Saturday, 30 April 2005

Caterina, prega per noi

I have just made a note in my diary ("project section") that, once I finish tackling my exam material, I must prepare an essay on Catherine of Siena. I am surprised that I never did get to one - and on a site that deals with 14th century mystics.

Here is a selection from Catherine's dialogue "On Divine Providence":

Eternal God, eternal Trinity... you are a mystery as deep as the sea. The more I search, the more I find, and the more I find the more I search for you. But I can never be satisfied; what I receive will ever leave me desiring more. When you fill my soul, I have an even greater hunger, and I grow more famished for your light. I desire above all to see you, the true light, as you really are....

Eternal Trinity, Godhead, mystery deep as the sea, you could give me no greater gift than the gift of yourself. For you are a fire ever burning and never consumed, which itself consumes all the selfish love that fills my being. Yes, you are a fire that takes away the coldness, illuminates the mind with its light and causes me to know your truth. By this light, reflected as it were in a mirror, I recognise that you are the highest good, one we can neither comprehend nor fathom... beauty and wisdom itself. The food of angels, you gave yourself to man in the fire of your love... in our hunger, you are a satisfying food, for you are sweetness, and in you there is no taste of bitterness, O triune God!

For those unfamiliar with Catherine's biography, I am providing a link to a related article from the Catholic Encyclopaedia. Her most unusual life (imagine a consecrated virgin at age 6) would have caused her much scorn - few of the saints fit conventional moulds, but Catherine certainly went against the grain beyond what is usual even in hagiography. It is most fortunate she lived in the 14th century rather than the 21st - modern psychologists would have totally ruined her. :)

I admire Catherine immensely - please do not let my comments make it appear that I think her love was anything but perfectly genuine. Her writings are perfectly brilliant, and are an exquisite illustration of how the great lovers can present their 'songs' of praise whilst admitting that God is unknowable. Part of what I so admire is that she could go against the grain, as it were - summon the pope back from Avignon, somehow make peace between warring cities - yet be a mystic and solitary at heart.

It is unfortunate that treatment of Catherine often centres on her sufferings. Even apart from that, as my other entries have shown, that is not a spirituality which I consider to be healthy, some of Catherine's sufferings were not of supernatural origin, and indeed could be traced to her eccentricities. (Both patrons of Italy are stigmatics - both very holy, both not of the highest degree of emotional stability.) Yet it is a reminder that the heights of sanctity can be reached even by those who, today, would be called 'sick.'

Considering she lived on the Eucharist for a time... well, I know what the diagnosis would have been, at least in part, and those into pop psychology would have noted that, in her mystic writings, she is always speaking of being 'famished.' Never mind the stigmata... or her having been wed to Christ and received a ring which, so Catherine believed, actually was the foreskin removed at His circumcision. Anorexics never feel they have control over their lives, and I know, from my own experience, that we so ache for such control that we'd like to be able to part the waters... for Catherine to ask God to let her take on the sins of the world does indeed seem to usurp his prerogative. That prayer undoubtedly is what led to some of her horrid physical sufferings - yet I am sure not because God precisely bestowed these.

I believe it was Thomas Aquinas who spoke of how grace is bestowed according to the manner of the recipient. Catherine, like myself one living a consecrated life alone (though I lay no claims to having either her holiness or her brilliance!), could not have fit into conventional (or conventual) models. Those who reproach governments and popes would not meet the model of meekness and obedience which many spiritual writers would have esteemed. A little child who decides on an anchoress' life certainly would have been formidable. Even those who tolerated Francis' frankness on the matter would have been unlikely to appreciate the humility Catherine showed in writing with candour of her strong sexual temptations. Yet however unstable Catherine may have been, her will was turned in the proper direction. Her actions were born of white-hot love.

My sister and my beloved, open yourself to me, you are a coheir of my kingdom, and you have understood the hidden mysteries of my truth.

'The bigger sacrifice'

I remember an old, dreadful joke about a young man who noticed that his new wife, whenever she prepared Sunday roast beef, used to cut off some of the meat at either end. He asked why, and she responded, 'my mother always did.' So, he asked his mother-in-law the same question, and received the identical response. Finally, he asked his wife's grandmother, who said, "the pan was too small."

