Saturday, 15 December 2012

"Never give up hope!" - a rabbi's tale

I'm writing this on the eve of Gaudete Sunday. Many of my Facebook Friends are clergy in the United States, and a number of them, in their status updates, have mentioned either needing to revise their sermons for tomorrow, or feeling they could not use those they had prepared. They feel they cannot speak of hope and joy, in view of that, just yesterday, a gunman of 20 entered a Connecticut school, and murdered his own mother (a kindergarten teacher) and 18 little children.

I have always been enormously sensitive to violence, and my heart grieves for those killed, for their families, and for everyone affected in any way. However, here speaking of sermons and worship in general, I believe that what has sustained both the Hebrews and their Christian cousins is orthopraxy. Amidst all the evil in this world, for which there is no explanation, somehow going through the prayers (and sacraments),observing the feasts even if there is great sorrow in one's own life, keeping the fasts even if one is in a time of joy, sustains us in faith and hope. (Charity indeed requires outward reaching as well - but I don't want to be diverted for the moment.) Were one to refrain from speaking of hope and joy because others have suffered a horrid loss, they could never be mentioned at all.

My 'regulars' will remember how my understanding was enriched by studying the Hebrew scriptures and commentaries. Yahweh was a most puzzling God - demonstrating none of the 'powers' expected by followers of other, more 'successful' gods - keeping us ignorant of his identity lest we turn him into an idol. Genesis itself is a chronicle of fratricide, trickery, hatred, violence, then slavery. Yahweh is worshipped where the 'other gods' are long forgotten, though the history of the Israelites is a chronicle of pain, oppression, exile, and, so recently, the Holocaust.

I am privileged to belong to a 'senior centre,' with much on offer, which is located in an Orthodox synagogue. I occasionally have the treat of hearing young rabbis and students, who have been studying Torah nearly from infancy, share their wisdom. (Don't let the beards and side curls divert you - most of them could be my sons.) :) This past week, amongst all the fun of a Hanukkah party, a young rabbi presented a tale with the theme, constantly repeated, of "Never give up hope!" Rabbi Byers tells a magnificent story, and I could not possibly do justice to his presentation here. His gestures, inflections, and explanations (understandable even to the little children, but intriguing to even the eldest and wisest there) captured more than can be reproduced on a page. His description of a train en route to Auschwitz had me 'seeing' the passengers. His imitating the mocking laughter of the SS, who greeted arriving prisoners with 'today is Hanukkah - here is your fire!' as they gestured towards the smoke from the death chambers, was amazing.

In short, the tale was of a group of Jews transported to Auschwitz, arriving on Hanukkah. Naturally, some of their number had immediately been 'sorted' to be sent to death. The others, among them a noted rabbi, improvised a Menorah, using pieces of bread and some margarine to light the fire. I wish I could capture the entire story here, but, with that impossible, I shall say that Rabbi Byers had me caught in wonder as he kept repeating the words of the rabbi whom he referenced: "Never give up hope!"

Judaism and Christianity are faiths of endless 'watching and waiting.' We admit to divine revelation / epiphanies, and to a God always involved with his creation - but nothing ever seems to improve. We don't know for what we are waiting specifically, though we believe in a cosmic redemption. We have no answers for evil, but we do not see this as meaning God is not a constant creator and redeemer.

How I wish I could be witty, insightful, or wise today! It cannot be summoned on demand. :) Yet I did wish to share this tale to remind my Christian friends that we mustn't avoid joy and hope to dignify grief. Sorrow is plentiful and always will be so. Yet we must seek joy where we can - and "Never give up hope!"

The prophets and evangelists (many of whom were executed or tortured) were no strangers to sorrow! Many notable religious figures were martyred. In any era, those who were especially close to God wanted to seek to share holiness - but had no illusions that the world was not a very dark place, indeed. We Christians have an image of an Incarnate Lord - whose Father must understand our pain, since His own son was scourged and crucified.

John Paul II saw the horrors of the Holocaust, of Stalin and his concentration camps, of war and "Iron Curtain" oppression. One must bear this in mind in reading this quotation from him: "The human heart has depths from which schemes of unheard-of ferocity sometimes emerge, capable of destroying in a moment the normal daily life of a people. But faith comes to our aid at these times when words seem to fail. Christ’s word is the only one that can give a response to the questions which trouble our spirit. Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say. Christian hope is based on this truth; at this time our prayerful trust draws strength from it."

Monday, 19 November 2012

Theology of consecrated life... in 2313, perhaps

There are particular disadvantages in having been a student in a Catholic (women's) college, a church professional, and an attendee at many a 'workshop' (everything there from early pop psychology to distorted theology to pointed agendas) by the 1970s. There was far more zeal than prudence. A 'go with the crowd' flavoured sense of democracy was mistaken for the rare gift of discernment. To this day, though (as regulars may have noticed) I indeed am one to speak my mind, I am hampered not only by the influences of that period but the recognition that, thirty-odd years later, excessive political correctness and a culture of taking offence makes anything one might say very liable to lead to weird detours of logic.

There are major difficulties in writing of consecrated life without extending it to book length. :) The history of how vowed life was lived, manner in which is was approach, what specific vows were taken, is massive. From the earliest years of the Church, the holy solitaries were outnumbered by unscrupulous 'confessors' (those who had managed to escape martyrdom... or who signed documents with names of those killed) selling 'pardons for sin' during persecution. Benedict, Francis, Dominic, Ignatius, Vincent de Paul, all had distinctive elements in their approaches.

During the past week (and this on a theology forum), there was some discussion of vowed life. (I prefer 'consecrated life,' but the RC legalists would say that applies exclusively to those who make vows in a congregation constituted under this or that provision - so the Daughters of Charity, Filippini Sisters, solitaries, hermits, whatever, would seem to be excluded. I am referring specifically to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience - and not 'according to state of life.') For all my years of study, I've seen only one book on the topic written during the past 40 years, and, though it contained various fine quotes from the writings of Pope John Paul II and the Second Vatican Council, it had a huge stress on accountability and hierarchy. (...such as who can be considered in 'consecrated life.')

I'll never live to see this (my estimate of the concept's being recovered three centuries from now is highly optimistic), but I regret both that there seems to be no solid theology of vowed life, and I doubt that (yes, even before 'the changes') many religious had a clear picture of it in the first place.

Emphasis on work, service, obeying superiors, sacrifice, reparation - replaced by being 'community minded,' 'professional women,' non-judgemental, committed to social justice - there was in abundance. It is unfortunate that centuries of Roman Catholic tradition (the focus I shall use here), which brought forth a huge richness of diverse forms of vowed life, seems to have lost much of this.

Please bear in mind that this is just a blog entry - reflections, not a scholarly work, and some based on personal contact I had with various Religious, not on the many documents that I'm not going to look up for the moment (lest my next blog entry be published three hundred years from now...) What I see as lacking is a proper understanding and valuing of eschatological emphasis, ecclesiology (in a sense that goes beyond hierarchy or obedience), and a genuine asceticism (aimed, as Margaret Funk explains very well in her books, at removing distractions from prayer and service, not fashioning some figurative or literal hair-shirt, whether in the old style of 'atonement' or the new one of 'we're too comfortable....")

I referenced elsewhere how Pope Benedict XVI, in his brilliant work "Eschatology," accurately showed how the "Marantha" of the early Christians sadly gave way to the "Dies Irae" by the early mediaeval period. I often wonder if the concept of eschatology (and the Incarnation in its fullness - where Jesus did not merely get born then manage to go to the Cross) wasn't neglected all the more in my own adult years because, with its having been focussed on an after-life (I won't even get into avoiding hell), the valuable idea of social justice made the thought of an after-life a vague embarrassment.

Those who criticised religion, and some in the social sciences, disliked the idea of after-life as a carrot to dangle before the poor, as indeed it often was. In my own youth, I myself was uncomfortable with the idea of this 'vale of tears,' and a God who seemed only concerned with our happiness after we died (eternal notwithstanding... and He was only inclined to perform miracles either to prove his own divinity when on earth or to show who should be raised to the altars.)

Vowed chastity (as opposed to the virtue of chastity, to which all are called - and this distinguished the Hebrews from pagan neighbours centuries before Christ) was not valued in Jewish tradition. It was only in light of the resurrection, and the recognition that, beyond a sense of an ultimate resurrection, there is more than just this life - more than living through one's children, but an eye to deification and the parousia towards which the new Maranatha would look - that Paul could speak of celibacy as a charism.

By the 1970s, as I well remember, eschatology not only was in the closet overall, but ecclesiology on the 'grass roots level' was flawed. We are one Church - it is not a competition. The emphasis on the universal call to holiness (hardly new - holiness was the topic of many disputes in the early Church) unfortunately was often presented as if it were newly minted, and as if the only vocation is baptism, rather than as if our worship, sacraments, and states of life were not expressions and extensions of baptism. I doubt that the 'new theology of marriage' would come as a surprise to any couple in history, but it was over-emphasised as well, the more by many authors in magazines who were laicised priests. Our individual value is not compromised by recognition that all vocations enrich the Church, but those in vowed life often acted as if it were an embarrassment - not to be mentioned, lest the idea of the 'universal call to holiness' be compromised.

