Thursday, 30 June 2005

Films can jar the memory

The problem with being a film buff, the more if one's preference is drama, is that some of the best acted presentations can jar deep memories. Yesterday, I saw "The Magdalene Sisters," undoubtedly one of the best-acted and most horrifying films in recent years.

I shall not comment here about the details of the Magdalene laundries - that misery is amply documented elsewhere. Yet, for all that my life is quite different from the unfortunate women who were housed there, certain religious themes presented were all too familiar to me. (In fact, the Order which educated me staffed some of the reformatories and 'penitent' houses in Ireland - though the attitude was hardly exclusive to those in such apostolates.) The idea that one can never atone enough for one's own sins, that suffering and sacrifice (by which I mean that beyond what one encounters naturally in life) is the way to holiness, and the general image of an angry God who must punish us to purge our weakness, is a grim memory I can never seem to shake.

Oddly enough, this in no way corresponds to what I believe, let alone to my intellectual convictions about the faith. But the emotional goblins, introduced at such a young age, indeed do reappear from time to time. I knew full well, viewing "The Magdalene Sisters," that, horrid though the abuse these girls received was, the lives of the nuns were probably no better. The headmistress (I am not about to say warden) reminded me vividly of nuns I knew in youth - capable of charm, humour, and engaging ways, yet brutal. I doubt this was born of hatred. I think those who behaved in this fashion genuinely believed they were saving others from going wrong - perhaps even from hell. Convent life, too often, equally was a way of personal 'redemptive suffering.'

Perhaps that today, when it seems that self-esteem reigns, one's personal desires are exalted, and we have little sense of personal sin at all, it is, at least in part, an over-reaction to the ways that were still popular only a few decades ago.

Franciscans stress 'penance' a good deal, yet, for all that Francis could torture himself (without imposing the same practises on the others), true penance is beautiful - a continuous metanoia. The difference between self-torture and genuine penance are as vast as those between a destructive storm and a peaceful, refreshing bath (heavy on the aromatherapy oils for me, please.) Penance is not inflicting pain. It consists of, first, acknowledging that actions have consequences. Oh, all of us are aware of natural consequences - but, even when there are few or none for an action, the spiritual consequences remain - the intimacy with God is hampered (and not because of a lack of initiative on His part.) Beyond this, it essentially consists in seeking to conform one's life to the gospel.

Is it ever possible to strike the proper balance...

Monday, 27 June 2005

Brief 'notes' on computer music

With the caveat that one must not expect an orchestra when one hears MIDI files, those of you who have asked about my sequenced folk and spiritual selections may hear some of them at Laura's MIDI Heaven.

Saturday, 25 June 2005

Clarification - mysticism and prayer

I received an e-mail today from a reader who disliked my essay on mysticism, believing that I had disassociated mysticism from prayer. That was not at all my intention, and I wished to record a few points here. (Perhaps the essay needs some updating in any case.)

First, I am amazed at how much mail I receive from people who had no idea that mysticism had any relation to Christianity, thinking it the exclusive province of New Age and Buddhist traditions. If I may quote myself for a moment: "Christian mysticism sees growth in spirituality as involving an ever deepening, personal relationship with God. The mystic, whose longing for a total bond with the Beloved, is not seeking nothingness, nor to “find the God within.” His Lover is also a Person, albeit one Divine. Since true contemplation is a gift of grace from God Himself, the mystic remains fully (and, perhaps, anxiously) aware that his own accomplishments and efforts cannot attain this union."

I had assumed (probably unwisely - though I treat of this in other essays) that it was understood that Christian mystics have a life centred on prayer and the sacraments. That reminds me of an important point. The writers to whom I refer on my site (such as the author of the Cloud of Unknowing) were addressing their words to a person or persons with whom they had a continued personal relationship, and whom they knew were committed to a life of prayer. If there is no reference to the need for prayer and sacrament, this does not mean that they are unimportant, much less that the mystic is 'beyond' them. These would be so integral to the mystic's life that they would require no reference.

One common mistake is to consider writings, such as Walter Hilton's Ladder of Perfection or the works of Teresa of Avila, as if they were a handbook. Those called to heights of contemplation are responding to a special grace - they are not superior to others, and it is not a matter of personal achievement. Though Walter, Teresa, et al indeed were referring to what one would expect (or how one should behave) at a certain point on the 'ladder,' this does not mean 'follow this step and proceed to the next.' That really is not in our hands. There are mystics whose lives contain many unusual experiences and consolations - others who face a sense of emptiness and desolation.

Bear with me - I am of a generation when 'contemplative prayer' (not necessarily properly understood, and with no consideration of discernment) was a hot topic. One could hear instructions such as 'do this particular prayer for a month, and you'll reach the prayer of quiet.'

I may be expressing this awkwardly, but we need to recall that Christ's Church is a 'whole.' That divine grace may ordain that one person is a mystic, another not so, has nothing to do with achievement or relative value. :) There are mystics, such as Richard Rolle, whose writings are exquisite (well, at their best), but who never could get past anger and tunnel vision. Margery Kempe, who I doubt was a mystic but who certainly thought herself one, thought herself a beacon of instruction for others, but her writings do not show true compassion even for her own husband - yet her will seems turned in the right direction.

Prayer indeed would be primary in the life of the mystic. Yet we cannot decide 'if I pray in this fashion or that, mysticism shall follow naturally.'

I do thank the writer I mentioned, who has reminded me that I need to expand and clarify what I included in the essay on mysticism itself.

Happy Midsummer's Day to all.

Thursday, 23 June 2005

Fashion diversion

Now and then, I must go from the sublime to the earthy. I have a lifelong love for fashion (indeed, am a trained dressmaker), and my prejudiced views on that topic shall be recorded here for posterity. As a middle-aged woman (never a beauty, but in the fateful era of life where one questions "am I still pretty?," even if candour would make me admit I never was), some of the 'tips' I shall record are aimed at my age group - but the general standards apply to all ladies.