Silly as that may seem, I saw much of the same in the religious realm! No one remembered (if indeed, they ever knew) the reasons for customs (usually unofficial, but all too often enshrined in the practise of religious Orders.) Either they continued in them because grandma always chopped off the end of the joint, or they gave them new and distorted meanings.

I would imagine that, in 1900, a devout mother may have gone to Mass each Sunday at dawn either because she had to stoke the fires and prepare the beef, or perhaps because, in the days of non-communicating High Mass, only early risers had a chance to receive communion. In 1940, by which time mum's devotion was legendary in the family, her daughter went to early Mass because her mother had. By 1970, her granddaughter, worried that her own children might not be religious, would have been off to the first Mass because "it's a bigger sacrifice to have to get up at 5:00." (Her own kids, of course, would be likely to never go to church at all once they moved from their mother's house... though one of them might be going to all night vigils today because he is not aware that the world always has been dreadful and has been convinced it was wonderful thirty years ago and has fallen apart.) Notice that Christ's sacrifice has taken second place to one's own...

I can remember the days when there were large enough congregations at very early Masses, but wonder why this was so esteemed. With the exception of police and hospital employees who had to go to work, and a few elderly insomniacs, those at 6:00 Mass usually were those who had been out all night.

Certainly, there is sacrifice involved in any life, but it is beyond me why it was considered 'holy' to manufacture this. Why do we fear that God is waiting with the cane if we have enjoyment in life? That is hardly a position I take - I'll take enjoyment anywhere that I can - but I knew many with the other approach.

The fear of 'wasting time' had a miserable effect - because the fear was not of sin, but of anything pleasant. Social contacts, relaxation, and just about everything in the category were to be 'sacrificed' - it was as if anything that was not sheer work was a distraction. Time we spent with others was treated as inherently negative!

Wednesday, 27 April 2005

Just a quotation today - enjoy

I am immersed in the study of the Philosophy of Religion today - and therefore chasing myself in a circle with logical arguments for the existence of God, when I have no idea if faith was ever intended to prove a thing. :) The 'argument from experience' probably is the most faulty in the philosophical sense... but points the most to the truth. We never 'know' - we can only respond in hope. It is all about worship in the end. (Development of this soon, you may be sure.) I shall leave you with a quotation (not philosophical, but one that seems to show some experience of the divine) for the day.

From Mechtild of Magdeburg:
The fish will never drown within the tide,
Nor birds fall from the air on which they ride.
The flame will not corrode or blacken gold,
For fire burns it pure and clean,
Giving it a shining colour.
To all His creatures God has granted
To live according to their nature.
How then could I deny my breath and bone?
In all things I submit to God alone,
Who is my father by nature,
Who is my brother by his humanhood,
Who is my bridegroom by his love,
And from the outset I am all His own.

Gloriana creeps off to read a volume which questions whether God has a nature... and another which maintains that the nature of God is to exist...

Tuesday, 26 April 2005

The Lord kept sending me prophecies!

No, he certainly has not sent any to me - though I dare say the Internet has increased the number of people who at least think they are latter-day prophets. The heading is a quotation from a rather self-absorbed Sister I knew during my charismatic days.

In M's convent, where many Sisters were in varied ministries and there was not much common prayer, it was the custom to recite the Office of Readings together, after the gospel at the daily, evening Eucharist. They did not follow the ordo for scriptural and 'second' readings, and whichever Sister was having a turn as leader for the week could use passages or authors at her own discretion. M. regularly complained, not only within the house but to those she knew elsewhere, that the superior kept telling her to use readings, when she could not because "The Lord kept sending me prophecies!"

No - she was not crazy, though she was very trying. It was the flavour of the time - and the idea of being personally, constantly granted special charisms, which is dangerously self-absorbed, was merely interpreted as the action of the Holy Spirit by those who were 'prophets' in their own eyes. It was a day of great enthusiasm, but little if any theology of discernment.

