Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Dark Epiphany

                                         Elijah Fed by the Ravens- Jusepe de Ribera

How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I carry sorrow in my soul,
    grief in my heart day after day?
Psalm 13:1-2

Want a New Years' Resolution ? Shed the pseudo-comfort of religion and grow into your own humanity.
Rational Minority ‏@MelaninAtheist  Dec 29

The Twelfth day of Christmas, January 6, has traditionally seen the Latin Church celebrate the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus with His Mother and the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrate the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan. Both celebrations are referred to as the Feast of the Epiphany because they represent moments of sudden understanding, a realisation that a manifestation of the power and wonder of God was somehow incarnate in the person of Mary's Son. For Orthodox and Catholic Christians such epiphanies are regularly recreated on a miniature scale through the Sacraments and above all through the Eucharist. Nonetheless for most hours out of the 24 the faithful have no such experiences. Conventional wisdom suggests that it is through serving our neighbours, above all the weak and vulnerable ones, or admiring the beauties of nature that we can most clearly perceive the presence of God hidden within that which surrounds us outside of the liturgies of the Church. So conventional indeed is the wisdom that I daresay you could find several thousand homilies, sermons, books, blogs or other media describing it. To this I have nothing to add, or indeed to subtract, the wisdom is a sound one.

There is another way of experiencing God however, a way which the Psalms often vividly express. this is the way of desolation, the experience of abandonment. That it is an authentic variety of religious experience we can see not only from the content of these ancient works themselves but also from the enduring way that generation after generation of believers, Christian and Jewish, have turned to them and made theme their own. If we assume that the @MelaninAtheist hypothesis is that the sole or dominant reason that people hold to a religious faith is because it offers them a form of comfort then this recurring desert experience of abandonment tends to disprove it. That most Christians most of the time experience desolation in their faith lives is not true but neither is it true that most of the time they experience comfort from it either. I would argue that all Christians are likely to feel that God has turned away from them at least some of the time and many of them feel it a great deal of the time.

If @MelaninAtheist is correct and the primary reason to cling to faith is that it gives a warm glow of falsely generated comfort then why continue to hold fast to it when it does no such thing? After all, in the West at least, the thought that God is not present to us because He doesn't exist will not be slow in obtruding itself into our thoughts. To persist in faith when its pulse is feeble, in hope when it seems vain and in loving that which does not respond is surely the opposite of being comforted. Of course, it might be argued that religion attracts masochists but it is a peculiar thing this Christian faith which attracts both the comfort-loving and the pain-loving at one and the same time with one and the same message.

The grim persistence of believers through the Dark Night of the Soul experience can I think be understood in light of the word 'abandonment.' It suggests that a prior relationship existed, that it was valued and nurturing but that it has now seemed to come to an abrupt end as the result of an arbitrary decision of the other party to it. The sense of misery and loss that the Christian feels is a product of the intensity of the relationship now apparently ended. But, it is not a simple bereavement for hope does not fully depart that at some point the relationship will resume and that any amount of suffering is worth enduring if only it will bring about that consummation. The perspective of  @MelaninAtheist is reversed for the person of faith will feel that it would be a pseudo-comfort to tell themselves 'there is no God' and that the affliction of God's absence is preferable to the fairy tale of God's non-existence.

                                             Elijah in the Desert by Washington Allston

What we might call the school of @MelaninAtheist might however be helpful in suggesting why it is that such periods of darkness are experienced by Christians. It is the 'imaginary friend' hypothesis, that is that God does not exist but believers create one to suit their image. This is half true, it is perfectly possible, indeed it is common, for people to believe in the One True God and yet to be idolaters at the same time. For the God they worship is not God as He is in Himself but a God largely of their own fantasy. The philosopher Simone Weil remarked Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life. It is not simply in relation to faith that we are dominated by our imaginings but essentially all our relationships are clouded with what we think, but do not know, about others and what we think, but falsely, about ourselves and the same principle extends to our practical view of the world we inhabit. It is rare for reality, the thing in itself, to break through, mostly what the thing or person means to us is what we choose it to mean. Indeed, there is a school of philosophy which argues that there is no 'thing in itself' but that all meanings are subjective, that is, imaginary.

Professor Weil also remarked  Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void. The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass. The desert experience of Christians is a time of stripping away. What they have imagined about God is now seen to be false. What they have imagined about themselves, their courage, steadfastness, enthusiasm &c. is also seen to be false. The dark epiphany of the long night is the realisation that beyond imagination, almost beyond hope, the God who really is has never, in truth abandoned them, He has been present as Himself only and not as the believers fantasm of Him and He can only be perceived as such when the believer is present to herself as herself and not as her overblown self-image.

So Christians can make their own the New Year wish of @MelaninAtheist, believers should indeed shed the pseudo-comfort of their religion and grow into their full humanity through the purest of possible relationships between themselves and God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Unbelief & the Lust Loving Giant

                          The Prophet Nathan Rebuking King David by Angelica Kauffman

If only you would listen to his voice today,
do not be stubborn like your ancestors were at Meribah,
as on that day at Massah, in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested me.
They tested me,
    even though they had seen my awesome deeds.
Psalms 95:7-9

The dragon—the prince of the abyss—rises in arms against those who keep attention on their heart, as one whose ‘strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly’. He sends the lust-loving giant of forgetfulness against them with his clouds of fiery arrows, stirs up lust in them like some turbulent sea, makes it foam and burn in them and causes their confusion by flooding them with torrents of insatiable passions.
St Gregory of Sinai, 

When I exchange opinions, it cannot be called an intelligent debate, with some of the fashionably militant New Atheists I am often told 'of course you don't really believe this stuff.' What they mean, I suppose, is that I actually deep down accept the truth of their positivism and scientism but for some perverse reason of my own refuse to acknowledge that fact. Interestingly enough a common thread running through the Christian Scriptures is precisely the reverse proposition. The Israelites deep down know the truth about God but except for brief periods refuse to accept it; or at any rate accept it enough to base their entire life upon it.

In the Old Testament it is the book of Exodus where this phenomenon is most clearly manifested. The Children of Israel see the Red Sea parted, the manna falling from heaven, water springing from hard rocks and much, much more besides yet every new sign of God's power is followed by a new manifestation of distrust or disbelief in Him. So much so that of all the adults who left Egypt only two make it to the Promised Land all the others, even the great Moses, die in the wilderness because either they have rebelled outright or because their faith has wavered at times despite all the overwhelming mass of evidence in favour of trusting in the Lord. In the Gospels the pattern is repeated, from the outright oppositions of the pharisees and the high priestly party to the complete failure of even the Apostles to understand Him Jesus is ever cast as a figure always to some extent alone because no amount of evidence seems to convince anyone to cast themselves fully upon Him without the slightest reserve. Arguably the only recorded exceptions being Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, who successively say Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died (John 11:21,32) and even more strikingly our Lady who simply said They have no wine (John 2:3)

The interesting psycho-spiritual question in all this is why would or why do people refuse to belief something which they know to be true? The most common reasons advanced in Scripture are that people 'harden their hearts' or that they are 'stiff-necked.' Although this seems like unpromising material to work with these analyses are more sophisticated than you might suppose. The heart is conceived of as the seat of emotion and feeling. To harden it is to shield it from an emotional appeal to which a person feels susceptible but to which they do not wish to yield. The stiff neck is a proud one that will not bend to the yoke, that is, one who desires only to go their own way regardless of any benefits that might accrue from going along a way chosen by another. Another fairly clear cut reason is illustrated by St John-
Some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation
(John 11:46-48)
The same event which prompted Martha and Mary to display unlimited trust in the power and love of Jesus led the Sanhedrin to draw the opposite conclusion. They perhaps recognised the extraordinary nature of one who could even raise the dead but they recognised still more the power of Rome and, like their ancestors of the Exodus, feared man more than they trusted God.

