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.