Memories also come to me of a young woman (very pretty, and striking in her lace mantilla - the more because hers was the only head that wore one by the time of our story) who was more traditional in her approach. I used to see B. at local Eucharistic celebrations or Vespers (she got around), and her saintly demeanour was rather overpowering. B. would always enter the church a second before the service was to begin, take the first pew after a very slow genuflection and Sign of the Cross worthy of Bernadette during the apparitions, then kneel throughout the entire Mass or Office, reading the collected works of John of the Cross. B. was a Carmelite tertiary, and I sometimes smiled to myself, knowing full well how the great Teresa would have greeted such behaviour.

In convent life and certain classic spiritual approaches, there often was such an emphasis on avoiding 'singularisation' that one's own individuality was crushed. A balance is hard to achieve. Yet one trait the very devout need to face, again and again, is that, honest though we may be about our (clear, serious) sinfulness, many of our distractions grow all the more powerful because they are sprung from wanting to preach the gospel, practise virtue, set a good example, and so forth.

Monday, 25 April 2005

Barnyard praise

I am wondering if I can possibly capture a scene I saw today with appropriate hilarity. Being in a time when I needed a dose of folk religion, I went to a small, Roman Catholic church which has all sorts of rather baroque statues. The unexpected interval of humour was a combination of comedy sketch and deja vu.

A nun of quite mature years was rehearsing a group of children (7 or so - probably preparing for first communion) in songs that were a combination of silly and ghastly - and, worse yet, these were being performed with gestures. (The entire effect was of nursery songs in a park.) The kids were raising their arms up and down, after the fashion of someone working out with hand weights - cupping their hands behind their ears - doing knee bends. I can enjoy a good boy choir, but otherwise hate children's voices (and the songs they sing in five keys simulataneously), and I hope I'm not sent to spend some time with sounds of the sort I heard today when I die. Yet I did manage to retain my composure, until the group got to the 'Alleluia.' Except for the final 'a,' at which point they raised their hands high, they were making motions with their arms which exactly resembled playing at being a chicken. I was surprised no one laid an egg.

My own first communion was naturally in the last days of the Tridentine Mass. Except for our singing a few poor and sentimental hymns, there was little room for nonsense. Yet it suddenly struck me, as I watched this Sister striking poses that seemed a combination of interpretative dance and grand mal seizure, that, when the 'something for the children' malady became epidemic forty years ago, she would have been about 27, and undoubtedly found it all relevant as things could only be relevant in the 1960s. The question in my mind, and one which I wonder if Sister was asking herself, then or now, if the games they were playing, and probably enjoying, constituted worship.

In too many parishes, liturgy, music, preaching, and just about everything else in public worship was ruined because influential Sisters and laywomen, who became very involved, wanted everything aimed at the kids. Adults and anyone over the age of ten were condemned to an aesthetic and intellectual wasteland. Of course, in my young adult years, there were liturgies aimed specifically at my age group, and that could work, provided the entire congregation was composed of the young. Sadly, those of my generation who would be involved with parish activities ten or fifteen years later forgot that what drew us to such celebrations was that they were part of an entire, now defunct, youth culture. Where the idea that the parents would bring in the (young) kids had been popular a generation earlier, they hoped the kids would bring in the parents. Stupidly, they would schedule liturgies for youth - but perish the thought that friends sat together! They were supposed to come with parents and sit with their families!

Yes, I know this idea was popular even when Victoria was on the throne - but liturgies should not be focussed on catering to kids (unless it is a service specifically for children) or on fostering family togetherness. When this is the case, one must abandon the practise if one cares to grow up.

To communion we shall go, we shall go, we shall go,
To communion we shall go, my fair kiddies...

Sunday, 24 April 2005

Endless day which knows not night

This morning, with millions of others, I watched the Inauguration of Benedict XVI (my cat, Mirielle, snuggled with me throughout, happy that a cat lover is on Peter's throne.) His references to the Good Shepherd, a favourite image of mine, naturally called forgiveness to mind. Repentance, forgiveness, new life in Christ are such lovely concepts - and how we moderns shudder at the very words! Caught up in our own 'self esteem,' we cannot admit to the beauties of forgiveness because that would mean admitting we were not always right in the first place. "Penance," a word we Franciscans cherish (with its meaning getting back into line with the gospels - continuous creative power making us ever more real), is one which normally cannot even be mentioned.