To have faith is to commit a bold action. This is not the same as to accept a philosophical notion. An idea may suggest to you that you should modify your life in this or that way so that you may live in a fashion consonant with your belief. But this is always negotiable; an idea is what you interpret it to be and, moreover, to serve the greater good you can fail to observe it yourself for the purpose of bringing about a change which will make it easier for others to observe it. Evil may sometimes be done that good can come from it. Faith is not of this nature. Its demands are absolute, it is non-negotiable and, as far as Christianity is concerned, it forbids doing evil under any circumstances whatsoever. So, people may refuse to accept a faith which their heart tells them is true or may be true because seeing the implications of it they are unwilling to surrender to them. St Augustine famously prayed Lord give me chastity and continence....but not yet. This is the kind of hesitancy which lies behind much heart hardening and neck stiffening.

It is perhaps obvious that those who greatly desire to commit great wickednesses will refuse faith but most people are not so far gone. The moral ambitions of unbelievers are not notably less altruistic or kind than those of believers. The crucial difference lies in the self image of of a person. The Christian aims to make their own the prayer of Jesus not my will but your will be done (Luke 22:42) the unbeliever aims to make their own will as perfect as they can. Or, to put it another way, in a discussion I once pointed out that the opening word of the Rule of Benedict is Listen to which the response of the antagonists of faith was that it should be Think. The core dispute between believers and unbelievers concealed under many forms is always about authority or autonomy. Do we accept our littleness and trust ourselves to One who can be trusted or do we consider ourselves to be captains of our own ship and masters of our own destiny even though, after all, we can never be confident that some shattering event wholly beyond our power will not change everything for us over the course of the next five minutes?

                                          The Conversion of St Augustine by Fra Angelico

If the moral ambitions of unbelievers are on the whole on a par with those of Christians the same can also for the most part be said of moral outcomes. Which brings us to the lust loving giant of forgetfulness (at last! I hear you cry.) Here forgetfulness does not mean the same thing as forgetting. It is not a failure of memory but a casting of a veil over it. Sometimes when a person is about to commit a particularly gross sin they will turn a picture of Jesus to face the wall or put a statue of our Lady into a drawer. Forgetfulness is the psychological mechanism which does the same thing internally that the hiding away does externally. There is no illusion of righteousness, the sin is known to be a sin, but under the sting of temptation the door which leads our thoughts towards the helps promised by faith, through prayer, Scripture, the sacraments and the support of the believing community, is closed. We know that we can be helped to stop doing whatever it is that we are about to do yet we do not seek that help because we fear that it might be successful.

Instead of refusing to believe what they know to be true a Christian often enough will refuse to do what they know to be right. By holding to faith they can look forward to the luxury of repentance and reconciliation and by submitting to forgetfulness they can also enjoy the pleasure of present sin. At this point belief has indeed been reduced to a notional acceptance of an abstract idea, it has ceased to be a living force and become for the time being just a collection of dead words.

Refusing to believe and refusing to act are not two separate refusals proceeding from two different sources. They constitute a single act of the will, an assertion of the right to be autonomous. It is asserted that what we do with ourselves is our own concern and our own choice and this freedom is our highest good. Such is the modern Western credo. And it is false. In the face of demands upon us from external sources the highest good consists not in resisting them but in submitting to them provided we can do so without sin. The stability of society depends in no small part on spouses submitting to each others needs, parents submitting to their children's needs, children submitting to their parents. Societies which break that pattern via abortion, contraception, divorce and a cult of youth commit demographic suicide. And the family is but an imperfect model of the relationship which should subsist between believers and their God.

The demands of faith are not so great as some of the demands of the world. An athlete seeking Olympic gold, a supermodel seeking a perfect waif like figure, a businesswoman seeking her first million all make greater sacrifices than any that the Church would impose or counsel for Christians. Yet the unbeliever who baulks at offering so much as an hour a week to God will offer seventy times as much to greed, or ambition or sex. The difference being that one has the appearance of being internally generated and voluntary and the other of being external and compulsory. Ultimately the refusal of belief, or the refusal of believers to obey, comes not so much from a deeply thought through review of all the available arguments and evidences leading to an objective assessment calmly arrived at. No, it proceeds from a fear of submitting, that is, a hardening of the heart and a stiffening of the neck, a refusal to trust in the only One who can be trusted where we cannot trust even ourselves.

To return to my exchange of opinions with the atheists. If I thought that they were right then I would agree with them. Why wouldn't I? What thing that the world values would I lose by abandoning an unpopular and restrictive faith? On the other hand, if they, deep down, thought that I might be right how many causes they would have for refusing to believe. Which then, do you think, is the more likely: Christian apologists are secretly convinced of the truths of atheism or militant atheists greatly fear being persuaded of the truths of Christianity?

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Wednesday, 24 December 2014

From Primitive to Degenerate?

                                                   St John, Evangelist by Zampieri
21 Just as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so also does the Son give life to whomever he wishes. 22 Nor does the Father judge anyone, but he has given all judgment to his Son, 23 so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honour the Father who sent him. 24 Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life. 25 Amen, amen, I say to you, the hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he gave to his Son the possession of life in himself. 27 And he gave him power to exercise judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation.
30 “I cannot do anything on my own; I judge as I hear, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.
(John 5:21-30)

Whenever I hear the expressions 'Primitive Church' or 'Primitive Christian' I always have a vision of Wilma and Fred Flintstone occupying a pew or at any rate something involving cave dwellers wielding clubs while dressed in animal skins. Which, it appears, is something of a misapprehension on my part. 'Primitive' in this context means 'early' or 'first.' The Primitive Church is simply the Christian community as it existed in it beginnings, fresh from the events surrounding Jesus in Galilee and Judaea, guided by the Apostles. It is considered by many to be the gold standard against which contemporary Christianity should be judged usually to its considerable disadvantage. There are two particular currents of thought which make use of this critical tool largely for the purposes of disparaging Catholicism.

The ecclesial Christian communities of the Reformation (Protestants for short) since the emergence of their various tendencies have united in the criticism that the Catholic Church distorted, obscured, deviated from, and added alien elements to, the original faith of the Primitive Christians. By thus corrupting the religion they at some point, usually arbitrarily selected by the critics, became definitively degenerate or actually apostate. The Protestant aim from the beginning and in each subsequent schism, split or formation of a brand new sect has always been to return to the faith and practice of the Primitive Church. Quite how they reconcile this with their dogmatic assertion that Scripture Alone is the sure basis of Christianity I've never quite understood because if there is one thing about which we can be certain regarding the first Christians it is that they did not possess the New Testament and therefore could neither use it in their liturgies nor seek within its pages for the doctrines of their faith.

The currently more influential critique emerges from the secularists, the atheists and the liberal theologians. It amounts to this: Jesus was misunderstood by His contemporaries, friend and foe alike. These misunderstandings were incorporated into the Bible and the Christian Church (which subsists in the Catholic Church) has busied itself ever since in emphasising the misunderstandings and downplaying the authentic fragments which we possess. Only now after some two thousand years is it possible for us to see what Jesus really meant far more clearly than those who knew Him could and much, much, much more clearly than the Church can. Whilst the Primitive understanding was flawed it is much nearer the truth than the current orthodox understanding of it. Therefore we should look to its practice and its texts so that we can discern His authentic sayings (those we agree with) from the interpolated ones (those we disagree with.) Only then can we find the true Jesus who was a wise teacher like the Buddha (only not so sexy) and not the complex third of an obscure trinitarian deity.

