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