Monday, 31 March 2014

Typical Woman

The Reluctant Seductress 

[29] Then Achior seeing the head of Holofernes, being seized with a great fear he fell on his face upon the earth, and his soul swooned away. [30] But after he had recovered his spirits he fell down at her feet, and reverenced her and said:
[31] Blessed art thou by thy God in every tabernacle of Jacob, for in every nation which shall hear thy name, the God of Israel shall be magnified on occasion of thee.
[6] Then Achior seeing the power that the God of Israel had wrought, leaving the religion of the gentiles, he believed God, and circumcised the flesh of his foreskin, and was joined to the people of Israel, with all the succession of his kindred until this present day
Judith Chapter 14

The story of Judith is one of those which can always be found in the Bibles of the Catholic and Orthodox but very rarely in those of the Reformed tradition. There are complex historical and theological reasons for this which it would exceed my knowledge base to go into. What I can say is that although the early Reformers had doubts about the canonical status of the Deuterocanonical books, as they are called, including Judith they nonetheless continued to make use of them. The classic King James Version of the Bible, for example, included her story in full. And the Church of England Book of Homilies issued in the 16th Century to expound the Reformed doctrines contained in the 39 Articles made frequent reference to these 7 books to reinforce their arguments. It is only later generations of Protestants that began, more or less without debate, to edit Judith and her companions out of the picture.

I often feel when reading her story that if I had encountered it as a teenager then my interest in religion would have started a whole lot earlier than it did. It has so many great elements. It is mercifully short. It features war, battle, siege, seduction and drunkenness and in Judith a feisty heroine who is glamorous, willing to wield a sword with the boys and no mean military strategist. Absolutely none of which interested the theologians and commentators who have written about Judith over the centuries. In keeping with Catholic tradition the chief thing sought when reading the Old Testament is the ways in which it foreshadows the New Covenant. Events and persons are considered as being types or allegorical symbols of events and persons that reached their full significance in Gospel times. Men like King David or the Prophet Jonah are seen as types of Jesus and women like Rachel and Esther as types of Mary. In that sense Judith is a typical woman since in her, the theologians argue, we can see a type or figure of Mary.

You might wonder in what sense the gentle Nazarene Virgin can be compared to the scimitar wielding beheading widow. The key is found in the so called proto-evangelium I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.    Genesis 3:15  Mary is the one who crushes the head of Satan through her son Jesus and the sword of the Gospel, Judith beheads Holofernes, a type of Satan,

However that might be, my interest here is to consider, via the figure of Achior the Ammonite, how Judith exemplifies the manner in which devotion to a handmaid of the Lord is not a diversion from worship owed to God but a super-highway towards it. Achior belonged to those who were traditional enemies of Israel. He was aware of their religion but did not share it. Holofernes, to whom he was a reluctant ally, banished Achior to the Israelite town of Bethulia for daring to suggest that the God of Israel might, in certain narrowly defined circumstances, prove stronger than the King of Assyria whom the Assyrian hosts considered to be the only God upon earth and with power over it. Achior was doomed to share the fate of the Israelites, when the earthly God crushed the heavenly one then he would die alongside those who had vainly put their faith in the God of Jacob.

When therefore Achior saw the severed head of Holofernes and learned that he had died by the hand of Judith he realised that he had escaped from death because the God of Israel had acted through the agency of this heroic and virtuous woman. He fell down and showed her reverence and because of her he converted to Judaism. Here then we have a perfect illustration in type of the value of Marian devotion. Many people, and especially from those Christian traditions which have edited out the Book of Judith, think that by giving praise and honour to Mary we lead people away from Jesus yet Achior perceived instinctively that by praising with due praise one who perfectly fulfilled the role God had chosen for her he was thereby giving honour to God.

All the reasons that Catholics have for honouring Mary stem from her relationship with the Blessed Trinity and above all her Son, the Logos of God, Jesus Christ. We cannot contemplate her without contemplating Him and we cannot honour her without honouring Him. Yet there is this difference, Mary is one of us, the human and only human daughter of a human mother and father. She is Our tainted nature's solitary boast as Wordsworth put it. She is not divine nor is she charged with the task of being our Judge. A great many people have no fear of Jesus and no sense of distance from Him and can pass in and out freely through His gate finding pasture (John 10:9) Yet we are not all the same, some, and it may be the more humble among us, do see the great distance between themselves and Jesus or they see deeply inside themselves just how much they deserve the judgement and ought to fear the judge. For these the Church offers Mary as the ladder which will lift us up gently and lovingly to Him. After all, the Jews did not need Judith to convince them to believe in Almighty God but Achior did. It is the task of the Church to save the Achiors of this world every bit as much as it is to save Jews (metaphorically speaking). And Mary is that Blessed Woman who leads many to salvation by being the most sweet mirror of her Son.

