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.

Like the Catholic Scot blog page on Facebook

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.

Like the Catholic Scot page on Facebook

my other blog is thoughtfully detached

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.

Like the Catholic Scot page on Facebook

My other blog is thoughtfully detached

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