In his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman dealt with some of these issues far better than I could ever aspire to do. Briefly, he pointed out that if a thing lives then it must change. That something has changed is not in itself a criticism of it. The only important question is whether the change is a development or a corruption. The Christian faith as received by the Church in the Apostolic age is like the seed of a tree, containing within itself the potential for growth and development. We must then judge of each element of the faith as contained in its creeds, its liturgies and its doctrines in the light of the original seed from which they came. If we can trace these as an unfolding of the original blueprint then we should welcome them and rejoice in them. If they are alien imports uncongenial to the original seed then they should be rejected for they are corruptions. However, the radical incompatibility between the received faith and a hostile import necessarily creates a destructive sequence of events so that either the original or the import ends by being expelled. Since the Catholic Church has never expelled its original notions but on the contrary has held fast to them then it is more than likely that its developed doctrines are inherently consistent with its founding ones. The possibility exists that alien elements congenial to the original seed can be grafted on. This has happened with, for example, elements of Greek philosophy. These changes, again, should be welcomed and not rejected since they serve to help our understanding of what we have received but do not in any way change the content of what we have received. To return to the faith of the Primitive Church in the sense of returning to the fervour, purity and commitment of the early Christians is a laudable aim but if it is in the sense of forgetting all that we have learned since through constant prayerful meditation upon the deposit of faith received once for all in the first century then it is itself a corruption, an abandonment of gains not a shedding of losses.

                                            Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 

The criticisms boil down to the assertion that the Church has taken an essentially simple message and made it unnecessarily complex in order to ensure that an especially dedicated caste, the priesthood, is required to interpret it in return for receiving unique powers and privileges. In the light of this it is worth considering the short text from St John which heads this page. Within the body of this text it is possible to notice implicit and explicit references to many things which subsequently turn up in the Creeds and doctrines of the Catholic Church some hundreds of years later. This is significant because the Gospel was written no more than about fifty years or so after the events which it records which means that its contents form part of the beliefs of the Primitive Church. Moreover tradition points to its author as being the Apostle John and there is no reason to suppose that the tradition is comprehensively wrong, that is, if St John did not write it in full himself then it is likely that it is the product of a Johannine community which he had established, led and taught. The Gospel itself suggests that it is the product of the 'beloved disciple' of Jesus a disciple who was also the adopted son of Mary (John 19:26-27) So we have before us a Primitive text which the Primitive Church accepted as being the product of an Apostle who knew Jesus well and who's understanding of Jesus would have been deepened by his closeness to the Mother of the Lord. I lack the ability or the space to develop all the themes present in this fragment but it is possible to consider some.

To start with life, we see at verse 26  ...just as the Father has life in himself, so also he gave to his Son the possession of life in himself. Which is echoed in a later passage I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. (John 10:17-18) One of the standard secular/liberal arguments is that Jesus nowhere claimed to be God yet it is hard to understand these statements as meaning anything else. Every creature (a technical term, if God is Creator then each of His creations is a creature) every creature I say has life on loan as it were. Our life begins when God wills it to begin and if He should cease to will that we live then in that instant we shall be annihilated. Not so with Jesus, He has possession of life 'in himself.' How can this be? Well the very start of John's Gospel account tells us In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1) So, what you might call the commentary by St John agrees with the dialogue of our Lord which he reports. Jesus claims a divine prerogative, full possession of His own life, a prerogative which He will illustrate through His resurrection.

The matter is somewhat complicated by the fact that our Lord uses life and death in two fashions in this passage, literally and metaphorically. When He says whoever hears my word....has passed from death to life (verse 24) He clearly means that those who are spiritually dead, or dead towards the Father, will become spiritually alive. But when He says  all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out (verses 28-29) He clearly means that at His word those who have died in the flesh will come alive again in the flesh. Which means that He is saying that the prerogative He possesses over His own life is extended over every other life also which is another way of Him stating His divinity. It is no less a claim to divinity, by the way, to state that He can give spiritual life to the spiritual dead. The statement in verse 21 so also does the Son give life to whomever he wishes can be taken in both senses. And if we consider this from the Song of Hannah The LORD puts to death and gives life, casts down to Sheol and brings up again (1 Samuel 2:6) there can be no shadow of  doubt that Jesus is making a parallel statement making the point that the attributes of God as understood by the Jews are His own attributes.

Another point of attack by liberal critics is the doctrine of the Incarnation which they suggest is so alien to Jewish thought that Jesus could not have held it. It is, they suppose a later import torturously derived from Greek philosophy by over subtle theologians trying to reconcile the difficulties in their texts. That the doctrine is indeed developed using the Greek philosophical tools is true but that it must therefore be a late addition to the story of the itinerant wise teacher Jesus is simply an hypotheses. If we return to our central passage we see a threefold iteration of Son-
25.... the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God also he gave to his Son
27.... because he is the Son of Man.
  St John is always very careful to ensure that the ideas which he records are sequenced and this is an example of that. The central hinge is the simple use of Son on its own, it links the two dimensions of its meaning on either side. When our Lord talks about the Son of God and the Son of Man He is not talking about two persons but one, Himself. He unites these two facets and He also possess the power to be heard by the dead (v25) to command life (v26) and to judge the living and those whom He has raised from death (v27.) A human who is Son of God and Son of Man and possessed of the plenitude of divine power cannot readily be explained by anything other than the doctrine of Incarnation.

Protestant critics have maintained almost from the outset of their movement(s) that the Scriptures contain a clear doctrine of salvation by Faith Alone and that Catholicism has preached a works based model of salvation to increase the dependence of the faithful on the priesthood. Although the last part seems like a non sequitur to me what about the first? In our Johannine text we do have this-
24...whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life 
Which would seem straightforward until we come to this-
29... those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation
If our Lord had meant to say 'those who have had faith to the resurrection of life' then no doubt that is what He would have said. Clearly if both statements are true neither of them can be simply true, that is, they require to be considered in relation to each other. A synthesis of the two would suggest that some kind of union exists between faith and works both parts of which have to be operational in order for the attainment of salvation. It would also suggest, I think, that we need to be fairly cautious in defining just what faith is. If God is the origin of all good then all good deeds carried out by humans proceed under His inspiration. Yet we know of plenty of non-Christians who consistently perform good, they must be responding to Him in their hearts without necessarily having heard of Him with their ears. Traditional Protestantism has viewed such good deeds as being an abomination before God-
WORKS done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.
XXXIX Articles: Of Works Before Justification
Leaving all other considerations to one side it does seem to me that those who have developed such a doctrine are in no strong position to accuse Catholicism of over elaborating a simple faith.

