Friday, 30 December 2005

"New Year, New You!"

One of these days, an article so entitled shall deal with transformation in Christ - perhaps deification. It is only then that I shall not grit my teeth at what follows.

Honestly, has no one a mind, heart, or soul any longer? I just was visiting an Internet forum, where someone began a thread entitled "hopes and dreams for 2006." Based on past perusal of such threads, I suppose I should not be surprised that the only constant wish was to lose weight or begin an exercise programme. (..sigh... I'm glad I don't know them. If that is their only topic of conversation, what a blasted crowd of bores they all must be.) But what troubled me the more was that the few poor souls (such as myself) who posted a wish for more intellectual stimulation, spiritual growth, and social contact were 'reassured' that the others had fostered stronger friendships by joining others for racquetball (where they used to waste time on such nonsense as concerts, plays, and museums), and by 'encouraging' each other in 'healthy lifestyles.'

As Thomas Aquinas, Pope John, and I know all too well, ascetic practises (fasting included) do not guarantee one will appear to meet standards of 'health and fitness.' Yet they work - in ways which matter far more.

My advice to those looking to become a 'new you' (hate that expression and the money-making schemes behind it - what's wrong with the genuine 'you'?) would be to turn to such wisdom as that of John Cassian. Thoughts and actions can bring us closer to God and neighbour or be distractions.

Anyone for metanoia?

Briefly yours this once, I wish everyone blessings for the last day of 2005.

Sunday, 25 December 2005

And the Word was made flesh

As the angels once said to the shepherds - Fear not. I'm not about to launch on a full discussion of the Incarnation, which would not be possible at the moment. I'm no different than anyone else - I ate too much, drank too much, wept a little at the manger this morning (though the wonderful music kept me from indulging in that last unduly.) My family came for Christmas Eve lunch - this afternoon, I had a nice afternoon tea from the leftovers, downed yet another stiff drink, and then the cat and I played with one of the interactive toys Santa brought. So, now you all know what goes on in anchorholds on Christmas. :)

I am not immune to the allure of the Infant Jesus, no more than would any Franciscan be, yet I'm sorry, now and then, that much gets lost in the shuffle when we focus totally on how poor, or helpless, or well-behaved (Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes... please! Newborns do not behave - it just is) the tiny Saviour was.

It is lovely to think of how the gospels capture the beginning of the story of our Saviour. Mark, with no attention to the early years, gives us the message flat out (a Marcan speciality): repentance. He begins his gospel with an event of such wonder that it would not have been apparent to those who observed it at the time: the first clear revelation of the Trinity, at Jesus' baptism. "My beloved Son," the descent of the Holy Ghost... pure wonder.

Luke, of course, gives us an extensive infancy narrative, and how I do wish we could see past the images of the ox and ass (whom Luke does not mention) and capture a bit more of the flavour of Gloria in excelsis Deo. (I'll spare my readers the reflection on how futile I feel about et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis, since men of good will may not exist until, perhaps, the parousia, based on my knowledge of world history.) Luke gives us Israel's first glance of the fulfilment of the promise that is as old as Eden. We see Zechariah, Elizabeth, Anna, Simeon recognise the Son of God - witness Gabriel's announcement to Mary - hear canticles - and, in the end ('finding in the Temple') hear Jesus himself refer to God as his Father.

There is much in Matthew about the infancy as well - but Matthew's special emphasis (found nowhere else) is the Magi. Divine truth's being revealed to the Gentiles - homage to the priest, prophet, and king. (Of course, I always did feel for the Magi, who had the best of intentions, yet were led, in the name of protocol and respect, to tell the wrong authority what they were doing. Herod's action makes one shiver, yet it sadly shows us how terribly violent authorities can become if they fear their rank is threatened.)

My love for the gospels must be clear, but no 'beginning' gives me the thrill of John's. It has shadows of sadness for human blindness - his own received him not. Yet we are reminded "to as many as received him, he gave the power to become the sons of God." Here is the true picture of His Church - the sonship, Jesus' by nature, is ours (by adoption) as his Church. Whether we prefer the infancy images of Luke or Matthew, let us remember that "all was created through him..."

I know - I am merely saying 'the grass is green.' Yet what is most wondrous and frustrating (and, I must add, 'faith challenging') in Christianity is that it perpetually is a religion of waiting - perhaps in hope, sometimes in doubt. It is all so far beyond us. Waiting for the Messiah - and not recognising him when he came. Waiting for his return in glory - then seeing that this would not be as immediate as one thought. Waiting for the parousia - and (God forgive me, but I'm honest) wondering if that, too, will be far different than we expect. The life in this world has always been difficult, and the wondrous events, with the Incarnation foremost, did not change anything as far as we can see. Perhaps the wickedness, however much it makes one shudder, is easier to accept, because it is the result of human choices. Yet so much suffering here has no explanation - it is no one's 'fault' - and it never seems to change.

Perhaps it will help, one of these days, for me to fully realise that Jesus experienced all of that as well. :)

Many blessings to all of my readers, and I wish you a joyous Christmas season. To avoid ending on a slightly 'down' note (sorry - somehow, no matter how much I see Jesus in the manger, the shadow of the cross seems to be on him - and the sermon I heard this morning was in that vein), I leave you with a glorious quotation from the Orthodox liturgy:

Your Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has shone to the world the Light of wisdom!
For by it, those who worshipped the stars,
Were taught by a Star to adore You,
The Sun of Righteousness,
And to know You, the Orient from on High.
O Lord, glory to You!

Friday, 23 December 2005

Being a bit silly

Well, having admitted that I still wait for Father Christmas, I'm entitled to indulge my seasonal taste for the silly.

How well I remember when a small number of relatives from my large extended family (probably no more than 40 people) used to gather on Christmas Eve. This being the night when everyone was together, Santa Claus arrived at about 9:30 PM rather than on Christmas morning. There were three children present who would have been under the age of 5.

One year, when I was a director of music in a parish, I had two services, on in the evening, the other at midnight, and had said I'd drop in on the festivities in between. It was definitely a 'leave the door unlocked - with all this noise, no one would hear a knock anyway' night. As luck would have it, Santa Claus (in the person of one cousin stamping about upstairs to simulate reindeer hooves) arrived at the very moment that I did. As I opened the front door, my cousin's son (aged 3 or so) began shouting with glee, thinking Santa was coming in. I doubt that, at any time in my life, anyone was ever less happy to see me.

Moving along... Some of my family tended to marry late, and it happened that my parents were 70 and 68 before they had a grandchild. I'm sure all kids think their grandparents memories are as far-off as Alexander the Great, but the gap in age between my dad and grandson Christopher made it seem more like the age of the T. Rex. On one occasion, Sam was telling Christopher all about 'how it was when I was a boy' - not intending to be at all funny, though stories about, for example, going to the toilet outside ("my mother put out a kerosene heater... madonna mia, one side a' you'd be roastin', the other side'd be freezin'") had little Christopher roaring with laughter.

Knowing that Christopher had a well-stocked library (largely a gift from me), including Andersen's fairy tales, I could not resisting commenting, "Let Grandpa tell you about all those matches he sold on Christmas Eve." Sam was immune to imaginative literature, and responded (he'd been a grocer) that Christmas Eve in the store was the worst day of 'de ho year.' (Forgive me - my own accent is so dreadful, even if my grammar is a bit better, that I sometimes cannot resist throwing in the flavour of my dad's. He could not pronounce two consonants together, and somehow his stories sound better in his own tones.)

Trouble with us romantic sorts is that we can fall into a 'let down' mode around the time of Christmas. Somehow, I'd expected that reciting the Offices today - my tiny tree with its gold, pink and white ornaments lit - a sherry beside me - Gregorian chants for Advent in the background - would verge on the magical. Instead, my back aches from cleaning! I miss friends I cannot see this year. I'm starting to feel as if I spend a third of my time either dragging out bags to the dustbin or cleaning a cat box. And I'm so hoping I do not live to regret washing and cutting the fresh vegetables for tomorrow's buffet here a day in advance.

Why should I include such a worthless entry? (I don't know... I have not had that much sherry...) Perhaps because, now and then, I receive e-mails from would-be mystics who are looking for very intense experiences of prayer. I am not a mystic, but my life of prayer has spanned decades, and my romantic side would have like, perhaps, for the Infant Jesus to embrace me, with an angelic choir heard in the background. (That's a joke, by the way. Were I to see visions or hear heavenly choirs, I would not know whether to call for the ambulance or the undertaker.)

The fact is that very little of prayer has to do with feelings - and, the older I get, the more I see that it also has little to do with certainty. It is an act of the will in the end - and, with liturgical prayer in particular, 'going through the motions,' knowing that doxology captures what the mind cannot grasp, and that the strength of such prayer is that one may lean on the entire Church. There are days when I'm barely certain whether there is a God... but still think I just received his Body and Blood at the anamnesis of his Incarnation and resurrection.

Well, off to see if some music lifts the 'blues'... I cannot think of any situation which is not improved by music, though I'd best hold off on the weepy Scottish carols today. The Christmas season is nearly here!

(Gloriana goes off to hang her stocking... even if the only thing she'll find in it on Christmas morning is her highly curious cat.)

Tuesday, 20 December 2005

Peasant nuisance nobody

It hits me about a week before Christmas... I listen not only to my wonderful CDs (cathedral choirs, classical gems, renaissance and mediaeval) for my daily dose of Christmas music, but to the 'popular' genre as well. It must be some seasonal sentimentality, but today I nearly wept at "Baby Jesu, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum - I am a poor boy too... I have no gift to bring that's fit to give a king..." (Musician that I am, it did sadden me that the cat broke the little drummer boy my mother made at ceramics.)

I suppose it has something to do with being a Christmas baby (born the feast of John the Evangelist), and with hovering at the half-century mark, but, now and then, I feel as if my life has been a failure. I was a very gifted young woman, with a number of pronounced talents, and enough diplomae to paper a wall. Had I ever known that I would never sing later, that I'd spend twenty-one miserable years in business management, that my writing talent would never be used... well, let us just say that I would have fizzled out thirty years ago.

