Thursday, 30 January 2014

Conceited Hearts and an Immaculate One

51 He hath shewed might in his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
Luke 1:51

The concept of 'heart' plays a prominent role in the opening chapters of St Luke's Gospel account. Most Catholic attention is focussed on those references which show our Lady as a contemplative-
But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart. (Lk 2:19)
 And his mother kept all these words in her heart. (Lk 2:51)

Its first appearance though is in the mouth of the Archangel Gabriel
And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias; that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people. (Lk 1:17)

It is also applied to those Judeans who heard the events surrounding the birth of St John the Baptist
And all they that had heard them laid them up in their heart
(Lk 1:66)

Indeed, the only time that the concept is used negatively is by our Lady in the quote that begins this reflection from her Magnificat. In this, as you might expect, Mary has a sound basis in Jewish scripture and tradition-
16 Six things there are, which the Lord hateth, and the seventh his soul detesteth:
17 Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood,
18 A heart that deviseth wicked plots, feet that are swift to run into mischief,
19 A deceitful witness that uttereth lies, and him that soweth discord among brethren.
Proverbs 6

What is meant by heart is something like what we might mean by 'mind' but incorporating within it feelings and emotions. That is, reason plays a prominent part in it but not an exclusive one. These words of the Blessed Virgin have been translated in various ways each giving a slightly different take on the same thing-
Arrogant thoughts (Common English Bible)
Scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts (English Standard Version)
the imagination of their hearts. (Authorised Version)
those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. (New International Version)
The proud in mind and heart (The Voice)
And so on and so forth.

So, we have arrogance, pride, conceit and imagination each of which is deemed apt to describe the inner workings of those whom our Lady contrasts with the humble ones whom God delights to honour. This has a resonance with the Messianic Psalm 2
Why do the heathen rage,
and the people imagine a vain thing? (Psalms 2:1 AV
The point here, which Mary above all others is qualified to make, is that in some sense 'humility' means the same thing as 'truth'. In understanding herself as being fragile and vulnerable and dependant upon the mercy of God, subject to an innumerable number of hazards of nature and man's design, any one of which could strike her down in an instant, the Virgin recognises the absolute truth about her status as a human. By contrast those who believe themselves capable of making the will of God and the inescapable facts about our limitations subject to their own will and power are making false assumptions about themselves. And these assumptions proceed from an arrogance, a pride, that imagines things about themselves which are entirely untrue.

One of the delusions of our own age is the notion of autonomy. Each person is considered to be a wholly independent unit who should only concede to limitations on that independence, if they concede them at all, entirely by their own free and unconstrained choice. And if these limitations become irksome then they should be equally free to revoke the concession whenever they want. In many ways it is an attractive image. It is also, as it happens, a conceit of the heart. From the moment of conception onward we are not independent or autonomous nor is there any reason why we should be. We are dependant upon others and other become dependant upon us. Even the language of 'rights' where we demand this or that right as a freedom that necessarily flows from our position as a citizen tacitly acknowledges that the achievement of each right for each individual always flows from other individuals fulfilling a duty or discharging an obligation.

To exercise a wise human freedom we must always begin, as the Mother of God began, by acknowledging the basic truth about ourselves. Here humility is not an affectation nor a conscious attempt to be virtuous, though it is the virtue above all other virtues, it is a simple recognition that we are limited and dependant. This is not to advocate timidity it is to say that we should do all that we can do but to accept that in order to achieve all that we can achieve we must act on the realistic acceptance that all true success depends more upon others than upon self. And all true rejoicing must be in the benefits that all our successes confer upon others.

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Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Disappearing into darkness

22 These words the Lord spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he added no more. 
Deuteronomy 5

10 And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord,11 so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud: for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord.
12 Then spake Solomon, The Lord said that he would dwell in the thick darkness.
1/3 Kings 8

Idols are visible. They attract our senses and stimulate them. An invisible idol would make little sense. Surrounded by nations of idolaters the children of Israel worshipped an invisible God whose inmost sanctuary was behind a veil and whose presence was manifested by thick darkness. It can be discouraging to see obscurity when you look for clarity, to find that all your senses have become functionless. It is no surprise that the history of Israel consists mostly in a falling away from the One who is hidden from us and a falling towards those idols who caress the senses. The surprising thing, perhaps, is the faithfulness of the Father who never stops trying to win back the love of His children by one means or another.

Modern folk who have little desire to overtly worship anything find the attraction to idolatry as incomprehensible as the attraction toward the God of Israel and wander what all the fuss is about. They are happy to tolerate either, meaning they are contemptuous about both. It must be a vain God or gods who constantly demand praise and sacrifice and a credulous person who responds willingly they reason. The crucial point, easily missed here, though revolves precisely around the appeal to the senses. There was not a competition between various cultic deities each offering the same basic goods like McDonald's or Burger King. This was people choosing to follow a way that promised to give sensuous fulfilment now or to obey a law which demanded a high ethical standard and which could only be complied with through a programme of self discipline. And all this for a God who was hidden from sight in thick darkness. At this stage of revelation there was not even the promise of heaven and the resurrection to act as an incentive.

The nature of the different ways is given dramatic point in the Book of Daniel. The King of Babylon, a city emblematic of licentiousness, arrogance and luxurious living sets up an image of gold, emblematic of wealth, and commands all to worship it. Three young Jewish men refuse, preferring instead to offer their praise to the invisible God of Israel who is even more invisible than usual since His Temple has been destroyed and His people taken captive. They say simply
17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.
Daniel 3

The final clause being the crucial one. They believe their God to be all powerful and the one true God and therefore they cannot fathom His purposes, He is obscure to them, nonetheless they will put their lives at risk rather than deny Him because He is God and the golden image is just a golden image.

So, the division between idolaters and worshippers of the God who is hidden exists as much in the West today as it did in the Middle East 3000 and more years ago. The modern idols of the materialist, consumerist, celebrity obsessed world are no less potent and no less worshipped because they do not get called gods. And ultimately, since each of these idols feeds our sensual appetites, what we worship is ourselves since it is the fulfilment our greedy desire for pleasure which will, we hope, be the outcome of our fervent acts of worship. Unless that is we turn the eyes of our hearts to the One who dwells in thick darkness, who spoke and then said no more.

And why should we strain our eyes for what we cannot see or listen for what will not speak? Because we desire heaven? Because we fear hell? Well, perhaps, but neither of these are the deepest reason. It is not said that God created the cloud which obscures Him. Maybe, indeed, there is no cloud, the darkness is of our own fashioning. Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, said
22 The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. 23 But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness
Matthew 6

If God disappears into darkness it is not because He is dark but because we are. The reason we have for seeking Him and no other is that only thus can we transform our darkness into His light or, rather, can we allow ourselves to be liberated from a dark kingdom and transported into the realm of light in which, and in which only, we can live and move and have our being in happiness and joy all the days of our lives.
18 But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
 2 Corinthians 3

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