Saturday 8 July 2017

A Time To Every Purpose....

Catholic Scot has achieved a landmark of sorts. After years of (more or less) patient effort and 210 individual posts the site has now received 100 000 unique visits. Which seems as good a time as any to being the project to an end. This, then, is the last ever Catholic Scot blog. I am neither an original thinker nor an especially good writer and there are others who are far better able than I am to explain and defend the Christian faith of the Catholic Church. I happily leave the task in their competent hands.

It has been my hope to do no harm with this blog and to do nothing to increase the amount of hate in the world. To the extent that I have most certainly failed I am more sorry than words can say. I also have some small hopes that I may have done a little good. If that is so, and it might not be, then I express my gratitude to the Holy Spirit the source of any and all the good which I might do in this life. I am enormously grateful also to the small band of readers who have followed and encouraged me here and on social media through all my vicissitudes of style and subject.

I entrust them and all my readers, friend and foe alike, especially you who are reading this now, to the guidance and protection of the Theotokos, Mary Queen of Heaven, Star of the Sea, Strength of the Weak. May she infuse her gentleness into every aspect of your life and bring you to the haven of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The peace of the Lord be with you.


Thursday 6 July 2017

A Restlessness Which Leads to Peace

You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You
(St Augustine, Confessions I)

The 20th Century Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck said 'the point isn't the search, but rather the distress and unease which motivate the search.' This is a fairly sound observation. We are, each of us, individual subjects who seek in external objects the means to bring us that state of happiness which is necessarily an internal experience.

It is as if we were responding to a feeling of hunger by going dancing or shopping for new shoes. These can be such effective distractions that we forget our hunger. Nonetheless however busy we keep ourselves or however much we immerse ourselves in company there will always be times when we are alone and undistracted. It is then that we once again become aware of the gnawing emptiness at the centre of our being.

If the best response to hunger is eating then what is the best response to that distress and unease which proceeds more from the mere fact of being alive than from any one specific cause? My supposition here is that from the moment we first become conscious of ourselves as individuals until we draw our final breath we are always more or less uncomfortable about something. Since, during the course of a normal lifespan, every one of these particular somethings will change thousands of times the source of the discomfort does not rest in them as such but in our responses to them.

As I understand it (and I may be wrong) Zen argues that the problem lies in the human use of imagination. We do not experience reality as it exists in itself but only things which have been through a process of distortion by our thoughts before they present themselves to the observing part of our mind. That is, when looking at a thing or persons our ego, to put it crudely, asks and answers the question 'what's in it for me?' And then presents the image plus conclusion to the observing mind. Much of this processing happens below the level of consciousness and is practically instantaneous so that we are not aware of it, only of its results.

Additionally at any given moment we will, at some level, be thinking about the past or the future. Neither of these things have any real existence. Only the present moment exists. What, therefore, we hold in our minds is something which is both unreal and subject to ego centred imaginative distortions. The distress and unease which leads to a search for something to bring peace is a product of the radical strain we experience through inhabiting a reality which we never accurately recognise or appropriately respond to.

Much of this is good psychology and can be adapted fairly easily to Catholic belief. However Zen (again with the 'as I understand it' limitation) goes on to conclusions incompatible with Christian belief. Letting go of all our illusory thoughts, feelings and beliefs and being present fully and only in the moment we become aware that emptiness is the nature of being and that's all right. Our Self has no objective existence but is just something that comes into being and passes away with the moment, like the moment. The observing mind is simply the underlying Buddha nature of the moment and all it contains and of every moment. Realising our Buddha nature is to become one with all that really is and so our distress and unease, the products of imagination, melt away. Since we are oned with All we feel compassion for All and this compassion will be manifest in all the acts which we perform within the moment in which we happen to be.

While this Zen vision is not as nihilistic as some Christians claim it certainly lacks the Divine spark. If we are fully present in this precise moment then part of the reality we must encounter will be God. Not an abstract deity which is just another label for 'Buddha nature' but the personal God who loves me, who became Incarnate for me and suffered death for me on the Cross. This 'now' we are living in is not just something we observe it is also someone towards whom we are always relating, a relationship of love.

It is true that He is not the God of our imagining, the God we rebel against, the God whose existence we deny, the tyrant God. He is as He is and to know Him as He is we must let go our illusory thoughts about Him. It is true also that He may choose to be present to us in the form of absence; but this is a function of our relationship, it is the form He knows to be best suited to me at this time to help me understand Him better and love Him more. But He will appear to us under more than one form, as the sacrament of the altar, as the action of grace in our hearts, as 'something understood.' He is always with us.

If we are fully present in the God breathed 'now' and in all the 'nows' of eternity then this Love will grow as a reflection of His. And as His was a self-giving, sacrificial love for all that He had created, more than a passive compassion, then so must ours be. The restlessness that drives us to find rest in Him gives birth to the love that seeks to bring peace to all whom we encounter.

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The Charlotte Joko Beck quotation is from a talk called The Search in her book Everyday Zen

The picture is a detail from The Conversion of St Augustine by Fra Angelico 

Sunday 2 July 2017

What Does 'Deny Yourself' Mean?

Jesus also said to all the people-
"If you wish to be a follower of mine deny yourself and take up your cross each day and follow me"
(Luke 9:23)

To clarify this saying of our Lord the following questions may be helpful-

  • Who is the 'You' that must deny their own self?
  • What is the 'Self' that must be denied?
  • Is the 'You' that takes up the cross daily the same as or different from the first 'You'?

The third question might seem odd unless we consider the very next words of Jesus-
"For if you choose to save your life you will lose it, and if you lose your life for my sake you will save it."
(Luke 9:24)
So, the 'You' that carries the cross must be one who has, in a mystical sense, died and been reborn and thus might or might not be identical with the first 'You.'

It was, I think, Plato who used the analogy of the block of marble and the sculptor. An ordinary observer only sees a lump of stone. The sculptor, however, sees a perfect image surrounded by rubble. This parable may help us to answer our first two questions.

The initial 'You' is the person who still retains the stamp of their Creator's mark upon them (and all that He made was very good indeed.) The 'Self' is the rubble which that 'You' has collected during the course of its life. To mix my metaphors then, the 'You' becomes a kind of magnet whenever it acts contrary to the Divine image at its heart. As such it attracts all kinds of rubbish and detritus which affixes itself so closely that it becomes, as it were, a second skin totally covering the original shape of the 'You.'

Only the sculptor, the Holy Spirit, can now see the perfect image of the 'You' as it might become when liberated from the rubble of the 'Self.' By a gift of grace He can enable this trapped 'You' to partially glimpse its own true potential. Then together, Spirit and new awakened 'You,' can cooperate in the task of shedding this accumulated rubble of habits, attitudes, ideas and sensual desires which cling so closely to the fallen 'You.'