I had many advantages for one from a working class family, largely because of my dad's dedication, responsibility and industry. But the scholarship girl's luck sometimes runs out once the well-loved diplomae are accumulated. The well is dry - one must find work wherever it is available. Luckily, at 25 one thinks this must be temporary...

No, this is not a post to indulge pure self-pity, though I know I've done quite a job of that today. Francis of Assisi often spoke of Jesus' poverty - and spun vivid pictures of a poor family with multiple woes. In recent years, since I have been studying the scriptures in ever more depth, I smile at how very unrealistic many mental pictures of Jesus of Nazareth were.

John Dominic Crossan is no favourite of mine, to be sure, and I disagree with nearly everything he says. (I have to admit I rather enjoy him - he reminds me of a sly rogue, and the man does have quite a mind... that does not mean I recommend his works.) Yet I must admit that he was spot on, in discussing Jesus' trial and death, in commenting that this Galilean was a 'peasant, nuisance nobody.' By wordly standards, that is quite true.

I'm thinking of the stories we heard in school - and even of the 'scriptural epic' films produced in my youth, which Monty Python later would spoof so brilliantly. One would have received the impression that Jesus walked the earth surrounded by people who resembled the pictures on soppy greeting cards, the lot of them in awe of his every word. (I've said it before, but it merits repetition. We seemed to think that holiness would leave everyone loving the holy, yet forgot that perfectly natural circumstances were the cause of Jesus' crucifixion. I suppose we thought that he'd only gone to the cross because God willed this.) I'm the more impressed, today, that the Church ever began - and know (and this with full acknowledgement of Jesus' divinity!) it only could have been because of the resurrection and Holy Spirit.

There were many miracle workers, itinerant preachers, and undoubtedly quite remarkable, devout Jews in first century Palestine. Jesus was distinguished mainly for applying words about God to himself. His followers were few enough, and he was not a man of great learning (though indeed of brilliance) or achievement. Perhaps he was a good carpenter, but it appears he spent his adult life, or at least the time of his ministry, dependent on the good will of others.

I believe it was scripture scholar Raymond E. Brown who commented, again aptly, that most of us accept only as much of Jesus' humanity as we wish. Somehow, we seem to think we are insulting his divinity if we admit just how very human he was. I sometimes can all but feel the sense of futility he must have endured at times. ( Howard Marshall notes how Luke’s narrative of the Last Supper is “impregnated with apostasy, self-seeking, denial, and betrayal – attendance does not transport the disciples to Paradise or lift them out of trial and temptation. The grim narrative heightens Jesus’ self-giving, and the promise that, through his death, salvation and the heavenly banquet are offered to weak, fickle disciples.” And what followed that night is not anything upon which I'm sure the apostles later cared to dwell.)

To speak of myself and Jesus in the same breath seems close to blasphemous - but "I am a poor boy, too. I have no gift to bring." Perhaps I can lift myself out of my sense of failure a bit if I remember that this 'peasant, nuisance nobody' not only was the Son of God but accepted the lot of his life on earth in all particulars.

Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another obscure village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty, and then for three years He was an itinerant preacher.

He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never set foot inside a big city. He never travelled two hundred miles from the place where He was born. He had no credentials but Himself.

While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against Him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves.

His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth while He was dying -- and that was His coat. When He was dead, He was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone and today He is the centerpiece of the human race and the leader of progress. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as that One Solitary Life.

by James A. Francis

Monday, 19 December 2005

Lessons, carols, and 'coming home' for holidays

As I write this, I am listening to the CD "Angelic Voices," performed by the choir of Lincoln Cathedral. The last selection I heard was a great favourite of mine, "Lo, he comes with clouds descending." How I love that rousing hymn, the more when I am at services where those who have not been to church since Easter are joining the rest of us.

Yes - I know this is not what I 'should' be saying. I suppose I should be bemoaning the empty pews at other times. Yet I do not see where people who come home only for holidays are any less a part of the family. Theologically, indeed I could trace how the Eucharist (and psalms...) held the Church together when nothing else could - Lord knows there never was agreement on doctrine from the days of Peter and Paul's argument at Antioch. But I'm going from the sublime to the practical today. Not everyone is a churchgoer - and whether one is or not often has little to do with one's degree of devotion.

I am of Meditterranean background - and many of such stock, though they are believers (...not too much... just enough), and may call upon God regularly (or, at the very least, have a nice chat with his mother), shall not be noted for a huge emphasis on word and sacrament. Thankfully, religious practise also is not coloured by some sort of rosy devotion to the family... not amongst people who already have more family obligations than they know how to handle. Family, marriage, children - it is all about commitment and responsibility, not glorifying the state, not seeing parents as latter-day angels. Were anyone to write this up as a theological truth (unlikely), it would boil down to - this is the covenant - so now, live it. If this involves churchgoing, fine - but I would far rather see people avoid common worship than merely attend because it is what society expects, or as a mark of respectability.

I'm Franciscan: bring in the thieves, the members of the 'sex addicts group,' whomever - one who first promised Paradise to a manipulative thief on the Cross will not mind. The Church is (and always was) a motley mess - let's not think that the Church already is holy ( affliction of those who are in the pew a good deal at times), and that one must exclude those less so. (Even if one must be careful to watch one's wallet. Let it not be said that I came through 27 years of Franciscan life totally unscathed.) Let them in for Christmas... then to be smudged on Ash Wednesday (how very appropriate, now that I think of it)... then to join in again at Easter. This is home!

Let us not 'knock' those who 'came for the concert' either. (As long as they do not look down their noses at the coughing man or the crying baby.) If music and liturgy gets someone through the door, then let us bless that as a means of grace, not give them nonsense (such as I heard in many an RC circle) about "you need to bring the beauty inside yourself." (Methinks that is overestimating just how beautiful most of our innards are.)

For all my love of Christmas, all of my enjoying the eschatological focus of Advent, this is a 'blue' time of year for me. I miss my friends - those who have died (I'm much too young to have so many of those...), those whom I sadly cannot see this Christmas. I dread the long, bitter winter ahead, and so hate the cold and dark. For me, services (with good music) are a balm.

Yesterday, I attended a lovely service of Lessons and Carols. (As it happened, I had the crying baby in front of me... That amazed me because, in the particular parish, there is no evidence that people have babies. They have children, of course, but my impression had been that they are never tiny, but instead hatched at just the age to be sent off to school.) The church, which is large, was absolutely packed, both for that service and for the Eucharist to follow. Claustrophobic though I am, I was happy to see the crowd, knowing well that many there had not visited in quite some time, and even that some may not be particularly Christian in beliefs. My only regret was that, with so many people packed so tightly, I could not sing 'full voice,' and was reduced to unhappy crooning.

Let's rejoice at everyone who is home for Christmas. (Don't give them collection envelopes or suggest the Alpha Course, please.)

Friday, 16 December 2005

Time for "O antiphons"

I may be back later for my usual missive - but, for the moment, I leave my readers with a link to a site about Antiphons of Advent, which will be part of the daily Offices beginning on the 17th. They are rather too marvellous to overlook.

Thursday, 15 December 2005

A thought or two on Narnia

I have long loved the genre of 'fairy tale,' devouring volumes of folk tales from all lands, the Brothers Grimm and Andersen. Considering my great love for the theological works of C. S. Lewis, which I've indulged for decades, it may surprise my readers that I did not enter the world of Narnia until I was perhaps 45 years old, after a discussion with a dear friend about "The Magician's Nephew." It was naturally a most rewarding experience - in fact, I've added a link to the title for those interested in finding the Narnia works available through (Shameless plug, I know - but the tiny commissions I receive help me purchase my school books...) :)

Needless to say, I was off for a rare cinema visit (there being one near me with cheap matinees) as soon as the new film version of Narnia was released. I would highly recommend the film - and was pleased and surprised that Disney, which normally ruins my favourite stories (what they did to Beauty and Beast was unspeakable) remained true to Lewis.

Tilda Swinton was superb as the white witch. I found her beauty and (initially) flattering and gentle manner to be extremely effective in capturing the deceptive ways of evil, and the appeal to Edmund's desire for esteem (a crown is not to be lightly esteemed!) and pampering.

One part I felt very powerfully was the burden of Edmund's betrayal. It was very intensely captured, I believe - initially from frustration, then fear, a desire to regain the Queen's favour, more than from sheer malice. So much of maturity comes from seeing the consequences of one's actions, and Edmund's seeing the imprisoned, then killed, faun was a strong image.

Of course, I've always loved good 'fairy tales,' mythology, and legends. I think we need to remember they began long before Freud. Any horned creature was doomed after Sigmund began to hold power.. I would suggest that no one approach fairy tales of any kind without wiping out any lingering ideas that everything is a symbol for sexual organs - that the centaur indicates bestiality - and so forth. Children know, as we forget, how images can speak to us - we shall miss the image if we place it through a Freudian filter.

Why do I mention this? Well, in part because, on a discussion forum today, I noticed all sorts of people who were up in arms at what they saw as a strong hint of paedophilia 'warning signs' in Narnia. Deep sigh... I should like to kick the lot of them right in the Aslan... They feared the film would be dangerous for children, considering that a little girl who meets a faun goes off for tea (he was staring at the first human he'd ever seen... a 'warning sign'), and this may prompt their own children to not be wary of strangers.

Fairy tale nut that I am, I think one needs to be careful about being overly literal with that genre. Children (whether now or in 1940) would not be likely to go off to have tea with strangers... the more if they had horns and tails... but fairy tales, where one always encounters the old man, the witch, the wise woman, fairy, troll, dragon, whatever, seem to me to capture encountering realities of life, not literally, actually meeting someone (unless it is oneself or a characteristic of human nature.) I cannot imagine that children viewing this film would therefore be inclined to go off to cottages to have tea with strange fauns, nor to ride off to battle on unicorns, nor even to have conversations with previously unknown beavers.