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Friday, 21 March 2014

Frequent Ejaculation

                                          Detail from Ecstasy of St Teresa by Bernini

For many centuries Catholics have been encouraged to practice a devotion known as ejaculatory prayer. My copy of Our Lady's Prayer Book from 1929 has, indeed, a list of indulgenced ejaculatory prayers with the amount of time off purgatory added in brackets afterwards. Saying, for example, Sacred Heart of Jesus I trust thee is worth 300 days. In recent decades the Church has adopted a less apparently mechanical approach to purgatory. Also for reasons which might or might not be obvious to the reader the term 'ejaculatory prayer' has fallen out of favour. Various other names for the practise have been used with 'exclamatory prayer' being perhaps the most straightforward replacement.

However it is described the practice is one of those deceptively simple and seemingly easy devotions which are actually both harder to practice and considerably more beneficial than you might suppose. The idea is to take a word or group of words, perhaps a short scripture passage or a mini prayer, and repeat it frequently during the course of the day out loud or silently. This is different from a mantra in that the prayer is not intended to be uninterrupted, rather it is itself intended to be an interruption. That is, by using an exclamatory prayer at odd moments, waiting for the kettle to boil, queuing up at the shops, in a boring meeting or whatever, one calls to mind the sacred whilst in the midst of the workaday business of you just being you and doing your thing.

The unexpected power of this prayer lies in the simple fact that a word is never just a word and a phrase is never just a collection of words. Every time we name something or enunciate a concept, even if we do it hurriedly or only half consciously, then it invokes with it a connection of memories and associated ideas and emotions. These act upon us as frequently as we invoke them and that they may be doing so at a level below our awareness does not make them any the less powerful. If we say, for example, I do believe, Lord: help my unbelief. then we will be recalling a particular episode from the Gospel, we will be imaginatively entering into the lives of our Lord, His Disciples and those who went to seek Him and we will be making a plea for conversion which, in its turn, calls into our mind and heart the recollection how much and for why we so desire to be converted. All of this occupies but a few seconds of the day and much of it occurs, as I said, at a level below our discursive mind's awareness. Nonetheless, repeat the action dozens of times a day and thousands of times a year then it will have a gradual transformative effect upon our very souls.

Another substitute for 'ejaculation' is 'aspiration'. The concept of prayers of aspiration is my favourite way of thinking about the devotion because aspiration is such a delightfully multi-layered word. It can indicate that we have a desire to achieve something or to become something. Thus if we pray Be thou my speech, be thou my understanding.  then we are aspiring to make God central to everything we see and everything we think. Aspiration also refers to breath so this devotion is a way of making prayer as natural to us as breathing. And, of course at the centre of the word is the root 'spirit' reminding us that Spirit and breath are closely united in meaning and closely related to each other so aspirations are ways of calling down the Holy Spirit upon us. Incidentally previous generations of Catholics would have been familiar with the idea that "'Come Holy Spirit' is an ejaculatory prayer" but modern minds might be minded to rephrase that slightly differently.

Another difference between this and the mantra is that we are not restricted to using just one aspiration or exclamation. During the course of the day or week or year we can use several different ones. Whatever serves to help raise our mind and heart to God in the situation in which we find ourselves. I used to like saying this is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118) on grey, gloomy, rainy days. I stopped because other people seemed to find it annoying. When feeling down I might say For I know that my Redeemer lives (Job 19:25). When feeling beleaguered by life or by my inner demons I might call O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me (Psalm 69/70)  and so on and so forth.

The devotion could take the form of simply using a single word, most usually a name either Jesus or Mary being the obviously Catholic choices. If a word is never just a word then a name most certainly is never just a name. This is particularly the case with names with which we have been familiar since childhood. Every time we invoke it we call up a huge range of associations. Of course these names are also often used in negative ways in cursing or casual blasphemies and as we do ourselves unsuspected good in invoking them prayerfully so, I would suggest, we do ourselves unsuspected harm in using them thus disrespectfully. Be that as it may, the Church holds that both these names contain and convey power within them and if we use them prayerfully during the course of the day then we allow that power to irrupt into our lives and seep into our consciousness as an important part of our own identity.

