.

In this context it is instructive to read the early apologists for Quakerism such as Robert Barclay and William Penn (who put the Penn in Pennsylvania.) They fiercely refuted criticisms that Friends denied the unique salvific power of Jesus or the importance of Scripture or the doctrine of the Trinity and so on. It was certainly true that Quakers of that era denied none of those things. It is also true that by the time we reach the 21st century most Friends had discarded these doctrines as inessential if true and possibly not even true. The point being that if the Inner Light is a true guide no other guide is needed.

However, I come to praise Quakerism not to bury it, or not entirely bury it anyway. The primitive insight is true enough, we do have an inner citadel of our hearts in which God resides and in stillness and silence we can find our way to Him. I think it will be useful to look at George Fox himself and ask why it is that he accepted as a given so many orthodox Christian propositions which his spiritual progeny have now effectively abandoned.

From a young age Fox was possessed with a divine discontent, he perceived that not only were the times out of joint (he lived during the period of the English Civil War) but that he too was out of joint with himself. Like a latter day Socrates he wandered around questioning people about their beliefs and seeking to find from them answers to his own inner restlessness. More than that he devoted himself to reading the Bible assiduously, he became so saturated with scripture that he practically memorised the entire text. And, not least of all, many hours were devoted by him to prayer with inexpressible groanings (Romans 8:26) It was not until he had done these things for some considerable time that he first had his 'openings from God' as he termed them. We can see from this that uncovering the Inner Light lies at the end, not the beginning of a process. Many of his successors, perhaps particularly those born into Quaker families, seek the Light without serving the apprenticeship and not surprisingly find a different sort of light altogether from that of George Fox.

It is plausible, I think, to contend that the spiritual journey which Fox undertook in and of itself refutes the conclusions which he came to. Either all his mental anguish, questionings, study and prayer were a waste of time and he would have achieved the same end by staying quietly at home or else they formed, in whole or in part, a necessary pre-condition to him receiving the 'openings' and having the tools to interpret them. In which case the Inner Light on its own is insufficient as a guide. The philosopher Wittgenstein famously said that if a lion spoke we could not understand him, we would both have such wholly different reference points. To some extent this must apply when God speaks to us. Jesus Himself during His earthly mission was frequently radically misunderstood when He spoke. Not only His enemies but even those who loved Him most and knew Him best did not grasp His meaning all the time. Why should we suppose that we will be better at understanding 'Christ, the true teacher within' than the Apostles were at understanding the actual Christ in the flesh?

Another expert on the Inner Light, the great Catholic mystic St John of the Cross, took a different approach. Referring to words spoken in the soul (locutions) he said- 'sometimes it is hardly possible to know what words are spoken by a good spirit, and what by an evil spirit.' And he went on to add ' let it be carefully noted that a soul should never act according to its own opinion or accept anything of what these locutions express, without much reflection and without taking advice of another. For strange and subtle deceptions may arise in this matter; so much so that I myself believe that the soul that does not set itself against accepting such things cannot fail to be deceived by many of them.' (Ascent of Mount Carmel Chapter XXX)

It might be said that the original sin of Protestantism is hyper-individualism and the early Quakers were the product of a very Protestant society. This meant that, logically enough, they applied the principle that each ploughboy was his own Pope, when it came to interpreting scripture, to the Inner Light as well. Since the Light was immediate and personal it was felt to be superior to scripture at least in the sense that the Bible was interrogated by the Light not the Light by the Bible. Which puts each individual in the driving seat as the final authority on all spiritual matters provided they can assert that the Divine seed provides them with a warrant for their actions. Had the movement arisen, like the Franciscans, as a prophetic revival in a Catholic country then it would have been able to assert the same original insight, there is 'that of God' in each of us, but would have accepted that the tools to fully understand what it is saying to us may not wholly rest within ourselves. The shared wisdom of our brothers and sisters in Christ may be better at interpreting what we have heard within ourselves than we are. And that, after all, might be one reason why God made Church in the first place.

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The picture is George Fox preaching in a tavern from Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Repent! Of What?

In contemporary English the command 'Repent' is generally considered to have 'of your sins' as its object. This, however, is not necessarily so. That is, while the correct response when considering your sins is always repentance it does not follow that the correct response when thinking about repentance is an exclusive focus on sin. The two things are not invariably linked in Christian Scripture. St Mark reports the beginning of the mission of Jesus in this way-
After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
(Mark 1:13-14)

The final clause might be interpreted as two separate commands-
1)Repent of your sins and also 2)believe in the gospel.
But it seems to me to be more likely that it is a single command-
Repent and therefore believe in the gospel.
If we consider that the word 'repent' has an existence apart from the word 'sin' then we need to know what it means. The Greek original of which it is a translation is metanoia which literally means change ones mind. Since, however, the ancient Greeks meant something much more by the concept of Mind than modern English speakers do the literal translation does not help us much. I think that we would have a clearer grasp of the command if we took it to mean something like 'completely reorient yourself and your direction of travel.'

The answer to the question 'repent of what?' then becomes 'of everything.' This is why our Lord would think that one who repents would therefore believe in the gospel because if we orient the focus of our being and activity away from the material realm of the senses then it can only be towards the spiritual realm which He names the kingdom of God. Of course the demand to repent of everything is the most radical of all possible demands and prompts the supplementary question why? It is easy enough to assess what we would lose from such a change of direction but it is less clear what it is that we would gain. Indeed the why question is one of the underlying assumptions of the Atheist Bus Campaign slogan "There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The assumption here being that enjoying life is the thing we would lose and worrying is the thing which we would gain if we respond to Jesus' invitation.

There is actually some truth in this if we accept the idea that the object of repentance is always 'of your sins' because then we would spend all our time worrying about how good or bad we are at adapting our external behaviour to a more or less rigid set of rules many of which seem arbitrary to ourselves and even more so to our neighbours. However if we go with the idea that it means a reorientation of everything then it knocks two of the slogans ideas on the head. Firstly, a life directed primarily to the things of the spirit enables us to affirm that actually, yes, there is a God. Secondly, we discover that worry is far less of a factor in the spirit filled life than it is in the materialist one and that if its characteristic isn't enjoyment that is only because its characteristic is joy. What I am doing here of course is making an assertion. The only way to find out if it is a true assertion is to try it for yourself. Repent and be made anew.

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The painting is Cristoforo by De Predis