This process is akin to being flayed alive, so closely united has the second skin become to the first that it is not easy to know where one ends and the other begins. So, the experience of being sculpted by the power and mercy of God is an inevitably painful one. It may be helpful to know that the 'You' is not trying to gain something new and difficult to obtain. On the contrary it is trying to lose something which should never ever have been there. That is, the 'You' is simply realising what it would always have been had it not yielded to desires which proceeded in the first instance from the sensual part of the soul.

This brings us to the third question. The second 'You' is the you that a person would always have been had they not fallen. Thus it both is and is not the same as the first 'You.' Only by the grace of God, the Blood of Christ, the sacraments of the Church and a firm act of will on the part of a converted person can such a recovery be effected.

As I myself make this journey of rediscovery and realisation I offer the prayer "Lord Jesus Christ, incline my heart to follow Your will." (cf Psalm 119:36)

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The painting is San Francesco by Benozzo Gozzoli

Thursday 15 June 2017

Near Pavilions

Thou shalt hide them in the secret of thy presence from the pride of man: 
Thou shalt keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues.
(Psalm 31:20)

If we get into a ferry boat in order to row from one side of a river to the other our oars will spend some time in the water and some time in the air. Keeping them constantly buried in the water may cause us to thrash about quite spectacularly but it will get us no closer to the far bank. We shall, instead, go wherever the current wishes to take us. Waving them about continuously in the air might cause them to glint and shine in the sunlight giving any spectators a rare pleasure in the sight, Once again, though, it is the current and not ourselves which will decide our final destination.

In order to reach the good earth of the farther shore, then, it is necessary for us to combine the two elements of air and water. This is by way of an allegory for humans who are composed of both flesh and spirit. If we give ourselves over entirely to the demands of the flesh alone then we shall sink below the level of being fully human. If we aim at being pure spirit we might be more than or less than fully human. But we are not created to be more or less human, we are to be simply human and thus fully human.

Objectively the spirit is superior to the flesh but, for us, the two are firmly united. Therefore while our flesh must be under the control and direction of the spirit it must also be given what is due to it. If God had intended us to be wholly and entirely spirit then that is how He would have created us. In our journey to the further shore we must unite water and air, flesh and spirit in the service of a purposive will which aims at defying the current of the world in order to fulfil God's purpose for us.

In practical terms this means that for every period of time necessity causes us to be immersed in the things of the world we must find a balancing time when we are exposed to the healing light from above. This does not need to be an equal amount of time in chronological terms, since the world and the Divine wield powers of different force over us, but it does need to be a deliberate and daily repeated act of our will where whether we feel 'spiritual' or not we allow ourselves to seek for and rest in the secret pavilion which God has set up in our heart.

There is no magical one-size-fits-all formula which will guarantee happiness and serenity to all who use it. Not only are we all different from each other we are even different from ourselves, varying widely over the course of just a single day as to what does or does not speak meaningfully to us. In general then it is sensible to lean heavily on the wisdom of those who have made the ferry-crossing before us and have left behind the boat and the oars most suited to our purpose. That is, the Church offers to us multiple ways of reaching the pavilion and we should use the ones which our experience shows will most help us. Daily attendance at Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, attentive and meditative reading of Sacred Scripture are only some of the tools which we can use to help us cross to the other side. And if we do not use them we will be taken instead to where we do not want to go.

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The picture is Jesus Calming the Storm from Gospel Book of Otto III

Saturday 3 June 2017

The Silence of Pentecost

 And I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete, that he may abide with you for ever. The spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, nor knoweth him: but you shall know him; because he shall abide with you, and shall be in you
(John 14:16-17)

St Luke in his dramatic account of the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41) focuses, naturally enough, on those whom the Spirit had called to active life. The disciples who spoke in strange languages, St Peter fulfilling his Apostolic function as preacher. We can be sure though that amongst those gathered in the Cenacle there were some followers of Jesus, like Our Lady, Mary of Bethany and St John, who were contemplatives. For those whose mission that day was to talk the Spirit appeared as a tongue of flame. Perhaps for the contemplatives it was more akin to an arrow point which was to descend and transpierce their hearts with the fire of divine love.

We each have a unique relationship with the Father through the Son, and the Holy Spirit guides us into that on the path which He knows to be best for us. We can, perhaps, infer from the Gospel how it was that He guided those saints whom He called primarily to the inward, silent life on the day that the Church, with all her vocations, was born.

In the first book of his two volume history of the primitive church St Luke tells us how the Blessed Virgin responded to the things of God "Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart" (Luke 2:19) and "Mary said: My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour." (Luke 1:46-47) Which is to say that the Theotokos held all these things before the eyes of her heart and this led her to pour out to the Almighty her grateful thanks and abiding joy. Her lips sang sometimes but her grace-filled spirit sang all the time. Perhaps on this historic Pentecost it was for her Son above all that she was grateful as the Spirit led her ever deeper into knowledge and understanding of Divine things. Mindful also of the commandment to love her neighbour as herself she no doubt too reflected with thanks on the new children which Christ had given her from the Cross. All who could be called a beloved disciple of Jesus were also now beloved children of Mary.

Tradition has identified Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany though some now dispute this (primarily for political reasons.) However that might be, of her Luke says "a certain woman named Martha, received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sitting also at the Lord's feet, heard his word. But Martha was busy about much serving" (Luke 10:38-42) If Mary sould sit still and give her undivided attention to the Son in the midst of all the bustle created by her sister and the Apostles it would not surprise us to learn that she did precisely the same thing when it was the Spirit that called for her entire focus. An upper room filled with busy Martha's would not distract her from the one thing that mattered.

About this same Mary the Evangelist St John wrote "Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of right spikenard, of great price, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment." (John 12:3) This was an act of much self abasement and a devotion of things of great value and beauty to God. Many of those seeing it, especially the traitor Judas, decried it as needlessly extravagant but the Lord praised it highly. It was impractical and unworldly and on Pentecost day when we recall the eminently practical business of preaching in all the tongues of the world and converting souls to the Church we should remember too the witness borne by the Magdalene. Through silence, humility and the creation of beautiful things in the service of worship the Holy Spirit works just as effectively and powerfully as He does in all the other charisms which He gives to the faithful.

Not many days before the Holy Spirit descended, by the Lake of Tiberias, St John was the first of the Apostles to recognise the Risen Messiah "That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved, said to Peter: It is the Lord" (John 21:7) The quick eyed love born of contemplation gave the young Evangelist a power of discernment greater than that of his companions. On this same occasion St Peter had been confirmed as chief of the Apostles and shepherd of the Church which is why, within a few weeks, it was he who preached to the people at Pentecost. We see here, again, that different people are led in different ways by the Spirit, some to be active leaders and teachers, others to be devoted to quiet love and contemplation. Peter laboured to give us the Church, John allowed the Spirit to flow through him and gave us the most sublime of the four Gospel accounts which we now have.