The only danger I know of amongst us fairy tale 'addicts' ( my page will be unreadable in some browsers of concerned parents) is that some dreams endure. I keep expecting to be offered three wishes, or to find the path that leads me to Eden before the fall...

Part of what I found very intriguing with C. S. Lewis is that he, like myself (though we are hardly alike in many ways), was a man of such complexity. Rational, stiff upper lip Jack could present "Mere Christianity", and speak of suffering without great pathos until he experienced it in the loss of one whom he loved. (He'd suffered plenty before then, of course, but unlike myself did not have a lifelong inclination to being loved... and being hurt. He'd learnt, too early, how connected the two can be, especially when grief follows.) Yet he also could weave magical pictures of wardrobes opening a door to other worlds.

One of these days, in my own spiritual life, I'll learn where the magic ends and the full reality begins... though I never wish to lose the magic altogether.

Saturday, 10 December 2005

Let us raise a toast to Father Christmas!

Yes, indeed I do believe in Santa Claus. Not that I expect some jolly man to descend the chimney (which I do not have) and leave me a host of lavish presents (...though I suppose I keep hoping.) Yet I believe the spirit of merry-making, giving, enjoyment and feasting which were part of the approaching Christmas season could stand quite a bit of reviving.

Before I proceed, I cannot resist referencing an item I saw today (it was a day when I was bewailing a lack of mince pies and mulled wine in my flat, so I was searching for rather silly Christmas sites). This is from the FAQ at the delightful Santa, which has a facility for e-mailing the distinguished man himself.

"What kind of milk should I leave out?

Occasionally kids ask if Santa is lactose intolerant so they know what kind of milk to leave out, and the answer is that "no," Santa likes all kinds of milk and has no intolerances, so any types are fine and greatly appreciated! The only type of milk Santa will probably not drink is buttermilk, although he will use it in cakes.

Mrs. Claus prefers me to drink cold fat free (aka skim) milk, because of the health benefits; however I like to drink all the kinds of milk listed except buttermilk."

All right - I'll concede that I laughed when I read this. (I personally think my aunt's kids had a better idea. They left out two whiskeys - one for Santa Claus, and one for their father.) Yet it does make me shake my head. Kids worried about lactose intolerance and health benefits of skim milk... I suppose, with all the current emphasis on the obesity epidemic, the man whom Clement Moore described as heavy must be certain the kids know he is very fit. Elsewhere, there was a reference to his exercise...

Getting back on track... There is an Internet forum on which I participate which is quite interesting many times, but I cannot stand the Calvinist/ Jansenist guilt trips as Christmas approaches. At what season would it be better to celebrate, enjoying not only the reality of the Incarnation but the sacramental (yes, I think it deserves that distinction) love which we mortals share with one another? But no... the participants (who, from the tone of their wailing and gnashing of teeth, are far more prosperous than my family ever was) want to eliminate gifts, feasts, take their children to a homeless shelter to show them how good they have it... the lot. They'll all be moaning that they are 'too comfortable' and a 'drain on the earth's resources.'

I daresay that Dickens (for all of his misery in life), having Scrooge look back on Fezziwig's party today, would have to make reference to those who ruined it stating they were on Weight Watchers, 'had to drive,' could not bear to dance with all the wars going on in this world, and who could not bear to open their presents because "people should give it to charity, where it would at least be useful."

Why do people so fear the love and generosity which we can show to those who are dear to us? It always was a Calvinist thing - I daresay the Puritans are turning in their graves that Christmas is celebrated at all, pagan feast that it is, and a day for the working classes to not be productive. (Those who think Scrooge is a cartoonish miser have not taken a look at those around them... he is alive and well, and not at all likely to have been visited by the three spirits.) But it seems to be infecting even the Catholic sorts today.

I'm sorry to see this. Yes, I could write a missive on the Incarnation, but I've decided to instead raise a glass to Father Christmas. The Christmas season, in effect, gave people permission to treat one another well without fear of being suspected of selfish motives. Co-workers would share a drink - friends (yes, even those of us who were relatively poor) would exchange little pressies. I'd love a mulled wine and mince pie now... though, at the moment, there is no one with whom I can share one (the cat gets rather irritable if I give her too much wine.)

We know little of the real Saint Nicholas - but he is remembered for generosity, providing dowries for girls who would not have been able to marry otherwise. (Please do not e-mail me on male domination and patriarchy...) I dare say those on the forum would have told Nicholas to tell them to be resigned to their lot, embrace 'single life as vocation,' or forget it all and go off to see how much less fortunate the lepers were.

I am not in the least callous towards those who are desperately poor, the victims or war, or otherwise in dreadful situations! But is the caring we show those we love, the little remembrances, the pleasant shared meals, the time in the pub, not valuable in itself? Should enjoying the goods of this earth, and showing love and gratitude to others, be feared?

Let us not forget to have true holidays! The man who turned water into wine would, I am sure, agree that the goods of this earth, and our intercourse with others, is to be celebrated. (Jesus must have done enough of it for his detractors to complain about it so much... and spare me the business about how this was purely 'table fellowship' to foreshadow the Eucharist!)

At this stage of my life, as in my childhood, I do not have many material things, though I am fortunate to have the basic necessities of life. All the more do I appreciate and enjoy the little treats! I doubt those who post on the forum are correct in thinking that everyone is awash in materialism - in fact, I would guess that children (today as when I was young) never once stop and think "why did Santa give me only small things, when others got large ones?" (Most kids would love to play with a box...) The other side of loving one's presents, as I do indeed, is gratitude. At what season is this more appropriate?

So, I raise my glass to Father Christmas! Salud! Cheers! And may one of the last sounds to die out on this earth be that of laughter, merriment, and the warm words of friends who have at least one time each year when they are not ashamed to thank God for one another.

Thursday, 8 December 2005

Glorious Church, holy and immaculate...

I am by no means suggesting that we, Christ's Church, have ever come close to being either of these things. When people tell me that they fell the Church is in a decline - that things are so evil and wretched today - I remind them that I, whose concentration was largely mediaeval and renaissance, have it on good authority that, yes, it is His Church, and thus shall survive.

Let us take a look at Ephesians for a moment. I'm not digging out my commentaries this time - it is my anniversary of vows, and I'm in one of my moods of combined awe (that He's kept me close to Himself, Lord knows sometimes going after the wandering sheep) and what I can only describe as 'quiet.' So, here are some verses from chapters 1 and 5 of Ephesians, which are in the Roman Office as 'daytime prayer' for the feast of the Immaculate Conception:

Before the foundation of the world, he chose us in Christ to be his people, to be without blemish in his sight, to be full of love; and he predestined us to be adopted as his children through Jesus Christ... In Christ indeed we have been given our share in the heritage, as was decreed in his design whose purpose is everywhere at work, for it was his will that we, who were the first to set our hope in Christ, should cause his glory to be praised... Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for it, so that he might present the church to himself all glorious, with no stain or wrinkle or anything of the sort, but holy and without blemish.

Franciscans will be noted for their propagation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. It was a great favourite of their preachers, in the Middle Ages and beyond (yes, even if Thomas Aquinas did not think it wise... now and then, I suppose, heart wins over head, even in the mind of the Church.) Franciscan preaching - then as now, tending to appeal to the heart, 'meet people where they are,' and to favour topics related to Christ's humanity (and a Son without a family, especially a mother, is unthinkable) - can be of great value indeed. Yet the flaw which Franciscans sometimes encountered (and this by no means unique to them... but, since there were so many of them and they travelled so widely, they did tend to have more influence) was that they stressed the humanity of Jesus, or an attribute of his Mother, to an extent where the divine Logos and deeper meanings surrounding doctrines about Mary became a bit on the veiled side.

This week, when I was reading the works of the Tractarians, I believe it was a Tract written by Pusey which deplored excessive Marian devotion, quoting from devotional literature (such as that which boiled down to 'pray to Mary - she has authority over her son'), and saying, quite rightly, that Mary is not to be elevated to a 'fourth person' of the Trinity. Of course, devotional writings (...and he did not even get to the Franciscans!) and preaching are not strictly doctrinal in many cases. There assuredly is no doctrine that Jesus is subject to Mary, as if she were a superior.

The entire richness of Marian devotion is two-fold - and, too often, neglected. The first element is always Christology. If we forget, for example, how often Jesus' humanity or divinity were challenged in heretical theological thought, we equally will neglect to recall that Mary as "Mother of God" (since Jesus is the divine person) reminds us of one who was God and Man.

Second, Mary is always the model of the Church. As I mentioned in a previous post, the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity is beautiful in that virginity, in a Christian tradition, is an eschatological sign - a reminder that there is more to creation than this world as we know it. The perpetual virgin is an icon - a sign of the Church in eschatological expectation.

Here, I shall made an admission that would cause any Franciscan to blush - yes, I know Augustine's writings (all too well), but I'm not about to try to explain the Immaculate Conception, because I've never fully understood either the Augustinian concept of original sin (being more inclined to favour Irenaeus) or the Immaculate Conception. Yet, once again, Mary is an icon. She is the model for the Church - a church which assuredly falls far short of what we are called to be, as we see in the exquisite lines from Ephesians which I quoted above.

I found the brief readings from Ephesians to be enormously powerful. Christ is true Man - but one in whom all things were made. His humanity, his incarnation, our deification in his assuming our nature and being glorified - these are of value we can not begin to contemplate. Yet we must not forget the omnipotent, timeless, divine Logos - who called the Church to himself before mankind had any idea of Christianity, long before Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth.

Mary was never within the power of evil - the Church is not, wicked though we can be (and we've shown ourselves capable of being major shites since Cain and Abel were young.) Evil cannot triumph. Now, I am not so eloquent or deep as to be able to explain this... it would seem impertinent to even try. :) But if Jesus' mother was redeemed before his birth (and she needed a redeemer no less than the rest of us), why would this be so surprising? It is not just a commentary on Mary's sinfulness, but a reminder of the all - powerful Logos, who was always at work as redeemer, always active in creation, and, if this was not known, it was because of the limitations of human vision, not because the reality was any less.

