Thursday, 15 June 2017

Near Pavilions


Thou shalt hide them in the secret of thy presence from the pride of man: 
Thou shalt keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues.
(Psalm 31:20)

If we get into a ferry boat in order to row from one side of a river to the other our oars will spend some time in the water and some time in the air. Keeping them constantly buried in the water may cause us to thrash about quite spectacularly but it will get us no closer to the far bank. We shall, instead, go wherever the current wishes to take us. Waving them about continuously in the air might cause them to glint and shine in the sunlight giving any spectators a rare pleasure in the sight, Once again, though, it is the current and not ourselves which will decide our final destination.

In order to reach the good earth of the farther shore, then, it is necessary for us to combine the two elements of air and water. This is by way of an allegory for humans who are composed of both flesh and spirit. If we give ourselves over entirely to the demands of the flesh alone then we shall sink below the level of being fully human. If we aim at being pure spirit we might be more than or less than fully human. But we are not created to be more or less human, we are to be simply human and thus fully human.

Objectively the spirit is superior to the flesh but, for us, the two are firmly united. Therefore while our flesh must be under the control and direction of the spirit it must also be given what is due to it. If God had intended us to be wholly and entirely spirit then that is how He would have created us. In our journey to the further shore we must unite water and air, flesh and spirit in the service of a purposive will which aims at defying the current of the world in order to fulfil God's purpose for us.

In practical terms this means that for every period of time necessity causes us to be immersed in the things of the world we must find a balancing time when we are exposed to the healing light from above. This does not need to be an equal amount of time in chronological terms, since the world and the Divine wield powers of different force over us, but it does need to be a deliberate and daily repeated act of our will where whether we feel 'spiritual' or not we allow ourselves to seek for and rest in the secret pavilion which God has set up in our heart.

There is no magical one-size-fits-all formula which will guarantee happiness and serenity to all who use it. Not only are we all different from each other we are even different from ourselves, varying widely over the course of just a single day as to what does or does not speak meaningfully to us. In general then it is sensible to lean heavily on the wisdom of those who have made the ferry-crossing before us and have left behind the boat and the oars most suited to our purpose. That is, the Church offers to us multiple ways of reaching the pavilion and we should use the ones which our experience shows will most help us. Daily attendance at Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, attentive and meditative reading of Sacred Scripture are only some of the tools which we can use to help us cross to the other side. And if we do not use them we will be taken instead to where we do not want to go.
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The picture is Jesus Calming the Storm from Gospel Book of Otto III

Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Silence of Pentecost


 And I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete, that he may abide with you for ever. The spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, nor knoweth him: but you shall know him; because he shall abide with you, and shall be in you
(John 14:16-17)

St Luke in his dramatic account of the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41) focuses, naturally enough, on those whom the Spirit had called to active life. The disciples who spoke in strange languages, St Peter fulfilling his Apostolic function as preacher. We can be sure though that amongst those gathered in the Cenacle there were some followers of Jesus, like Our Lady, Mary of Bethany and St John, who were contemplatives. For those whose mission that day was to talk the Spirit appeared as a tongue of flame. Perhaps for the contemplatives it was more akin to an arrow point which was to descend and transpierce their hearts with the fire of divine love.

We each have a unique relationship with the Father through the Son, and the Holy Spirit guides us into that on the path which He knows to be best for us. We can, perhaps, infer from the Gospel how it was that He guided those saints whom He called primarily to the inward, silent life on the day that the Church, with all her vocations, was born.

In the first book of his two volume history of the primitive church St Luke tells us how the Blessed Virgin responded to the things of God "Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart" (Luke 2:19) and "Mary said: My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour." (Luke 1:46-47) Which is to say that the Theotokos held all these things before the eyes of her heart and this led her to pour out to the Almighty her grateful thanks and abiding joy. Her lips sang sometimes but her grace-filled spirit sang all the time. Perhaps on this historic Pentecost it was for her Son above all that she was grateful as the Spirit led her ever deeper into knowledge and understanding of Divine things. Mindful also of the commandment to love her neighbour as herself she no doubt too reflected with thanks on the new children which Christ had given her from the Cross. All who could be called a beloved disciple of Jesus were also now beloved children of Mary.

Tradition has identified Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany though some now dispute this (primarily for political reasons.) However that might be, of her Luke says "a certain woman named Martha, received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sitting also at the Lord's feet, heard his word. But Martha was busy about much serving" (Luke 10:38-42) If Mary sould sit still and give her undivided attention to the Son in the midst of all the bustle created by her sister and the Apostles it would not surprise us to learn that she did precisely the same thing when it was the Spirit that called for her entire focus. An upper room filled with busy Martha's would not distract her from the one thing that mattered.