Many Religious hesitated to speak of anything except their work, and (though I'm not suggesting they were unfaithful to vows) were likely to reduce any sense of commitment beyond baptism to commitment to their congregations and corporate identity. As more liturgical ministries became open to those who were not ordained (and this led to further conflict, over whether distributing communion or serving as lector 'clericalised' laity who were supposed to 'sanctify the marketplace,' another topic for another post), there were more complications.

I worked in a parish staffed by Franciscan friars for some time. Though the parishioners indeed seemed to value the priests and Brothers, those avid about the age of the laity (particularly some Secular Franciscans) seemed to take it as a personal insult if, for example, a young man from the parish sought to join the Order as a vowed member. Ideas of vocation could become very confused amongst those who were especially involved in things parochial.

Ironically for a time of wonderful emphasis on liturgical reform, worship made some of the devout uncomfortable - what a tiresome business it was dealing with those who insisted that the Church previously 'sacramentalised instead of evangelised,' as if this somehow set goals at odds. Here and there, prayer, even in Religious life, could be seen as selfish - a distraction from time for service. As well, many Religious congregations became exceedingly secular, while married people (members of third orders or associations) could insist that they were the 'Franciscans of today.' (May I add that I am not suggesting this was universal. I am speaking of much that I personally witnessed, amongst those known to me.) Certainly, the third Order was active even in Francis' time, but the distinction with vowed life was ignored or deplored. Vowed chastity (if not 'according to state') was equally seen negatively, as if it were a denial of the value of sex in marriage.

The mass exodus from religious life during the same period was greeted with joy by many of the married, who'd thought entering a religious congregation was insane from time immemorial. Yet it is seldom explored that Religious were not only faced with the 'new theology of marriage,' or larger professional opportunities overall. The misinterpretation of the universal call to holiness, and extension of this to mean there was no vocation except baptism, had a dimension of giving the message that those in consecrated life were of no particular value to the Church. Religious had long been amazing in their assumption of professions in which one found few women at the time - but, depending on what workshops one attended, one could receive a dose of distorted feminism, wherein the oppressed women hadn't realised the selfish men were using them as indentured servants. Sisters and Brothers who had served in missions in very deprived areas were confronted with everything from an idea that their nursing the lepers took responsibility away from the government to that it deprived tribes of their culture with the many conversions to Christianity.

Human minds instinctively simplify! Nearly all religious had learnt that 'the voice of the superior is the voice of God,' and that admission to vows was the only indicator of a vocation to the life (back when the only vocation wasn't baptism...) With Religious exiting in droves, many to marry, had God changed his mind? Was religious life obsolete? (Indeed, there were the workshops here and there that gave the impression that religious who remained would ultimately be forced out by its demise.)

Genuine asceticism is about removal of distractions to love of God and neighbour (in the fullest sense - I am certainly including prayer and sacrament in this, and see our prayer lives, however suited a means to this is in an individual case, as the cultivation of love of God that allows one to serve those created in His image.) As I've mentioned elsewhere, Margaret Funk explains this impeccably in recent books. Those in religious life too often had a distorted view of 'sacrifice' for its own sake - not that which comes naturally out of fulfilling responsibility or practising virtue. Occasionally, one could meet a former Sister who left to marry thinking that God might be asking her to sacrifice her vowed life to take on motherhood!

There needs to be a respect for distinction in vocation. "Chastity according to state of life" already is a commandment (...not that this is generally recognised nowadays.... violation of that commandment has been just as common as violating the others from time immemorial, but it used to be more discreet.) Poverty according to state of life is nothing new to those faced with the responsibilities (and natural, not self-imposed, sacrifices) of marriage and parenthood. True asceticism disposes one to the intimacy with God, the 'listening,' that makes worship a dialogue - and I think it no accident that the root of the word obedience refers to listening. Yet we must not lose the value of vowed life in an attempt to produce a quasi-version for married third order members - or in an embarrassed effort from the few remaining religious to not seem different and therefore insult the married.

There is far more I can write on this topic - in fact, I once considered using a theology of consecrated life as the substance for a dissertation. I shall not live to see this, but I believe that the eschatological dimension of the vows, respect for ecclesiology and our redemption as Church (not a competition), healthy and humble asceticism, and service to others in light of the dignity all of humanity has in the Incarnation, would need to be faced without a blush before the value can be recovered.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Do this in memory of me

Christianity is very simple. All it requires is a memory and a vision; and, if you can get them, some bread, and wine, and water. - Kenneth Leech

Simplicity is hardly my strong point - yet bread, wine, water, vision, and memory are the universal factors which have united the Christian Church since its earliest days. (I can develop an idea of the Church's going back to Adam... but let us save that for another day.) Looking back to a romantic, fictional 'golden age' is a favourite pastime in every era.

The Last Supper was not the Eucharist - there can be no anamnesis of what has not yet happened. :) But I provide this 'annual reflection,' which I reserve for Holy Week, right now because I'm weeping my way through the liturgy. Today at the Eucharist, for example, though I've heard the words literally thousands of times, I shed a tear when I heard "on the night he was betrayed..." (When I view the intellectually deficient film "King of Kings," I still cry when Lucius says to
Barabbas, "Go! Look upon him who is dying for you!") I wept through "All glory, laud, and honour" on Palm Sunday (not as much as I shall when we cry out "He is risen indeed" a few days hence). It thrills me thrill that those Hosannas to the
Son of David have echoed for 2,000 years. (I was a student for a century - original ideas are rare, and I think Einstein was the last to have one. :)

One wonders what the apostles were like. (I am also a peasant, yet the intellectual snob in me turns up her nose at the thought of their not being able to grasp the simplest parables and that most of them smelled of fish...) Luke's gospel shows how, to the end, the apostles were arguing over who would have the highest place in the kingdom. Ah, yes, arguments about authority...

Scriptural epics and "Lives of Christ", plus the 'see how these Christians love one another' myth (a situation neither Paul nor Clement found in Corinth), can lead us to picture twelve intense young men, in awe at the first sight of the ritual which would sustain the Church until the parousia. The Last Supper was a prototype of another sort. :) I am sure that at least one traditionalist was frowning that Jesus had changed the form for the Pesach meal with this "cup of my blood" business. Those who were simple or highly observant would question why the Passover was anticipated. (At least, they were spared the vegetarian's protests about the lamb, and no one offered the cup would have irately commented, "Wine is a drug!") Judas was on verge of betraying the Master. Matthew was sensitive about why Judas held the purse, considering his own experience as a tax collector. The disciples were conflicted about who would be the kingpins (I suppose when the Messiah toppled Roman rule.) "The Rock," who had learnt insufficient humility from attempting to
walk on water, was making bold promises he'd soon find were beyond him. (I've no doubt Peter made sure he was prominent during the "Hosanna" procession... why he hung out in the court of Caiaphas later on Thursday night still puzzles me... Perhaps it was poetic justice, since wonderfully fallible Peter of Rome would live to see what has endured - the sort of priests foreshadowed by Annas and Caiaphas also would exist till the parousia...) The lot of them would scatter in fear before the night was out.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Church.

Whenever I hear the words of consecration at the Eucharist, it moves me that the perpetual memorial has endured

for two millennia. For all the conflict, persecution, quarrels, heresy, whatever, which the early Church faced, that bread, wine, and water were the catholic element. Common worship kept the Church from crumbling when many a reform
movement of the time would die out quickly enough. Jerusalem would fall - the Word would spread to Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Gaul, etc.

All that was common, then or now, was worship - praise and thanksgiving - water, bread, and wine (and oil, and incense... forgive me, since I am so High Church) - the memory and vision, and the scriptures. Till the end, I'm sure that those of us who are avid believers will think that an ideal of unity and love will prevail. Yes, at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow... but not everyone will be happy and grateful at that gesture. :)

Lord, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness, comes from you, through your Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit. From age to age, you gather a people to yourself,
so that from East to West a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name...

...out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life...

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Elementary transcendence and immanence :)

I'm breaking a rule today in sharing a personal struggle of my own - this only because I'm sure I'm not alone, but those of us trained to set a 'good example' are ever so hesitant in mentioning such points. Remember the old jokes about the 'good angel' and 'bad angel' (both being oneself, and arguing - cartoonists used to enjoy those images immensely)? My 'angels' certainly are having a sparring match! The one with the louder voice at the moment is saying, 'why did you give away so much? Had you banked what you gave away - sometimes to people who were swindlers - and invested what you were stupid enough to tithe, maybe you wouldn't be struggling so today. Had you not thought your particular form of vocation meant endless hours with the homeless, mentally ill, criminal, all this on top of the charity sector job and political petitions, you might have close friends - people who'd be there in a crisis, love you, socialise with you, share your interests, laugh. Loser, loser, loser! And just do a Google search for some psycho-babble site - you'll learn you only did those things either because of some weird sense of guilt or because you hoped people would love you."

The other voice, of course, is saying, "I was hungry, and you gave me to eat...." I've written elsewhere about how we mortals, created in God's image and likeness, are icons of the transcendent, unknowable God - and this vocation was given to His people from the first chapters of Genesis. I'm not suggesting that any one of us should smugly imagine "well, I'm the sheep, not the goat - come blessed of my Father meant me," but those of us feeling utterly discouraged, fearing our efforts to live the gospel were foolish or harmful to us, aren't likely to claim any sheep status beyond that of wanting a kinship with the Good Shepherd. ('the most abject of men... no place to rest his head..') We who came full circle - where we had hard times and had to go from 'server' to beggar - can easily forget that Jesus Himself was very dependent on others.