I could go on but you will be glad to hear I won't. The proposition we have been considering, that doctrinal development necessarily represents a degeneration from primitive truth is I think false. The Bible often expresses in terse language and summary form very complex ideas. To unpack these ideas and seek to understand them ever more fully is a proper work for Christians. Of its nature it must be the work of centuries, each idea unfolded reveals new horizons, the insights of one generation of Christians lays the foundation for the prayerful study of future generations. Does this process of doctrinal development mean that the faith of 21st Century Catholics is a different faith than that held by their 1st Century predecessors? No it does not. Our objects of faith are precisely the same as theirs. What they held implicitly we can hold explicitly and, it may be, those who follow us in the faith will see clearly something we now see only dimly. A further point to be made is that while it is the obligation of the Church to unfold revelation as fully as possible it is not necessarily the obligation of each believer. Simple people can hold a simple faith simply. The bare acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Saviour and a subsequent life lived trying to be clothed with Christ is a perfectly Christian faith. What is not acceptable is that people with intelligence and insight should bury their talent in a field, not using it for fear of a Master who reaps what he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter (cf Matthew 25:24.) Intelligence is given us to be used, theology is not reason in search of faith it is faith in search of understanding. If we fear to understand what we believe then, perhaps, it may be because we do not really believe.

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Friday, 19 December 2014

Mary & the Birthdays of Jesus

              Christ Appearing to the Virgin by Follower of Rogier van der Weyden 1475

And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Luke 2:34-35

I saw the Blessed Virgin as very full of years, but no sign of old age appeared in her except a consuming yearning by which she was as it were transfigured. There was an indescribable solemnity about her. I never saw her laugh, though she had a beautiful smile
Anne Catherine Emmerich- Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Historians are undecided about the date of the Nativity of our Lord although as a sort of reflex action they are almost unanimous in denying that it was 25 December as if giving credit to the wisdom of the Church was somehow a violation of their professional duty. Likewise there is some dispute about when the Catholics first started to celebrate this event as a dedicated Feast. Some say it was earlier and some later. What I think we can be fairly sure about though is that the Blessed Virgin Mary knew the date and that every year as it came around she would have pondered in her heart the events of the first Christmas and the significance which they bore. Of particular poignance for her must have been the Christmases which she marked in the years between her Son's Ascension and her own Assumption. We cannot now enter into her thoughts, memories and prayers but we can consider those matters which most likely occupied her reflections and which perhaps should occupy ours also.

Our Lady was unique in many ways and led a unique life. Not the least singular facet of it was that she witnessed the death and burial of her Son, His return to life and His Ascension into heaven. These experiences could not but be present before the eyes of her memory every time she marked the anniversary of His birth. Each Christmas for her would be a kind of palimpsest where each recollection of an event or emotion from that night in Bethlehem would uncover a thousand thousand others associated with the life of her beloved Jesus.

It is easy for Christians and sometimes even the Church to overlook St Joseph and his part in the Nativity seeing him as some kind of bit part player, an extra in the scene. We can be sure that this is a fault of which our Lady was never guilty. To her Joseph was a tower of strength, a friend, a faithful loving companion, the first man to hold her Jesus in his arms, to look tenderly at Him, to love Him wholeheartedly. To recall the first Christmas for Mary would also be to recall Joseph's steadfastness in marrying her despite her pregnancy, his support and care for her and the unborn child on the journey to Bethlehem and for mother and newborn during the flight into Egypt. They shared the agony of the hunt for the lost boy Jesus through the streets and Temple courts of Jerusalem. Most of all, perhaps, they shared year after year the hidden life of working, living in a community, raising a child to manhood being lovers of God and lovers of neighbour in that greatest of all trials the seeming triviality and mediocrity of the everyday. No doubt also his presence at this intense moment of life would bring to mind the time when this just man departed from it going to his eternal rest enfolded in the love of the Virgin and the Saviour the two most important people in his life. And this points us to an essential truth about Christmas. It is a family celebration, Mary would not recall the child without recalling too the foster-father. We who are adults seldom pass a Christmas season without revisiting our childhood feasts, the parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, uncles, aunts and others who welcome or not trailed through our seasonal rejoicing and accompany us still in our fondest memories. Welcoming a child into the world is a time for bringing families together and in Jesus we welcome the universal child, our destinies and the destinies of all who are dear to us are bound up in His. If our adult selves have dispensed with the large family gatherings of the not-so-distant past we should at least bring together in our prayers those we will not or cannot bring together in the flesh.

If St Joseph is backgrounded in our Nativity scenes and cribs the shepherds and Magi are not. Whilst our Lady may have held these things in reverse order in her heart her Christmas memories would certainly not have neglected them. Most of all, I think, it would have been the shepherds whose memory she treasured. Partly because they were present on that wonderful world transforming night as the Magi were not. Partly also because the Mary who sang-
He has shown might with his arm,
    dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
 He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
    but lifted up the lowly.
 The hungry he has filled with good things;
    the rich he has sent away empty.
(Luke 1:51-53)
would cherish above all the devotion of the poor humble folk. Filled with the thrilling joy of the Angels song and the bright good news the shepherds had only their adoration of the infant Jesus to give. It was indeed the first gift that Jesus received. How could Mary not be delighted? And who could imagine that this delight would fade with the mere passing of years? The arrival of the Wise Men with their welcome gifts and their acknowledgement of the celestial significance of her child would serve too to remind the Blessed Virgin that her child was not hers alone, He was a Divine child and His life would have a purpose and meaning greater than that of any other man born of woman. These visitors with their backstories of Angels and stars point us to two more Christmas truths. Christmas is not just a private event it is a community one, preeminently the communion of the faithful but the office parties, the being kind to annoying strangers on the bus because its the season of goodwill, remembering to check that the frail neighbours are ok, giving alms to the homeless and treats to the carol singers are all part of the community Christmas and not the least important part either. The second truth this points to is that Christmas really and truly is a religious feast. The Son of Mary is the Son of God, born of a virgin, Saviour of the World. The Angels rejoiced for a reason, the star shone for more purposes than one, a guide to the Magi and a sign to us. There may have been days when our Lady did not recall shepherds or wise men, donkeys, oxen and cribs but there was never a day when she did not rejoice in the God from whom and for whose purposes her greatest gift had come. And Jesus is His greatest gift to us also.

                                          Christ Appearing to His Mother by Guercino 1629

In the events of the Nativity of our Lord we can discern all three of the theological virtues, faith, hope and love. It is safe therefore to infer that they would all have been present in Mary's Christmas meditations. It seems to me that of these three hope is the chief and characteristic feature of the season of Advent and its culminating festival. As our Lady encountered layer after layer in that Christmastide palimpsest of memory I think also that for her hope was its key note. Inextricably linked with the Bethlehem events was that scene nine months before when the Archangel Gabriel had said-
"Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
(Luke 1:31-33)
So from the moment He was Incarnated in her womb Mary's Son carried her liveliest hopes, for the liberation of Israel and the world from the dominion of sin and death and for the bringing of unconditional love into not only her own life but into every life. And that birth attended as it was with heavenly signs, followed as it was by the prophecies of Simeon (Luke 2:25-35) confirmed, strengthened and made present those same hopes. Even the attendant features, giving birth in poverty, fleeing into Egypt, the Massacre of the Innocents could not dim a hope founded on such sure foundations and now sustained by the living, breathing, joy-giving presence of that tiny infant, flesh of her flesh, who had become the centre and purpose of her whole life. Nor could the perhaps weary years of toil and obscurity when that child was growing before her eyes into the man who would fulfil all that she had been promised and more besides.

In those Christmases which the Blessed Virgin kept between His Ascension and her Assumption it would not have been possible to think of the crib without recalling the Cross. The life which had lain naked and vulnerable in her soft arms at Bethlehem had before the end hung naked and vulnerable once again upon the hard arms of the tree of death on Calvary. The hope which had entered the world from Mary's womb seemed to be buried in the sepulchre of the garden. But if Jesus had died indeed the hope in His mother's heart had not died with Him. It was built on the testimony of the Angels in Judea, the star seen in the East, the Son whom she had come to know as no other creature would or could come to know Him and love as no other creature would or could love Him. This golden thread running through her life could not be snapped. And privately, delicately, filially He returned to her. A joyous moment, a transport of delight an outpouring of love beyond the power of imagination, a second Christmas. Of His appearances to the Holy Women  and to the Apostles the Gospel speaks but of this moment there is a discreet and respectful silence and who can wonder?