About this same Mary the Evangelist St John wrote "Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of right spikenard, of great price, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment." (John 12:3) This was an act of much self abasement and a devotion of things of great value and beauty to God. Many of those seeing it, especially the traitor Judas, decried it as needlessly extravagant but the Lord praised it highly. It was impractical and unworldly and on Pentecost day when we recall the eminently practical business of preaching in all the tongues of the world and converting souls to the Church we should remember too the witness borne by the Magdalene. Through silence, humility and the creation of beautiful things in the service of worship the Holy Spirit works just as effectively and powerfully as He does in all the other charisms which He gives to the faithful.

Not many days before the Holy Spirit descended, by the Lake of Tiberias, St John was the first of the Apostles to recognise the Risen Messiah "That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved, said to Peter: It is the Lord" (John 21:7) The quick eyed love born of contemplation gave the young Evangelist a power of discernment greater than that of his companions. On this same occasion St Peter had been confirmed as chief of the Apostles and shepherd of the Church which is why, within a few weeks, it was he who preached to the people at Pentecost. We see here, again, that different people are led in different ways by the Spirit, some to be active leaders and teachers, others to be devoted to quiet love and contemplation. Peter laboured to give us the Church, John allowed the Spirit to flow through him and gave us the most sublime of the four Gospel accounts which we now have.

It is sometimes asked what useful purpose the Catholic contemplative orders serve. I like to think that on that birth day of the Church the efforts of the missionaries on the streets of Jerusalem were strengthened by the prayers of the contemplatives in the Cenacle joined to the power of the Spirit. Furthermore, whenever from time to time the active disciples and the new converts ascended to the Upper Room the sight of the contemplatives absorbed in silent prayer both inspired them more and filled them with a sense of the peace of Christ which passes all understanding. And as she began so has the Church ever continued down to this day with the devoted lives of those called to bear silent witness to the faith through an enclosed vocation serving the spiritual life and health of Christians in a hidden but powerful way.
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The picture is from a 15th Century Belgian Book of Hours in the Morgan Library


Thursday, 1 June 2017

Alienated From God


Not where the wheeling systems darken, 
And our benumbed conceiving soars! - 
The drift of pinions, would we hearken, 
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors. 

The angels keep their ancient places- 
Turn but a stone and start a wing! 
'Tis ye, 'tis your estrang├Ęd faces, 
That miss the many-splendored thing.
(Francis Thompson)

The ideas conveyed by this poem, 'In No Strange Land', are fairly simple and straightforward; that God and His kingdom are all around us and that it is our self-induced blindness not His absence that cause us not to see Him. In commenting about it, then, it is easy to fall into banal commonplace remarks. This though would be to do a great misjustice to the poet who was intent not so much to convey ideas as to share with us his deep anguish and suffering.

The reality which he and we experience is that of estrangement. One senses that he is speaking to us with his body all bruised and battered from repeated assaults against the prison door seeking by the strength within him to tear it open. He does not experience despair but he does know the taste of bitter failure. It is no consolation to him to know that it is he himself that shut, barred and bolted the door. Before it opens he expects to experience more anguish, more distress, more suffering yet.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder) 
Cry- and upon thy so sore loss 
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder 
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Only when he is at his most extreme end of pain, so sad that he cannot be sadder, does he believe that his eyes will be opened, the door will be unlocked, the light will infuse his being.

Again, there is a temptation to say certain things which are theological truths but which in this context appear trite. Yes, he requires to be fully converted, to repent, to do penance. And yes, even then it is by God's grace not by His own labours that he can hope to see the face of God in Jesus Christ. But we do not know the state of his conscience, like Job's comforters we may be sharing platitudes which miss the mark.

It may be that it is his vocation to throw himself passionately against a locked door and bruise himself. This, not as a punishment nor in order to gain a reward but just because that is God's purpose for him. If he sat in stillness and quiet awaiting the Spirit to descend he might be defying God's will. And others if they did not so sit but imitated the poet would in their turn be defying the Father's will since He does not have the same purpose for each of us.

King David was inspired by God to build a Temple for Him in Jerusalem. But having implanted the desire in David the Father then forbad him to execute it. It sometimes happens that we are moved to attempt the impossible and then fail. God is love itself, and God is justice itself but we are too limited to understand what these things in their fullness really are. If He seems unloving and unjust to us and we go on doing His will anyway because it is our greatest desire to serve Him then perhaps we can understand this poem a little better. And pray for the soul of poor anguished Francis Thompson.
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The painting is Pandemonium by John Martin