I could divert myself writing some theological exposition on the differences between virtue and vice, what's morally good, virtuous, or indifferent - but I'm not doing so today. I'll add an aside, whether it is heresy or not. :) It's true that I am one among many (fools?... see how that 'bad angel' can creep?) who sought to feed the hungry, campaign for the needy, whatever, in a commitment to living the gospel. For others, it is not explicitly so. Yet I believe that we are the 'icons' in our love for each other (the reflection of that divine image) when we are creative and loving - and that this share in creative power and communication (again which hearkens back to Genesis) is so part of our humanity that one who is not a believer at all is no less God's instrument.

A few weeks ago, I was joking (on Facebook) with a priest-friend (who shares my commitment to the 'Christ of the slums,' though I don't believe his family is as close to that status as was mine any time recently, but who also loves everything very High Church.) Someone who didn't understand our 'inside humour' was insulted by his saying (and my responding) 'isn't it fun playing church?' It is indeed!

I have no idea how widespread this is, but, in my own case, I need beauty, dignity, and formality in worship. I love quiet services, but also love gold vestments, incense, 1549 or 1662 English (in what period was our language more glorious?), or Latin for the timeless, unchangeable, universal qualities. (Oh, please - don't comment that this is because it is dead! Greek is even more precise and has a longer liturgical precedent, but I started too late and never caught on.) Those of us who see the transcendent God as unknowable still need expressions of awe, majesty and the like. I think this may be all the more true when we have a strong dedication to 'the least of my brethren' (...or we currently are members of that set.)

Others have vastly differently liturgical tastes, and indeed some craft their common worship to use popular music, include many petitions, carefully cut out whatever can be considered out of date, 'sexist,' or make someone feel guilty (...though that can be a grace, but that's another topic for another day.) In my case, I need to go beyond just 'the people,' whom I already do care for deeply. I cannot stay entirely focussed on the icons, important though 'whatsoever you do...' remains. My formal worship must be in a category where it not only is appealing to the artist and literature nut that I am, but where it is beyond the norm of my life - has a transcendent quality that captures, somehow, the transcendence of the God I cannot know. (Awkward expression, I know... but I did enough medieval studies to know that stained glass can make for enduring catechesis...)

My act of humility for the season is in admitting that this post would never meet any scholarly standard - but that I'm trying to soothe my winter-ruffled emotions with 'you did it for me... and, when you are the one who is needy, if anyone helped you they did it for me - whether they knew this or had the specific intention or not.' I cannot know if anything I did trying to live the gospel benefited anyone else, the more if some of them were lying. Even those who seemed appreciative have long forgotten me. I indeed am struggling, and wish I'd developed social as well as ministerial contacts all those years, because I'm happily retired and would love the bit of fun for which I finally have some time. Yet if I did this by divine grace, responding to the humanity created in his image in love for others, somehow 'doing this for Me' just has to work out in the end... (I hope I don't have to wait for the next life...)

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Encore: All Saints - all wrong!

Much as I would have loved to attend a glorious festal Eucharist today, I seem to be coming down with a cold, so I settled for a 'said' midday service. As luck would have it, the celebrant was the same priest I mentioned in last week's post about how eschatology and ecclesiology were sadly absent from his All Souls' Day sermon in 2010. (I must add, on the rare chance that he or anyone he knows is reading this, that I've yet to hear a sermon of his with which I agreed, but regard him highly otherwise.) Once again, I wasn't surprised at his misconceptions about this wonderful feast, and know they date back centuries in popular devotion, but the overall effect was dismal.

The content of his sermon boiled down to: (1) we remember all the saints today (so far, so good), (2) people always thought they needed the saints' intercession, (3) this is wrong because we have Jesus and He is the mediator. It's rather pathetic that someone who spent years training for the priesthood has no concept of intercessory prayer, apparently thinks prayer is limited to intercession, or thinks that embracing the communion of saints (I'll re-state from last time - ecclesiology places us 'all in this together') means thinking there are mediators other than Jesus. That there are those who ask the intercession of the saints (it's in the litany in the Book of Common Prayer, I've noticed) does not mean we cannot approach God and have to go through a middleman (an example used in this sermon.)

My 'regulars,' assuming there are any, are aware that, though my spirituality tends more towards the patristic, I've studied the Middle Ages at some length. Though treating the saints as sources of special favours is hardly confined to that period, it was the hey-day. Such books as "The Golden Legend" have phenomenal, fantastic tales of saints working miracles during their life-times - even to the point of raising the dead, or making a ploughman's hand stick to the plough when he doubted a point of doctrine. (I have often wondered if, a few centuries later, the faithful having seen that Cromwell's toppling the tabernacle did not lead to being turned to stone have an influence on that, though miracles through a saint's intercession are still considered in canonisation procedures, rarely are saints of the modern period referred to as having been channels for miracles in life.) Yet, even in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas cautioned against undue emphasis on miracles (not only in relation to intercession, but overall), because this can make it appear that God is not always present and active in creation. In our own day, it is far more likely to be fundamentalists (who certainly would not invoke saints other than themselves) than Catholics who base evangelisation on miracles.

There is not, and, to my knowledge, never has been doctrine that even implied that prayers of petition had to be offered 'through intermediaries.' Indeed, I've heard versions of that idea - but they are approaches individuals found useful, not religious teachings. I've met people who saw humility in 'to Jesus through Mary,' and, though I disagree with any idea that one mustn't approach the King of Kings on one's own, I can understand where this can be a valuable idea for some. Certainly, in a feudal society, such as that of the Middle Ages, the idea of intermediaries has many implications.

I see all of the Church (those on earth or in the next life) as united in praise. I'm not minimising the love in intercession - and don't see why some find it offensive to think that, where "I" can pray for "you" in need, prayers from those in the next phase of existence imply idolatry. Yet the idea of prayer as purely intercession is quite off the mark. My own life centres on orthopraxy, and is almost entirely liturgical - uniting, with the entire Church (including the communion of saints), in praise and thanksgiving. Intercessions ask blessings on others - and our petitions can make us more aware of the Creator as the source of all, and make what that for which we are grateful more recognisable as a gift.

I've mentioned the value I see in folk religion, much as I do not have the sort of trust and simplicity that I admire in those capable of such lovely prayers. My mother (as is true of many people) hardly felt she could not 'approach God directly'! (Indeed, her shouting for Him to come down so she could knock his head off, which she put in the strongest terms when my father died, had no element of fear!) In her simplicity, she spoke to different saints as one might to varied friends or relatives. Think about this - don't we all have different friends, all of whom we love, where we might share one concern with a particular friend, but not with another? She spoke to the saints exactly as one might to a brother or sister - and I see that as an awareness of the divine, not as an avoidance of God.

Worship has continued for thousands of years. Those who have gone before, especially those we remember in particular for virtue, always were valued as witnesses - to the faith, to how divine grace can compensate for our weakness. Let us join, once again, in a Maranatha - from all seven billion of us on earth, and all who went before. Creation is endless.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

All Saints, All Souls - All Creation - Maranatha!

"Scholars have long drawn attention to the contrast between the early Christian invocation maranatha and the mediaeval Dies Irae. In the former, there is a joyful hope for the Christ who will come soon, a hope which takes on particular intensity in the early second century Didache with its cry: 'May grace come, and this world pass away.' In the Dies Irae...we hear only for the fear of judgement, which contemplates the End under the appearances of horror and of threat to the soul's salvation. Or again, there is that characteristic motto of mass mission in the 19th and 20th centuries: 'save your soul.' Like a lightning-flash, this motto (shows) how Christianity has been reduced to the level of individual persons, to the detriment of what was once the core of both eschatology and the Christian message itself: the confident, corporate hope for the imminent salvation of the world." - Josef Ratzinger, Eschatology

Just a year ago, I attended a Eucharist for All Souls' Day where a young priest preached about how he was sorry the entire 'All Saints - All Souls' feast sequence had not disappeared with the Reformation. To his way of thinking, which I found to be far off the mark but quite understandable, the feasts imply we aren't all saved, and that "there are saints and super-saints."

Were his memory as long as mine, much less if he'd devoted as much time as I have to studying the mediaeval period, I suppose, with selective theology, that he could have had that impression all the more. One of these days, I just may post a page about the entire history of the concepts of purgatory and indulgences - and how both grew like Topsy (though more in practise than in doctrine.) By the time of the Middle Ages, and largely through the influence of a well-meaning Franciscan pope who extended 'indulgences' to the dead, a huge judicial system, binding on those in the next life, had developed. It was also a hey-day for literature and sermons (probably intended as a treatment of the seven capital sins) about such circles of purgatory and hell as would be glorified in Dante and enjoyed by the lawyer Thomas More some centuries later. Since those in purgatory (the Church Suffering, as opposed to the Church Militant on earth and Church Triumphant in heaven) could not 'merit' for themselves, they were dependent on the prayers and sacrifices of the living... and monasteries were becoming wealthy, and conducting ordinations en masse, through offering Masses for the deceased. It must have been a substantial burden, for those whose families perished in the Plague for example, to multiply alms and sacrifices.