It is sometimes asked what useful purpose the Catholic contemplative orders serve. I like to think that on that birth day of the Church the efforts of the missionaries on the streets of Jerusalem were strengthened by the prayers of the contemplatives in the Cenacle joined to the power of the Spirit. Furthermore, whenever from time to time the active disciples and the new converts ascended to the Upper Room the sight of the contemplatives absorbed in silent prayer both inspired them more and filled them with a sense of the peace of Christ which passes all understanding. And as she began so has the Church ever continued down to this day with the devoted lives of those called to bear silent witness to the faith through an enclosed vocation serving the spiritual life and health of Christians in a hidden but powerful way.

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The picture is from a 15th Century Belgian Book of Hours in the Morgan Library

Thursday 1 June 2017

Alienated From God

Not where the wheeling systems darken, 
And our benumbed conceiving soars! - 
The drift of pinions, would we hearken, 
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors. 

The angels keep their ancient places- 
Turn but a stone and start a wing! 
'Tis ye, 'tis your estrangèd faces, 
That miss the many-splendored thing.
(Francis Thompson)

The ideas conveyed by this poem, 'In No Strange Land', are fairly simple and straightforward; that God and His kingdom are all around us and that it is our self-induced blindness not His absence that cause us not to see Him. In commenting about it, then, it is easy to fall into banal commonplace remarks. This though would be to do a great misjustice to the poet who was intent not so much to convey ideas as to share with us his deep anguish and suffering.

The reality which he and we experience is that of estrangement. One senses that he is speaking to us with his body all bruised and battered from repeated assaults against the prison door seeking by the strength within him to tear it open. He does not experience despair but he does know the taste of bitter failure. It is no consolation to him to know that it is he himself that shut, barred and bolted the door. Before it opens he expects to experience more anguish, more distress, more suffering yet.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder) 
Cry- and upon thy so sore loss 
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder 
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Only when he is at his most extreme end of pain, so sad that he cannot be sadder, does he believe that his eyes will be opened, the door will be unlocked, the light will infuse his being.

Again, there is a temptation to say certain things which are theological truths but which in this context appear trite. Yes, he requires to be fully converted, to repent, to do penance. And yes, even then it is by God's grace not by His own labours that he can hope to see the face of God in Jesus Christ. But we do not know the state of his conscience, like Job's comforters we may be sharing platitudes which miss the mark.

It may be that it is his vocation to throw himself passionately against a locked door and bruise himself. This, not as a punishment nor in order to gain a reward but just because that is God's purpose for him. If he sat in stillness and quiet awaiting the Spirit to descend he might be defying God's will. And others if they did not so sit but imitated the poet would in their turn be defying the Father's will since He does not have the same purpose for each of us.

King David was inspired by God to build a Temple for Him in Jerusalem. But having implanted the desire in David the Father then forbad him to execute it. It sometimes happens that we are moved to attempt the impossible and then fail. God is love itself, and God is justice itself but we are too limited to understand what these things in their fullness really are. If He seems unloving and unjust to us and we go on doing His will anyway because it is our greatest desire to serve Him then perhaps we can understand this poem a little better. And pray for the soul of poor anguished Francis Thompson.

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The painting is Pandemonium by John Martin 

Wednesday 31 May 2017

Why Are We So Foolish?

 Why do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which doth not satisfy you?
(Isaiah 55:2)

During the course of our lives the one object which puzzles us more often than anything else we encounter is likely to be our own self. Why we do the things which we do is often opaque to our reasoning, logical consciousness. We continually pursue things, people or experiences which have repeatedly proven themselves unable to give us satisfaction in the apparent belief that this time it will be different. What's that all about?

It is conventional for religions (and not just Christianity) to depict the normal life of wordlings, a wonderfully expressive word, as being a continual nightmare of sorrow and pain. This, of course, is not the full story. It is no doubt true that at a deep place within ourselves alienation from God produces great distress but most of us live on more shallow levels than that. Occasional intimations from out of the depths may alert us that all is not right but more immediately our direct experiences of anguish and grief alternate with those of delight and pleasure.

It is through our senses that we encounter the world and our sensory experiences have a power and immediacy that can overwhelm and subdue all the other facets of our personality. We know that if we give way to this or that sensual urge then within a measurably short period of time we shall experience a surge of pleasure which is not obtainable in any other way. Although Memory and Reason inform us that the medium to long term consequences of not resisting such urges will be bad; and although Mind tells us that we are, as humans, more than merely the sum total of our sensual experiences we nonetheless give way to them because the present moment and its pleasures is certain in a way that nothing else is.

The Church, which has a role to play in directing people towards higher things, can be tempted to counter morally bad sensations with good ones. Dancing around waving your hands and shouting Alleluia to the backing of of pounding rock track while under the impression (possibly correct) that the Holy Spirit is at work in you is preferable to the more purely carnal alternatives. Nonetheless useful as such exercises may be the primary function of Christianity is not to offer a good apple in order to replace a bad apple.

 While what the Church does offer, Jesus, is certainly our daily bread He is also, as the old translation puts it, our supersubstantial bread too. If our sensory experiences are the base upon which we build ourselves as individual humans the spiritual realm is the source and summit of our lives. Against the visible and the immediate the Church points us towards the hidden and the eternal. In yielding too much too frequently to our senses we drown out what is not only deeper and higher within ourselves but that which is the best of ourselves.

To purchase this bread and labour for this satisfaction we must pursue the path of self-denial and self discipline. Our Lord put it like this "So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the earth, and should sleep, and rise, night and day, and the seed should spring, and grow up whilst he knoweth not.  For the earth of itself bringeth forth fruit, first the blade, then the ear, afterwards the full corn in the ear" (Mark 4:26-28) That is, the Spirit will work within us, the corn will become bread, if we do not keep disturbing the earth. We allow God's grace to do its work when we stop avidly seeking sensation and start patiently, faithfully and lovingly giving Him our full attention out of the stillness of silence.

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The picture is Wise and Foolish Virgins by William Blake

Sunday 28 May 2017

The Gravity of Ascension

We believe we are rising because while keeping the same base inclinations (for instance: the desire to triumph over others) we have given them a noble object.
We should, on the contrary, rise by attaching noble inclinations to lowly objects.
(Simone Weil)

The time between the Ascension of the Lord and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost affords Christians the opportunity to reflect upon the necessity for grace. Without the Spirit we cannot ourselves ascend after Jesus. There is a gravity which draws us downwards to the things of the earth. Only God's grace within us can overcome this powerful earthbound force.

The absence of active grace opens up a void inside a person. Our Lady and the Apostles recognising this emptiness responded by prayer, vigil and a patient waiting for God to act upon them in a time and manner of His choosing. That which is best for us is that which He desires to give us.

For most of people, though, a vacuum is an abhorrent thing and we rush to fill it up with something, anything. The philosopher Simone Weil argued that the tool which we use most frequently for this purpose is imagination. In place of the true God, who has chosen to make absence His way of being present to us, we invent another god, or many gods to fill up that empty space.