Yes, what we have here today is a poorly constructed, sloppy sort of sermon... but I'm a Franciscan, so humour me. God give you peace and a blessed Advent. Pray for this weak but loving soul who occasionally lets her intellectual discipline lapse to be a mere Herald of the Great King.

Saturday, 26 November 2005

The great God! He became-a so small!

So, it is Advent! Unfortunately, a bit of winter blues and loneliness (all the worse knowing that winter has not even started as yet, and the cold is already getting to me), have put a damper on my quickness. I am not ready, at the moment, to write of Israel's expectation, the Incarnation, or the church waiting in joyful hope... though I'll get to it eventually. For the moment, I shall share a memory of my days with the friars.

Father Michael was unusually short and slight, but highly expansive, and his gestures tended to be fit for a man the size of Goliath of Gath. Michael was Italian, and had learnt his English from a woman who had a very high, light voice, whom he imitated a bit too well. Consequently, he spoke English (though not his native tongue) in an extremely squeaky voice. The combination of massive gestures and chirping tones gave a general effect of a jumping-jack in an uncharacteristic brown costume.

Michael's warmth and sincerity were enormous as he reminded his congregation, during an Advent sermon, that this was a time when "we have to thank God for the c-u-u-u-te little baby Jesus!" Raising his arms over his head like the risen Messiah, Michael expounded, "The great God!!!" (Hands now at breast height, illustrating the size of an ample newborn.) "He became-a so small!" Michael's sermon continued for a time, with repeated references to the 'great God who became-a so small,' and, though I was biting my lip not to laugh aloud, many of the congregation were moved nearly to tears. (Franciscan theology can be odd at times - but their sermons do stimulate a sense of the vivid.)

I was congratulating myself for not having lapsed into a laughing fit - which would have been most uncomfortable for a highly visible director of music. And all went well until Michael's little voice piped, "Behold-a the lamb of God!"

I may have retained what little was left of my composure had the friar next to me not whispered, "He became-a so small!"

Saturday, 19 November 2005

Perfect Love casts out fear

And Who, after all, is Perfect Love? "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear."

Romantic though I am, I am no idealist when it comes to matters of fear. I know - Augustine would say 'evil has no reality' (and yes, I know what he really meant and who he was refuting), and the most eloquent of preachers would say that, with Christ's resurrection wiping out the fear of death, what is left to fear? Being pragmatic, and also one with a passion for history, I'm afraid I would have to say that even one glance at, for example, what people suffered in Auschwitz would make it plain that there is a great deal to be feared on this earth. Much is of mankind's own doing, of course, but I've been puzzling, since I first learnt of Adam in early childhood, about how God seemed to need to punish the world, then his own son... and, even when Jesus opened the gates of heaven, God did not take away the punishments of living on earth.

I am very grateful for my religious education - the lot of it. Yet I was 'raised' (not at home, where my mother would bring all concerns, with trust, to the Infant of Prague) on a bizarre combination of ideas about divine love. There was no stress on deification, the parousia, transformation. One received the impression that God, with some regret but with respect for their freedom, sent those not his friends to hell. His friends (and the friendlier one got with God, the more one was 'in for it') he sent dreadful sufferings. After all, suffering on earth would mean God's justice could be satisfied, and one would not need all the worse suffering in purgatory or hell.

(Conservative sorts who dislike my minimising the sufferings of the next life would do well to read Pope Benedict's brilliant work, Eschatology, for a superb perspective.)

In a conversation with a dear friend this week, a very simple but profound reflection he made was one which I am sure could be of value to others. The "God who inflicts suffering" (a god of rage, of punishing, of violence at being insulted) is not the real God. As for ourselves, the 'reality' includes the weakness, sinfulness, and so forth - the discouragement, ennui at prayer or work, whatever our weakness is. But God can only be reached in 'reality.' We need to bring Him ourselves, broken as we may be, and recognise the true God, Perfect Love.

My sermon on 'penance is removal of distractions' I shall save for another day, perhaps for Advent. :) I'm weary at the moment.

Thursday, 17 November 2005

I'll pass on 'becoming as little children'

This shall be one of my more irreverent and less intense posts, but may I assure my readers that I am not contradicting the Master in my heading. I've been doing a great deal of exegesis (of the variety where one reads fifteen scholars' treatments of the same passages and eventually wonders who said what...) recently, so I'm not going to go into exegesis mode here. I shall merely express my own, enduring puzzlement about why the 'simple' and 'childlike' are assumed to have an express ticket to holiness. :)

I shall confess that I have no addiction whatever to children. I further believe that Augustine was quite correct in that, if kids do not get into messes as large as those which adults concoct, it is far more because of weakness of limb than of purity of heart. Yet perhaps my very indifference can give me a wider scope of vision. I am not a believer in some sort of 'mystic innocence' on the part of the very young.

I have neither knowledge of nor interest in 'child development' - my thoughts today are of adults who never get past traits which may be excusable in infants but are deplorable in the mature. Children can be exceedingly cruel - they'll mock their closest friends if they sense it will please anyone whose favour they wish to have. They laugh at other people's misfortunes. They are totally centred on themselves, as if the entire world revolved around their own desires. Though they have some rudimentary sense of 'right and wrong,' accompanied by either a need to 'take their punishment' (not that this has the least effect on future deviltry...) or not to be caught, but virtue plays no part in the motivation.

I have known a number of people who could be classed as 'simple.' In some cases, Francis of Assisi's for example, the simplicity was in one area: Francis had a very uncomplicated (though certainly difficult to practise) view of the Christian life as 'living the gospel' and 'poverty.' It kept this otherwise complex man 'on track' and would lead to holiness - though I dare say that his writings, beautiful as they are, are so terribly simple in a sense that they could be puzzling to those who are somewhat less saintly than the dear man. (This includes the Rule. I think it is no accident that, as a group, the Franciscan Order has had more canonised saints and more prominent heretics than any other.)

But most of the 'simple' are quite narrow of vision. Writers, especially those who used to pen the dreadful 'meditations for Sisters' in the past, always praised the lightness of conscience which the childlike had. I wonder... Is such 'lightness' born of a highly virtuous life, or of not having the inclination to take an honest look at oneself? Children are fickle - many are capable of changing close friends as frequently as they would their shirts. I dare say the 'simple' adults are less inclined to self-examen because they only were interested in pleasing others in the first place. (Whether they slandered Mary to win Anne's favour may not even occur to them.)

The worst deficiency in 'the simple', as I have seen more times than I care to remember, is highly limited vision. Concurrently, they often severely lack compassion. They cannot understand much beyond their own scope of experience - another's pain is incomprehensible, because, for example, how could Suchandsuch be unable to deal with 'this' when 'everybody else' does? A confidence will be shrugged off - or, worse, 'laughed off.'

People who were concerned with obedience (Sisters at the top of the list) often could be 'like the wind,' because they had a concept only of rules - and, if the rules changed, the essence was not considered.

I must meditate on 'unless you become as little children' soon. Of course, we know nothing of Jesus as a child, but, given what a character he had by the age of 12, I would imagine he was a most interesting one... perhaps a child's nature, in his view, was one which accepts total dependence on one's Father.

Thursday, 10 November 2005

Response to the Infrequently Asked Questions

I was one of the "Internet pioneers" - amazing to think that the world of the Web is only ten years old (at least insofar as sites such as mine are concerned.) How well I remember the highly intricate coding in HTML - it could take two hours just to create a table. I am sorry that the sort of beautiful, graphic intense sites I once designed (with the musical backgrounds and slide shows) fell out of favour, replaced by everything black and white and the assumption that people have their browsers set not to display graphics at all.

Yet the worst recent development on the Internet is that, if there is one certainty in life if one has a Web site, it is that one's inbox will be crowded with hundreds of 'spam' messages daily. I cannot understand much of what is behind this. For example, one would think that those looking to sell pornography would send solicitations to those who might be interested (perhaps who participated on forums of the less than dignified nature). I receive such messages almost daily, even for child pornography, when anyone who'd had a look at my site would probably catch on that I'm not likely to be a customer. (Yes, I know how these mailings really are generated... but it irks me nonetheless.)

Consequently, I am very careful about opening mail from people with whom I have no acquaintance. Those who are sending offensive mail often use Subjects such as "about your site." My apologies to those who have sent me serious enquiries if I have never responded.

Now, to answer a few questions which have arisen regularly during recent years. One is why I no longer bestow the award I once gave to sites which had interesting content. First, unless it is very prestigious (I was honoured when I was given such an award from a major newspaper), there is little notice given today to site awards. Yes, it may cause people to click the link, but more often it only leads to their applying for awards for themselves.

More importantly, there were two factors. I was all but deluged with mail from applicants for the award - often hundreds each month - and could not possible keep up with the reviews. Worst of all, I naturally had no way of knowing how a site could change later, and did not have the ability to constantly monitor other people's sites. In one case, I gave the award to a site which seemed purely literary, in the fairy tale genre - it had lovely pictures of the wee folk. I was horrified to learn later that, within the year, it had been replaced by a porn site - as I was advised from one of my visitors who had clicked the link.

Another question now and then is about my locations or professional experience. My essays are mediaeval, true, but the blog is quite open and honest. I wish to be able to write with pure candour, without anyone's thinking (usually wrongly!) "she wrote that because she knows (someone.)" (Indeed, I know a great many people - and, though I am no one prominent, I know my share who are.) I also do not want my writing to be ruined by anyone's thinking "she thinks that because of (take your choice) where she went to school - where she lives - whatever."

As well, because I mention past parish experience, my convent life, and so forth, and do not eliminate negative aspects if I can make a point about spirituality with illustrations from my life, it would be very indiscreet to mention specifics. I can assure my readers that nothing on this site is fiction! (I sometimes have people ask me for the 'where' or 'who' as if to challenge my credibility.) I also am one to guard my privacy - and to not want anyone to get in touch with someone, somewhere, using my name when they may have read it only on the Internet.