John Steinbeck once made a memorable comment and, though he was referring to children, it applies equally to some women: if the fashion became to hang pork chops round the neck, it would be a sad one who did not wear pork chops. For all that I shake my head at the dreadful new style of strapless wedding gowns, in total candour I've seen worse in my day. Those with long memories may remember (much as they choose to forget) the ludicrous spectacle of 'evening hot pants.' Or wedding dresses some in my day chose to wear - the top appearing to be a formal gown, but the skirt the size of a postage stamp. Fad and style are not synonymous! Of course, those like myself, who do have a personal style, will always have others who, assuming one does not know what is 'in,' instruct one in the topic... but at least we shall never blush to, for example, look at old pictures of ourselves in velvet short-shorts.

Here are a few of my 'rules.'

  • Do not believe that drawing a black line under your eyes 'looks like your eyelashes.' The effect is similar to that of a raccoon.

  • Running shoes, white socks, and sweat suits are for sports activities only. Full stop. They do not make you look youthful - only sloppy.

  • The most shapely legs on the planet would look terrible in (visible) socks.

  • Whatever your size, obtain clothing that fits in the first place. Skin tight clothing gives one's rear view the appearance of a hippopatamus - never believe that wearing tight clothes makes you look slimmer, or that clothing that fits 'adds inches.' And I said "fits in the first place," not "fits after massive corsetry which you do not realise has pushed all your skin into the form of a hump on the upper part of the back."

  • For reasons I shall never understand, a woman who chops off her hair will receive compliments at once (usually 'you look younger') - even if she looks terrible. Use some judgement here. Do you really wish to look like a highly effeminate man?

  • If you wax or shave your legs, don't forget the toes. The combined effect of smooth legs, sandles, and long hair on the toes is far from flattering.

  • Skirts that are half way up the thigh or shorter should be reserved to those under 25.

  • Keep your judgement intact. Whatever fashion magazines called stunning in March they will call dowdy in June.

  • Being transformed into a dowdy frump in the name of 'looking professional' is a crime.

Having revealed how very un-spiritual I can be now and then... I wish you all the best. :)

Wednesday, 22 June 2005

Humanity as icons of divine love

From a homily by Gregory of Nyssa
    This is the blessedness of the pure of heart: in seeing their own purity, they see the divine Archetype mirrored in themselves.

    Those who look at the sun in a mirror, even if they do not look directly at the sky, see its radiance in the reflection just as truly as those who look directly at the sun's orb. It is the same, says the Lord, with you. Even though you are unable to contemplate and see the inaccessible light, you will find what you seek within yourself, provided you return to the beauty and grace of that image which was originally placed in you. For God is purity; he is free from sin and a stranger to all evil. If this can be said of you, then God will surely be within you. If your mind is untainted by any evil, free from sin, and purified from all stain, then indeed you are blessed, because your sight is keen and clear. Once purified, you see things that others cannot see. When the mists of sin no longer cloud the eye of your soul, you see that blessed vision clearly in the peace and purity of your own heart. That vision is nothing else than the holiness, the purity, the simplicity, and all the other glorious reflections of God's nature, through which God Himself is seen.

It is quite a task indeed to write a single syllable after quoting glorious words such as these! :)

My love for the patristic writings has increased with age - even if it seems an unusual development in a medievalist. The Cappadoccians, of whom Gregory is perhaps the most prominent, lived in an era following the conversion of Constantine, and one in which 12 church councils took place within 23 years. I often need to remind myself, steeped in post 1000AD history as I am, of the world at the time - and that the magnificent Cappadoccians were not preaching to packed churches, but largely in the midst of paganism. (I wonder if any of those around them understood them at the time?) Many ascetics had taken off for the desert - to be criticised, sometimes with justification (it could be a way to avoid military service and taxation...), as a burden on right-thinking people who had to end up being their support. Many a nut case had taken off in this manner, and Gregory's brother, +Basil of Caesarea, stressed an antidote of combining social concern, common monastic life, care for the poor, and manual labour as a way of true charity and balance in the ascetic vocation.

The unknowability of God was stressed by Plato, Philo, and Clement of Alexandria – what distinguished Basil (Synod of Constantinople, 360) is less the idea than its use. He had to defend himself against charges of agnosticism – and develop a distinction between incomprehensible being and the comprehensible activity of God.

Now, why do I combine Basil's treatment of monastic life (which Benedict himself would urge his monks to read centuries later) with his brother's wonderful words on our being 'mirrors'? I suppose because I always see a white-hot passion in the Cappadoccians' writings. The unknowability of God was not the pathway to a dark cloud, but an awareness that there is little that we can know of the divine nature - without this preventing our transformation.

It is regrettable that, for many centuries, there was far too much stress on avoiding hell, and those such as Calvin had a pessimism about our nature that made it seem we were basically wicked. Redemption was viewed as salvation from hell fire - rather than as the burning fire of love I mentioned in the previous paragraph. Our weakness and sinfulness tarnish the mirror somewhat... and I'm beginning to learn (well, perhaps I always knew deep down, but I'm a romantic, and we do not become practical until our later years) that the life of prayer, which one hopes disposes oneself for transformation, often boils down to what Basil set forth (even if one does not live in a monastery.) It is largely 'going through the motions,' admitting the limitations of one's own vision, and turning one's will in the right direction.

This, I hasten to add, is more than enough to fill three lifetimes...

Unless one has been hopelessly corrupted by the 'self esteem crowd,' I suppose that most of us have some awareness of our weakness. Yet I am seeing, more and more, that there are far more rampant, and often crippling, distractions (to borrow my spiritual director's apt term) in our lives than blatant sin. The education of the will, as it were, seems to consist in much 'going through the motions' regardless of the distractions at hand.

My current distraction being frustration at wanting to say much and writing so poorly tonight that I'd best get off to recite Compline...

Sunday, 19 June 2005

Dinosauria and design

I have a lifelong love for dinosaurs - they absolutely fascinate me. The only 'down side' to my passion for them is that it means that I never miss an opportunity to visit a natural history museum. Invariably, when I choose to do so will be a day when many children are there for the same purpose... and to children I have no addiction whatever. Recently, I was quite delighted when a museum staff member let me hold a T. rex's tooth!

I have no gifts for science in the least, but it is amazing what can cause awe for me. (I'll devote other blog entries, I'm sure, to how I felt when viewing the pictures of the planets and their moons, and when I saw the diagram of DNA.) Looking up at those massive skeletons (my favourite is Triceratops), and recalling how these majestic creatures ruled the Earth for millions of years longer than mankind has existed, gives me further awe for the vastness of creation.