One of the techniques which we use is to pretend that our wrongful desires, such as the longing to gossip maliciously about friends, family and colleagues, serve a good purpose. We are, after all, decrying their vices in order to implicitly praise the opposite virtues. Likewise if we respond to the angry and suspicious by being aggressively self-assertive in return it is because we are in the right and they are in the wrong.

This is transparently self-deceptive and we rarely convince even ourselves. Moreover when such behaviour becomes habitual not only do we not rise but the gravity of what we do drags us down until we are wholly of the earth earthy. Frequently repeated actions change who we are and how we think. And when those actions are founded upon self-serving fictions and our basest inclinations then they not only lead us to hell they become themselves, for us, a present hell of perpetual anger, maliciousness and distrust.

If we have families, jobs or studies to occupy us it is unlikely that we can set aside as much time for prayer and vigil as Our Lady and the Apostles did. While doing as much of this as we can we can use the rest of the time "attaching noble inclinations to lowly objects." Here the philosopher echoes St Therese of Lisieux who wrote "I applied myself above all to practice quite hidden little acts of virtue; thus I liked to fold the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and sought a thousand opportunities of rendering them service." We rise then by doing the littlest of things for the sake of love and only for love. This is not an act of the imagination, we recognise these things for what they are, it is an act of the will which we make to overcome gravity while waiting for transforming grace.

Even the desire to do good is itself an action of the Spirit within us. Yet as He is infinite His presence can take an infinity of forms and grace be be present as a passive or hidden force in our hearts. It resembles the story of Jesus asleep on the boat (Mark 4:35-41) The ship cannot sink so long as He is aboard but it can be severely tried by the fury of the storm. In His own good time (perhaps sped up by prayer) He awakes and by His active power brings peace and "a great calm." So too with us, we cannot ascend to the spiritual heights without His active grace but by cooperating with His hidden grace through 'lowly objects' we can bring ourselves to Pentecost.

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Saturday 27 May 2017

Mary & the Poets: 5 The Air We Breathe

Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
       Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
        God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so
(The Blessed Virgin Mary compared to the Air we Breathe)

This is a long poem by Gerard Hopkins which I can only briefly touch on here. I highly recommend that people read it in full when they get a chance.

Our Lady has one task, the unique privilege of being the channel through which the Glory of God, the Word of God, enters the world as flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone while yet remaining wholly Divine. This is not a vocation that began at the Annunciation and ended at Christmas. Mary and Jesus were intimately united throughout their lives on earth and death cannot defeat such a union. God does not change His ways, if He came to us through Mary once then He comes to us through her always.

She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
      Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.

The Blessed Virgin is mediatrix of all grace. Through her hands flow the gifts of love, forgiveness and mercy which the good God pours out upon the world. One cannot add to His gifts so she herself is part of that gift. She comes to us with God's grace. She enters our lives with her gentleness, her smile, her maternal solicitude. With her presence the gift is fully complete and we enter into the life of Christ with her by our side.

A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
   What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
       Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

If we saw God as He is we would be terrified by His power, by His glory, as the children of Israel were at Mount Sinai when Moses ascended to receive the Decalogue. So He comes to us as a child with a mother, as the Crucified One comforting the stricken Mary. Where He is she is. And when we see Him through her eyes, in her presence, it is the human Christ we see. We learn to love Him as she loves Him and this perfect love casts out fear.

World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
       Fold home, fast fold thy child.

Holding fast to Mary we can be raised by her to her Divine Son. Mary is our mother as she is His mother. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as can become like children. Mary was protectress, teacher, wise counsellor to Our Lord in His childhood if we make ourselves children for the sake of the kingdom then she will be our Protectress, Teacher and Wise Counsellor too.

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The painting is The Virgin of the Navigators by Alejo Fernandez 

Monday 22 May 2017

Doing Good Because It Is Good?

Was it not thy duty to have mercy on thy fellow servant, as I had mercy on thee?
(Matthew 18:33)

It is sometimes argued that we should do good simply because it is good and not out of any desire for reward or fear of punishment. And, it is frequently added, the most powerful force preventing people from doing good is often religion. Although the argument is superficially plausible it contains multiple flaws.

One of these is the assumption that 'Good' is a category which is immediately obvious to all and that everyone shares the same understanding of it. That being so, where Good is 'common sense' or a thing that 'stands to reason' or an inherent 'natural' quality, then only an irrational counter-balance, like religion, can lead people astray. But it is not so. I propose to look at three concepts, Forgiveness, Mercy, and Duty, to make the point more clearly.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt, who was no Christian, wrote "The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth" This does not mean that the concept had no prior existence what it suggests is that Jesus injected it into the everyday practice of ordinary people in a way which had not previously occurred. Rather like rock and roll existed before Elvis but until he released the single Blue Suede Shoes it did not enter the American mainstream.

Forgiveness is not a 'natural' reaction. Retaliation is the impulsive response to injury. While a case in Reason can be made to justify forgiveness one at least equally strong can be made to justify its opposite. So, a decision has to be made as to which of these is Good and it is by no means obvious to 'common sense.' Arendt put it like this "The freedom contained in Jesus’ teaching of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end." This is a fairly subtle point, albeit a significant one, and would not have entered into the current of daily life in the West had it not had a powerful agent promoting it. By which I mean, specifically, the Catholic Church.

The case may become clearer if we consider Mercy. Unlike forgiveness which anyone can practice Mercy is a quality which only the powerful can exercise. It means restraining that power when one could use it, not because such restraint benefits the strong one but because it benefits the weak one. Again, this is not something obvious to 'common sense' In ancient thought, summarised by Thucydides in the Melian Dialogue, it was held that the strong ruled because they could and the weak obeyed because they must.

Christianity introduced the idea that even the very powerful are themselves recipients of Mercy from God and if they desire to continue to receive that Mercy then they must themselves be merciful. Once more, the concept of mercifulness existed apart from the Church. The Stoic Seneca, who was to the Emperor Nero much like Steve Bannon is to President Trump, wrote an essay on Clemency. But the suggestion was not that Nero was under a binding obligation to be merciful simply that it befitted him as an adornment to his rule, nor was the principle capable of infinite extension to everyone with the least little power over another human being.

The Christian notion that we should give mercy and forgiveness because we receive it does not come from the realm of 'common sense' or 'nature.' There is no 'because' to be logically derived from a set of relationships where A receives mercy from B and then mercilessly denies a request for mercy from C. Why should A be merciful to C, from whom he has received nothing, just because B has given him something? Well, because he has a Duty to be merciful. But this Duty does not emerge from the realm of pure thought alone, it comes from the spiritual realm, that is, it is a religious Duty.

For more than a thousand years almost everyone in the West frequently repeated the words "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." More than that from early childhood they were catechised into owning these words, into making them a reality in their daily lives. They became and have remained part of the furniture of the Western mind and Western sentiment. If they now appear to Westerners as 'common sense' it is not nature which has effected this level of understanding, it is the Christian Church, it is Jesus Christ.