In my own youth, the action of 'offering things up for the poor souls in purgatory' (the super-saints of the Church Militant even made a vow to give all their indulgences to Mary to distribute, and couldn't pray for any intention on their own initiative, which I suppose could have been quite charitable, was still out of hand. One received the impression that one could not pray for anyone who was still living. As long as I'm including quotations today, here is one a little less sublime than that from the Pope. A young nun I knew, Clare, had two small, framed photographs on her shelf, and told me the man in one was her father, who had died a short time ago. I asked if the lady in the other picture was her mother, to which she replied, "Oh, no - my mother is alive."

What I found troubling, both in the sermon I mentioned and the other elements, was the absence of an eschatological focus, as well as a true sense of ecclesiology. I love the two feasts (...and both religious and folk elements of Halloween - don't think I'll miss a party!), and am very glad the days are sequential. Our human nature was deified in the Incarnation - but we still await Christ's final glory, in which we shall share. I dislike the Calvinist view that we are basically obliterated till the Last Judgement (which I see as cosmic redemption, not the equivalent of Dante's shots at his political opponents.) I am not about to speculate on the nature of the after-life, since I cannot even define redemption, creation, resurrection, and the like in this one - we have only a glimpse of the divine. Yet we await that parousia - and this is true for those in the next life as well.

I see God as Creator, and creation as dynamic. I see us as growing in all stages of our existence, naturally including those beyond our time on this earth. I do not see any of this as involving 'punishment' (be kind to Augustine... he was caught up in defending omnipotence, and never knew when to stop when he found he no more had the answer to the problem of evil than does anyone else.) I prefer the Cappadoccian image - love growing ever more white-hot; awareness of the divine never being full, but constantly increasing. Any 'fire' would be, I believe, that of the Burning Bush and other scriptural images - God is the fire, and it is that of revelation and covenant. (Recall that Moses did not burn.)

Forgive the cliché, but on another level, 'we're all in this together.' Every one of us is in the 'all saints' and 'all souls' category. We need for maranatha to predominate, but the Dies Irae has its purposes. Liturgy (and, on another plane, even folk customs, superstition, legends) does well to recall that we do fear the unknown, truly do mourn for those who have passed to the next life. The 'work of the people' needs to admit to our natural fear and grief.

These feasts are a treasure - when the emphasis is eschatology - and that is joyful hope rather than a fear of condemnation.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

That wasn't a joke?

My tendency to the wry and ironic has two 'side effects' for those who are not ones for either. Some of my best jokes lead to others thinking I'm distressed (though, believe me, were I truly distressed, I'd either disappear or, were I caught, leave one with no doubt! Then again, lots of people so love sad stories that they manufacture them nearly as often as I lapse into jester mode. Last week, I was saying an Office in a church, and someone, unknown to me, thought I was ill because I had my head down slightly - to read the psalms - and was moving my mouth a bit, because, though I never read aloud to myself otherwise, I learnt years ago to say prayers aloud even if in a tiny whisper - probably back when one had to say lots of prayers aloud to gain the indulgences. Head bowed - ahem! - someone assumed to be talking to herself out loud - which I only do at home - yes, that's good ammunition for the psycho-babble brigade.) I often forget, as well, that religious humour, which usually appeals in particular to those with huge faith, can be taken as irreverent (which it normally is, and by design) and offensive (never!) by those who are delicate or who came to the faith in full-blown 'late have I loved thee' mode.

How well I remember, after 30 years, when I was scrubbing a parish kitchen floor (..."Francis, go and repair my church" ... believe me, everyone takes us up on that one...), and my friend Jane, for my edification and entertainment, was telling me of a 'shocking' incident she'd observed when she and Sadie attended some sort of healing service (conducted by Franciscans, so things mustn't have been all that spit and polish.) Jane was relatively young, but always had an air of someone who'd seen 100 years of suffering which she'd enjoyed immensely. Sadie was as holy as they get, and a bit fey - she saw an image of the Sacred Heart appear on the screen when she watched one Brook Shields film, and asked if it was a religious picture. Sadie was of a shy nature, and was immensely devoted to her husband, who leaned towards being insensitive and was excessively fond of his glass. Sadie and Jane actually had a number of characteristics in common, but one huge difference was that Sadie was inclined to kiss nearly everyone in greeting, where I doubt Jane's kids had ever even seen their mother kiss their father.

"Ah, Elizabeth, I couldn't believe what I was seeing! Sadie kissed this priest! (Scornful look) This little, short priest. Right on the lips! Now, who would even think of kissing a priest, but Sadie went and kissed him - little short man he was, didn't look like much, but she went and kissed him! (Pause) She mustn't be too happy at home."

Jane couldn't be understanding why that last line sent me into gales of laughter. (Well, had I said it, I would have most definitely intended to be funny!) "Ah, Elizabeth, you laugh at nothing! Sadie really kissed a priest! Right on the lips!"

The mental picture of the timid, extremely pious Sadie in the role of wicked woman was so hilarious that I wish I'd been there...

Of course, there are other times when I (often with others) have unintentionally troubled someone because we mistook a flub for a joke. I'm thinking of when I assisted with a retreat for girls aged thirteen or so, who were school-mates. The retreat was held at a building which was inhabited by a few nuns, who still wore the long habit, old-style veil and coif, and who all happened to be of well below average height. (That will figure later.) Retreats for teens, despite all the 'heavy stuff' and their weeping (partly resulting from adolescent emotionalism, partly hormones with no place to take them, and largely from seeing clichés as fresh insights - believe me, you don't want to be over-exposed to the petitions and offertory processions, the latter of which include bringing up lipsticks and school books...), need to have some fun time. The kids decided, during the 'drink soda and giggle' period, that they'd like to put on a little show, and asked permission to wear some of the nuns' summer habits, which they'd seen hanging in an adjacent store room.

The girls adjoined to their 'dressing room,' and dressed in the nuns' habits - without removing their own blue jeans, running shoes, and athletic socks. Since the nuns were so tiny, the normally floor-length habits reached to slightly below the girls' knees (with ample portions of jeans, socks, and running shoes visible...), the coifs looked like white Grim Reaper masks, headbands and veils were as off-balance as the worst of adolescent emotions, and the effect when they appeared 'on stage' was enough to give us misguided souls in the audience the mistaken impression that they'd worked out a comedy sketch.

The girls began singing "The Sound of Music," horribly off-key, and one of them did (what we thought was) a 'take' on the descant which Liesl sings in the play so terribly that we naturally thought this combination of sights and sounds was the opening to something to top Monty Python. Yes, we roared. I defy nearly anyone to think this was not intended to be funny... but, if I thought we had to contend with weeping at the Eucharist, the amount that resulted from their reaction to our laughter would have been a challenge to Noah.

Then there is my cherished friend Madeline, who has been enormously considerate and generous to me. I'd be first to institute her canonisation proceedings for many reasons, but (and this is the best illustration of my dad's "you've got the book learning, but not the ways of the world" theory on record) I still forget that Madeline not only never catches jokes but never intentionally said anything funny in her life. Madeline and I have known each other for decades, and I know well that, whenever she sees anyone, her greeting invariably is, "You know who died?" (Actually, that is inaccurate - on the rare day when she can't find even a remotely familiar name in the obituaries, there may be such variations as a report of who has a terminal illness or was victim of a disaster. At least 75% of the time, I've never even heard of the deceased.)

Madeline, who sadly moved from her life-long neighbourhood a few years ago, was telling me that one old friend, who'd remained till recently, now had moved as well. "It's a shame I don't hear from Billy (note to readers - about the old neighbourhood) now. He'd tell me who's dead, who isn't..."

Would you believe that I actually thought Madeline was laughing at herself? ... I was mistaken... I hope I didn't wound the pride of one who's been so good to me. Then again, when I (looking for some topic to discuss with Madeline) casually mentioned I'd had a good time doing Cleopatra with my Shakespeare group, when she added, "You know, she died," for a moment I thought it was a joke. (After all, few scenes in Shakespeare are as well-known as that with Cleopatra and the asp...) I finally caught on that Madeline was referring to Elizabeth Taylor.

I was surprised when a theologian whom I know and respect, when he was present as noted here - as a snobbish soul expressed her disgusted fear that she'd be in the company of Neanderthal man at the resurrection and, unlike yours truly, didn't have to choke behind a handkerchief...)

So, on cliché buster patrol - it isn't always correct to assume 'laugh and the world laughs with you.' I still will caution anyone (above the age of fourteen) - especially those who have an interest in church involvement and/or the Internet - if you must cry, be sure to do it alone! Crying in the company of church people is always a mistake. Cry on the Internet (or even be mistaken for crying when you are laughing...), and you'll hear from 5,000 amateur shrinks... and no one, not even myself, has enough energy to laugh at that many people in a day.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Yes, I exaggerated a bit

My last post was a mixture of genuine viewpoints and exaggeration, as I hope was obvious. Yet I was seeking to make a few points I do find critical. Genuine injustice is tragic and even an outrage. There are certainly plentiful examples of the genuine article without clouding the issues, or spurring others to a rage that blinds one to the truth rather than expressing it, without exaggerating what is offensive.