Perhaps, if we could think of forgiveness without concurrently picturing that this means we'd otherwise be punished, we could grasp a bit of the reality. There has been too much focus, in the Middle Ages and beyond, on penalties, hell, atonement as if that last meant appeasing fury. Of course, I realise that such emphases were purely practical in some cases. Alphonsus Liguori (whose principles of moral theology were as sound and reasonable as any in history) wrote a work on hell that could make anyone's skin crawl... unless one remembered that Alphonsus, bishop of the neighbouring diocese to my family's, was dealing with people who had no excess of guilt, and who thought a sufficient defence for murder was that the bastard had it coming to him. :) The 'Dante-esque' depictions of purgatory often were merely sermons on the seven capital sins... trying to get a bit of restraint into the lives of the licentious, perhaps.

Forgiveness is healing and wholeness, and, above all, a call to greater intimacy with God. I am sure that most of us who've had a lengthy time on the Christian path know of many times when the Good Shepherd came after us before we even realised we wanted to be rescued. God keeps calling us to a greater reflection of his image in our lives. Our sins are all basically lies - his forgiveness removes the blinders (how we first hate that, with the sudden glare of light), and he draws us more closely to himself.

Though I would never deny the beauty of seeing the Eucharist as a source of forgiveness, nor would I think partaking of it as anything to be taken lightly, it is unfortunate that too much emphasis was placed on our being worthy. (Is that possible?) For centuries, people rarely if ever approached communion, and feared so being condemned if they were not in the proper state. So, Jesus is so vengeful that he is looking to chastise his people for partaking of his body and blood...

This quotation from an Easter sermon by Maximus of Turin expresses what I am trying to say... how I wish I could write two paragraphs of this quality before I die.

Christ is risen! His rising brings life to the dead, forgiveness to sinners, and glory to the saints...

The light of Christ is an endless day that knows no night... the coming of Christ's light puts Satan's darkness to flight, leaving no place for any shadow of sin. His everlasting radiance dispels the dark clouds of the past and checks the hidden growth of vice. The Son is that day to whom the day, which is the Father, communicates the mystery of his divinity..

The celestial day is perpetually bright and shining with brilliant light; clouds can never darken its skies. In the same way, the light of Christ is eternally glowing with luminous radiance, and can never be extinguished by the darkness of sin...

And so, my brothers and sisters, each of us ought to surely rejoice on this holy day. Let no one, conscious of his sinfulness, withdraw from our common celebration, not be kept away from public prayer by the burden of his guilt. Sinner he may indeed be, but ... if a thief could receive the grace of paradise, how could a Christian be refused forgiveness?"

Friday, 22 April 2005

Must be a weary time for Benedict XVI!

I sometimes make the comment (normally looking over my glasses as I do so) that it was a pleasure crossing the Tiber because I now could lecture on, for example, the Cloud of Unknowing without being interrupted by 'how could one talk about prayer when women are being oppressed world over by church stands on contraception?' Though my own theology is quite orthodox and could be 'backed up' at least to the 5th century, I do not agree with all of Rome's positions. Yet I do admire Her integrity. I find it very annoying, quite frankly, when writers do not uphold or question a doctrine or moral teaching based on an intellectual approach, but appeal entirely to emotions or other agenda. Lord have mercy, conflicts are as old as the Church, and hard-hitting Paul of Tarsus already had no illusions that his preaching what he saw as truth from the Risen Christ would be heeded by all and sundry. (Peter and Paul both had issues of inclusivity to address...)

It is so very ...restful to be worshipping in a setting where there already are married clergy, women priests, and so forth. :) And no illusions that having married and female clergy solve the problems of the world.

Today, I stopped at an RC cathedral and prayed in the presence of the Sacrament. Oddly enough, I found myself nearly crying with compassion for Benedict XVI. There is no equivalent of the sort of responsibility he has taken on - and obviously my first twinges were that a theologian, elderly and probably wishing for a peaceful time working on books, had to assume such a burden. Yet to take this on, not in a climate of loving warmth such as greeted John Paul, but with press reports already recording large disappointment about and fear of him, and some even speculating about his death and successor, Benedict now must be the loneliest man on earth.