At its highest possible expression Absolute Good is not a series of propositions we can deduce from our immanent surroundings. It is a transcendent reality which we encounter. God is Absolute Goodness and if we have a duty to do Good apart from considerations of reward and punishment it is because God is Good not because we are.

On my *other* blog I have looked at this from another angle in- Are Atheists More Moral than Christians?

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The painting is The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant by Barent Fabritius.

Thursday 18 May 2017

Virgin Most Serene

Have recourse to her in thy temptations,
And the serenity of her countenance will strengthen thee
(Psalter of the BVM II)

Catholics often explain their devotion to Our Lady by saying that it is easier to gaze upon the moon than it is to look directly at the sun. That is to say that we know that the source of light and strength, love and wisdom is God and that He has, through Jesus, made it easy for us to approach Him. Nonetheless when we think how hideous and ugly we have made ourselves by our self-willed wickedness and repeated failures to act as we know we should our heart fails us. Reason and the teachings of the Church make it clear that we can turn to Our Lord but the heart has its own logic and will not be convinced by mere words and thoughts.

Knowing this weakness of ours and longing for us to turn to Him the Good God has given us Mary to be our companion, guide and teacher on the path towards Him. As the moon receives all its light from the sun so to the Mother is a perfect mirror of the virtues of her Son. The moon  has its own features and characteristics, likewise Mary unites her own maternal solicitude to the light of the Spirit which illuminates her from within. Her purpose is to bring us to Jesus and our purpose in turning to her is to be covered by her mantle so that we may appear before Him without shame.

St Bonaventure (to whom the Psalter of the BVM is attributed) wisely advises us to draw strength from the serene countenance of the Blessed Virgin when assailed by the storms of temptation. How can we do this? One option is to take his advice literally. Never be far from an image of Mary, a picture, an icon, a statue, and when the need arises stop what we are doing and simply look at her. Focus our attention on the Virgin in her serenity until the storm subsides and we can resume our normal business.

We can also through our prayers meditate on her countenance as reflected in her life. The mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary or those of the Seven Sorrows, her attributes mentioned in the Litany of Loreto and the accounts of her in the Gospel are things we can spend time with. Immersing ourselves in these will weaken the hold of satan upon us and help to drive temptation far away.

Most profoundly we can, in the depths of our hearts, wordlessly and silently simply contemplate the one who can say of herself "I am the Immaculate Conception." Looking at the night sky on a clear, still night can fill us with a wonderful sense of the infinity of the universe. Similarly gazing with the eyes of the heart upon the Immaculata can open up to our sight the wonders of the Blessed Trinity to whom no one is closer than Mary, daughter of the Father, spouse of the Spirit, mother of the Son. In the battle against darkness Our Lady of Light, the Most Serene Virgin Mary, is a powerful ally and source of strength.

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The painting is The Immaculate Conception by Carlo Crivelli 

Tuesday 16 May 2017

Finding Peace

I am become in His presence as one finding peace.
(Song of Songs 8:10)

Medieval Catholic mystics loved what was then known as the Canticle of Canticles because it has so many layers of meaning. It can be read as the relationship between the soul seeking union with God and the Beloved object of that search. There is a transcendent dimension to this quest, a longing to  'dwell in this translucent darkness and, through not seeing and not knowing, to see Him who is beyond both vision and knowledge' as the writer called Dionysius the Areopagite put it. This indeed would be the very summit of peace, to be in the presence of the Blessed Trinity; adoring and loving.

Yet such a high aspiration seems very distant and enormously difficult to all but a handful of ordinary, simple Christians. Reflecting on this Pope Benedict XVI said 'in the end, the path to God is God himself, who makes himself close to us in Jesus Christ.' That is, to find peace in His presence it is only necessary to find Jesus. Or, to put it another way ' none knows the Father truly except the Son, and those to whom it is the Son’s good pleasure to reveal him.' (Matthew 11:27)

One of the effects of the Incarnation, of Jesus being both fully human and fully divine, is that heaven has been brought down to earth so that we who are earthy can be raised to heaven. When we become clothed with Christ we can enter into the presence of His Father and ours and so find the One who is Peace, Peace Himself. The mystical union ceases then to be the business of merely a few ascetics or philosophers and becomes the achievable object of all the baptised.

To find Jesus, though, doesn't mean simply to know His name or to profess faith in Him with our lips, though both these things are necessary. It is to enter into a loving relationship with Him in each of the places where we encounter Him. In the sacrament of the altar, in the liturgy, in the Gospels, in our prayers, in the depths of our own hearts. This continual exchange of love is both the path to divine union and the achievement of that union. We are in His presence always but it is only when we realise that presence through an outflowing and inflowing of love that we can say that we are also at peace now and forever.

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The painting is Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Rembrandt van Rijn.

Monday 15 May 2017

Wicked Thoughts

Jesus read their minds, and said- 
Why do you cherish wicked thoughts in your hearts?
(Matthew 9:4)

Although Our Lord had a specific audience when He asked this question it is as apposite for us now as it was for them then. There is no record of them attempting an answer but I think it is possible for us to do so. The key words to think about, it seems to me, are 'cherish' and 'hearts'

The thoughts which we hold in the fully conscious part of our minds are open to be comprehensively analysed by our Reason. That is, we can examine them from all angles and consider their rightness or wrongness, their fitness for purpose. New ideas are easy to treat in this fashion, older ideas, which have become habitual, are more difficult to see fully because we have ceased being aware that they are ideas. Nonetheless, even with them, searching self-examination allows for their flaws to be spotted and corrected if we have the courage or imagination to do so.

This is not so with the thoughts of the heart. These exist in part below the level of our awareness, we know the conclusions but the process that led to those conclusions being reached is hidden from us. They cannot then be fully examined by Reason but they can powerfully influence what we do and say. The concealed root for many of our heart-thoughts is what Buddhists call desire and Christians lust. Although this last word is usually associated with sex nowadays it really means a strong want or longing for something attainable in this material world. When our lust for something is attached to our will so that we both desire and seek to obtain that something then our heart gives birth to its thoughts.

 We can be said to cherish them when we hug them close to ourselves despite the warning which we receive from Reason. Which is to say, because our heart-thoughts are linked to an insatiable lust and a fixed will they constantly present themselves before us (and others) as the wellspring for our actions in the world. To the extent that they do so we can apply our Reason to them and notice their wicked origins and outcomes. Yet Reason alone is powerless to defeat them because, as the Christ noted, we cherish them so.

Only the gift of God's grace through Jesus gives us the strength to defeat the thoughts of the heart. Alone we lack the strength though we may possess the desire. For most of us the last heart-thought to which we most stubbornly cling is the pride that imagines we can win our own battles with ourselves. Once we have the humility and realistic self-understanding to let go of that and allow the Holy Spirit to do His gracious work in us then we can hope to be set free from bondage to sin.