I shall add that there are other Elizabeth Melillos out there, none of whom I would know from Adam (or Eve), for whom I've received e-mail inquiries. I have never been a fashion buyer or headhunter - sorry, wrong Elizabeth. I've never been anywhere near California. Someone who insists that I once attended a particular university in Kentucky should be aware that I not only never heard of the place but doubt I could find Kentucky on a map.

Friday, 28 October 2005

Should be a capital crime to murder the Queen's English

Yes, I have said it in the past, but it merits repetition. I hate 'trendy' uses of words, the more because said uses generally combine condescension with destruction of what often is a word's perfectly honourable meaning. 'Quality' was a perfectly decent word, until it became a cliché when linked with 'time.' (Somehow, quality now meant compensation for neglect.) Now that secretaries are 'administrative professionals,' as if their own profession were shameful, those who spent years in (what truly was) administration all have to revise their CVs. Nor do I wish to hear about 'issues'! (I used to refer to 'issues' frequently - until it became a euphemism for 'problem,' in these days when no one can admit that everyone has some.) Honestly, I had someone this week refer to her car's having 'engine issues.' I doubt the car's self-esteem would have been wounded had she used the other, more accurate term.

Once upon a time, "comfort" was a wonderful word - richly referring either to contentment or the relief of suffering. Those who could genuinely offer comfort were gifted souls indeed. That lovely word has now been ruined totally. It was bad enough when cook books suddenly eliminated such perfectly good terms as 'soup,' or 'starter' or 'stew,' and left cooks wondering what on earth 'comfort' is when it is in a pot. And worse yet when those who wished to make money trading on people's insecurity began to be proponents of the view of the pathetic neurotic turning to her 'comfort foods.' But now, we have the worst of all - and a term suddenly, rudely popular within the Church. "Comfort zones."

In a nutshell, if a congregation's taste is for, perhaps, an elegant service from the Prayer Book - or a dignified Roman Catholic Eucharist - and someone with different ideas wishes to replace the services with light-rock music and wording changed so that (perhaps) God no longer has mercy but is just 'with us on our journey' , and the congregation objects, it does not mean that their views are solid and should be treated with respect. No - the innovations are beyond their 'comfort zone.'

I must read some Shakespeare this evening... I want to believe that the English language has a certain earthy perfection that can never die...

Decency, thy name is Legion

It is amazing how, when one is doing an Internet search, one may come across quite unexpected information - indeed, often wondering how one arrived there in the process. One of my (unrelated) searches led me to some history of the old US "Legion of Decency," a Catholic effort to restrain Hollywood during the days of the studio system. It would be enough to make anyone with a love for literature, theatre, and the arts in general (..strike three!) indignant, even if one cannot help but laugh.

One of the films which the Legion condemned in its heyday was "Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street." I have seen the film, and I could well understand one's criticising its message, much as the action is totally harmless. The premise, which is a basically disagraceful commentary on capitalism is that the spirit of Christmas boils down to making sure the children get whatever they want - that Santa Claus can remedy just about any situation. He could even make two department store heads reconcile - and the wonderful version of true charity comes down to that one sends parents to other stores to find the promised gift, even if it means losing a sale (gaining others in the process, of course, for this great kindness.) There is no religious element whatever - nothing much but 'believing' (not in Christ, but in a Kris Kringle who bears no relation to the honourable Saint Nicholas in any of his legends) and greed.

So, though I would hardly disagree with the pleasant little fantasy's being condemned (actually, I am not one for censorship in any case), had the Legion criticised this highly false picture of a holiday which should celebrate the Incarnation, I suppose I could understand. But no - the reason the film was condemned was that it featured a woman who was divorced, and who, in the standard happy ending, marries again.

When it comes to blasphemy, obscenity, pornography and the like, I have no taste for it whatever - I therefore do not watch films in with those elements. Then again, I suppose that some of the more 'decent' sorts would think that my having enjoyed "Priest," "Vera Drake," and Monty Python's "Life of Brian" - which does not spoof the gospels but is a marvellous take-off on scriptural epics - is an abomination.

This is where my vision had to be widened, because the sort of 'decency' of which I am writing here did not occur to me at once. I would certainly agree, for example, that pornography is degrading - I find it repulsive, and can fill my mind with far better images. Were those always harping on protecting "our children" speaking of child pornography, I'd heartily agree that the children who are in such productions are horrifyingly abused. I even believe that, since it is best not to start what one cannot finish, those with no legitimate outlet for sexual activity would need to exercise caution in watching or reading sexually explicit material, since ignition points can vary greatly by individual.

Yet that is not what the 'decent' were saying. The idea was that 'role models' must be presented - that no one living in a manner of which someone avidly religious would disapprove should be admitted to have existed. So, I suppose my great love for Shakespeare, Chaucer, opera and the like - not to mention my wide taste in art - would place me beyond the pale. (Apparently, films could never hint at adultery - though murderers and 'public enemies' could be depicted provided the film ended with their being killed, preferably at the state's hand.)

This entry is not solely in support of artistic expression - though all good art (and, I hasten to add, the scriptures themselves!) reflects reality, and 'life' often is not sweet and pretty. The sanitised version, supposedly to protect the 'mystic innocence' of children (some 'children' are a foot taller than I, and I feel much as Augustine did about even the little ones - if they are less sinful than adults, it is more from weakness of limb than purity of heart), must preserve the image that everyone on earth is doing nothing but bible reading (actually, some of those doing that frighten me a good deal). And the young must be preserved from any knowledge of sex - if they know about it, they'll do it. (That the urge to merge inevitably accompanies puberty - and though I believe that even my old 'friend' Freud's 'latency period' was smashed by later research - seems to be ignored. I once remember some very old men reminiscing about a game of their early childhood - 'church on fire.' Someone would shout that sentence, and all the boys would piss in the street to 'put out the fire.' Today, I suppose, the cast of 'church on fire' would be in therapy if not gaol.)

This nonsense still exists (and I do not mean what I put in the parentheses - that's just normal.) I have seen mothers aghast that their children were allowed to feel the kicks of a baby in his mother's womb. ("As soon as the greeting sounded in my ears..." Oh, Elizabeth, you dirty person saying that to innocent Mary.) On a forum on which I participate online, the father of a child of 7 does not want her to know that death exists, indeed is holding back the information that someone known to her has died, lest she be 'confused' in her faith - after all, they know people who do not believe in an afterlife. (I assume, from his other posts, that his daughter has accepted Christ as Saviour... I'm wondering how she heard about the cross, considering she cannot know that people die. Crucifixion is not such a pretty story, is it?)

Once normal parts of life, which would not be upsetting if they were just treated as such, become unmentionable, those who are not troubled or embarrassed, I dare say, are uneasy because they wonder why they are not. (Of course, by my age an innocent like myself knows that those who are uneasy often have had less than innocent lives - innocence is mistaken for artifice.)

Yes, I know I've made generalisations here - but this is a blog, not a work of scholarship. I'm not always a martyr to the analytical. (I just spent a day studying Ignatius of Antioch, so I'm hardly in a mood to be a martyr to anything.) Yet here is a vote for realism, openness, honesty, and artistic expression. Children pretending to mystic innocence are doing it for their parents' sake. :)

Monday, 24 October 2005

Dwelling on the mysterioso

I suppose that no one who is both a total Romantic and a perpetual student of the Middle Ages can resist feeling a bit drawn to the mysterious around All Hallows Eve. As I understand, back in the days of the old gods the time of Samhain was one where, with light and darkness equal in the day, the veil between this world and the next was thin if not lifted. Now, where is this going to take me today? :)

Coincidentally, as I ploughed through my first century liturgical studies this week (and the study of liturgy is not at its most exciting in relation to that century), I was studying the work Carmen Christi by R. P. Martin. This book deals with vocal praise / hymns in the early Christian century. In treating of the glorious hymn of Philippians chapter 2, Martin provided a wonderful and unusual side note regarding "every tongue proclaiming to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord." Referring to how the Greek Christians had previously lived in fear of the spirit forces:

"The astral deities prostrate themselves in admission that their régime is ended... The humiliated and obedient Christ is Lord of all spirit-powers. Life, therefore, is under His rule and derives its purpose from the meaning which his Incarnate existence gives... The character of God, whose will controls the universe.. is spelled out in terms of Jesus Christ... No arbitrary power, no capricious force, no pitiless, indifferent Fate."

It strikes me that today, when "New Age" is extremely popular, that it has a Gnostic flavour - special knowledge, the stars consulted to see when a move would be most to one's benefit, whatever. Actually, in the early Christian era and before, the idea of spirit powers and astrology was quite frightening - and the old gods, one must hasten to add, were not particularly attractive creatures.

Those Christian who are not ones for ritual often dislike any remnant of the early days, shall I say, but, during the Middle Ages, though the old gods had long faded away, there was a great recognition of how powerfully gestures, splendour, folk devotions, and the like can speak to our own incarnate selves. I'm sorry that rituals, such as the All Souls Day ones from my RC childhood, have too often died out. The Requiem can speak to a part of us which white vestments and Alleluias cannot - because, after all, we hope for our own resurrection, but only one resurrection has happened as yet! :) Grief, mystery (not knowing just how we'll rest eternally, or at least till the parousia), awareness of our own sinfulness even when we look at this through a lovely glass of Christ's transforming forgiveness - we need the Dies Irae and the Libera Me Domine as well as the In Paradisum. The "Libera Me" is no denial of Jesus' mercy - far from it! It speaks to a part of us which knows the forgiveness and mercy and yearns to cry out for it, not really in fear of God, but in a certain awe and need.

Now, what was that I was saying earlier about the veil between this world and the next being thin? (I am tempted to develop an idea that, with Christ risen and ascended to the Father, perhaps the veil has been torn in two, but I'll save that for another day.) Well, we are approaching All Hallows Eve, after all, and I think I'll include a quote, regarding heaven, from Papa Benedict.