I haven't been drinking perfume (I'm not even financially able to have an occasional gin at the moment). :) I know the moralists who would speak of 'elitist' attitudes towards 'non-human animals' were focussed on ecology, and not equating my cat's use of reason and will with our own. Yet I wanted to underline concerns I have in that area. I am very 'green,' very concerned for stewardship of the earth - yet I refuse to 'take a guilt trip' for eating animal products. If a drug or operation which can save human lives needed to be tested on a dog, this will not be anything I'd oppose.

Many flaws in Western theology of which I've previously written have a connection to disliking the physical, so I'm not going to repeat myself. I think we all have moments when we can come close to feeling as if we are 'pure mammal'! With the continuing, ever-increasing strain of recession, I occasionally find myself feeling like a hungry cat with my survival threatened - ready to get out my claws at any danger. Nonetheless, with my being very centred on the Incarnation, creation, our deification and the like, I believe that an excessive pre-occupation with the 'non human animals' can blind us to the awe and gratitude we should have for our own unique dignity amongst creatures. Nor can we excuse ourselves from our wrongs because of our animal nature. I may feel like a threatened cat at times - but the normal life for that species would be a sad situation for a human!

I've often said that one problem (in all fields, but here I specifically am referring to theology) which can be highly confusing is that terms which have a specific meaning in the theological context differ greatly from the vernacular usage. In common usage, if one refers to 'envy,' it can seem positive - perhaps 'you' accomplished a goal to which I aspire as well. It has a striking difference from 'envy' in moral theology - where the same term would mean 'you have what I want, and I hate you for it.' Anger, in the vernacular, can have varied shades of meaning, and certainly being upset, outraged, and so forth may be understandable, justifiable, or, at times, a spur to positive action. This, too, is quite a difference from 'an inordinate desire for revenge.'Being truly vengeful can spur blindness to the truth, contempt, hatred, and violence.

I'm sorry to say that I am no stranger to sexism - not only in the abstract but in the many forms in which I was its target. I doubt too many people would ask a man with advanced degrees questions such as, "You don't type?! Then what could you do - be a waitress?" Male department heads probably are not excluded in ways that I experienced, and vendors or representatives who meet with them may not be thinking 'how do I get past this glorified clerk to the man who really makes the decisions?' I've actually had vendors phone me, to say a letter I signed should be replaced by one from a male, because, otherwise, those in authority would think 'this was just sent by some secretary.' My own family members, who knew I could go through diplomae like a deck of cards and had been in management for years, tended to assume I had an entry-level clerical job!

Seeking to remedy such viewpoints (and I doubt I'll live to see this - many of the vendors who were first to assume they needed to 'get past me' surprisingly were younger than I am) can be thwarted by excess. Assuming women cannot be 'real' managers is insulting - saying that Meryl Streep is a great actress is a compliment.

There are other, far more insidious, traps into which one may fall (and I'm not exempting myself, since I am sorry to recall excesses to which I was very prone at one time.) I'll borrow my previous example, related to liturgy, as a simple illustration. Modifying the text of the creed may be helpful in clarifying meaning. (In my university days, hardly ancient history, 'his' was a correct form when the person to whom one referred could be of either sex - and 'man' meant 'humanity' in certain contexts. Perhaps the very young would not be aware of this.) However, were I seeking to spur others to outrage, hoping it would promote a feminist goal, and said that, when I heard "for us men and for our salvation...," it meant that salvation was extended only to males, this isn't true - never was true - and I know this.

I definitely have never seen women as inferior, and always was troubled by their being treated as such. (I could speak of many other areas that trouble me, but I am speaking of this one in particular merely for the sake of simplicity, since I don't want to write two reams.) Yet I remember, all too well, when articulate and very charismatic women - who were too intelligent and educated to not be either selective or distorted in references they used to spur action - seemed more to be seeking to inflame other women than to dealing with (painful) truth. Much that came of this was tragic. Women who'd been outstanding in service could be convinced that they'd been in a shameful position - the big, bad males treated you as a slave. People who'd worked side by side, and well, could be led to contempt for one another because the associate suddenly is a male who had to be part of the oppression. There were other cases where women could not admit to problems other women in authority may have caused for them - everything had to be blamed on the males, and how can one resolve internal conflicts if the source cannot be admitted?

We also need to be cautious that, when we are conscious of, and troubled about, such matters as the sexism I've experienced all too frequently (and this compounded by the assumption that anyone in the charity sector is incompetent), we don't become 'victims' in our own minds. This can lead us to seeing offence when it does not exist, or, perhaps more dangerously, blinding us to our own weaknesses - we are the victim, we are blameless. Rage and envy (in the theological sense I previously referenced) can give us tunnel vision and distortion. We can begin not merely to disagree with another's viewpoint, but to assume it is rationalising misogyny, when that may not be the case. We can justify wrong-doing on our own part, if we become so focussed on our own oppression that we (unwittingly) assume we can do no wrong, or justify our rage based on (possibly very inaccurate) ideas about underlying motives on the part of the other.

My prayer today is for truth and love - as only God can give!

Monday, 11 April 2011

Insulting people's intelligence

It constantly amazes me that books I have studied in recent years, articles by noted authors, sermons by the learned, and so forth often are so aimed at not offending anyone, or at proving how 'inclusive' we all are, have an air of condescension which the least tutored mind could sense, even if those at universities do not. Perhaps the best example for this week is from a text intended for university students pursuing Christian ethics. It cautioned against 'elitism,' in exploring moral theology in a fashion which assumes humans are superior to non-human animals. (I can assure you this is not a satire.)

I still mourn my beloved cat, Mirielle, who was the most affectionate example of her species I have known in a life-time as a cat-lover. Nonetheless, I would hardly have considered her to be capable of practising the virtue of charity, nor did I see her breaking my teapot as an injustice to be remedied by a lecture on respecting the property of others. (This whilst conceding that she was fully aware that she owned me, and was by no means 'property.') The Franciscan in me sees that Mirielle was glorifying her Creator by fully being what she was - a cat! To consider her to be capable of sin or virtue would be absurd - her hearing my theology and philosophy lectures was purely the result of my having no human about who was interested. Should one deny the dignity of one's human nature lest one possibly offend a feline (or other 'non human animal')? Mirielle possibly had dreams of smoked salmon just as often as would I - and indeed would help herself without offering me some first were my back turned, which seems an incredible breach of good manners, yet she would not have been offended at not being thought a human. (Being a highly intelligent cat who observed the foibles of humanity daily, I doubt Mirielle would have considered this a promotion. She'd seen the frustrated theologian preach too many times to want to copy the potential for envy.) Or should those learned in the field treat of points of moral theology treating us as if we were no different from cats?

Another gem came from a book about Julian of Norwich. Julian presents a warm, tender image of God as a mother, who comforts the clumsy little child (that's all of us - and for always) when he stumbles ( we do, daily.) The author saw Julian as presenting a model for mothers which women might be troubled by being unable to attain. (This matches a complaint in a book about the Virgin Mary's being seen, in many art works, as kneeling before her baby Son, therefore illustrating the inferiority of women.) Allow me to indulge my regret that I never attained my goal of being a university professor, and a brief almost-sin of envy that these authors generally have done so. Both the mother to which Julian refers, and the Son before whom 'subservient' Mary kneels, happen to be God! Julian was not writing a handbook for parenting, nor could the specific circumstances of Mary's motherhood be considered typical. (Next we'll be hearing, from the overly literal, that the image of the stumbling infant violates children's rights or is insulting to the disabled.)

My regulars (assuming I have any) are aware of how I loathe the excessive 'political correctness,' which I do not see as a commitment to social justice or eliminating genuine oppression (both extremely important matters in my book), but as often verging on the ridiculous, and insulting the people one supposedly is assisting. I still cannot see where referring to someone as a 'great actress' is insulting because it implies she is a woman (which she happens to be), or why the libraries' departments of Oriental studies suddenly are seen as using an offensive word. The same author who thought Julian was writing a parenting manual saw her description of seeing demonic figures (the sort of dark, grotesque forms standard in medieval art) as racist - though such creatures not only are figurative, as I'm sure a child of 8 would understand, but are not human beings in any case.

I sometimes make the joke that my family were titled - many worked in the grocery business, and one moved up to the butcher department, where his title was Meat Head. (That title is not my creation - it's real, though there is a little dramatic licence here, because my family actually were not butchers.) Working class kids never saw anything other than honour in their father's professions (unless, as was not the case for most of us, there would be a reason.) I very much dislike the current trend towards changing the name of jobs to meet some nonsensical standard of political correctness. It implies that there was something shameful in a person's honourable work - so much so that the name of that occupation can never be mentioned.

What does this serve? As one glaring example, secretaries now often have ridiculous titles, as if their profession was a disgrace in itself (I suppose because it was held mostly by women), so much so that the word cannot be spoken. For those who think this aids a feminist cause (and as one who has high regard for those in that profession anyway), it actually created more sexism! Speaking as one who spent ages as a manager, those who, on meeting me, immediately wanted to meet the real 'decision maker,' just assumed that, being female, I must be a secretary with a ridiculous title.