I often have thought how thrilling it must have been for the early paleontologists (less than two centuries ago) to have found the first dinosaur fossils. Yet I must smile, knowing that, for everyone who was inspired at the time, there were at least 2 Victorian minds saddened by becoming aware of these monstrosities (sorry, Creator!) :) whose discovery shook up the concept that earth was 6,000 years old - who became extinct, a horrifying thought in the days when it was assumed that God created each species individually, and with the characteristics it needed to survive - and that these animals seemed to have no purpose.

Part of the reason that I love dinosaurs, I suppose, is that they are a reminder of just how little we do know and understand.

On another note (but one related), I saw an embroidered pillow once which read, "Of all the things I've ever lost, I miss my mind the most." I wonder if that was made by another middle-aged scholar? Lord have mercy, do I miss the quickness I once had - the fluency in all the languages a musicologist studies, where, sadly, I barely remember all that much about music now - the analytical sense.... Sigh! I'm hoping I take ever my mother's family, because, if so, I'll have another 40 years ahead of me. I hope that nothing happens to interrupt my resuming my scholarly pursuits - and that, before my ashes are scattered in St James' Park, I have the mental ability that I had a quarter century ago, before I embarked on the (I thought then, temporary) hated years of business management and telecommunications.

In my day, I did love philosophy - but it is difficult resuming this again. (I doubt I actually know more than I did then... in truth, I know less for all I have forgotten.) I was extremely sad this year, because (for reasons I'll not mention here) circumstances prevented my sitting my exams for my divinity degree. I hope to do so next May, and, as a 'head start,' (I normally do two exams - but perhaps next year I'll do three) I've been studying Philosophy of Religion. I'm rather embarrassed - people young enough to be my children probably are having an easier time - and, in my case, I've studied most of this in the past. Yet I do enjoy looking through it all, now that I am at the age that could be the beginning of wisdom. Is any one of the arguments more complex or difficult than 'divine simplicity'? :)

Yet my musing on my beloved dinosaurs led me to smile. Yes, I respect Paley and others for their efforts, but the design argument was never intended to be a science or history text. :) Who (well, besides Hume... but he predated Paley by about 30 years anyway... I suppose Paley just ignored his objections..) would have thought that it would seem a blow to faith to consider that species could become extinct?

I believe that anyone studying theology needs a background in the philosophy of religion. It is valuable training in reason, and, after all, none of the philosophical arguments can do more than, at best, concede that (to use design as an example) a creative intelligence is more likely than not. They certainly cannot prove the existence of a God who has all of the attributes with which Jewish and Christian belief would endow him, much less one who became Incarnate.

Wednesday, 15 June 2005

Not all assets are transferrable

(And I wrote that header without even checking to see if 'transferrable' is a word... humility must be catching up with me...)

Most people are fascinated with asking about the inner workings of convents, and I answer a question here and there. No, I have no tales of hair shirts, lesbianism, being locked in a barn with the rats, nor of anything else that is grotesque. Most of us were highly decent people, even if the sort of gooey love and respect of which the old books used to speak would have been a laugh. The most tragic element, in my experience, was that adult women were treated as if they were infants. I once read a theory that this was in order to keep them pre-pubescent and therefore more easily celibate, but that's too simple - and, in Assisi, the pre-pubescent fortunately are not sheltered or uncomfortable with the human condition. I think it was more a misguided attempt to 'remake' Sisters in an unreal mould of obedience and docility. Of course, superiors, believing theirs were the voices of God, could all too easily fall into seeing their own impatience, rudeness, rage, whatever as 'good for the others' soul.' (Ahem!)

In the particular Order which I entered, the Sisters (though not cloistered) had little contact with those outside the community save for that necessary in their professions. Though even the friars can have a tendency to maintain an idealistic innocence under all the exposure to the elements, the men had one advantage - most were priests, and Franciscans who spend a good deal of time in the confessional - Franciscan parishes welcome all, so any true naivete should not endure all that long. The nuns, though not ignorant, did tend to have excessive faith in human nature. I think that, deep down, we all wished that everyone was good, all failures were mere weaknesses, and ... well, to take it to an extreme (but one that I would encounter!) that criminal sociopaths have enormous trust in God and his mercy (when, as we'd never realise, they do not fret because they have no consciences at all.)

How well I remember Anne, a very lovely Sister who used to visit a prison (for hardened criminals) when there was an evening Mass each week. One of the inmates told Anne that it was a shame that only those attending Mass got to see her good example. Fortunately, a guard intercepted her when she took the inmate's advice to use the passage way to where the cells were...

But let's take this on a simpler level. Today, though much past religious practise indeed did need revision, there can be a tendency to see some customs as unhealthy when, in the convent context, they had their points. The problem was if one used them on the outside, the more if one met people who were, shall I say, not exactly focussed on ascetic theology.

Francis had placed a provision in the rule that, in any case of discord between the friars, they should 'immediately and humbly ask pardon of the other.' In our particular congregation, that had been more formalised. It was customary, if another started or involved one in a row, and later made an apology, to respond with "and I am sorry that I provoked you."

This, in a setting where all understand the custom, and the underlying humility and charity it is supposed to demonstrate (...even when the actual feelings may be smug and self-righteous...), is not a demonstration of the unhealthy. There are no implications of "I deserve to have you mistreat me - I think I am worth no better - I am to blame for what you did" or anything of the sort. Anyway, both people involved in the argument would have had to accuse themselves to the superior, and the verdict was highly unlikely to be 'not guilty' for either. (I once was penanced to three days of silence - probably the most appropriate penance in the Order's 700 year history.)

Unfortunately, when we are 'raised' with such customs and may grudgingly admit they can be useful, we can forget that there are characters on this earth who would not be edified by the example of humility and charity we're hoping we are presenting. (It was a big year for edification... I doubt we even realised the implicit condescension in our having to 'edify' our parents when we wrote them, as if the good and dedicated people who'd raised us needed their daughters' help to rescue them from their failings.) :) I well remember when one of the less pleasant people with whom I dealt, and whom I had in no way wronged, felt I'd offended her. Most fortunately, one of the friars (the one who told a man en route to rehab that, if he returned before his treatment was complete, said friar would 'break his fucking legs'... the treatment was successful) intercepted the message I nearly sent. "I am sorry I provoked you," if directed to the individual I mentioned, would only have been taken as further proof of weakness and a capacity for manipulation.