St Luke records (Luke 24:51-52) that after the Ascension the disciples experienced great joy. Mary is certainly included in that description. And yet, and yet...she was a mother, she had seen her Son die an agonising, horrible death. Such a Son, such a death. And more than this He was now hid from her sight until it should be the will of God for her own life to come to the end of its mortal, terrestrial journey. No one was more nourished by the Spirit in prayer than the Mother of God, no one enjoyed a more close relationship to the Father than she, no one experienced the sacrament of the Eucharist in a more complete manner than she. However, the final, complete and eternal reunion with her Son, body, soul and spirit was not yet accomplished. The plenitude of happiness awaited her but had not yet come. The time to cease exercising the virtue of patience was yet some distance into the future. As Mary celebrated these Christmases of the interregnum years reflecting on her Son's entrance into the world of Men how powerfully she must have felt the hope that the time was near when she would enter fully into the world of heaven. How longingly she looked for her birthday in the Kingdom of God so that she could resume that fully human loving relationship that she had brought into the world on that birthday which we now call Christmas. As in so many things Mary is here our prototype. Sustained by hope, filled with longing the Christian should ever look to that time when we shall see Him face to face and know Him even as we are known. (cf 1 Corinthians 13:12)

Don't forget to read my Nativity fable Adoration of the Pangolins downloadable from Wattpad.

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Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Et Incarnatus Est

                                          The Newborn by Georges de La Tour 

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us
(John 1:14)

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.'
(Revelation 2:8)

The extreme adaptability of humans can be a mixed blessing. Their ability to exist and even flourish in extremes of nature caused by climate or terrain is a valuable survival tool. Their ability to do the same in the face of abnormal conditions caused by human folly or sin as in a tyranny, a religious cult or even a workplace run by incompetent managers is both a survival mechanism and a brake on effecting change. When something extraordinary becomes the 'new normal' it can take an extra effort to see just how unjust, unfair, dysfunctional or plain wrong it is and an even bigger effort to persuade people to do something about it.

Sometimes this adaptability has a more subtle effect still. When the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation began to be proclaimed it immediately provoked strong reactions. Jews thought it a horrible blasphemy, Greeks a foolish absurdity. From the moment of their first encounter with it they realised its revolutionary implications for the world of thought and religion and reacted accordingly. So radical were these implications that even many who were attracted by the figure of Jesus rejected them and most of the heresies which the primitive Church had to battle, from Gnosticism to Arianism, aimed quite precisely at removing the doctrine of Incarnation from the Christian credo.

However with the spread of Christianity and the passage of time Incarnation became the new normal. It's implications did not stop being revolutionary but these implications for the most part did stop being considered. Humans adapted to the extraordinary by banalising it, ignoring it or denying it under a form of words which implied accepting it. It belongs, however, to the peculiar genius of the Catholic Church that it is this doctrine above all others which she has held patiently, doggedly and unapologetically before the eyes of the faithful and the world these past two millennia or so. It is this which lies behind the myriad images of the baby Jesus and the crucified Christ, behind the cult of Mary and the saints, behind the relics, the shrines, the pilgrimages and most of all behind the holy sacrifice of the Mass as the 'source and summit of Christian life.' To the extent that we simply consider these things severally and together as just being the Catholic 'brand' the stuff that Catholics do then we miss the point that it is not just what Catholicism does but also what Catholicism is. To see why this is so we need to step back several paces so that we can encounter the doctrine of Incarnation as if for the first time.

From ancient times it has been an accepted psychological fact that people are often wracked by severe internal conflicts. St Paul expresses it in this fashion 'What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate' (Romans 7:15.) Conventionally this has been understood as the lower self battling against the higher self. It would still be so regarded indeed were it not that judgmentalism has become the only unforgivable sin in the modern West. The classic understanding saw the flesh at war with the spirit, the appetites with the intellect, the irrational with the reasonable. The model has much to commend it, so much so that secular social science renamed it 'deferred gratification' and adopted it to its own use. Hovering behind this paradigm is the 'why' question, why are we conflicted?, and the 'how' question, how can we resolve or escape from this conflict?

One answer, which comprehensively embraces Greek philosophy, Indian religion, Gnostic heresy and arguably some understandings of Protestantism is to see the spirit of a person being a different entity from the body of a person. The particular body which a person inhabits is an accident of history but the spirit and that alone is the essence of person. The spirit not the body has a relationship with God (or is identical to Him) and endures to eternity. This means that the object of the spiritual life is to leave the body behind. What the flesh does is either inimical to salvation or satori or God realisation or whatever or else it is irrelevant depending on your cult of choice. Gnosticism (inspired by Zoroastrianism) took this line of thought to its logical conclusion by suggesting that God only created spirit and that the material cosmos had been created by an evil demiurge. Everything material was wicked and spirits had fallen from the spiritual realm to become captives in the material one. Matter was despised and liberation from it was the only project worth pursuing. The Cathars expressed this idea by holding nothing to be more abhorrent than a pregnant woman representing as she did a newly captive spirit and procured abortions as the means by which the spirit could be set free to return to God

Not all such approaches go to the extremes of the Cathars but they do necessarily lead to either a passivity in relation to the body or an active hostility to it. The obverse of this view might be termed Dionysian which suggests that the appetites of the body exist to be served and that the apparatus of intellect and reason fulfils its purpose chiefly by delivering satisfactory sensual inputs to the body. This might be called a practical philosophy and whilst it has few advocates it certainly has innumerable adherents.

                                                       Deposition of Christ by Caravaggio 

Into all this comes the child Jesus, fully human and fully divine. Unlike a prophet or an enlightened teacher He is not simply a person filled with an abundance of spirit or who has more fully realised His essential nature concealed by the material barrier of Maya. Nor is He an Avatar of divinity who is human only in appearance or only temporarily. His humanity and His divinity are united eternally. The Logos of God is never not one thing with Jesus. Jesus is never separate from the Logos.  Because of the Incarnation the material universe in general and the human body in particular can be considered as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem. Bodies are not barriers to union with God or to salvation but an essential part of the equipment necessary to achieve these aims.

Certainly the flesh can fall under the dominion of sin (so can spirit and intellect of course) but it is not sinful by nature. Taking the classification of higher and lower functions the flesh is inherently vulnerable to temptation because of its greater distance from the seat of reason and spirituality but in the battle to control it inevitable victory belongs neither to good or evil. The body is always in a position to be retrieved from the dark side and more than that to become a positive force for good in the struggle for the triumph of light. Incarnation means that the whole person and every person can be saved and enter into a perfect relationship with the Divine Source of life. The Church, of course, counsels asceticism for her children and the world, the flesh and the devil are often highlighted as the enemies of salvation. This represents the important principle of balance between, in Aristotelian terms, excess and defect. The untamed flesh is an enemy, the tamed flesh is an ally. For the Gnostic or the Buddhist or even perhaps the extreme Lutheran the notion of 'tamed flesh' is inadmissible.