I loved a comment I heard when two young men with Down Syndrome were teasing each other: "You're not stupid - you're just retarded!" There is a wisdom in that which many of us with double their IQ scores (...not mentioning anyone in particular, of course...) have yet to attain. All of us have limitations - and recognising these is painful but the only way that we can be who we are, and use such talents as we do possess. I wonder if some of the careful crafting of euphemisms for disabilities stem from not wanting to admit to our own. Thousands of people have to live with not being able to walk - how can they move on (I understand one was President of the United States) without resigning themselves and valuing what they are? I've seen, for example, learned writings which see admitting that someone is blind or deaf is insulting (how a person's worth is eliminated by being unable to see or hear is beyond me), or that this denies their sexuality. (Not being too knowledgeable on that topic, I utterly fail to see the connection. Two blind men I know, one a lawyer/politician, the other a CFO, coincidentally both fathered five children - I'll ask one of them next time they see me.) Then again, I'm weary of the need for offence that caused outrage amongst the deaf when an operation that could allow for some ability in hearing was developed - since this breakthrough meant deaf people need to be fixed...

I suppose the very dedicated, educated, well-intentioned Religious and clergy whom I knew in my younger days were trying so hard to show that they were cool that they didn't realise how nonsensical their reasoning (if indeed it deserves that distinction) became. Middle-class women, whose mothers had never so much as washed a dish, would insult intelligent people, of a lower class or different race, but modifying worship texts into street slang. (I believe everyone, whatever his language, speaks dialect. The insult is in assuming one understands nothing else, or that the poor are stupid.) One RE teacher whom I knew would never use the term 'soul,' and indeed told her pupils "you have no soul! you are a spiritual being!," having been aware of a catechism illustration where souls (and how they are affected by sin) were compared to milk bottles. Granted - there are some theological errors in the presentation - but, having known many people who taught primary, I would recommend recalling that the particular catechism was for children aged 6 or 7. Ask any teacher how visual representations can be helpful to kids that age. The implication that one never matures beyond that point is utterly insulting. (Those whose images of God and such never grow either are of a child-like innocence I'd never spoil or doing it on purpose because self-knowledge would be part of the alternative!)

I'm really weary of the creative editing of the liturgy which I have seen - and I am not referring to the brilliant work of liturgical scholars, even when it led to results they'd not anticipated. The Trinity cannot be mentioned - too sexist. Penitential rites must be excised, lest someone feel guilty or think he is a sinner. (How one can remove the distractions to love of God and neighbour without such awareness is beyond me. "Guilt" can be quite valuable, and those who have none are sociopaths. I may as well think pain is entirely negative, and regret that, when I slipped with the carving knife, I ended up with a small cut rather than being spared any pain and chopping my finger off.) The glorious, "Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open..from whom no secrets are hid," is taboo, lest anyone feel creeped out at the idea that God knows their secrets. (I'm not getting into those who think worship is 'selfish' or keeps one from 'doing,' or who sees 'sacramentalising' as opposed to evangelising. The absurdity of the former would have been recognised many centuries before Christ walked the earth, and the worship of the Christian community has held us together for 2,000 years, despite all the nonsense we've pulled all along.)

I am not denying that there can be individuals who have reasons why certain images trouble them. However, if someone abused by her father associates God as Father with such torture (and, tragic though this is, I doubt it is a default position), wouldn't the scriptures, emphasis on the Creator and Redeemer, words of the liturgy without tossing the Trinity out the door, play a role in leading one to see that God is transcendent - beyond our senses?

Don't think I'm going to spare the extremes of 'inclusive language.' My ghostly brethren, thou knowest that language doth evolve. Yet, from extensive experience, I have noticed that the very women who shriek that "good will towards men" means salvation, unity with God, is limited to males are usually too learned and intelligent to truly think that is the case. Spare me the passages from great theologians, where "his" or "mankind" is followed by (sic.) There indeed may be valid reasons to modify a text - if so, there must be great care that the meaning remains clear rather than becoming all the more obscure. But everyone who attended three years of school (I don't mean university) has read works that weren't produced in the last ten years - and every child of 12 (who is English-speaking) has had at least a passing acquaintance with the beautiful English of the Renaissance. To imply that hearing 'Lord' in reference to Christ, or the term 'man' when it is used in the sense of humanity, would lead to an idea that salvation is the exclusive property of the male is an insult to the intelligence of every woman in the congregation.

I'll close with reference to a 'scholarly' work which insisted that the RC Church had centuries of thinking women had no chance of getting to heaven. Considering the enormous number of devotions to female saints (one in particular who had the unique privilege of being a tabernacle), I'd say 'get me another gin' had I not already wondered if the author already had one too many.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Darkness comes in various flavours

Two unrelated areas in recent weeks prompted me to explore this theme. In a discussion of theological works, it occurred to me that it's easy to forget that many classics either present philosophical arguments or were derived from what originally were letters of direction. As I've treated elsewhere, philosophical arguments (such as Augustine's emphasis on omnipotence), brilliant though they may be, can lead to pastoral disasters. (Headlines on any day of the week will tell us there is indeed much to fear in this world, regardless of that God either 'wills or permits' these.) As for words of direction (the earliest example in the English language being Walter Hilton's "Ladder of Perfection"), it is essential to remember that the writer was responding to particular questions, situations, and the like on the part of individuals known to him. A sentence which was superbly suited to the original recipient of the letter can seem utterly callous out of context.

I'm going to spare my readers a massive treatment of 'chapter and verse' this once, but, in both cases, and the more because the greatest theologians often were great saints, there is yet another point of confusion. In a nutshell, the great saints often believed (and the other writers pretended) that (1) the only thing one feared was lack of union with God (especially for eternity), (2) that only grave sin was a spiritual problem, (3) that everyone who was troubled was concerned about a sin, and (4) that such statements as that about there being nothing to fear (since God always gives us the grace not to die in final impenitence) would make sense to those not utterly focussed on eternal union with the divine. (Even those who feared demonic possession could be assured the demon could not touch their will.)

Certainly, much suffering in this world is the consequence of sin (whether one's own or that of others), but equally much is not - and those who are troubled in ways other than those of conscience did not need the burden of fearing they'd sinned - or that there was some sin involved in not embracing "God's will."

On another note, I am a book reviewer, and receive books on various topics (my basket currently holds one on Bob Dylan, another a 1950s romance which sounds like a James Cagney film, another about the Third Reich), one of the latest (link below) being about someone who spent 20 years with the Missionaries of Charity. I was sorry to see that this congregation, at least according to the author's account, placed huge emphasis on suffering (including the self-inflicted), and atonement for sins. (Presumably, given seven days, one could create the cosmos as well... but I digress.) I'm aware that Mother Teresa had a long life, and that some of the practises (generally considered outmoded and negative now) described (such as using the discipline, wearing chains, forbidding physical contact of any kind) would have been common in many religious communities even 50 years ago. I know well that many saintly sorts are best not to imitate, and that her excessive emphasis on poverty and suffering could be equalled by Francis of Assisi. That did not keep me from a sense of sorrow that one who so encouraged love, and who became an icon for service of the poor, led others to such negativity.

I do recall, nonetheless, that Francis' own extreme ways of penance (which, towards the end of a lifespan about half that of Mother Teresa's, he himself admitted were excessive) were not imposed on his friars. I found it tragic that, in the 20th century, there would be such morbid practises as inflicting corporal punishment on one's self (unhealthy in itself, and hardly lending towards the strength one must need for the work of the MC), much less wearing a chemise to bathe and being cautioned against properly cleaning one's genital area. There remained an excessive emphasis on 'example' rather than self-knowledge, and on being models of fidelity to a point where one might take stands on issues without having the background to properly present or defend the positions. I can admire picking up the destitute from the streets - but not Mother Teresa's having deformed feet, not from a congenital defect, illness or injury, but because of remaining silent and suffering when, as a Loreto Sister, she received shoes which were much too small.

I am not one to applaud imprudence in the name of an example of fidelity. One example noted in this book involved a priest-teacher at Regina Mundi in Rome. Moral theologians indeed deal with highly controversial matters, and details can be confusing in an elementary class, yet (to use the example which became a source of trouble) this priest spoke of such current topics as how twin embryos can develop from a fertilized ovum - or how one of the twins can disappear - and that this can present debate on whether a human soul is present from conception. I am no authority on moral theology, but I can understand how one seeking to defend the position that we are human from the instant of conception may need to address objections and questions such as these in a presentation. Rather than consulting him or the administration, apparently the MC managed to get the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith involved.

I'm refraining from a lengthy treatment only because I have written a good deal about this in the past, but the idea of punishment, of having to 'atone' (by which I do not mean amendment!), and of asceticism as appeasing God rather than as removing distractions is the curse of the western Church. It leads me to ponder how 'darkness' in the spiritual life can come in varied forms. Most of us cannot understand, for example, the Dark Night of John of the Cross, but my sense is of one utterly caught up in a desire for union with God, who concurrently knew God is unknowable. There is darkness that is no charism - perhaps as a result of illness, exhaustion, sometimes clinical depression. I could see that it could be deadly (or crippling at least) if one gives all 'darkness' status as a special grace, and couples this with a sense of suffering to atone for sin.

Darkness in the sense of doubt, as I've seen in the writings of saints, can wear so many hats that only those with discernment can assist in sorting these! It can mean coming to maturity and discarding notions of the divine, for example. Mother Teresa would write, in 1959, "I have no faith -I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart - & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me - I am afraid to uncover them - because of the blasphemy." (Punctuation as in the original - apparently she shared my idiosyncrasy of using lots of dashes.)