Admittedly, there are other times when we must have seemed a prissy little crop of snobs. (I was more intelligent and educated than the others - which is not saying much - so I came across as a cheeky and proud snob, which at the time was perfectly true.) Our community had retained most of the 'old ways' in an era when many congregations were modernising (is that a word?), some becoming quite secular. I suppose that the lowered eyes and demeanour as if we were sterile and feared someone would touch and contaminate us were taught to us in order that we not glance up and see modern touches that would be appealing. But, of course, that was never disclosed. No, our manner was supposed to demonstrate that we were 'recollected,' and therefore provide edification for these 'wicked' modern nuns who turned up at inter-community functions.

Forgive us - anyone who'd act 'edifying,' or concentrate on 'setting a good example,' to her own mother and father is temporarily beyond hope. ;)

Tuesday, 14 June 2005

Here's to John Macquarrie!

Just this morning, I read an online discussion of the use of 'president' rather than 'celebrant' to describe priests (or is using that term going to offend the 'we are a priestly people' crowd?) at the (select your preference) Mass, Eucharist, Communion Office. One contributor reminded me, all too well, of the liturgical committee discussions from a recent era. He insisted that 'celebrant' implies that the congregation are not all celebrating together.

I doubt that would occur to 99% of people, and to no one at all who did not attend committees of the sort I described or, worse yet, 'workshops.' Ideas which never would occur to people were spoken of as if they had far-ranging implications, whether for good or ill, and that disagreement with the earnest sort who presented this wisdom either indicated a lack of 'education' or some sort of resistance to the Holy Spirit.

I have had the privilege of studying many works of liturgical scholarship, some brilliant, others worth a look even if they are less distinguished. I particularly admire John Macquarrie's work, because it both shows a pastoral knowledge all too rare amongst the usual people (including me) who are caught up in theories and lofty concepts, and because he has the courage to say what others would fear was... well, let us say illustrative of a lack of 'education.'

Macquarrie, for example, though freely admitting that Confirmation as a rite apart from baptism was an accident of history (and one which stemmed from practical conditions, not theological considerations), reminds his readers not to overlook the value which this rite has developed during the past 5 centuries or so. He is cautious about administering Communion to infants - though the correct liturgical line is 'why excommunicate the young' - because of messages this may give which would evade those of us who spend too much time in libraries. I also appreciate that he has the honesty to admit that no one except liturgical scholars places such total emphasis on baptism.

I must add, of course, lest I seem uneducated, that I fully understand that (over)emphasis on baptism. Liturgists, unlike most of the world (including theologians of other varieties), are very focussed on public worship and sacraments, which I'm sure all are agreed are a privilege of baptism. Unfortunately, when such concepts are severed from the strictly liturgical connection, and freely interpreted by those who well may be unaware of the original context, we can be left with the distressing image of 'no vocation except baptism - the rest does not matter.' (Yes, I'm a cynic - but I have firsthand knowledge of how many in religious life were suddenly faced with the idea that their consecration was not a vocation, and that their contribution, which previously was presented as a blessing, was not appreciated.)

Liturgists are quite right to emphasise sign and symbol, yet, looking back to some idyllic fourth century rite (before all those troublesome Frankish innovations), they can forget that gestures may have quite a different meaning to those who are more used to what has developed over the past 1500 years. I well remember when, for example, the ancient practise of all standing for the Eucharistic Prayer was heralded. Trouble was, for all that worshippers in the patristic time (in the midst of their pagan neighbours) were equally unlikely to have Gregory of Nyssa in the next pew, the implications of standing which have been maintained in the Orthodox church were long superseded in the West. Standing for the Eucharistic prayer, whether people agreed or not, was taken for a denial of ordained ministry (or even the real presence), or as a lack of reverence. I dislike the practise myself.

Yes, I have read Annibale Bugnini. It is fun to see a firsthand view (and one for which the idealism would top mine at my most ethereal) of what liturgical innovations would mean, right from the time of Mediator Dei. But there were some huge mistakes along the way, where what happened in practise was a far cry from visions of branch outposts of Maria Laach on every corner. My vote for the worst RC innovation was the 'communion procession.' Bugnini and friends had an image of a glorious procession, everyone raising a voice in a common hymn of praise - probably a cross between the best of Corpus Christi processions and heavenly choirs at the last judgement. The result was more likely stumbling up to communion, a child in one hand and hymnal in another, being urged along by a song leader who is under oath to 'get the people to sing.'

I always hated hymns at communion, and still prefer reception kneeling (where one can find that.) I well remember discussions of this, usually led by someone who had two weeks of liturgical training (more than most priests) and remembered that Communion was the time when hymns were most important. The people who hated it saw it as a distraction and lack of reverence - those who loved it either applauded the lack of reverence (shades of Jesus is my friend) or liked having something to occupy them in the queue.

Looking back to antiquity can be very enriching - and I myself adore many patristic writings. Yet to transport 21st century congregations into what is imagined to be 4th century liturgy can be a case of tunnel vision.

Sunday, 12 June 2005

Heavenly extended family

Years back, I was a director of music in a Franciscan parish. It was a friendly, casual environment, with a congregation consisting largely of Italian immigrants and their children. I love the Italian attitude towards God, Mary, and the other saints (an idea to which I'll be returning.) Perhaps southern Italians are not the most avid churchgoers (Cranmer would never approve), and, as far as worship is concerned, they generally are more attracted to devotions than to liturgy and sacrament. The church is their father's house, and they are quite comfortable there (when they do visit - which may not be anywhere near as frequent as time with their earthly parents, whose care is a large and godly responsibility.) Italian people will wave, shake hands, kiss in greeting, talk, laugh, play with their children, and so forth in church.

In the parish where I served, the cook, Mary, was a blunt, down to earth sort. The chief sorrow of Mary's life was the corns on her feet, and anyone within earshot would hear the details - though it was far from her only topic of conversation. Who knows a parish inside out better than the cook?

Once, I shared a silly joke with Mary, about a man who always made the wrong decisions. I'll spare my readers the details, but the joke ends with the man falling out of an aircraft, and calling out, mid-air, "Saint Francis, help me." A big hand comes from the sky and grasps him, but a voice asks, "Francis Xavier or Francis of Assisi." I'd told this joke to several people, with one response being, "It must have been Francis of Assisi!," the other, "Oh, if it were the wrong one, I can't believe he'd drop him." But Mary, very matter of fact but with an undertone of annoyance, informed me that, "It's no use talking to Saint Francis. Do you know how many times I have told him about the corns on my feet?!"