"Heaven, therefore, must first and foremost be determined christologically. It is not an extra-historical place into which one goes. Heaven's existence depends upon the fact that Jesus Christ, as God, is man, and makes space for human existence in the existence of God himself...It is by being with Christ that we find the true location of our existence as human beings...Christ is the temple of the final age; he is heaven, the new Jerusalem, he is the cultic space for God...

If heaven depends on being in Christ, then it must involve a co-being with all those who, together, constitute the body of Christ. Heaven is a stranger to isolation. It is the open society of the communion of saints, and in this way the fulfilment of all human communion."

I naturally am now going to think about where I can find the most magnificent services for next week. I need the glory of All Saints Day, the sombre All Souls.

In case I do not write my blog on the days themselves, though indeed I may, here is a wonderful liturgical prayer which I offer in memory of my parents and deceased family and friends: "May the angels lead you into Paradise. May the martyrs come to welcome you, and take you to the Holy City - the new and eternal Jerusalem where Lazarus is poor no longer. May you have eternal rest." (Certainly beats Persephone, Pluto, and Hades, does it not?)

Thursday, 20 October 2005

Six weeks to Advent... getting into my Father Christmas mode

Anyone care to set my ire in motion? (No, I hardly thought anyone would, nor is that difficult...) It truly bothers me when adults shrug off the season of celebrating the Incarnation with "Christmas is for children." Nonsense - what do children know of the Incarnation? I suppose that those who say this are remembering (probably from afar, and through 'rose coloured glasses') when, so far as they recall, they were joyously awaiting some special present on Christmas morning.

I have no such fond memories of Christmas morning. For reasons unknown, somehow our house was the one which ended up with a few relatives who would have tried the patience of Job. I loved the season, the more because it meant a holiday from school, but loathed Christmas Day. This does not keep me from being a total Christmas nut.

I have a collection of lovely ornaments, to which I've added since the early 1970s, and my little tree, renaissance angel, and other items are the pride of my heart. I buy my Christmas cards very early, and used to letter scripture verses on the edges of the envelopes (until I sadly realised that many people just toss cards into a basket.) I've had a few very happy Christmases during my adult years, and I love everything about the season... when I can find what I care for..

Just today, I was looking online, planning to order some special return address labels. What has happened? Everything looked exceedingly childish and in very poor taste. Labels were decorated either with drawings that an infant might have produced - cartoon characters - all sorts of weird animals. Religious scenes (in good taste - not what looks like a kindergarten pageant) would be my preference, though Victorian designs, scenes from Dickens, and so forth would be acceptable.

You may grumble that I am looking in October. Well, in my days as a musician, November meant many rehearsals and Advent concerts. I still plan early (though I do not decorate until very near 'the day.') Not to mention that saving things for Advent would mean my ire may be all the worse for the fasting.

So, here, as my act of humility for today, is a totally useless post.

Monday, 17 October 2005

Mars and Venus balderdash

No, I'm not going to reminisce about the 1970s astrology craze today - were I to do so, I'd be concentrating on Saturn, my own ruling planet. :) Have you ever had a time when you were waiting somewhere unexpectedly and, having no other occupations at hand, picked up the only reading material available? Well, such a thing happened to me - and the rubbish I looked into was "Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus."

I'm no authority on human relationships but, if anything, such nonsense could worsen communications, given that it allows one to hide behind "but I'm this way because of my planetary origin." Yet I could understand why it sold, and not only because there never is a shortage of bad taste. The author glorifies the worst traits which are prevalent in some women. (Note that I am not suggesting, as Gray does, that one may classify people's approaches, on sight, according to sex. I said some women.) Gray glosses over meddling, canned responses given by picking up on a 'key word' and finishing the other's sentences, the ego games that superior women play when they are ready to crucify others with supposed 'advice.' No, this is instinctive empathy (how interesting - "I" can know exactly what your situation is just because we are of the same sex), and the nagging games are "loving constructive criticism."

I have never referred to myself as a feminist. During the 1970s, when I first began to pursue the religious life, I sadly saw all too many instances of what one sociologist (whose name escapes me) called "gender feminism." It was built on bitterness which went beyond truth. Working on the premise that women were oppressed through the ages (and a medievalist is no stranger to misogynist works), all men, today, are the enemy. Women, by contrast, are all perfect and 'supportive.' Religious Sisters, for example, could not admit that certain problems in their lives had been caused by their own superiors. Sisterhood of another sort, and based on common anger (those who were not angry were unenlightened) was de riguer. Wrongs we suffered from other women did not count - after all, the men made the rules in the first place.

Some time, I undoubtedly will muse over how, if anyone in my large family was oppressed, it was more likely to be a male. Women in my family were well-treated, and I never cried over my sex, wishing that I could have to get up at 3:00 AM to do inventory or work endless hours, often seven days a week, stocking shelves in a grocery store. Yet I shall confess to some bitterness of my own. I received my first university degree over 27 years ago, and have obtained higher degrees since. Sadly, one thing has not changed in three decades. Most people assume that women (at least who work in offices) cannot possibly be anything but clerical or secretarial workers, and that, if a woman has a managerial title, it's only that given to a glorified secretary.

My true profession is as a scholar and musician. The years I spent in business management were purely for survival - it is not an area in which I have any real interest, and it is one I grew to truly hate. Since it was not important to me, and indeed kept me from areas in which I genuinely could have made a marked contribution, I rarely talked of the job. Yet there was no denying my competence. Nonetheless, despite the doctoral diploma on my wall, the moment a vendor or other visitor arrived the very image of someone in a skirt led to inevitable questions about who s/he really needed to see - who was the 'decision maker'? After all, it could not possibly be a woman!

A few years ago, I had a job loss. Anyone who heard of it - even people who knew me for decades and were aware of my education and the like - suggested referrals to agencies which place clerical staff. They'd 'encourage' me by saying I knew how to use Microsoft Word! (So do most children of 10.) It tore my heart that nearly everyone assumed I was a clerk, secretary, or bookkeeper. It is not that I consider those professions to be shameful. My upset was that the assumption was that I could be nothing else. I was appalled and shocked when someone I've known since childhood suggested that she could get me a job sending out form letters! (And she is just the one who would have been irate had anyone offered such a job to her or to her children.)

For a time, I was troubled - what is wrong with me? Yet I realised that the assumption was understandable and deplorable. The only reason that I can imagine that anyone would think someone with four degrees and over 20 years in management was a clerical worker is that I am female. When I was in business management, if anyone asked what my occupation was, and I replied, the usual next question was "so you're a secretary at ...?" or "so what are you - a secretary bookkeeper?"

I doubt I'll live to see the say when, at least professionally, women are not assumed to be inferior on sight. And the 'empathetic' busybodies, with their 'constructive criticism' such as Gray describes can be the worst of all. Those who assumed I was not the 'decision maker,' and the condescending bitch who thought I should be content to send out form letters, normally were women.

Much of my education came from Dominican Sisters - highly educated, often brilliant women, who had qualifications in many different fields. (This was so in the early 20th century - not only during the time when I knew them.) I often have wondered why nuns are assumed to be simple-minded little souls - that assuredly was not true of those whom I knew. But, of course, they were women...

This post is totally out of character for me - but I decided to include it nonetheless. If one person who reads it realises what a fool he or she has been to assume women, as a rule, are not professionally competent, it will be worth the effort.

Tuesday, 11 October 2005

How on earth am I thinking of Richard Rolle and John Wesley concurrently?

Well, they are not such strange bedfellows, I suppose. Both Richard and John certainly 'knew what it was all about.' I know far more of 'my' mediaeval English mystics than I do of Wesley, but I had a few thoughts today which I somehow feel are worth a mention here.

Richard Rolle was indeed a mystic - and some of his poetry is exquisitely beautiful. Here is a small sample:

Lord God, make our love pure and perfect,
for then, whatever our heart loves will be yourself, our God.
For in you we may love everything you have made, ourselves, your creation,
and what else are we doing but loving you?
For when we love you with all our heart and mind, undoubtedly we love our neighbour and every other lovable thing.
So we would pour out to you our whole heart, and by that goken you will bind us so closely to you that we need no other love than yours.
For in your love, O God, is the love of neighbour also.

I found this selection especially moving, because Richard, for all his intense passion for God, had a great deal of trouble loving neighbour. His writings, twenty years apart, show one who was disgusted with just about everyone in the Church in youth, and who was still spouting the same annoyance in middle age. Perhaps - I've no idea - some of those who are called to contemplation have caught a glimpse of the divine love to a rare extent - and therefore see the wrong of weakness and sinfulness all the more. Unfortunately, Richard could not quite get past his irritation with the weaknesses of others - I get the impression he did not really like anyone.

Yet notice Richard's mention of 'we need no other love than yours.' I'm sure he was all too aware that he did not love God with his whole heart and mind - as who does?

Now, why did this bring me to think of John Wesley - about whom, I must add, I am hardly an authority? I suppose that my recent studies of the 19th century, especially those of the "Holiness" movements, brought him to mind, if only to recall how words can be misinterpreted. I've never really understood the idea of a sudden infusion of the Holy Spirit, instantaneous, as a second conversion long after one's baptism. I believe it is possible, of course, but do not see it necessarily as standard equipment for the spiritual journey. Still, in that age when there was such stress on progress, strength, wealth, and the like - the Holiness movement did not become so strong until the 1870s - too many people captured the idea of holiness as if it were a matter of instantaneous elevation to another plane.

I suppose there are those who would not care to have me use this term :), but I believe that John Wesley himself was Catholic in his theology. His writing of a 'second stage' beyond justification actually addresses a problem that has been constant since the Reformation - awareness of sanctification, the Christian ascetic vocation, our willingness to become more like our Creator (not in nature, of course!) which would seem a natural outgrowth of the deification Jesus gave to our human nature in his Incarnation. As far as I can see, John Wesley's treatment of how one could reach a point of perfection where one was free from evil thoughts and inclinations - of constant prayer, gratitude, and joy - is a perfectly sound extension of ascetic / mystic Catholic theology. It is notable that, to my knowledge, Wesley never suggested that he himself had reached this point! He knew it was a lengthy process, and a point which few of us achieve.