Mary Johnson, author of the book I was reviewing, raises a question which also came to my mind: "I suspected.. that Mother's refusal to uncover those questions may have caused her darkness to linger." It strikes me that seeing her doubts as blasphemy, and this coupled with a tendency towards and training in penitential acts to atone for sin, may have made her increase this darkness.

God of God, Light of Light... Light of the World... It would take one with far better judgement than I possess to tell anyone what flavour of darkness they face, but I believe the 'default' position is that the dark is a difficulty to face, not a gift of God. I dare-say that seeing darkness as a blessing would close any avenue for letting it decrease. Jesus of Nazareth took on our humanity fully (and in this we are glorified.) He was faithful to his radical, prophetic vocation, and accepted the natural consequences (not punishment from an angry God!) when human failings led to his being a convicted criminal - but it wasn't his hand that caused the flagellation. It can strengthen us to recall his calling out in agony on the cross, indeed, but let us place more stress on the Incarnation in its fullness - resurrection, ascension, looking ahead to glory, and our deification in the process.

Monday, 10 January 2011

A bit on the Baptism of the Lord

Happy New Decade, my friends. Winter is a horrid time for me - the cold and darkness already seem as if they have been persistent for the past eight months, and I shudder to think we have months of this ahead. As well, when one has maintained a blog for five years, one wonders if one has said anything of note. Some of my entries may contain humour, insight, and the like, but right now my thoughts seem as chilly as the weather. This entry is purely a gesture of 'yes, I'm still very much alive.' :)

I very much liked a way in which a priest-friend of mine developed a sermon regarding how Jesus was baptised into our humanity that we could be baptised into his death and resurrection. Oh, my theological training was quite good - perhaps too good.. with my brain in winter fog, I naturally thought of fifteen or so relevant references, and didn't have the stamina to tie them together. Yet there were images that entered my mind in reference to Jesus' baptism - particularly the recognition that, rudimentary though this concept was for the earliest Christians, the entire scene is a revelation of the Trinity. As well, Jesus, always the divine Person, in his human nature was given the gift of the Spirit for his ministry - the prophet, the healer, the crucified 'blasphemer,' the high priest.

Naturally, I feel inadequate without going into a thousand images, and treatment of whether theophany is historical, and so forth. Must save that for the spring thaw, I suppose. Yet, aside from my spirituality being centred on the Trinity (... well, why not? God as unknowable and beyond us keeps us from making Him into an idol, perhaps a super-charged version of ourselves such as Odin or Zeus), it always moves me that God is Creator and source of Revelation. By contrast with the gods of Canaan, and however much Israel had dealt with myths of many pagan cultures (these far stronger than their own in any natural sense - some must have wondered if territorial gods had the upper hand) long before Jesus' time on earth, Yahweh is constant creator - the material world is not an accident or regrettable development. Creation itself came into being from "and God said..." - he speaks, reveals, and calls us to 'hear' the Beloved Son.

I'm sorry that all too much of past treatments of our own baptism were centred on 'washing away the stain of original sin.' As my regulars know, I favour Irenaeus on that topic - for all that I love much in Augustine, he certainly was a bit excessive on this. Yet Augustine was defending divine omnipotence, in a culture where (as he'd experienced in his Manichean days), there was a dualism, where the material was seen as evil, creation as the work of a false god. Ironically, later developments of what was based on Augustine made it appear that our default location was hell. This was coupled with an uneasiness about Jesus' humanity, stopping just short of its denial. I well remember such old gems as the idea that Jesus was omniscient during his earthly existence and, for example, during his temptations, wasn't genuinely troubled but merely hiding his divine knowledge because, otherwise, Satan might not have seen to it he was crucified and the ransom for sin paid (with the gates of heaven opened in the process.)

Forgiveness is not a gift I'm about to belittle! But I do not see it as the action of a Creator who, however with regret, would have had to send us to hell (or limbo.) Reconciliation is a restoration to intimacy - and, if there are obstacles to this, that is not the Creator's doing.

However faulty or limited exegesis was until very recent history, I believe that it always was agreed that, in theophanies such as Jesus' Baptism and Transfiguration, He was revealed as priest, prophet, and king. (Thankfully, this is a far cry from a magician tricking the devil...) Given that, just a few days ago, we celebrated Epiphany, I was moved to think of Margaret Barker's treatment of the gifts of the magi. It has a valuable connection with Jesus as the 'new Adam,' but with an emphasis on priesthood - on sacrifices of glory rather than appeasement. I am thinking that our own call to spread the gospel, but also to take part in the Eucharist (sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving), is rooted in our baptism and common priesthood, and much prefer this to baptism's not being seen as an alternative to remaining in some vestibule because the pearly gates couldn't otherwise be unlocked.

Margaret Barker makes reference to several ancient sources which refers to Adam as priest, and to angels worshipping God's icon (as I've developed in the past, mankind as making the transcendent God immanent.) She mentions a Jewish text, the Apocalypse of Moses, where Adam, on leaving Eden, begged the angels for perfumes of Paradise (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), that he may continue the sacred offerings. "Adam driven from Eden represented the original priesthood driven from the temple in the time of Josiah.. Jesus was the new Adam, the new creation, opening the way back to Eden and restoring the true temple. The magi..were a sign for the Hebrew Christians that the ancient ways were being restored."

It occurs to me, as well, that revelation came more through our worship than we often realise. The Trinity were praised in early texts, long before actual formulation of a doctrine. This privilege of baptism (worship), all that has held our flawed Church (us!) together for two millennia, also reminds us of that eternal Creator - who continues to speak.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Oh, stop being so damned 'holy'!

I'd not intended to write an irritable post - but, with Duns Scotus on my mind (as I'll briefly explain in a moment), let's just say I'm valuing and displaying every element of my individuality - who I really am. If any of you have been 'followers' of mine, it will come as no shock that I believe caring for and 'giving' to others is extremely important. What exasperates me is not an attitude of 'I shall share what I have,' but one of 'I'm not good enough to have anything - and, if I give it away, it's for that reason.'

I know the favoured term is 'recession,' but let's be honest - we are in a full-fledged Depression, and have been for some years. This is not a 'paper recession,' where 'hard times' mean that people are making less than what they had hoped on investments. It is the real thing - struggle, desperation, fear, for many destitution. One lady whom I know, Barbara, regularly speaks of how she cannot even afford a pair of shoes or clothing for the past three years, and I find this totally believable. Yet, if anyone mentions abstract concepts about ostentation, winning a lottery and the like, Barbara has to jump in with 'if I won a million, I'd give it to charity - Oh, I know everyone says that (everyone? I wouldn't!), but I think I really would." (I'm using her only as an example - I have known many of this breed throughout my life.) I'm amazed that Calvinism - the idea of our depravity, of desire, even for what is not remotely sinful, as evil; the sense that God blesses his own with prosperity but frugality is an idol - has infected even someone who is Jewish. Tragic, indeed.

If poverty is a virtue, it is in its connection to gratitude (not least for creation and divine providence, define that as you will) and charity (by which I mean true love, not playing Lady Bountiful to people whilst treating one's employees like dead weight.) I certainly understand frugality, and I'll say cryptically that I had two times in my life when I was indigent and dependent on others totally for a time. Resigning oneself to a need for frugality is purely pragmatic. It is quite another matter when one, for example, will 'do for others' but cannot bear for anyone, even one's closest friends, to ever do anything for oneself. Knowing one, for example, cannot afford to buy shoes at the moment is just dealing with a situation - it's a far cry from feeling that, were one to be fortunate in getting past hardship, one is not good enough to be grateful for this, but must turn it over to 'charity', probably lest some bogeyman punish one for admitting one is good enough to enjoy the goods of creation.

It is as if only two extremes existed - utter greed, with no concern for others, or self imposed frugality because one is unworthy of everything. I've seen people who grew up in great poverty still enjoy whatever they had - even if it was watching a sunset and playing a card game with neighbours! I applaud this! Creation is good - we are created in God's image - others are a gift, not to be viewed as some potential source of wrong.

Earlier this week, I had intended to write a blog essay about Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry I enjoy, and his interest in the Franciscan philosopher John Duns Scotus. I still intend to do so, but could not seem to get my scholarly side in gear this week. One could write a dissertation on either figure - and still only scratch the surface.

I'll leave my comments, for the moment, about a single point. Hopkins, as his poetry shows, was a man of many conflicts. I can certainly understand how he could struggle with a Jesuit idea of heroism and self-abnegation (indeed, an ideal in which one should always seek not only to do good but 'what is most perfect'), by contrast with a Scotist stress on 'this-ness' in the individual as glorifying God. It is interesting that Duns Scotus' stress on the will and individuality (as opposed to deductive reasoning - however gifted he was in that!), with which I concur, is hard to fully value when the Western Church, for centuries, has tended to base asceticism on atonement for sin, deprivation and the like. When asceticism is viewed, rather, as a removal of distractions, and we hope to get past the false self (to achieve the potential for which we were created... pardon this Scotist for, as usual, borrowing from Thomas Aquinas) rather than annihilate our true identity, both virtue and art (both Hopkins' passions) can flower.

I suppose that all 'arty' ascetics can fear that their creative gifts can become distractions in themselves. I wonder if passion frightens us because it is strongly present in many sinful tendencies - and don't think for a moment that I mean only sexual passion. I am intensely sensual, and do not fear this in the least - it has many elements of joy and gratitude. I thrive on art, music, literature, aromatherapy scents, well-seasoned food, wine and espresso, self-expression in clothing. Yet I've read all too many works on the supposed spiritual life to know that, were I 'holy' ( all know I am not...), I should at least pretend that even a work of art is a distraction.