For God to enter so fully into the human condition, to become embodied, He begins His journey from within a body. That is, the project of Incarnation to be complete requires Jesus to be not only Son of God but also Son of Mary. His conception is miraculous but His gestation and birth follow the normal human pattern. He is as we are but without sin. There is no part of the human journey from conception to death which has not been divinised by His touch and which we also can therefore divinise by putting on Christ through faith. What the Cathars found abhorrent the Catholic finds to be suffused with the prospect of glory. And so we see, as I noted at the start, the cult of Mary is a celebration of the Incarnation of God through her. The cult of the saints is a celebration of the Incarnation made present in their lives through the actions of their bodies The relics, the shrines, the pilgrimages all point to the fact that material objects and places can, properly used, be not barriers to spiritual progress but, because of the Incarnation spiritual superhighways. And the supreme expression of this is the Eucharist where Divinity is not only made present under the appearance of bread and wine but is consumed and incorporated by the faithful. It is, perhaps, this sacrifice of the Mass which causes the greatest scandal to the greatest number of critics of the Catholic faith; atheists, Muslims, Jews, Protestants (or at least their most logically consistent spokespersons) all for different reasons find the notion appalling, revolting, disgusting, ludicrous and any number of other epithets you could think of. Good. I'm glad that this is so. It shows that the Church is faithful in its adherence to the central saving truth of its faith. When those who reject the doctrines of the Church approve of it worship and liturgies then it will be a sign that the Church has lost its way.

Non-religious readers who have made it this far may say that Incarnation is nothing more nor less than an elegant solution to a non-existent problem. Modern psychology has described and explained these internal conflicts and proposed solutions to them which do not require the notion of spirit or spirituality. It is not only beyond my powers to address this comprehensively but it would unduly try the patience of those poor souls who have already spent so much time with this blog which they started under the impression that it was a jolly Christmas story. I will just say that psychology is a useful science and has given us many tools which are helpful in healing troubled souls. What it hasn't done is disproved God and, moreover, to the extent that material techniques are useful in addressing spiritual needs it can be argued that it confirms more than it refutes the notion that divinity can find a home in the bodies of men and women because Jesus has made all things possible

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Saturday, 13 December 2014

Sense & Sensuality

                                     Allegory of Modesty and Vanity by Bernadino Luini

And the servants of the goodman of the house coming said to him: Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? whence then hath it cockle? And he said to them: An enemy hath done this. And the servants said to him: Wilt thou that we go and gather it up?  And he said: No, lest perhaps gathering up the cockle, you root up the wheat also together with it.

In the last time there should come mockers, walking according to their own desires in ungodlinesses. These are they, who separate themselves, sensual men, having not the Spirit

Because I have a short attention span I've always had a soft spot for the Very Small Books in the Bible. I'm especially fond of the Old Testament books of Ruth and of Jonah. They are good stories and, apart from their religious content are full of little vignettes of human emotion from tender love to extreme crabbiness. The Very Small Books of the New Testament are more 'difficult' since they lack narrative and touch on deep spiritual and theological themes which you can't really get to grips with unless you have a good working knowledge of the ideas contained in the rest of the NT. Nonetheless the Catholic Epistle of St Jude the Apostle has several things going for it, its only 25 verses long, it illustrates the wheat and tares parable of our Lord and it is attributed to the patron saint of lost causes who is an appropriate patron for this little cottage blog that dreams of international stardom.

Essentially the letter concerns the presence within the body of Christ of those who do not truly belong to it. While it hints that there may be doctrinal disputes involved ("denying the only sovereign Ruler, and our Lord Jesus Christ" v4) it firmly lays the blame for those disruptive tendencies at the door of disordered desires. Like the Didache but less explicitly it presupposes that there are two ways, that of life and that of death the former rooted in the spirit and the latter in sensuality. St Jude gives a list of historical precedents for this kind of thing finishing with a threefold peroration-
Woe unto them, for they have gone in the way of Cain:
 and after the error of Balaam they have for reward poured out themselves,
 and have perished in the contradiction of Core
This echoes the first verse of the Book of Psalms
Blessed is the man
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers
Except that St Jude casts in a negative way (woe unto them) what David had cast in a positive one (blessed is the man.) It is significant that the three examples which he highlights relate examples of human vices specifically and directly to religious actions. The story of Cain (Genesis 4:1-16) displays anger and envy which leads to murder, this stems from the fact that the sacrifice offered to God by Cain's brother Abel is more pleasing to God than Cain's own offering. Balaam acts as a prophet-for-hire, that is although he has received a great gift from God, that of prophecy, he is willing to misuse that gift on behalf of the enemies of God if they pay him enough (Numbers 22.) Greed then is one of the traits that can lead us onto the way of death, doubly so perhaps if we abuse our God given charisma in the service of wickedness.

The episode of Core or Korah is probably less well known these days but it serves the author as a useful hinge since it illustrates both ways, that of life and that of death, thus giving us an early preview of his later positive prescriptions. Basically Korah leads a rebellion against the divine ordinance that reserves the priesthood to Aaron and his family "They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3) So Korah and his followers stood with censers swinging to offer incense to God and Aaron and his sons did the same with rather unpleasant results for Korah et al. Here the sin described is envy (again!) aggravated by pride. This example was and is much to the point insofar as it relates to the Church. There are different roles within the body of Christ, the priesthood of all believers does not mean that each believer is called to fulfill the same function as each other believer. Some are called to be Apostles, some presbyters, some prophets, some teachers and so on. To aim at exercising a charism which God has not gifted you with is not obedience unto life but rebellion unto death.

                                                    Allegory of Chastity by Memling

St Jude's prescription for life is twofold, right belief (orthodoxy) as a necessary foundation for right action (orthopraxy.) While history and, no doubt, our own personal lives clearly evidences that there is often no real connection between what we profess to believe and what we actually do the theory here is that what we really and truly hold as our heart-beliefs is reflected in our outward actions, for better or for worse. Thus if we internalise orthodoxy we shall externalise orthopraxy. At this point the non-orthodox among you will begin to get red or purple in the face and evince a desire to jump up and down yelling irately that one does not have to be a Christian to 'do the right thing.' This is both correct and wrong, but not in equal measure. The correctness consists in the fact that heart-belief, to the extent that is good and virtuous, is always and only prompted by the grace of God. When your heart is aligned with His promptings and cooperates with them in your outward actions then you can to a greater or lesser extent be credited with orthopraxy. However, there are limitations to this if your response to grace is made while unconscious of the presence of grace since you attribute its promptings either to yourself, your sound reason, your innate goodness, or to the effects of the good example set by others, perhaps beginning with your parents. This means that the good actions you perform are limited to what, say, your reason finds to be a suitable response to the partly understood promptings of God felt in your heart. What you don't offer then is gratitude and praise to Him who is the source of both your will and your actions, nor can you strengthen yourself in continued good doing through a personal relationship with Him, through faith, in prayer and in the sacraments. Heartfelt orthodoxy is the only basis upon which consistent orthopraxy can be based which is not the same thing as saying that orthodoxy is the only basis for a life of good and generous acts.

So how according to St Jude can we know of what right belief consists? He gives us two hints firstly by talking of the faith once delivered to the saints (v3) and then later where he says be mindful of the words which have been spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. (v17) It is worthy of noticing that in a short letter saturated with references to the Old Testament he does not suggest that Scripture alone should be the source from which orthodox belief is derived. In part this might be because as well as the biblical sources he uses our Apostle also quotes or refers to apocryphal or non-canonical sources such as The Assumption of Moses, the Book of Enoch and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. It is as if he is saying to the Christian community that there are a wide variety of written sources from which we can draw nourishment some of them contain this or that element of God's revelation to Man and some contain material which is edifying or useful but not revelatory and thus non-binding. The only sure fountain from which we can drink the water of salvation in all its purity is the teaching of the Apostles and the traditions which they have handed down (or for his contemporaries are still handing down since, of course the Epistle he was writing was part of that deposit of faith then being laid down.) In short, the Christian faith is Apostolic before it is scriptural.