For all that I tend to get lost in speculation about our deification, disappearing into a quiet and sometimes dark haze of apophatic mist, a part of me longs for the simplicity and trust of those - such as I met at the parish, and a number of people within my own family - who can turn over temporal needs to the saints.

Surprised? Well, please do not write me some stern lecture about how saints are unnecessary, God should not be made inapproachable, Jesus as the only mediator, and the like. My mother used to pour out woes to Saint Mary, shout at Saint Anthony if he did not 'come through,' bring temporal needs to the Infant of Prague. (How I wish I could do it with the simple trust she had!) God was hardly inapproachable - she gave him bloody hell at my dad's funeral, for causing her to be left alone. The saints were extended family. Just as one might tell a sister about this problem, another sister about that one, one's cousin about another (especially if he was well connected), my mother did this with the saints.

One Sicilian devotion (of which I was unaware, since my own family is from Avellino) was to "Our Lady of Miracles." The parish I mentioned had a little alcove where her statue, complete with other figures of those who had been healed through her intercession, was displayed, to be placed near the sanctuary for her feast day. When the church was remodelled, and the "lateral altars" removed, the section to the right of the altar was designed to contain the tabernacle (a ghastly, modern one which resembled a 1970s ice bucket.) One devout man, irate at the change, asked, "Why don't they take out that box and put Our Lady of Miracles there?"

I was young and foolish then, and undoubtedly made some comment about devotion to the Eucharist. (Which naturally would hold today!) But a remote, mystical, incomprehensible God - the very one that I somehow have been called to worship - would be too difficult with which to identify. A peasant woman, who must have felt just awful travelling to Jerusalem on a donkey in a state of advanced pregnancy - whose cheeky adolescent son contradicted his elders and disappeared for three days, not even offering an apology when his distraught parents found him - who well may have been a widow whose only son left her alone to go about with all that dangerous preaching - and who suffered the agony of watching her beloved son executed - is far more likely to be a confidante.

I attended a small Italian festival today, in a little Benedictine house near my home. The chapel is devotional grotesque - the sort of nightmare one might have if one combined garlic and Saint Anthony's oil, tossed it on pasta, and ate it right before bed. The grounds are inviting and lovely, and open to all in a spirit of OSB hospiality. I was unfamiliar with the particular Marian devotion. The procession was led by a nun, who sang Italian hymns into a microphone in a voice which must be the worst on the planet, and those processing joined in with great fervour, largely in voices no better than hers, but good and loud. (I was saddened, missing the days when I had a polished operatic voice, but joined in the songs nonetheless - with a bit of pathos, remembering my deceased family members and the priests I'd once known there who also have gone to the next life.) There were copes and incense in abundance, and everyone recited the rosary in Italian - what did it matter if one ate a sausage or drank wine and beer from paper cups en route?

I'm going to blush and 'tell one on myself.' One lady, hearing my rough peasant accent on the Ave Maria, approached me, asking my 'region.' She burst into tears when I mentioned Teora - she herself is from the neighbouring town. I'm sensitive about all of my accents, ruefully recalling when a professor of music told me that my Italian 'sounded like the fish market.' I once commented, in front of a simple man I knew, that, for all my operatic training and concentration on diction, my Italian would have the 'market' accent of Teora. (I'm not even going to tell you what my English sounds like... though fortunately, thanks to the Sisters from Cork, at least my grammar, vocabulary, and diction are usually impeccable.) Carlos responded, with a degree of truth that evades us overly intellectual sorts, "But that's great - that's who you are."

Carlos, of course, was correct. And today's feast moved me deeply, because folk religion, simple peasant faith, earthiness, pragmatic views of life, and so forth are also part of who I am. When I returned home, I took out my mother's old book of novenas, and petitioned Saint Anthony to help me in my flat hunting. In fact, I addressed Anthony in Italian dialect (yes, he was Portuguese, but who's counting?), going into such detail as, "I know there is not terribly much in my price range, and I'm indeed grateful to have a roof over my head at all, but, after all, this flat will be my monastery - please help me find one I'll really like, and don't forget that I need to be near the bus or train."

I'll let all of you know if the prayer works. Had it been my mother who uttered the same words, Anthony would arrange for her to be informed of the perfect property on his feast day tomorrow.

Friday, 10 June 2005

I'm mad about Chaucer!

Now and then, I receive e-mail from irate Christian souls who, I assume, are relatively selective about what parts of my site they have read. They tend, unwittingly of course, to be slightly higher on the entertainment scale than even those who note only my reference to unicorns and assume my domain is New Age. (New covenant, perhaps, but hardly new age in the common parlance, whatever my addiction to aromatherapy oils and herbal medicine.) One exceedingly earnest 'sermon' scolded me severely for including the essay on Chaucer's Miller's Tale. The writer was irate that I could see humour in a story which makes light of adultery and features an astrologer. I naturally am left with puzzlement that anyone could read the Miller's tale and find it to be anything but hilarious.

I doubt that too many Internet writers who devote extensive time to Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, and company are looking to promote adultery - and Chaucer's treatment of the astrologer itself hardly shows encouragement for consulting masters of that art. Still, without in any way adopting his philosophy, I somehow can understand how Swinburne, in the Victorian age which so glorified 'example' and what today would be termed 'family values,' could prefer the old gods, and sadly muse about 'Thou hast conquered, O pale Galiliean...'

The pale Galilean and I have had more than a passing acquaintance, and it probably is clear that I have rather a different attitude towards Jesus (the real one - not the androgynous goody-good who appears in some of the worst of religious art) than Swinburne's. Yet it does irk me when art and literature, which can reach magnificence in reflecting the human condition, are expected to be sanitised.