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The picture is Bathsheba bathing from a Book of Hours in the Morgan Library 

Sunday 7 May 2017

Mary & the Poets: 4 Mary My Love

Lightbearer, Christ bearer, Mother of Hope.
Given us by God to bring God to us.
Sedes sapientiae, Seat of Wisdom
Hearer and doer of the Father's Word.
Virgin mother, all glorious within,
Pure light before dawn, bright star of the sea.
You shine in my thoughts, in my dreams draw near,

Radiant with the Son which love brought forth,
Your dear Christ child, my Lord, the Paschal lamb.
The heart of your life is life of my heart
The Logos of God, the fruit of your womb
Jesus of Mary, Salvator Mundi.
I love you dear Lady, mother of mine
In giving us Him you give us your Self

This is by me so I'm probably the last person in the world to comment upon it. You may wonder why in a series featuring real poems by proper poets I have the chutzpah to include my own work. Two things-

Firstly, this is, after all, my blog and if I don't publish my poems it is certain that no one else will. And, more importantly,

Secondly, when a child gives a present to its mother, however naive or artless it may be, she looks with more intent at the love with which the offering is made than at the quality of the offering itself. So I have some hope that Our Lady will accept this inadequate gift for the sake of my devotion to her.

Incidentally the poem consists of fourteen lines each having ten syllables. This yields a total of one hundred and forty syllables. 140 is a number which is divisible both by seven and by ten and adding the numerals 1, 4 and 0 gives us five. Medieval readers would have seen mystical significance in the ten commandments, seven sorrows of Mary and five wounds of Christ being represented in such a fashion. Whether, in fact, any such significance exists is for me to know and you to find out.

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The painting is Virgin and Child with Milk Soup by Gerard David

Friday 5 May 2017

Mary & the Poets: 3 Wordsworth's Virgin

Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrost 
With the least shade of thought to sin allied; 
Woman! above all women glorified, 
Our tainted nature's solitary boast; 
Purer than foam on central ocean tost; 
Brighter than eastern skies at daybreak strewn 
With fancied roses, than the unblemished moon 
Before her wane begins on heaven's blue coast; 
Thy Image falls to earth. Yet some, I ween, 
Not unforgiven the suppliant knee might bend, 
As to a visible Power, in which did blend 
All that was mixed and reconciled in Thee 
Of mother's love with maiden purity, 
Of high with low, celestial with terrene!

(William Wordsworth)

This comes from a series of Ecclesiastical Sonnets which Wordsworth wrote about the historic Church in England. Here he is reflecting on the time of the 'Reformation' when much iconoclastic fury was expended in destroying the beautiful things for God which so many of the faithful had created. This explains the central use of the word 'Image' since both our Lady and her threatened cult were on his mind. Similarly the reference to 'not unforgiven' may be about how so many ordinary humble Christians at this time were persecuted or scorned by the powerful for refusing to abandon their devotion to Mary and the saints.

However that may be the essence of poetry is the words which the poet gives us and the meanings which they have for us. Two things in particular spring out of this sonnet for me, firstly-

Woman! above all women glorified, 
Our tainted nature's solitary boast

Our Lady, conceived without Original Sin and cooperating so fully with grace that she committed no actual sins is the new Eve. That is, she is Eve as she should have been, as she would have been but for the Fall. And as Eve was the mother of all the living we are her children. Mary, therefore shows us what we should be and do and become. To the extent that we are truly the children of Mary after the Spirit as we are the children of Eve after the flesh we can share in her purity and in the victory over sin and death which the gifts of the Paraclete and the merits of Christ Crucified gave to her.


All that was mixed and reconciled in Thee 
Of mother's love with maiden purity

In short form poetry every word is carefully used by a poet. When Wordsworth, then, uses the word 'reconciled' in connection with Mary he would have had a definite purpose. As Jesus effects the reconciliation of Man to the Father through the Cross so the Blessed Virgin in her way effects a lesser reconciliation. Before the Logos of God could become fully human as well as fully divine Mary had to become both Virgin and Mother. Again we see the power of the Spirit working within the human heart where cooperating with the will and reason of a person it can conquer and subdue mere flesh to the purposes of God. Mary is not only the ground upon which Jesus her Son stands she is the model and exemplar for Christians of all ages as to how we should make our religion a lived reality within the very centre of our being.

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The painting The Coronation of the Virgin is from an illuminated manuscript in the National Library of the Netherlands

Wednesday 3 May 2017

Mary & the Poets: 2 Nativity of Our Lady

Joy in the rising of our Orient star,
That shall bring forth the Sun that lent her light,
Joy in the peace that shall conclude our war,
And soon rebate the edge of Satan's spite,
Lodestar of all engulfed in worldly waves,,
The card and compass that from shipwreck saves

(St Robert Southwell: Our ladies Nativitye)

The poet, (faithfully Catholic) Jesuit priest and martyr St Robert Southwell wrote a series of fourteen poems about the Blessed Virgin. This is the second of them and it is about Mary's birthday. The tone of the first stanza is celebratory in a twofold way. It firstly rejoices in the present birth of a girl child. Secondly it anticipates the mission which Mary will fulfill.

In poetry every word matters so when Southwell uses 'joy' (present tense) and 'shall' (future tense) twice in three short lines he has a purpose. Mary is a gift to us in herself and we should rejoice in her for herself, she is also the chosen one through whom comes the Saviour who will cause us to experience joy eternally. And in saying 'the Sun that lent her light' the poet reminds us of something that Our Lady herself never forgot that she is what she is because of the merits of her Son. For this reason the verse ends by highlighting that one of her roles is to act as the Star of the Sea that shines out for us through the storms of life leading us toward the safe haven of Jesus Christ.

The Patriarchs and Prophets were the flowers,
Which Time by course of ages did distill,
And culled into this little cloud the showers,
Whose gracious drops the world with joy shall fill,
Whose moisture suppleth every soul with grace,
And bringeth life to Adam's dying race.

Past, present and future are linked in the second stanza where Southwell sees Mary and the child she will have as having been prefigured in the Old Testament, as living in the Gospel times and as changing all human life thereafter in both time and eternity. He uses an image for Our Lady, which he had previously introduced into his poem on the Immaculate Conception, as 'Elias' little cloud.' This is the episode in 3 Kings 18 where the report that 'There is a cloud as small as a man’s hand rising from the sea.' was a prelude to a welcome fall of rain which ended a prolonged and killing drought.

St Robert in this stanza is pointing us to Mary's role as mediatrix of grace. The Father wills that through her hands shall flow the gifts of the Spirit that the merit of her Son has sent upon the world. It is grace that brings us to true life. Not only will it lead us to the kingdom of heaven after death but it enables us to live in the realm of light now in this life as brothers, sisters and children of Jesus the firstborn and, crucially, of all our neighbours too, good and bad alike.

For God on earth she is the royal throne,
The chosen cloth to make his mortal weed,
The quarry to cut out our cornerstone,
Soil full of fruit, yet free from mortal seed,
For heavenly flower she is the Jesse rod,
The child of man, the parent of a god.