Personally, over the years I have used a wide variety of such aspiration but at any one time there is usually one which I use massively more than any other, when I walk, when I wait for a train, while I am cooking a meal, when too tired to read, when about to fall asleep. Currently my fave is Mary, help of Christians, pray for us which seems appropriate on all sorts of occasions. It is also a prayer to be found in the Litany of our Lady and the practise of praying litanies is a rich source of aspirational prayers as is the practise of Lectio Divina, both forms of prayer which I hope to be able to write about in future blogs.

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Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Pilate's Wife Dreams

19 And as he was sitting in the place of judgment, his wife sent to him, saying: Have thou nothing to do with that just man; for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.
Matthew 27

A troubled sleep in the morning
Light of unsettled Jerusalem.

Images chase each other in
Horrid, hurried blood tinted hues.

A man, young and strong and
Open, betrayed and alone.

I see Him, I see His pain
The swords, the torches, 
the treacherous kiss.

The mouth, apt to smile
I see it struck and spat upon.

A back, strong to carry another's 
Burden, scourged, its flesh 
Ripped apart.

And you, my irresolute husband
I see you, not glorious 
Not Imperial.

Hands, which I know are
Healers hands, I see too
Nailed to unforgiving wood.

Feet, once made beautiful
The bearers of good news,
Deformed by hammer blows.

Kindly eyes, lovely eyes, His
Eyes which have seen what we
Cannot see. Darkened with pain.

A cruel, twisted, barbed and
Vicious crown thrust unjustly
Upon that just mans head.

A great heart and a generous one
That would give all does give all
When pierced by a legionnaire's lance.

A woman, a mother, a helpless
Mourner for a perfect Son
While He yet lives.

Wild, cascading, unheeded
The tumbling hair of a Magdalene
Woman transported with grief.

Yes, husband, I have suffered
But worse is to come 
If your coward heart
Rules this day.

I see Rome, mighty Rome
Fallen, the Eagle vanquished

By a pale Galilean

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Monday, 10 March 2014

Mother of the Lord, Father of the Buddha

34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Luke 2

A hermit, who lived in the mountains not far away, noticing a glory about the castle and interpreting it as a good omen, came down to the palace and was shown the child. He predicted: "This prince, if he remains in the palace after his youth, will become a great King to rule the Four Seas. But if he forsakes the household life to embrace a religious life, he will become a Buddha and the world's Saviour."
The Buddha's Life

There have been many attempts to draw parallels between the lives of Jesus and the Buddha. In particular the narratives about the birth and early lives of these two figures have been compared. The argument essentially is that many of the elements found in the stories of the Buddha can also be seen in the much later figure of Jesus. The inference being that the Gospel authors borrowed the legends and incorporated them into their narratives. That being so it casts grave doubt on the reliability we can place on these documents as being at all historically accurate since they contain fabulous elements within them.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes that since the Buddha pre-dates the Messiah then so to do the legends and stories surrounding him. That, I think, is far from certain. The Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke received pretty much their final form and were circulated within a century of the events they describe. The provenance of the Buddha legends is less clear and it has been suggested that some of them post-date Jesus thus demolishing the argument. All of this is well outside my range of expertise and I cannot comment intelligently about it. My purpose here is to focus on an obvious anti-parallel in the stories. The different approaches of Mary and King Suddhodana to the respective missions of their children. I do not intend this to be a negative reflection on Buddhism, the King did not become a Buddhist until much, much later, but a way of highlighting the radical demands which the Gospel makes upon our deepest and most fundamental feelings and relationships and the way that Mary displays to us the perfect Christian response to those demands.

In addition to the prophecy of Simeon our Lady had also heard that of the Archangel Gabriel concerning her Son-
31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
Luke 1
So both the King and the Nazarene maiden were presented with the prospect of a child who would or could be associated with royal glory and also with religious mission. The difference being that King Suddhodana had an either/or choice and the Blessed Virgin a both/and prospect. For Jesus to enter upon His royal throne He must first become a sign of contradiction and source of scandal and Mary herself would have to feel a sword piercing agony. This was not only implicit in the two prophecies which were spoken to her but was clearly explicit in the earlier words of Isaiah with which she would have been familiar.
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
    and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Isaiah 53

