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.