Heaven knows that Ignatius of Loyola did not abandon his military side in later years, and, however long before Gerard's time, had... rather a military mission in England. The Spiritual Exercises and related, discursive meditation can be helpful for many, but never were suited to me - and I dare say the 'desolation' prescribed within portions of these would be a far greater burden to Gerard, whose brilliance and literary gifts I envy (there - now you know what those of us who aren't inclined to promiscuity struggle with... and it's far more insidious and, I've heard, much less fun...), but whose scrupulosity (a problem with which I've never had to deal) would mean fear and conflict far beyond the norm.

Certainly, everyone on earth, particularly those who are devout and/or have high ideals, struggles with frustration, darkness and the like. Yet, since it's so much a part of me that to bring it to mind would be rather like exploring why I breathe, I tend to forget that not everyone (including those far more advanced in virtue than I) has the struggle with philosophical concepts, such as I can see in Hopkins. They are not matters of achievement. The frustration, in this specific sense, is not about a lack of wealth, recognition, and so forth. It is a conflict between hopes of being that which God intended, and seeing shortcomings to the point of doubting even one's own integrity.

Aside from his literary genius and insight, I admire that Hopkins 'spilled' the scope of struggle. (I'll mention illustrations of this in his poetry when I get around to the essay I mentioned.) He'll rejoice in the resurrection, but also set forth his anger, frustration, sense of futility.

For centuries, and even in our own day, spiritual exercises too often were based on 'I am worthless.' The 'first step' often was a meditation on death - I suppose to call one to conversion. It's a far cry from the hazelnut of Julian of Norwich - which I see as a reflection on a divine glory so great we can only catch a glimpse. This is "I am wicked - I must repent - I am worthy of nothing but hell." This would seem to imply that the Creator designated that as default location...

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Consciousness of blinders (and resulting blunders)

My regulars (assuming such exist) will be aware that one of my pursuits is reviewing books, pre-publication, for Amazon. Handing One Another Along by Robert Coles surely was one of the most thought-provoking books I've reviewed recently. I'll not reproduce my reflections here (those interested can see the review at the Amazon site), but I was spurred, by some of Dr Coles' highly accurate observations, to reflect on how we often do not realise the extent to which we 'fail to hear' those around us because of pre-conceived ideas. These often are so much a part of us that we do not even see their 'editing and censoring' qualities when we truly are trying to understand others' expressions and viewpoints.

Dr Coles book is based on moral understanding through reflecting on others' stories. Much of what is contained in the book is either references to others' writings or to interviews in relation to his own research, for example, societal and historical aspects of such eras as that of the US civil rights movement. A humanist I can well understand, but, since he is also a psychiatrist, he has complications beyond what most of us would face (though he admits this with rare humility, a trait I have not noticed as being the hallmark of those in the medical profession.) Coles mentions how, when he saw civil rights demonstrators in dangerous situations, straight off he was assuming they were 'in denial.' When they explained how incidents in their youth spurred their later action, he assumed that they were speaking anecdotally to refuse to face the current reality. (I know nothing of the social sciences, of course - and I've no regret for that.)

Further, in referring to literature, he makes the very apt point that great writers, when they are writing non-fiction where their usual genres are novels, often fall into a mistake. For all the strong truth of theme, characterisation, and the like which are the hallmark of any good fiction, one used to creating characters, therefore knowing them as one can never know another, can illustrate motives, or describe a facial expression and the underlying experiences or emotions it expresses. Observing another 'in person,' and assuming one knows what is behind his expression, may be far off the mark.

I, of course, would be utterly hopeless in realms closer than the philosophical or literary. :) I have studied (and sometimes witnessed!) a huge scope of human strengths and weaknesses, but remain a total innocent about the world. I'd undoubtedly have Jack the Ripper in to tea were he to convince me he was on verge of conversion. I can be witty or even bawdy, irreverent, cynical, and the lot - but, deep down, I think most of the world is seeking some sort of mystical union with the divine, 24/7.

Yet one of the frustrations in my own life is that, though I'm a private sort and not likely to tell my life story to anyone offhand, it is next to impossible to explain one's own situation if another already is inclined to 'box' people based on what is conventional. (If I recognise convention, I'm apt to scoff at this.) Whatever my weaknesses, I am not deficient in verbal or written expression, but I've had many a situation of explaining matters in detail and having a totally different version created from what I supposedly said (and never would!)

We cut off others the moment we think they have to fit stereotypes. Worse, we can assume (as I would at times - though fortunately I am not in circulation much, and do not have the discernment to ever seek to guide anyone!) that others see things as we do. Last but by no means least, in the religious realm, we can hear 'agendas' so many times that we aren't even conscious of them any longer.

Here's a silly example. I well remember when two friends of mine, both young, unmarried women, attended a social group at their church, intended for single people in their age group. They naturally were hoping this could be an opportunity to meet some nice guys, and I'm sure they were not alone in this goal. Little did they know that, in their diocese at that time, there was all sorts of talk about 'neglecting those in single life,' and recognising it as a 'calling.' At the first meeting, the religious Sister who greeted the group went on about 'single life as vocation,' assuming they felt left out because of the current emphasis on family. (She probably heard this at a 'workshop.') I'm comforted that someone out there is even dumber than I am, because the last thing on the attendees minds, I'm sure, was pursuing 'single life as vocation.'

We cannot help seeing things from a particular perspective - it's much a part of our individual natures. Let's just be sure we are aware of this. Assuming "I know how you feel," or that "all women think this way, and I know how you feel just because we are of the same gender," or that whatever we heard at the latest 'workshop' (or whatever the 21st century counterpart of that venerable institution exists at the moment) is everyone's first priority, can cut off far more communication than it facilitates.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The entire world can read this

The difficulty with maintaining a blog for years is that one feels one is repeating oneself, and wonders whether one has anything worthwhile to say. (Perhaps I should have used the first person pronoun rather than the neutral 'one' - because it occurs to me that, not only on blogs but on Facebook and other networking sites, a large number of people not only have no qualms about such repetition but greatly over-estimate the level of general interest in such details as whether one went shopping today or is eating a toasted ham and cheese.) This is not likely to be one of my better posts, but, just in case anyone actually reads this blog, and wondered if I'd made a vow of silence, I can assure my readers that this is not the case (much as it may be a relief to some people in this world if I had.)

I was an Internet designer in its early days, and love the capabilities this technology gives me for research, keeping up with my friends all over the globe, amusing interchanges, and participation in a forum now and then. However, it still amazes me, now that the Internet is long past its infancy, the extent to which people share personal matters on-line. I have, for example, seen Facebook 'walls' with what I would consider quite intimate details of one's life (not to mention language that makes me, one far from prudish and who loves the temperate use of Anglo Saxon vernacular of all kinds, blush and occasionally get bug-eyed.) It further amazes me when anyone is angry or feels violated when something is 'shared,' if it is a matter he posted on his own site in the first place! Of course, I have seen evidence that it can be easy to forget what is a 'message,' and what is posted on another's 'wall' for all and sundry to read.

Normally, I enjoy being humorous on this blog, but I'm going to be quite serious for a moment. As far as I'm concerned, if someone wants to post everything from what he had for lunch to what happened (or he wishes had happened) in a social setting, at worst this entails bad taste or self-absorption. (The self absorption I used to see on 'personal home pages' was stupid enough, but it normally did not have a daily update.) I may not find either trait appealing, but neither do I see them as dangerous. There is a far more troubling matter on my mind today.

I am not suggesting this is universal, nor that it is a trait reserved to the young - but I have a long memory, and know, sadly, that, especially with young people, cruelty, exclusion, mockery, having one's own friends turn on one, someone's being targeted as a scapegoat (often for no reason at all), is far from being new. Most of us either suffered as a result in our youth, or saw others in the situation. I shall also add that, though I could not fathom why, then or now, there are actions one may consider hilarious at that age which one would shudder to have had a part in even six months later.

Those who came to adulthood well before the Internet must all have painful memories, perhaps scars to this day, in those categories. Yet we were fortunate because, if someone mocked us or was cruel, and though it might mean that the stereotype everyone believed (which becomes permanent once it is uttered) meant we'd never have a chance for the truth to be seen by a person or group of people, only a limited number knew of this. Today, the sort of spite that would have been limited could be broadcast to the entire world within an hour.

I'm much too innocent to know if there were many people who were voyeurs - though even I am not so stupid as to know that pornography is an old matter, and that there are people, whether in speech or photographs, who flaunted their own sexual behaviour. I have no understanding of this, but, if it is someone's own choice (and the other party involved is equally willing), the consequences are his alone. It chills me that the tiny 'web cam' devices seem to be licence, in some circles, for photographing others. If this existed in my younger days, at least one had the interval for film developing, during which one might come to one's senses. Today, someone may record another's actions, without his even being aware, and have no qualms about posting this for international viewing.

I could go on about various moral implications, but I'll restrict what I write today to one matter. There is something seriously lacking, in so much as a concept of human dignity (at the barest level), when having technology available means that others are treated as if they were at one's service for what is horrid and cruel 'entertainment.'