Recently, I was reading of the Orthodox church's approach to the ordination of married men and to the remarriage of those who have divorced. Were Pope Benedict to proclaim positions in these areas which exactly conformed to Orthodoxy, he'd immediately be shouted down from left and right. "What? I'm supposed to say divorce is a sin, and remarriage a pastoral concession! My divorce was a new beginning!" (When is repentance anything but a new beginning?) Priest-sociologists would be saying it alienated people - or (if it were that annoying Andrew Greeley) that American ways do not include permanent relationships - nuns would be crying that this move was another oppression of women - some Catholic family movement or another would be seeing an attack on how they stayed together at all costs...

Were Benedict to speak on thousands killed in a battle or the modern equivalent of concentration camps, some web sites would be criticising that 'he didn't even mention abortion - the worst slaughter of all.' If he stated that the ordination of women could be open for further discussion, one side would criticise his discriminatory employment practises, another group would be moaning that encouraging ordination of anyone denied the universal call to holiness and contribution of the laity.

Benedict is in a position where indeed he must be a teaching authority and pastor, and where integrity must be maintained. Yet too many writers, scholars, etc., even if they are fully aware of the doctrinal positions and their development, will oppose them not based on the essence of the doctrine but on 'people could feel left out.' Just borrowing my earlier example, the Orthodox approach to divorce and remarriage has a sound theological basis - as does the RC attitude towards the same subject (though they differ, and regardless of whether one agrees or not.) An approach such as 'someone might feel left out and not come to church' is not theologically based.

I am wondering if there can be a proper balance, with any major church leader, between the current stress on being inclusive and maintaining doctrinal integrity - and shall be interested to see how one with as fine a theological mind as Benedict deals with this situation. The C of E always did tend to have a reluctance to say 'this is what we believe' lest those with Calvinist or Roman leanings have a sense of being outsiders. My attitudes towards ecumenism would not, for example, include understanding of the RC bans on intercommunion - yet I am uncomfortable with approaches to ecumenism that either ignore genuine differences of doctrine or hesitate to define either the difference or the doctrine.

In not only Benedict's case but that of every papacy within my memory, the press and popular authors indeed defy logic (and, since some are Roman priests, that is unforgiveable... I believe that, when I get to heaven, I'll learn that defying scholarly norms is the sin against the Holy Spirit.) The reasoning seems to be 'the popes hate women - they want everyone to have lots of babies and no one to have sex.' (I suppose the babies therefore arrive when the angels bring them. Angels used to do quite a business of that type in Ireland, unless the mother had plenty of gin and hot baths when she missed her first period, and this until she was sterilised at the age of 30.)

My point is that matters which are not related theologically are lumped together and judged as a wicked agenda. (I've been reading a number of online articles this past week - and one priest, who does not deserve to be dignified by a link, said that John Paul 'hated women,' a statement for which I see no substance whatever.) Celibacy for the clergy is a matter of discipline, not doctrine (not to mention that there are many married RC priests), and indeed could change. The ban on contraception is argued from a standpoint of 'natural law,' yet (though it is ignored by most Catholics, as every poll and any look at RC congregations would show) those who protested against it most seem more concerned with that Paul VI did not take the recommendations of the group he assembled to study the question than anything else. (John Paul, as far as I know, did not form any groups to discuss the matter - yet there are protests centred on the lack of, shall we say, a democratic vote more than whether the natural law position can be defended.)

I cannot imagine that any pope would declare abortion to be moral - and it seems far-fetched that anyone would have expected this. Perhaps (and I have seen essays on this) there is a position amongst some that, even if one is considered to be a human being with human rights even in the womb, this would not be so from the moment of conception, but when (for example) brain function begins. Logically (if one works from the RC premise that one is a human being from the moment of conception), one could not concurrently say that abortion is permissible if the mother is very young, or if the child is 'defective,' or the parents are unmarried, etc.. Such an argument would be, in effect, saying that whether one is a human being depends on the circumstances of one's conception.