Of course, the Holiness sorts in the 1870s and beyond, whose tendencies toward superiority and gnosticism jump off the page when one reads their writings, were not about to embrace Wesley's caution that salvation could be lost! Nor that, even if the point of conversion was an instantaneous experience of grace, a good deal of 'progress' (forgive me - I always must put quotes around that word when I'm speaking of Victorian concepts - a world in which Wesley probably would have been even more uncomfortable than the rakish era of his own) both preceded and followed the experience.

As well all are, Wesley was somewhat hampered by the idiom of his own day. With his being post-Enlightenment, his expressions, which in essence go back to the earliest days of the Church, can be taken as if he were speaking of achievement - some sort of self-improvement path.

If there is one thing I have in common with Richard and John, it is that I recognise many principles of the spiritual life, but have no illusions about having 'achieved' them. A part of me is aware, having read scores of volumes of their writings, that the great mystics had such great detachment (who was it who wrote 'totally detached, that I may be attached to You?' My act of humility for today is admitting that I forgot) that even cares about losing salvation would not have been in their minds. I'm not referring to smugness at all! They pined for heaven - but I doubt they were thinking of themselves all that much at all.

In previous posts, I have explored how much of Christian truth (for example, the Trinity, or Jesus' sacrifice in his Passion and the Eucharist) may be expressed wonderfully in doxology, but always inadequately in 'essay form.' I believe that, however great their minds may be, and whatever their gifts for theological expression, the mystics reach a point where their entire lives are doxology. Their words, actions, and thoughts all are turned to praise.

Sometimes I feel so very tired... I've been exploring ascetic and mystic theology for my entire adult life (and was bent in that direction even in childhood), yet am all too aware that I am nowhere near total attachment to God. Do any of us, post - Enlightenment, ever get away from the idea that grace is achievement and that we need to have a strong climb by our own efforts?

A sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving... a life that is doxology... I suppose I can handle that one...

Balance between integrity and the inclusive

"There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith. All else is a dispute over trifles." -- Elizabeth I

Obviously, I would disagree with the real Gloriana about that on some particulars - though, had I been the daughter of Henry and sister of Mary and Edward, I believe that I, too, would have had quite enough with religious disputes. I'm not going to explore my irritations with Geneva here - but suffice it to say that Elizabeth was more realistic than I, recognising that there never would be a total agreement on doctrine (in a church which could include an entire nation. And, yes, that includes the RC countries, most of which had a population that paid none too much attention to doctrine in the first place.) About the only unity which could be achieved was one of worship.

"Inclusivity" (is that a word? it appears on the Web enough) naturally encompasses far more than worship in current discussions. :) It is a fine balance, avoiding an appearance of exclusion from the universal church (and some people worry about that more today than they ever did in the past, probably because it is only in the modern era that so much conformity was demanded - in a legalistic fashion, not in relation to essentials of the faith.) Yet integrity should not be compromised in the process.

I would never deny that, for example, a follower of Calvin or Zwingli was a Christian, but there would be points of doctrine on which I would heartily have disagreed with them both. I doubt I'd ever have the energy necessary to engage in debate with an Anabaptist. I may have understood John Wesley himself, but later developments in some forms of Methodism would leave me cold.

My concern today is that two extremes are equally problematic. The definition of ecumenism still does not seem clear, but it hardly means refusing to mention, discuss, explain, or clarify differences in doctrine. On the other hand, the sort of fear which brands those who disagree as if they were demons is far more dangerous.

Is there anything in the history of the Church that is so dangerous that we cannot even talk about it?! Or that requires that we explore what we assume is the hidden motive of those with whom we disagree?

I'm beginning to long for the days when one could have had a rollicking pub discussion about Arius or the Trinity. I'm tired of hearing, for example, about the prospect of gay marriages - because too many, on both sides, are acting as if anyone who disagrees with their own position ought to be sentenced to hell. If someone supports such a move, there will be plenty who'll insist that he is ready to destroy society. Yet those who are very supportive cannot even allow a discussion of, for example, whether re-defining the institution of marriage in any way could have problematic implications - it is taken as exclusive or as a rationalisation for homophobia. I have no answers there - social sciences will never be noted as my strong point, and I really am far more interested in Nicaea and the Trinity. But can we recall for a moment that our having two ears and only one mouth may have been a divine plan?

Argue till doomsday if you wish - I know that I shall. But clarify the position you hold - don't sling mud at those who hold another.

As far as doctrine is concerned - admitting to points of disagreement sadly may bring back old memories of the stake and the block, but how can any true dialogue take place if the differences are ignored or the doctrine compromised?

Saturday, 8 October 2005

Forced into semi-Anglican crouch...

For the uninitiate (and yes, I know that is not a word), the "Anglican crouch" refers to the compromise position between a 'sit' and a 'kneel' (...sounds like I'm giving commands to a dog, but be that as it may.) With my bad back and balance, I often just outright sit, a position I find preferable to imitating a snail. But the 'crouch' referred to in the title for this post is a bit different.

Apparently, those of us who have risen when the clergy enter a room are fast becoming a minority group. I have not changed my habits since that far-off day when I shortened my garb to below the knees (...this was some time before I returned to my taste for batik.) In fact, during those many years when I was a department head for an archdiocese, I could be quite a comical sight when bishops (in particular) telephoned me. Without even realising I was doing so, I stood, with the phone invariably crashing to the floor in the process! I well remember when one priest teased me, saying that he could tell that the receptionist had to be one of my staff. When he'd entered the building, she'd not only stood but asked if she could take his coat... though he did not happen to be wearing one.

Well, my sad state of the semi-Anglican crouch is to be blamed on the clergy! :) If one of them enters the room, and I rise (and, just for the record, I still believe that to do otherwise would be extremely rude), all too often I am caught halfway by the immediate, "Oh, don't get up!"

I believe that a bit of courtesy would do no one any harm, though, admittedly, today one may be swallowed whole for the normal expressions of same that the elderly (..born before 1985) were long taught. Offer a seat to someone who is 80+, and it is possible that she will take this as meaning you do not realise she goes running every morning. I just may kiss the next man who holds a door open for me. (Or is that good etiquette? In my Italian family, it would have been a sign of respect... but I can think of some families I knew where a kiss in greeting, even between spouses, was treated as if the two had begun bonking at a bus stop.)

In many ways, I am glad that the very strict, formal standards common in my youth no longer apply. For example, all of my friends' children address me as "Elizabeth," which I much prefer - in 'my day,' even people of the same generation had to wait for an invitation to call another by a Christian name. There are various other fashions in which I am glad things have become more casual.

There is an expression, once very common, which I propose be reinstated - a simple 'no, thank you.' Those of us who were trained to believe it was polite to offer others any food or drink on the table are not trying to sabotage another's slimming programme, give them heart attacks, or turn them into addicts. If one does not wish to have a particular food, wine, or whatever, 'no, thank you' is a sufficient response. There is no need to mention that "I have to drive," or "I have to watch my figure," or that "I gave up eating that when my sister died."

May I also reinstate what once was the eleventh commandment - thou shalt mind thine own business. I am by no means proposing that good friends should not confide in one another - that is a blessing. I am referring to a decent respect for the privacy of others. Meddling, today, which is probably the world's class ego game (along the lines of "I think you are beneath me - I know better than you do how you should run your life - and, if you take my advice, you just might become as wonderful as I think I am"), can too often be cloaked under 'caring about another's health,' or being 'supportive.' Balderdash. (Double annoyance points if the 'supportive' nonsense is accompanied by an advertisement. Triple annoyance points if one decides to send links on the topic to the person who needs to be improved.)

The twelfth commandment can use reinstatement as well: what is personal is private. My own good taste prevents my even giving examples, but suffice it to say that, for example, details of medical examinations are not for general discussion, and specifics of romantic encounters should not be known to anyone who was not present.

Yes, I know I sound pedantic - but courtesy is a part of respect for others, therefore a nice way to develop a bit of practical charity. I believe I'll close with a true, amusing story to avoid sounding like a Victorian etiquette manual.

My taste in clothing, which I seldom can indulge but enjoy, is half-Paris, half-hippie. On one occasion, I was wearing a long batik dress and Celtic earrings. A blonde boy of 15 or so, clearly 'upper class trying to do punk' (his leather jacket was worth more than my car), called to me "Hey, baby! You just got back from Woodstock?"

Much as I was grateful to this young man for giving me the best laugh of the week a few moments later (...the image of my claustrophobic, hyper-clean, reserved self at Woodstock does verge on the hilarious), for the moment I was taken aback. This kid clearly was of stock which had not worried about shelter, food, or clothing for some generations (one generation separates me from tenant farmers), yet, peasant though I am, I had not been exposed to the idea that one would say, "Hey, baby!" to a lady who was more than thirty years older than oneself.

It's lucky he picked me, come to think of it. Nowadays, I suppose that saying 'hey, baby' to one of his own age would have led to feminist outrage.

Our Lady of ...Victories?

Actually, the current RC calendar has today as "Our Lady of the Rosary," which certainly is a theology with which I can better identify. Especially now that the Luminous Mysteries have been added (the baptism of Jesus, wedding feast at Cana, proclamation of the kingdom, Transfiguration, and Last Supper), the rosary is a superb meditation on the Incarnation.

Yet this feast initially was that of Our Lady of Victories, proclaimed by Pius V who believed that Mary's intercession led to a naval victory at Lepanto. Yes, I have respect for the Council of Trent, and understand how it corrected many abuses, improved seminary training, led to a marvellous universal Latin rite for the Eucharist. That does not mean that I have a particular fondness for some of the ... excesses of Pius V. (Well, I am, after all, one who uses the handle Gloriana.) It apparently did not occur to Pius that religious fervour would not be stirred amongst English Catholics if they were given the message that they must battle against, ideally execute, their queen, undoubtedly siding with Catholic Spain in the process. And, of course, better to lose all that one has, or to die, than to attend a Church of England service.