Some one thousand eight hundred years later Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman reflected on this very question. In Apologia pro Vita Sua he wrote  the sacred text was never intended to teach doctrine, but only to prove it, and that, if we would learn doctrine, we must have recourse to the formularies of the Church.  His argument being that the complex, multi-layered, multiple genre containing Bible is not a thing which any individual can safely use to deduce the entire structure of belief from. We require to understand it in the same way that the Apostles guided by the Holy Spirit understood it (and in part wrote it) for which purpose the only available source to us is the continuous understanding of the Church which those Apostles founded and which continues in unbroken succession to this day. More than that in a sermon Faith and Private Judgement he described the process by which the contents of the Christian religion were received by the Church in its epoch of foundation. ...either the Apostles were from God, or they were not; if they were, everything that they preached was to be believed by their hearers; if they were not, there was nothing for their hearers to believe That is one did not analyse their words accepting this and rejecting that, this was a straightforward either/or choice. One cannot describe a religion based on Scripture Alone in the same way that one can describe that religion based on the Apostles because in the former one uses one's private judgement and the final arbiter of doctrine is personal opinion while in the latter it is the opinion of the Apostles which is to say the Holy Spirit to which one submits.        

So, having received the Apostolic faith what do we do with it, how does it express itself in action? St Jude gives us this description You, my beloved, building yourselves upon your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ (vv20-21.) Here the Apostle touches lightly upon a sequence of actions which to fully expound would take more space than this blog has and more knowledge than this blogger possesses. You can discern the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love in what St Jude says and of these three the greatest is love so perhaps the most effectual commentary on St Jude's prescription comes from St Paul-

Love is patient and kind; 
love does not envy or boast; 
it is not arrogant or rude. 
It does not insist on its own way; 
it is not irritable or resentful; 
it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, 
but rejoices with the truth. 
Love bears all things, 
believes all things, 
hopes all things, 
endures all things. 

Love never ends

The sensual man (meaning man or woman) whom our Apostle talks about in verse 19 is one whose love is primarily directed towards himself and restricted to the realm of material things and sensations. Over against this is the way of life, the way of good sense, grounded in the spirit and lived out as a life which is primarily directed outward to God and neighbour. For it is a fact that love of necessity is never a solitary thing, it always requires to overflow from the individual, it can only exist by being shared. To hoard it is to lose it, to spend it is to increase it. To the extent that the Church contains both wheat and tares one of the functions allotted to each grain of wheat is, by love, to transform each sensual seed into a new grain of wheat which will flourish and give forth some thirtyfold, some sixtyfold and some an hundredfold fruits of love and life.

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Sunday, 7 December 2014

Advent and the Problem of Suffering

All that I was, is gone, the ambition, the happiness that was mine swept away like clouds before the storm; my heart is dead within me, a prey to long despairs
Book of Job 30:15-16

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, or mourning, or cries of distress, no more sorrow; those old things have passed away.
Book of Revelation 21:4

Whatever the reality might be the popular image of the pre-Christmas season is that it is a time of happy bustling busy-ness finally crowned with a joyful day of celebration. It may then seems perverse to consider the problem of suffering in the context of this time of the year. Perhaps you will think it less so when I mention that I begin to write this on the 16th anniversary of my mother's sudden and unexpected death on 7 December 1998. Indeed it has been my experience both personal and professional (as a registered nurse) that for a good many people the month of December is associated with either the vivid presence of actual suffering or with memories of it still laden with the power to cause deep pain.

To the extent that Christmas is a secular festival charged with no higher moral purpose than to be a cause of universal jolliness and over-consumption then the mere mention of death, pain, affliction and torment can be seen as a crime against the season. The subliminal message is 'don't rain on our parade, keep your sorrows to yourself.' This can poison Advent and Christmastide for many who feel obliged to hide what they cannot comfortably share. As my father remarked some years after our joint bereavement 'The magic has gone from Christmas now.'

Fortunately the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord is not simply a secular festival and Advent is more than a shopping and partying season. The Church sets aside a time for us to prepare to welcome Jesus. And we can give over a part of this time to considering why it is that we need Him, which of His gifts to us should most fill us with gratitude. As part of the seemingly endless Culture Wars in the USA the slogan 'remember the reason for the season' has gained some traction. To the extent that this is simply a political blunt instrument for political conservatives to hit political liberals over the head with its use is regrettable. To the extent that it reminds people that trying to consider Christmas apart from Jesus doesn't really make much sense it is useful. Nonetheless on both counts it misses a valuable point. Sin, death and suffering are the reasons for the season. Jesus came into the world to combat and defeat these enemies of ours, He is a warrior and a healer because we are wounded and under attack from without and within.

During Advent we can identify our wounds and prepare to present them to our Lord that they may be healed or, since their is no permanent healing in this life, at least bound up. It is always useful when asking for gift to ask ourselves why we want or need it. It is no sin to want a new toy or a little taste of luxury or something beautiful but impractical. The innocent  little pleasures of life in moderation are part of the gift of life itself and God Himself gives of them freely filling the world with unnecessary beauty. But it is in an enduring relationship with the giver of the gifts that we are most enriched whether that giver be a parent, a child, a sibling, a friend, a valued colleague or the Creator of all that is.

There is much truth in the cliché that the mission of the Church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The temptation which she faces is to overemphasise the first at the expense of the second. A corporate body perceived to be primarily engaged in the business of benevolently consoling the suffering and vulnerable is not apt to become so estranged from the world that it becomes the object of persecution and produce its crop of martyrs. A comforting Church can become a comfortable Church and thus herself in need of being afflicted by prophetic voices which call her back to the task of denouncing the individual, collective and structural sinfulness of the world. The key note for her must be one of balance. She, and we, should recall that very often the comfortable and the suffering are not different groups of people but that both states can exist within the same person. The wife and mother who rejoices in her family may still carry within her the scars of childhood abuse. The father who lights up a room with his ready smile may never forget the brutal torture that forced him to flee his native land.

The theme of balance too applies to those of us who suffer. To endlessly chew over and rehearse in our imagination the same little list of sorrows affords us no benefit, to try to repress and suppress memories of pain does us real harm. Advent and the Christian life in general affords us the opportunity to recall our afflictions in the context of the coming of the one who is our healer. They no longer remain our private property but a become a fully shared experience since the Jesus who was born in poverty and died, abandoned, on a Cross enters into all our anguishes and casts the light of hope upon them. Our hunger will not be assuaged by a six-course Christmas dinner but it will be by the coming into our life of God's Son, Mary's Son, Jesus our Saviour.

We are beset by dangers on every side and for Christians who do constantly recall both their sufferings and their Lord there is a special one. It is a feeling that if they still experience pain, if they are still afflicted then it means that somehow they are not good enough Christians, that if only their faith was deeper the pain would go away. Well, Jesus was a good enough Christian and His pain only ended with death. The Book of Job with which I began this post tells of a man who was so righteous that even God Himself praised Him. Yet Job suffered for reasons neither he nor we can fully understand. Stuff happens. The healing which Jesus brings is real healing but it is not always one that we can fully understand or appreciate in this life and may well leave a residue of physical or emotional affliction that never departs from us. That is not a failure of faith, or a failure of God for that matter, it is a truth which we cannot yet understand but which one day we hope that we shall.