So, what happened next? The King did his very best to shelter the young Siddhartha from contact with the world of suffering, old age and death. He surrounded him with beautiful, healthy people and gave him access to all kinds of pleasures and the training required to be a king and a warrior. It could be argued that our Lady did not have these options and simply lived as she had to live but that is not so. She, and the most chaste St Joseph, had choices to make and they made them with a view to fitting Jesus for His appointment with the Cross. St Matthew tells us that they were given great gifts by the Magi but is silent as to what the Holy Family did with them. Catholic tradition has it that the Virgin gave them away to the poor. in any event she could have claimed sanctuary from these wealthy travellers and doubtless they would have been glad to shelter and provide for the future King of the Jews. Instead she and the holy patriarch fled into exile in Egypt, to escape Herod, and lived the life of asylum seekers. If God wished our Lord to be raised into poverty and obscurity then Mary and Joseph would willingly do as He required. When the danger was over there is no suggestion that the Holy Family were materially obliged to return to the Holy Land. Faced with the horror that awaited both her and her Son Mary could have chosen the option of the prophet Jonah and fled still further afield hoping that God would relent and spare them the Passion, finding some other means to save the people of the world from the consequences of their own malevolent and malicious actions. She did not. She was faithful to her calling as Mother of the Redeemer.

One day the young Prince went for a walk alone in a garden and was resting under a jambu tree. Almost without realising it, the he drew his legs into meditation posture, his mind became stilled and free of worldly thoughts and he was filled with peace and serenity.
Life of Shakyamuni Buddha- Childhood 

46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
Luke 2

Again there are obvious contrasts to be seen in these youthful experiences of the two world teachers. The Buddha had this solitary experience despite his father's best efforts and it proceeds in an atmosphere of stillness and silence. Jesus was situated in the more raucous surrounding of the Temple. More pertinently, for my purposes, is what led up to this episode. Although it was neither engineered not desired by Mary and Joseph all that they had done prior to it led to its being possible. They brought Him up to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem amid the thronging crowds and all that could be expected from such gatherings when they could, like King Suddhodana, have kept Him secluded and far from such scenes. And they were happy for Him to mix with other children and other families as we see from the manner in which they lost Him-
44 Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends.
Luke 2
This was not carelessness on the part of the Virgin and her spouse. This was a willingness to give Jesus to His mission by granting Him the freedom to grow into it as the Spirit led Him.

Worried by this turn of events, the King's advisors suggested that a wife and children would help to turn the Prince's attention to worldly matters and so the search for a bride was begun
Life of Shakyamuni Buddha- Childhood

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’
John 2

The King sought to deter Siddhartha from his religious mission by tying him into the world of ordinary royal ambitions through marriage and paternity. Our Lady on the occasion of another marriage by her prayers prompted to Jesus to finally embark upon that journey which would result in her agony and His Passion and Death. She showed that she valued marriage and that she wished that the happiness and joy of that couple should begin with the unblemished felicity of a happy wedding feast. And she showed too that she knew that that path was closed off to her Son so she played her part in encouraging Him to bless the one path by an action that would set Him of on a totally different one.

In the very differing figures of the Mother of the Lord and the Father of the Buddha we see rival motives at work. King Suddhodana had to choose between a natural ambition to have a son and then grandsons who would be great as he himself was great but only more so. And he understood happiness to consist in possessing an ever more abundant treasury of riches, material and emotional of the kind that he himself possessed. Against that he could only set a vague aspiration to better the whole world through the medium of a son who was a religious teacher but nothing more. I do not wish to be harsh about the King, no doubt he was a compassionate and kindly man but this compassion for him, as for most of us, was largely of an active kind so far as it concerned his family and of a passive one so far as it affected strangers. Mary, for her part, made her choice when she said "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word" When she accepted her Son as a gift from God she accepted too that her life and His were to be lived in accordance with the will and to achieve the purposes of the Divine Father.

If a contrast is to be made here between Christianity and Buddhism I think it is that which must exist between a religion of Revelation and one of self discovery and self improvement. Christians see a God who intervenes in human history and who prepares for each stage of Revelation concerning the truth about Himself through the previous stages. Our Lady chose and freely chose of her own free will to undertake her task of pointing herself towards the soul piercing sword and her Son towards the heart piercing lance of Calvary. But she did so in the context of her own Immaculate Conception and centuries of prophecy concerning the Messiah which she had the wisdom to understand in spiritual and not nationalist military ways. King Suddhodana and Shakyamuni Buddha had to find their way by trial and error. Christians believe in an actively compassionate and loving God who seeks to create and actively compassionate and loving People of God in His image and on that we are happy to stake our lives in both time and eternity.

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