I am fully aware, of course, that ideas of God's having taken a personal interest in military victories hardly begins or ends with Pius. Sigh! Mary had seen, to a greater degree than most mothers, to what the fruits of violence and power struggles can lead. I can picture quite a 'hands off' attitude towards perpetuation of violence from any mother who had held the body of her crucified son.

Today, on another forum, I saw a link to an article (...not a satire, more's the pity) regarding how George W. Bush believes that God is talking with him, leading him to victory (eventually) in the Near East. (And here I thought he'd been off the stuff for years...) I want to laugh at the absurdity, but this chills me. I'm wondering just how dangerous this man may be. One 'inspired by God' cannot, of course, be mistaken - or be taking a course of action opposed to the gospels. I'm shivering, remembering when the attacks in Washington DC and New York took place four years ago. Bush threatened to use the atomic bomb on 11 nations - none of whom were involved in the attack. (Atomic warfare, of course, I consider immoral in any case - but to threaten those who had no part in the attack seems the action of one who would just love to drop that horrid bomb.)

It is all the more frightening that, if sites I have seen are any indication, there is a certain 'Christian right' which is all too ready to agree that statements such as this - which I'd consider indicated megalomania, perhaps - are rooted in divine revelation.

The Christian life involves an ascetic vocation. I am not referring to hair shirts - but to removing distractions (and what a task that is!) that we may have our gaze towards God unhampered. The great mystics - and I may see their ideals from afar, but at least am aware - would have been the first to be cautious about any particular revelations or unusual charisms they experienced. (In fact, many, Teresa of Avila being an excellent illustration, saw these consolations as more a distraction than anything to be desired.) They would have great humility - never trust their own feelings or rely on revelations as genuine when they can be the distortions of our own minds, or projections of our desire to be special or have unusual powers or insights. I would imagine that there is nothing of which the mystic saints would have been more wary than any desire for power.

Then again, I am a Franciscan. I would see more of an indication of Christ's presence in caring for the poor - the sick - the elderly - the unfortunate... worrying about those who die in the street, or who are unable to obtain medical care, as well as those who die in the womb. Just a thought, of course, and not intended to mean I exclusively mean anyone in particular...

One more sigh... What is it with the power, boys? Even two apostles were quarrelling over who'd sit at the right hand of Christ and who at the left...

May the Prince of Peace still the wars, whether those we mortals inflict on one another or the tumult in our own hearts, as he calmed the stormy sea. Queen of Peace, Queen of the Franciscan Order, pray for us.

Monday, 3 October 2005

Francis, poor and humble, enters heaven a rich man

Click the link in the title to read my essay about Francis

From the Rule of Saint Francis, 1982 revision, Prologue:
"In the Name of the Lord!

All who love the Lord with their whole heart, their whole soul and mind, and with their strength, and love their neighbour as themselves, and who despise the tendency in their humanity to sin, receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and bring forth from themselves fruits worthy of true penance."

The rule of Saint Francis is very short, and half of its content is comprised of quotations from the scriptures. Francis, as is true of many great saints, had no idea he was special in the least. His rule is simple (I am not suggesting that means 'easy'!), though it never occurred to him that those less saintly than himself may be puzzled by exactly what it was saying. Consequently, the Franciscan Order is distinguished in church history - it has the most canonised and beatified saints, and the highest number of splinter heretical groups.

Love the Lord with one's whole heart, soul, and mind - no easy task, that (and loving one's neighbour may be harder still.) Despising the tendency to sin is quite difficult as well, because, for those of us less humble (that is, truthful) than Francis, the most insidious aspects of our personal sinfulness seem harmless or even attractive. Indeed, the more devout we become, the more likely we are to mistake our biggest distractions for heroic virtues.

It is a shame that the lovely word 'penance,' which I would define as 'seeking to place one's life back in line with the gospels,' has fallen out of favour. Perish the thought that we should think we need transformation, now that 'self-esteem' is far more valued than grace. Essentially, it means accepting that our actions have consequences - spiritual ones, even if there are no natural ones in some cases.

Francis indeed kissed the leper - but it is easy to forget that, between that 'conversion' and his total commitment to Christ, years elapsed. I have seen no indication that Francis was wicked, weak and prone to excess though he was. Yet he faced that the sinfulness in his own life was keeping him from 'the fragrant words of My Lord.'

I wish I could quote from Francis' writings at length here, but I had a distressing incident today - I could not find my Omnibus of Sources. I must pray to Saint Anthony about that - I never would have disposed of it, certainly, but it must have been misplaced when I moved. (Please excuse the personal comments - perhaps you could pray for me about this, and about my sadness, because I am spending the feast alone.)

Francis was a young man at the time of his conversion. (He, of course, never was an old one - he was dead at 42.) It is possible that his pilgrimage at the time may have been an imposed penance, or a penitential act taken on freely.

Now, in middle age, I know that it is unlikely that anyone (who has reached my age or older - and some much younger) who is committed to the spiritual life has not had times of major conversion. All of us (yes, even those who were in monasteries at 16) have had times of facing our own sin and its effects - on our relationship with Christ, on others, on our own fragile selves. Penance, then, is a treasure. Times of conversion are not sweetness and light! In the recognition of the wrong, there often is a certain relief - rather like locating the source of an infection, when one cannot understand why one feels chronically ill. There is joy of a sort in recognising divine forgiveness - but a long period of healing, getting back into the correct frame of mind, acceptance of one's brokenness, does ensue.

It is difficult - and one may feel bereft. We may be spiritually weak - to the point of feeling paralysed. Yet the Lord is quite gentle in leading us back to him.

When I entered the Franciscan Order (unaware, of course, of any sinfulness in myself), the formula was to 'beg for a life of penance.' Granted, there are times I wish that prayer had not been answered quite so frequently! Yet penance is transformation - and that, I hope, I shall learn to embrace with ever increasing tenderness.

Friday, 30 September 2005

Quite a few commemorations in October

Be forewarned: I have spent this week intensely studying liturgy, church, and ministry in the (sigh!) first century AD, and my brain is not exactly in top working order (if indeed it ever has been during the past ten years.) I'm mad about liturgical studies, and had hoped that this term's work would be about the 'early church' in the sense of 'first four centuries.' I was wrong... the syllabus was revised. Honestly, if I read speculation about what happened at baptisms in the days of Paul once more...

I think a digression is in order. October has a host of feasts and commemorations. The feast of Francis of Assisi; guardian angels (a topic I'd best not develop, because I'm still trying to discover how they communicate... I'm on a theophany kick this year); the rosary - it's a great month for the devotional.

Oddly enough, considering I have never had a devotion to her, Thérèse, whose feast is this week, is on my mind today. I could write reams on Carmelite spirituality, yet what is on my mind is Thérèse's strong and tenacious temperament. (...I must be getting old and tired... it just struck me that someone who was dead before she was half my age hardly had time to be tenacious...)

I have no idea why devotion to Thérèse is so popular - I would say that, next to Anthony of Padua, there is no saint to whom there is greater devotion, and I'm wondering how word of a contemporary saint went out so quickly. :) There are many Internet sites on which one can obtain much biographical information about her, yet there is one question that goes unanswered, and which one may not dare ask the devout lest they take it as a slight. Why was everyone associated with Thérèse, save for the priest superior of the Carmel, so totally dedicated to storming heaven to getting this 15-year-old to enter right away? (Please - don't tell me 'it was God's will' - that line is reserved to Pope Leo.) I shall not be noted for having much of an emphasis on obedience, yet it would seem to me that I would have told this kid that waiting a year (16 being still quite a tender age to enter into such an austere life) would be a nice opportunity to practise obedience and patience.

Knowing that Thérèse had a very appealing spirituality - and one in contrast to that of much of 19th century France, and drastically differing from that of her own mother - it warms my heart to realise that she not only could be quite a brat (I think her father was too worn out to correct a daughter by the time Thérèse arrived), but that she struggled not only with spiritual 'dark nights' but with nervous problems. (Devotees should be no more offended than are those of us who admit that Francesco and Caterina had their share of pathology.) Anyone who has had a breakdown is likely to see just about anything - including a smile on a statue of Mary.

There is one episode in Thérèse's life, which she describes in some detail in her autobiography, which I find perfectly delicious. Thérèse describes her 'conversion' (one quite heroic in the telling), when, as a teenager, she managed to smile despite the heartache of hearing Papa comment that the rituals of Pere Noel were very babyish for such a big girl. This amuses me all the more considering that, just at that time, Thérèse was avidly trying to enter one of the most austere Orders in the Church. I suppose a part of Thérèse would always remain childlike - considering she includes this gem in her writings as an adult. God grant us all the capability for such simplicity. (Don't tell anyone, but I, a far from childlike or sweet sort, always wish that Father Christmas would leave a few things for me till this day.)

Thérèse was a fascinating blend. She was so timid that, unlike most of her sisters, she was not able to bear attending school. Yet, despite all directions to the contrary, she asked Pope Leo himself to give her permission to enter the Carmel at 15. I, of course, am wondering why this was in her favour - in most religious Orders, then or now, questioning the rules or not being 'community minded' would be the ultimate black mark against one.

Some of the great trials (I do not mean tuberculosis or the genuine dark night - I mean things such as having water splash on her while washing her handkerchiefs) indeed make one smile when Thérèse describes them. Just how very spoilt she must have been at home comes through - during my days in working with the homeless, for example, I'd have been delighted if all with which I'd had to deal was some splashing water. But I am not laughing in mockery, only with warmth.

Thérèse would become famous for her 'little way' - taking whatever one has at the moment, and offering this to God. I may not care for her manner of expression, but her wisdom in this is phenomenal. Making the little offerings seems almost quaint, yet she reached heroic sanctity, despite horrid illness and spiritual emptiness, using that same principle.

Thérèse was a great lady. My imagery shall never be hers, but I hope that I come to the realisation of that 'little way'.