Before I proceed to my few reflections on Chaucer, I'll make one statement to protect my "Safe Surf" rating. (The few readers who know me personally probably have been dissolved in laughter since the first paragraph - whatever weaknesses I possess, I doubt too many baby boomers are more strait-laced than I in their personal behaviour.) I believe it is foolish and dangerous to ... start what one cannot finish, and it is quite a troublesome distraction in the process. Were Chaucer's writings pornographic, degrading, or even likely to push one's sexual arousal to a high point on the scale, yes, I would think they should be approached with caution. But they are not - his bawdiness is comfortable, realistic, and exceedingly funny, and I cannot imagine anyone's reading the tales of the Miller or Reeve with any reaction except laughter. The correspondent whose e-mail inspired this post is of another breed - the sort who host sites which caution parents about a harmless film which features wine glasses on a table. The human condition is of no interest - art must be sacrificed to a disinfected world where, I suppose, quiet little children spend all their time fawning over the perfection they have found in their parents. The Bible would need to be heavily censored. Any pleasure, however harmless, would be suspect - consuming a croissant would be a fault when it could have been given to the poor (though the poor must be kept at a distance.) No one, including in marriage, could have sex without dwelling on scripture verses or sacramental images a la Kingsley.

I'm mad about Chaucer - but somehow saying that is second only to admitting to a passion for Shakespeare in making me blush to think the obvious answer is 'who isn't?' His characters and use of language have a delightful richness. (I read the tales aloud, in Middle English, now and then.) Of course, the Canterbury Tales is hardly a religious work, yet Chaucer provides us with a picture of the Church that was apt and colourful - and I can testify, from my many years in religious ministry, that each of the characters still exists in abundance, even if seldom in such a clever and wry portrayal. The Miller or Reeve would be welcome to join me for an ale - but I would not care to sit next to the Pardoner. (Anyone who thinks the Pardoner is defunct has not seen the tactics that I've observed in some - don't shake your head, I said some) of those in fund raising.)

Those in the Middle Ages were no better or worse than those since, though they lived closely with the reality of pain, war, death, and the like to an extent where they, unlike some today, could not pretend that these could be avoided, or that children could be protected if they were sheltered from the knowledge of human weakness. The 'pilgrimage' itself has a hearty realism - aside from a vague hope for blessing, most of the characters are far from prettily devout, and the churchmen are worse than the miller. Judging from my Internet searches (some key word searches can lead one to the oddest sites), there are characters out there, hoisting religious banners, who cry out to be worked into a modern version of Chaucer's prologue. I do not have his gifts, of course, but shall admit that I've written one... how I wish I had the courage to post it here. I would not even mind a bit of salty language... I've read the writings of both Martin Luther and Thomas More, whose filthy mouths were at their worst when they took shots at each other, and therefore can handle anything.

And why do I not? It is not only a recognition that I am not the poet or observer of nature such as Geoffrey Chaucer was. :) It is more because, between political correctness, Freudian crap and the other amply spread pop psychology, and other sad accretions of the modern era, it is difficult to express the sense of the ridiculous. People are too quick to take offence.

Perhaps I should post the first poll on my site to ask if such a parody would be acceptable...

Are we any less ridiculous than those of other eras? Certainly not - the Church has been a ship of fools since the apostles could not 'get' the parable of the sower and were arguing about who'd sit at the Master's right hand - and the higher ups have made asses of themselves since Peter and Paul confronted one another at Antioch. I dare say that I would not need to develop caricatures, because there are many people who are caricatures in themselves. Extreme feminists who see everything as the oppression of women - 'conservatives' who write the sort of e-mail I mentioned above - visitors to the EWTN site, where all worries about moral theology seem to be on the order of 'I fear I may be getting more pleasure than I'm giving' - nut cases who think Osama bin Laden was God's instrument in taking away the US's 'veil of protection' (as far as I know, both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans still exist and have not been moved) - well, I could go on. Dare I do so? :)

I would imagine that most Christians are troubled when they first realise that they are a bit of a sham. I know it pains me - but perhaps that is my first step towards growth, since the years of Franciscan romance (a blessed thing, that!) need to give way to a bit more terra firma, lest I begin acting like a half-wit. Chaucer's characters, like ourselves, are all too genuine. Yet, where the Wife of Bath (I must write an essay on that wonderful tale) or the Miller can be honest, the cultured Prioress or the various clerks, being more schooled in things churchly, have a facade which fools none of the peasants but could indeed fool the 'actors.'

I've known some wonderful people in my years of church work - even a few, here and there, who were worthy of canonisation. (Those in that category were not at all self-absorbed, and had no idea they were special.) I may call myself a sham (as we all are), but am not denying my own genuine commitment - to do so would not only be dishonest but would deny the gratitude to the God who gave me the grace to wish to know him at all. That does not mean that we all do not have our impossible days - or that we are not capable of being major shites - or that we cannot be blinded by one goal and not see we are about to step off a cliff.

"..Absalon hath kissed her nether eye; Nicholas is branded cross the bum; and may God lead us all to Kingdom's Come."

Brief thoughts about Anthony of Padua

Sermons of Anthony of Padua
Article on Saint Anthony from Wikipedia

Francis of Assisi had rather a dim view of Anthony. Anthony was originally an Augustinian, in itself enough to trouble the far from cerebral Francis, and famously a Franciscan who did not let it be known that he was a priest until his services as preacher were necessary. In the single preserved bit of correspondence from Francis to Anthony, he cautions the young friar that theological studies can turn the friars from the gospel.

Well, as we all know, though Franciscans as a group will not be noted as having a huge quantity of theologians, Anthony's words and example did no one any harm. :) I must smile. There probably is no saint to which there is a more extensive devotion, yet Anthony is remembered more for what he, as 'saint of miracles,' is supposed to be able to obtain than for being one of the greatest theologians of the Order of Friars Minor.

I shall leave my readers with one thought from Anthony's writings. "Our speech is alive when our works speak!" Eloquent though Anthony was, and much as the Franciscan friars were generally engaging and enthusiastic preachers, words can never touch the essence of God, which is so beyond our comprehension. Actions of worship and devotion (in a day when books were expensive and Communion rare, the friars recited the breviary and encouraged the Eucharist), and those in which we seek to act with love towards neighbour, are really all that we have to offer.