The English language has changed somewhat in the more than four hundred years since this poem was written so some of its images are less startling than they may at first appear. The expression 'widow's weeds' is still used sometimes and reminds us of a time when the word 'weeds' referred to clothes. It is, I think, derived from an old English word  "Waed" meaning "garment." The point being, in any event, that Jesus became our Emmanuel, God-with-us, because He was clothed with Mary's flesh, filled with Mary's blood and received His first nourishment from Mary's milk. The mystery of God's incarnation as Man, fully divine and fully human begins with His initiative but is crucially dependant upon Our Lady's assent and cooperation. This girl child will one day utter the words which will allow the Eternal One to enter time and conquer death.

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The painting is Birth of the Virgin by Paolo Uccello 

Monday 1 May 2017

Mary & the Poets: 1 May Magnificat

May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why :
       Her feasts follow reason,
       Dated due to season—

Candlemas, Lady Day ;
But the Lady Month, May,
       Why fasten that upon her,
       With a feasting in her honour ?

(May Magnificat, Gerard Hopkins)

In the northern hemisphere, where the practise of devoting a month to our Lady began, May is the high point of Spring. The poet and (faithfully Catholic) Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins mused about the connection between the season and the person honoured in it. It is a time when the short days and long nights of winter have been left behind.

Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her ?
       Is it opportunist
       And flowers finds soonest ?

Mary as our Lady of Light and as the Lightbearer, the one whose Immaculate Conception heralded the end of the great darkness which had covered the earth, is naturally associated with the coming of lightsome days filled with hope. There is another association though-

Ask of her, the mighty mother :
Her reply puts this other
       Question : What is Spring?—
       Growth in every thing—

...All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathizing
       With that world of good
       Nature’s motherhood.

Spring is the season of new life appearing, growing, blossoming, gaining strength. This fertility and abundance which comes from mother earth is a material sign of the spiritual maternity of the Blessed Virgin, mother in the flesh of Jesus her Divine Son and mother in the Spirit of the Church and faithful Christians. Another parallel Hopkins draws out is this-

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
       How she did in her stored
       Magnify the Lord

Which is, of course, a play on words in English. The growth of life in the world like the growth of the Christ in Mary's womb is a magnification of things. The word, however, calls to mind the song of praise to God that the Virgin sang when she visited St Elizabeth 'My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour'

For the poet there remains another reason why May is especially apt for Mary-

Well but there was more than this :
Spring’s universal bliss
       Much, had much to say
       To offering Mary May...

..This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
       To remember and exultation
       In God who was her salvation.

The final words invoke again the Magnificat and remind us that Mary's honours and privileges stem entirely and totally from God and her relationship to Him, daughter of the Father, spouse of the Spirit, mother of the Son. Additionally, though, there is a purpose behind his use of the words 'bliss' and 'ecstasy.' For theologians and poets these are words that point to the divine union of the soul with God, the Beatific Vision of the Uncreated Trinity which fills with delight those enraptured in eternity. In that most blessed year of her only pregnancy May was the month where Mary experienced that rapture in peaceful tranquility and absence of fear; a brief respite in a life that was to be so full of the shadows and the reality of the Cross.

The bliss and ecstasy of Mary's May is of value to us too. Mary is that ladder of Jacob by which we can ascend to the vision and the presence of Jesus her Son in heaven and descend bringing Him in love to our neighbours. In devoting ourself to her in her special month we are devoting ourselves also to the evangelical task of spreading the Good News about Jesus Christ.  

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The pictures are The Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio and a portrait of Gerard Hopkins

Thursday 20 April 2017

Salvation: Is It Relevant in 2017?

                                                 Only in Him is there salvation
                                                  (Acts of the Apostles 4:11)

If people have no concept of themselves as personal sinners and no belief in the existence of an eternal hell does the Christian doctrine of salvation serve any useful purpose? One could argue that disbelieving in a fact, like for example the law of gravity, does not make a person less exempt from the effects of that fact. So if the doctrines are true (which they are) then people will discover that, for themselves, in due course. It is, however, the business of the Church to save souls in time not to follow the (reputed) example of Scottish presbyterianism-
"There will be people cast into the pits of Hell, crying 'oh, Lord, we didna ken!' And the Lord will reply, 'well, ye ken noo!'"

The obvious angle of approach, I suppose, is to persuade people that they are wrong by urgently preaching about the wickedness that truly does abide in each person's heart, leaving them vulnerable to temptation, and about the eternal consequences of indulging that sinful inclination. It is important that this path is pursued vigorously but Christians should have more than one string to their bow.

Another line of argument can, I think, be found if we consider the significance of the words "in Him" from the text. To be saved is to be in Christ and to have Christ in us. "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." (Pope Benedict XVI) When we rest in Him life is transformed, we see things and people and our very selves differently. We have entered into a new relationship. We are in love and will be so for eternity. That is what salvation is.

It is no coincidence that the romantic language of lovers mirrors the language of our salvation relationship with God. The first is an as yet imperfect icon of the second. As the Pope Emeritus put it "God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation—the Logos, primordial reason—is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love" When He saw our estrangement from Him this desire He has for us led Him to travel the infinite distance from divine glory to abandonment, shame and death on the Cross for no other reason than for to win us back to loving Him. He does not dazzle us with His power but He shares with us our vulnerability and weakness.

As romantic love changes into conjugal love over time so our life in Christ alters from our first experiences of it. We discover "in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other."(Deus Caritas Est 7) Since God is not physically present to us here below we can only, as it were, do good to Him through our neighbours whom He loves as thoroughly as He loves us.

This then is the beginning of salvation, to experience in our limited way infinite love here and now and to share that infinite love with all those, both the good and the bad, who are around us. The end of it is to experience the same in an unlimited way for eternity. Is salvation relevant to you, now, today? Of course it is.

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Monday 17 April 2017

The Carthusian Option

I will hear what the Lord God will speak in me
(Psalm 84:9)

The earliest martyrs of the English 'Reformation' begun by Henry VIII were Carthusian monks. They were executed because of their loyalty to the Apostolic See in Rome. There is something richly symbolic in the fact that an order which is committed to contemplating the things of God and whose motto is Stat crux dum volvitur orbis ( the Cross stands firm while the world turns) was the first to apprehend what Henry's plan would lead to.

Another monastic order, the Benedictines, have as the first words of their Rule "Listen carefully." This word 'listen' may indeed be the Benedict Option which the world, and particularly the Christians who inhabit it, may most need to exercise. Paradoxically the best environment to enable one to hear is silence.

We are accustomed to making our decisions, big or small, in the midst of a cacophony of noise. Not simply the external noise generated by things but also the internal noise generated by our mind's leaping from thought to thought, impulse to impulse, stimulus to stimulus. The choices so made may be good or bad but they share one characteristic; they are hurried. What appears before the eyes of our mind is the obvious and the material and it is from those things that we draw the primary conclusions which prompt us to act.

