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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My *other* blog is thoughtfully detached

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)

Catholic Scot has a Facebook page

My *other* blog is thoughtfully detached

The painting is San Francesco by Benozzo Gozzoli