Another thing worth recalling about Job is And cruelly he smote Job; smote him with the foul scab from head to foot,  so that he was fain to sit him down on the dung-hill, and scratch himself with a shard where he itched. (Job 2:7-8)  Job endured what he had to endure but also employed a shard to help deal with the sufferings he was experiencing. So too we should make use of whatever tools are at hand to help us in our need: medicines, therapies, doctors, nurses, counselling, whatever. It is wise to find a way through Christ, with Christ and in Christ to endure what must be endured. It is foolish to endure what we can honourably avoid unless we choose to do so as a voluntary sacrifice.

Don't forget to read my Christmas fable Adoration of the Pangolins for free on Wattpad.

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Friday, 5 December 2014

The Nativity- A Universal Story

                                 Detail from The Census at Bethlehem by Breugel the Elder

Joseph consoled and encouraged the Holy Virgin. He was so good: he suffered so much because the journey was so painful to her. He spoke to her about the good lodgings which he expected to procure at Bethlehem: he knew of a house belonging to some very honest people, where they could be well accommodated at reasonable expense. He praised Bethlehem in general, and said anything he could to console her. This gave me anxiety, as I knew things would turn out otherwise.
The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ by Anne Catherine Emmerich

As we draw closer to the day when we celebrate The Greatest Story Ever Told (the Nativity, of course, as opposed to the Downton Abbey Christmas special), let us meditate upon the importance of narrative truth. Can we please bring back “the journey”? Or at least some semblance of any actual reality? 
Reality TV badly needs a dose of reality by Viv Groskop

This idea, published in the aggressively secularist Guardian newspaper, that the Nativity story is in some ways the model for an account of "the journey" set me thinking about why this might be so,or regarded as so by many. One of the appealing features (apparently) of Reality TV is that ordinary people go on an "incredible journey" from humble obscurity to fame (or at least celebrity) and fortune (or at least enough money to buy a tastelessly decorated house and some bling). An arc which takes our hero from a log cabin to a pink house. This basic plot line has appeared in thousands of format throughout history from the Hobbit to that saying of Napoleon which goes- Every private in the French army carries a field-marshal's baton in his knapsack.

All of this seems a long way from Joseph and Mary setting out from Nazareth to Bethlehem until we look at the core elements of the story. Our Lady is heavily pregnant and the terrain they must cover is not easy. Thus the journey is a difficult one but they are filled with hope, the child of promise will be born to them when they reach their destination. At journey's end there is disappointment since they cannot find a suitable place to stay. They end up in the poor shelter of a grotto. And then, into the midst of this rejection and poverty a new life is born, angels rejoice, shepherds and wise men celebrate all is life and light, joy and hope. It might be argued that our need to hear this story is so great that imagination has added in details which are not warranted by the extant texts. Without going into the argument about the relative priority of Tradition and Text I propose to look at why each of us feels need to hear the story of "the journey" and why it appears in so many different contexts.

In some ways its obvious that the external elements of the tale are something to which most of us can relate. Very often our lives can be characterised as journeying in hope, facing disappointment and/or rejection and then surmounting those difficulties if not in our own person then through our proxies be these our children, our sports team, our political party or whatever. But then any old quest story would do, and goodness knows we have plenty to choose from, so there is something particular about the Nativity which speaks to us beyond the simple externals of it. The specifically Christian element obviously speaks to Christians and to some extent those culturally influenced by Christianity. That is, we recognise something special in that mother and in that child. They somehow embody both an Everywoman/Everyman quality as well as an emblematic one, standing as signs of goodness and virtue. That is they are paradoxically inspirational figures encouraging us to change ourselves and mirrors of our better selves. Yet even these two combined, the external facts and the Christian content would do not serve to make the story as universal as it is.

There are, I think, two chief elements which combine to universalise the appeal of the Nativity narrative and they are both centered on the figure of Mary. Firstly and necessarily she is pregnant. There are relatively few "journey" stories which feature pregnant women for reasons too numerous to list. One factor would be that pregnancy itself is a journey. Whether our Lady travelled to Bethlehem or not a child would have been born to her, her life would have been transformed. The external details of the trip are simply a reflection in the outer world of a development which in any event was taking place in her inner world. The drama of pregnancy and childbirth is one in which all of us have been involved in, sometimes in more than one capacity. So, insofar as the Nativity describes not only an historical (or quasi-historical for non-believers) event but also an intimate and personal one to each person who hears it then it is a universal story.

                                   Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem- Hugo van der Goes

Again, though, pregnancy is so universal that you might think that any old story would meet our need to encounter this tale, to reflect upon it and celebrate it. Another element is required and this is to be found in Mary's virginity. The appeal extends beyond those who will accept this virginity as a dogmatic truth (as I emphatically do) and includes all those who suspend disbelief for the sake of the inner logic of the story with which they are interacting. There is a Catholic axiom that at the Annunciation our Lady conceived Jesus in her heart before she conceived Him in her virginal womb. Her joyful consent to the plans of God was the foundation to everything that followed and has an essential part in the whole economy of salvation. From the narrative point of view this means that the new hope which Mary carries within her has the force of an Idea. That is to say that she is not simply heavy with child but that she is also filled with everything that that child represents and all of this does not depart from her at the birth of our Lord but remains with her and imbues all that she does not only in relation to Him but in relation to all whom she encounters and all that she does.

This axiom universalises the story because it recasts pregnancy and the journey of pregnancy into a form which everyone, male and female, young and old, can personally identify with. Each of us carry within ourselves ideas, plans, dreams, hopes. We constantly seek to bring them out of our head and hearts and into the world. Our journey through life is an attempt to reach our Bethlehem, to give birth to our child of promise, to share it with a rejoicing world. One of the effects of the doctrine of the Incarnation is that embodies abstract ideas into material realities, it draws together two worlds which often seem far apart. This speaks to a real human need which is why, for example, Protestant denominations which resolutely resist the idea of candles and icons, statues and incense because they think physical objects detract from spiritual worship of the spiritual God will annually re-enact or represent the Nativity. For humans ideas are not enough we need to see them inhabit physical space at least once a year for them to remain real and vital to us.        

The universality of the Nativity narrative is a mixed blessing for the Church. Whilst it ensures that the annual outing of the story is guaranteed a huge audience it contains within itself a seed of temptation. The more the universal is emphasised the bigger and more responsive the audience becomes. However, the evangelical purpose of the Church is to convert lives, to change them, not simply to affirm them, to suggest that everything that people do now is just fine. Always the shadow of the Cross over the crib is to be remembered. Mary is not just a representative figure for all those who carry ideas and hopes towards fruition. She carries a specific Idea, a single Word one whose coming is necessitated by our own fallen and broken state, our propensity to selfishness and sin. Jesus comes into the world to heal the breach that we ourselves have created and the reconciliation is effected by His Passion and death at Easter. Sin is as universal as hope and it hovers over the Nativity story as one of its effective causes (the other being God's infinite causeless love for us). In their efforts to broaden their appeal by the use of an archetypal story which is their peculiar possession Christian's must resist the temptation to dilute its message by focussing exclusively on hearts and flowers to the detriment of thorns and broken life's. As perceptive readers will already have noticed the English word universal has the same meaning as the Greek derived word catholic. In its retelling of the Nativity the Church must always aim to recount it as a Catholic story in every sense of the term.

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