One notable excess in wake of the Reformation was a negative attitude towards 'good works.' Considering what went on right before the Reformation, this is quite understandable! Though doctrine had no provisions for 'buying one's way into heaven' (or, at any rate, out of purgatory), it was widely believed - and this because of actions. There were times when preaching on merit would give one the impression (well, if one read the works today) of a giant cash machine, with one's credit limit raised by further permissions to use Christ's treasury. But the backlash was unfortunate - in extreme cases, a stress on personal 'conversion' as if this could be a singular event (...I dare say that conversion, for any sincere Christian, ceases, at the least, when the doctor says to hold the CPR and asks for the time... and even then there is plenty of transformation ahead..). It is no accident, I'm sure, that, the more 'conversion' of this type was stressed, often the less emphasis there was on charity towards others or on liturgy.

The older and wearier I get (heavens, did I have zeal in youth, when I believe I thought I was Michael the Archangel), the more I see that seeking to act with worship and love (or, more properly, just going out and doing it whether we have loving emotions or not) is the only way that one can respond to God. Franciscans were vivid, anthropomorphic, and emotional - and their stress on Christ's 'poor' humanity was quite regular. Yet, and this in addition to their liturgical emphasis (common for monastics, but certainly notable in a Rule which is 30 paragraphs, half quotes from scripture), there was a reminder to act with love - even if that meant kissing the leper and seeing Christ. It was a "life of penance" - that is, constant turning to get one's own life in accord with the gospel.

I often wonder how well Anthony did with actually seeking to teach the friars theology! The early friars were generally uneducated and rather unruly - many very young, some a step above vagabonds. Francis left the rule 'live the gospel,' yet one less saintly than himself could be left wondering what on earth this meant. They had an obligation to correct (or to accuse themselves of faults to) one another - which I find rather amusing, since most times the knowledge of one would be just as slim as that of the other. (Not everyone was Bonaventure or Duns Scotus.)

I equally wonder why Anthony was so great a worker of miracles... perhaps the exhortation to act, in an Order where there was far more talking than in others, had to be brought vividly to life, and the Saviour was accommodating in making this quite dramatic.

Saturday, 4 June 2005

Lying Awake (the novel)

I've begun this book today, having given myself a slight rest from my studies. I had heard much of it, but I suppose the title, which brings to mind the horrible years when I had dreadful insomnia, made me shudder. So far, I am finding it quite intriguing.

The Carmelite nun on whom the action focusses had gone through a period, in her early religious life, of emptiness - perhaps a taste of what comes to the fore in the genuine Dark Night of which her namesake, John of the Cross, wrote so beautifully. (With warmth I shall add - desolation in the life of prayer is round each corner, but all young religious who are centred on contemplation believe they are in the "Dark Night" - by my age, when that sort of thing becomes a possibility, one hopes not to face it.) Sister John of the Cross then began to experiences ecstasies, during which she felt a great awareness of God's presence and heightened understanding. She concurrently begins to suffer from migraines, but uses even this experience to unite herself to the Suffering Servant.

The problem arises when she learns that her ecstasies (and headaches) are the result of temporal lobe epilepsy - then struggles to decide over whether to have the operation to remove the lesion causing this.

Thank heavens, since I by nature am not the most emotionally stable of people, I have never had any visions or other unusual mystic experiences. I began my reading of Teresa of Avila early on, and know she thought these consolations were quite a nuisance. :) My pragmatic side, which comes forward now and then, makes me think that, were I suffering from blinding headaches, and had a condition which could lead to more serious illness (a strain on the community as well as myself), I would probably think I should have the operation. Yet, as I see it, the message in this novel is far deeper. It is not about whether ecstasies are genuine, or about caring for one's health - but about the agony of doubting one's own integrity.

I would imagine that it would be crushing to discover that experiences which seemed a special grace had a physical cause. Still, as a Carmelite would know better than anyone, charisms, even miracles, are always ambiguous, and mean nothing in themselves. (The consolations of Teresa and the apophatic dark night of John of the Cross mean no greater or lesser holiness.) Still, modern psychology (which this Sister seems mercifully spared) often can have us believing there is no good in us. Especially when one is unusually devout, the love is taken for an obsession - the good works, perhaps, as a desire to be loved - the poverty as a sign of bad self-esteem - struggles for humility as self-hatred - charity a personal need we have rationalised into a Christian commitment - whatever. One can easily believe one's commitment is a sham or a symptom!

Under it all, I believe that God works with whatever material we present. The gulf between intellectual and emotional worlds, nonetheless, often makes me wonder just what is real. By their fruits you shall know them, indeed, but some members of the medical community can try to convince one that both the fruit and the dedication are illusions.

I remember once hearing that, in the later years of his short life, one of Francis' favourite prayers was, "Lord, who are you? Lord, who am I?" (I wonder if this prayer was the more intense as he looked down at his own stigmata.) Another was "My Lord God, I am nothing, but all of it is yours."

Friday, 3 June 2005

Feast of the (Good Shepherd's) Sacred Heart

I'll admit it - I am an aesthetic (if only occasionally truly ascetic) snob. The hardest part of the devotion to the Sacred Heart is that it tends to be represented in the worst of religious art, and devotional religious art is quite bad enough in itself.
If only I had a talent for drawing...

Yet this is a lovely feast - a reminder of the divine creative power, ever transforming us. I shall admit that I am not exactly one for Margaret Mary's visions, if only because I am highly cautious about visions of any kind. I preferred the writings of Bonaventure which I read this morning, in which he speaks (in very honest terms, since the middle ages were a time of more open expression than the post-Freudian) of the blood and water from Jesus' heart - and the sign of redemption.

The devotion to the Sacred Heart was always based on reparation, but the problem with that lovely term is that we forget that it means being restored and tend to think it has to do with some Jansenist remnant of punishing ourselves (or thinking of Jesus of Nazareth as having been punished for us.) Somehow, it is easier to shudder at an image of Jesus broken on the cross than to face our own brokenness.

Earlier this week, I once again was looking at the portion of Augustine's Confessions in which he reminds us that 'our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.' Heaven knows that seeing the dark side was a tendency that Augustine had in some measure, yet the older I get, the more I realise how very much Augustine was expressing awe and gratitude for the workings of grace in his life.

I know that some of the less spiritually minded young tend to be disappointed by the Confessions, expecting all sorts of titillation in the text - they naturally will find none. In fact, once would think (accurately!) that about the worst thing Augustine ever did was steal pears in an act of mindless defiance (I may get back to that theme, which I love, though perhaps not today.) Augustine may have been excessive in seeing grace as irresistible, but it may only be in middle age that one knows that, looking back on one's life (even if one was not a particularly distinguished sinner, we all have a few pears at the core), that grace was leading us constantly, and the Good Shepherd coming after us before we even knew we wanted to be rescued.