The world, and we ourselves, are made up of a fine web of subtle and invisible things. We see them if we look and hear them if we listen but whether we see and hear them or not they are there and they are of the most vital importance to us. We cannot then fully understand ourselves or the world if we are continually in hurry mode. To get behind the noise we must stop and listen to the silence.

It is in silent listening every day that we can begin to hear what the Lord God speaks in us. He speaks through the material universe, through the world of men and of events and through our friends and acquaintances. He speaks too, and that most profoundly, through the Sacred Scriptures, the Sacraments and in the prayer of contemplation. It is, perhaps, because they listened above all to these things that the English Carthusians perceived long before the practical men of politics did that Henry VIII was hell-bent and so, ultimately, would be those who went along with him.

It behoves each of us then, if we wish to understand the signs of the times and the secrets of our own hearts, to become listeners. To contemplate the One who is All Wisdom and Love itself. Is this a difficult thing for an ordinary person to do you ask? "This commandment, that I command thee this day is not above thee, nor far off from thee...But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayst do it" (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

Although it is a specifically contemplative order the Carthusians prescribe no single method of prayer to its monks. Instead each is free to find among the treasures of Catholic spirituality the one approach which is most suitable to them. We can do the same, prayer is a very adaptable thing. Even a Rosary prayed with a recollected mind is a form of contemplation. Seek and you shall find. You might even wish to start on this blog with my post on 'A Simple Method of Contemplative Prayer'

The symbolism of the Carthusian martyrdom is twofold. First, that their contemplation gave them a clarity of vision which others lacked. Second, that they died out of loyalty to the universal Church. Deep personal prayer does not estrange us from the corporate life of the body of Christ it unites us more firmly to it. Through contemplation we can understand and love with ever greater comprehension the liturgies, sacraments and dogmas of the Apostolic faith. We are not saved or enlightened as individuals apart and alone but as members one of another in the body of Christ. It is through contemplation that we can gain the quiet Carthusian strength to bear witness to truth in our lives and to fully understand the meaning of the words Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis

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The Paintings are Martyrdom of the Carthusian Priors by Vicente Carducho and The Forty Martyrs by Daphne Pollen

Sunday 16 April 2017

Mary Magdalene: The Beloved of The Beloved

Give therefore your hearts and your souls, to seek the Lord your God
(1 Chronicles 22:19)

At His appearance by the Sea of Tiberias there is one Apostle who recognises the Risen Christ ahead of all the others 'That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved, said to Peter: It is the Lord' (John 21:7) Quick-eyed love is more clear sighted and faster to apprehend than any other of the senses when it comes to the beloved object.

Although the Evangelist talks of the love that Jesus had for the disciple not of the disciple's love for his Lord there can be no doubt that it was a mutual relationship. God loves each of us infinitely but we experience that divine hunger for us in different degrees according to what is in our own soul. The powerfully felt and strongly expressed love of St John for the Christ called forth such a strong response from Jesus that His love for the Apostle was apparent to all.

The same principle was at work in the events of the first Easter morning. Mary Magdalene became witness to the Resurrection and Apostle to the Apostles because her passionate and chaste devotion to Him drew her to seek Jesus and drew Him to show Himself to her. 'For thee my flesh and my heart hath fainted away: thou art the God of my heart' the psalmist had said (Psalm 72:26) and the Magdalene lived these words with her entire being.

Tradition has applied to her the words 'Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much.' (Luke 7:47) and also ' Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of right spikenard, of great price, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair' (John 12:3) Modern scholars question this interpretation of the texts but the Christian ancients intuited a great truth which academics don't concern themselves with. That is, Mary Magdalene received the unique privilege of becoming the first recorded witness to the Resurrection not by happy chance but because her consuming, burning, fiery love for Jesus the Saviour gave her the position of first among equals of all those who had come to know Him since His Nativity.

This bright love,though, has its dark places. The Magdalene came to the joy of the Risen life by travelling through the valley of the shadow of death. Because she loved so much she suffered enormously on the hill of Calvary when her beloved had died an agonising and shameful death. Long and dreary too were the bleak hours that passed between His entombment and that moment 'very early in the morning, the first day of the week' (Mark 16:2) when she became the glad bearer of Good News that the world had changed forever. She bears witness too that for all of us however close we may be to the Lord (or think ourselves to be) there will be no Crown if there has been no Cross.

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The picture is Noli Me Tangere from a 15th Century Paris Missal.

Tuesday 11 April 2017

Lectio Divina for Holy Week

Wikipedia tells us that 'Lectio Divina (Latin for "Divine Reading") is a traditional  Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God's Word. It does not treat Scripture as texts to be studied, but as the Living Word' Which, I think, means that we need not be overly bothered with context but that if we find a passage, clause or word then we hold it in our mind and simply gaze at it with the eyes of the heart. That is to say, we don't do the intellectual analysing which we might do in other situations but we hear it as a lover speaking out of the fulness of His heart directly to our own heart.

One such text for Holy Week, when we recall the turbulent events culminating in the drama of Easter, might be this-
 I abode in the wilderness.
I waited for Him that hath saved me
(Psalm 54:8-9)

On the Cross our Lord told the penitent rebel "I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43) The Creed informs us that Jesus descended to Hell that same day from which we can conclude that paradise is where He is. The opposite case, then, is that where He is absent we are cast out into the wilderness there to wait His coming. When we, by mortal sin, kill grace in our soul we place ourself apart from Him in the desert. Sometimes too we experience abandonment even when we have done nothing amiss since such is the Father's will for us. In either event all we can do is compose ourselves to wait for the One that has saved, is saving and will save us, our dear Lord, Jesus Christ.

An icon of this text is the Blessed Virgin Mary on Holy Saturday that agonising time between the burial of her Son and His rising again. Of the first of those events she was certain with the certainty of sight of the second she had only the certainty of hope for things unseen. In the wilderness, without Jesus, waiting in sorrow and in faith was all that she could do.

How often during that day must she have said 'O Jesus, O my Jesus, O Jesus' Words that came from the centre of her grief laden being. Repeated over and over with an emotional and personal force that came from more than thirty years of loving relationship with her Divine Son. The word Jesus had for her all the associations that flowed from the great joy of Annunciation and Nativity through the hidden years to the apotheosis on Golgotha. There is much debate about the use of mantras in Christianity but if we could say them as Mary said her Son's name on that day of darkness we would be nearer to heaven than we are. As we can't it might be wiser to use the texts and prayers that our mother the Church gives to us.

At all events full of grace and virtue as Our Lady was she still had to abide her sorrow in patient waiting. The gifts of God come to us when He wills to send them. We cannot call them down simply by the strength of our own efforts. We must give of ourselves in our sorrows and in our joys and then wait.The Spirit visits us not because we deserve Him but because we need Him and He comes only at the times which He knows to be best for us. Until then we are in the wilderness, but we do have this sure and certain knowledge, the One for whom we are waiting loves us more than we can possibly love Him and His blood has been shed for us.

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The painting is in a Book of Hours from the Workshop of the Master Francois.