I've no idea why, but I have an image in my mind, as I think of Love, of Michelangelo's image of God's creating Adam. Love is always creative power - awesome in its intensity. The Franciscan John Duns Scotus would beautifully develop the idea that Love is sanctifying grace - all love, for God and neighbour, is a reflection of the Trinity indwelling in creation. Except perhaps in the case of a few extraordinary lovers, the lives of humanity will ever be rising up after a fall of one type or another. The more devout we are, the worse it gets, because we have such a way of canonising our weaknesses - all the more dangerous when we disguise them as virtues.

We turn to God to be restored. He constantly re-creates us in his image. Augustine would bemoan his failings (and, unfortunately, write of the fear of punishment he never could lose), yet look back on his life and see how God was there even when he was turning his own search in the wrong direction. Francis of Assisi could torture himself till his dying day with excessive fear and mortification, though he, too, saw all of creation as glorifying God just by being what it was intended to be.

I was annoyed, when I read a 'new' translation of the Revelations of Julian of Norwich. In Julian's original writings, the first edition says "what a wretch I am," the latter, 20 years later, "what a wretch I was." It is a hymn of praise from one who delights in God's creative, transforming power! Why, in this politically correct version, the 'wretch' was turned into 'this humble woman' is beyond me - it sounds self-congratulatory. The 'wretch' was not a manifestation of self-hatred, such as pop psychology would render it in the days when self-esteem is supreme. Far from this - Julian was in awe of the God who transformed her, and who delighted in creation - so much so that sin would be a glory in heaven because divine power had transformed it into greater virtue.

Wednesday, 1 June 2005

Lankester Merrin's history

A few unanswered questions about my own tastes undoubtedly shall go with me to the grave. For example, though I am so delicate and squeamish that I cannot watch news broadcasts containing reports of violence, I have an entire shelf of books about Jack the Ripper, and have had a drink or two in the pub where Mary Kelly had her last drink. I love films (passionate about theatre, but not able to afford a ticket - a film I can manage now and then), but loathe horror pictures as a rule. I never read detective stories, let alone anything in 'horror' mode. Were I to hear of anyone's being suspected of being possessed by a demon, I not only would stay five miles away but would carry my relic of the true cross if my bus ventured into the region.

Yet I must admit to loving William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist" (book version - there were too many deficiencies in the film, and little treatment of the spiritual elements.) The novel has an incredible richness - Damien Karras' struggles of faith; the question of whether Regan's possession is from her use of the occult or flavoured with her tutor's New Age quest for serenity (old hat today - but a new topic in 1973); Mary Karras' being left to die alone and mentally unstable, when her priest-psychiatrist son cannot care for her; Chris MacNeil's confused atheism; William Kinderman's shining decency after a life of dealing with murderers.

I read today of the new Exorcist prequel, which I'll undoubtedly be sure to see one of these days. I doubt that the young, who seem to think (being used to the digital special effects of recent years) that the original "Exorcist" is camp, or even those who were not fans of Blatty's excellent book, shall be particularly concerned about the past of Lankester Merrin, the exorcist. I cannot say that I blame them, I suppose. The sequel films to the Exorcist were diabolically dreadful, and only a year has past since Lankester's history was last explored on screen, and this an effort that would make any critic blanch.

Those who have seen only the film version of the Exorcist may be puzzled at my interest in Merrin. On screen, despite Max von Sydow's excellent performance, Lankester is a rather vague character, and, with his discussions with Chris and Damien mostly 'chopped' from the final print, has the chance to do little except use the Roman Ritual and drop dead. The film's opening (in Northern Iraq - hardly a location on which anyone is likely to wish to dwell in 2005) gives a hint that Lankester has and shall continue to battle Pazuzu, but, unlike the book, does not give us the picture of a man who once could not love others, and learnt to do so by, as he says, acting with love. With a flair that must come from his Jesuit education, Blatty manages to give Lankester elements of both Teilhard de Chardin (whom I have never understood) and John Henry Newman (whom I understand all too well.)

Now here is my most humbling admission since those about loving A. J. Cronin and 960s rock music. Though I could see all the literary deficiencies in "Exorcist: The Beginning," and thought the possessed woman made Linda Blair and the pea soup look sophisticated, I cried at some points during its viewing. Lankester Merrin had lost his faith and abandoned his priesthood - and perhaps only those who cherish faith and vocation (not those looking for horror) can realise the constant, deep fear one can have of losing both. Merrin had encountered human evil during a Nazi occupation (I'll not include a 'spoiler' of the details here), and knew well that the human capacity for hatred, violence and destruction does not need any help from demons to come forth.

At one point in the action, Merrin is brought to faith and repentance, and, using dirt from the ground of a cave, traces the penitent's cross on his forehead and utters a prayer for forgiveness. (The kids near me, snickering at the poor special effects and complaining in whispers that the film was not frightening enough, must have thought I was crackers if they saw my tears.) Merrin then holds the child who is with him closely, and says not to listen to the demon's ranting, "They are only his lies." One who had lost his faith calls on the power of Christ to exorcise the demon directly afterward.

I have little knowledge of demonic possession, and it certainly is not a topic I care to pursue. (I hate being afraid - and fear such as that would be sufficient to turn my legs to jam.) But today's meditation perhaps shall be on what a treasure we have in Truth.

I remember 1973 very well - I was a very promising musician, writer, and student at the time, and very involved with liturgical efforts. True to the spirit of the time, nonetheless, I was sampling the New Age business. I cannot say whether it had any demonic element, but it presented (at least for the avid Christian believer) rather a smooth path to some 'infestation' of Gnosticism. Evil cannot be explained - but perhaps some special knowledge will keep us from being able to be harmed. The exotic 'search' for knowledge of the future, or controlling one's life through mind control, whatever, can be quite appealing to those of us who are momentarily disappointed with the banal action of just reciting from the psalter. The sense of being in some way elite is quite an 'ego builder.' Our intentions were good, perhaps, but we could not see the food for our human tendency to self-deception.

I hope to have the grace to recall, for always, who is the Way, Truth and Life, and wish this as well for my readers.