Whether the RC position of abortion as immoral means 'one must vote, invariably, for a politician who gives lip service to opposing abortion, with no consideration of any other matters' (an idea I find absurd) would say more about the limited views (and possibly agendas) of those arguing that position than one with the intelligence and learning of Benedict. Ratzinger, as a theologian, and in saying that voting for someone in order to specifically further abortion is using sound principles of moral theology - where intent is an essential component of any moral act. I can see very serious problems if Benedict should encourage excommunication of those who are 'pro-choice politicians,' let alone those who vote for them, but that remains to be seen.

Whether women can be ordained has nothing to do with contraception, abortion, or divorce, though writers often class them together (a flight of the illogical that is beyond me.) It has to do with the nature of a sacrament - not with 'women are inferior and need to be barefoot and pregnant.'

Whether one agrees with Rome or not, the official positions are consistent and logical. I have no problem with (and indeed would encourage) scholarly agreement or challenges to any of them. What I find so irritating is that writers and theologians who know better than to do so present versions of the teachings (or the supposed motivation behind them) which not only can confuse people but spark anger at what is supposed rather than what is.

Tuesday, 19 April 2005

Time for a very brief meditation

It is a bit too soon for me to record my thoughts about the election of the new pontiff... e-mails to friends, yes, but not on the Internet. However, the day must be commemorated, so I am including a quotation from Dr Ratzinger's urbi et orbi speech:

I am consoled by the fact that the Lord knows how to work and how to act, even with insufficient tools, and I especially trust in your prayers. In the joy of the resurrected Lord, we go on with his help. He is going to help us and Mary will be on our side.

That certainly is a point worthy of meditation. I am sorry I did not get to see the live coverage - I'd never expected the election to be concluded so soon. I could not help but remember young, robust John Paul's enthusiastic speech when he was elected.

Time for a bit of intercessory prayer here. I shudder to think of the weight of assuming the papacy - and the struggles ahead as this old man takes on the most difficult position on the planet. He is a highly competent theologian, but the pastoral role - the ecumenical dialogue - the responsibility of dealing with perhaps 16 rites and countless cultures (in many places, where Christians are a small minority) - well, the Holy Spirit can be the only source of that kind of strength.

Blessings on Benedict XVI, on the Church of Rome, and on all of Christ's Church. God grant us peace, and keep us one in our Saviour Jesus Christ - and the power of the Holy Spirit, the vicar of Christ on earth.

But, Your Grace, it is a windmill!

I'm having great fun this week, both hearing and (online) seeing discussions about candidates for the papacy. In reading of the Cardinals, I am wondering if their comments are related to what they genuinely believe to be important (if so, in some cases, some of them should go on retreat or spend some time in a first rate university), or if it is merely either catering to public silliness or having some fun with the press.

I know little of Cardinal Tettamanzi, though reports hint that he would find Peter's throne to be a pleasant spot to occupy. (That cannot possibly be true of anyone... can it?) Yet what is making me laugh aloud is first that he warns of the DaVinci Code's being contrary to Christian teaching and history, and second that he finds gambling of any kind to be dangerous. I cannot picture that the DaVinci Code would be taken for anything except far-fetched fiction (nor that it was intended as anything else), and have a strong sense that the bets Paddy is taking (for example, on who will be the next pope) are intended more for fun and relaxation than anything else.

My guess is that Cardinal Tettamanzi is a clever man who knows how to get media attention. Italians have far too much experience of the papacy to not be aware that there are true stories from church history which would top anything in the rather silly DaVinci Code. Nor is there the Calvinist influence that would make gambling seem, I imagine, a waste of time for which one must account at the judgement seat.

My generation, in their younger days, often were committed to strong causes. (Today, most of them are super-frumps, some ready with lengthy sermons about, perhaps, how television is the ruination of the world. They have forgotten that people used to consider it rather entertaining to watch someone drawn and quartered... or crucified. Middle age can be a time when one is nostalgic for a past which never existed.) There was conflict involved - for example, those my age who were opposing war were the children of those who thought the Allies had made the world safe for freedom. Today's 'causes' are boring, partly because they are so 'safe.' Someone who is trying to make the world safe from smoking will at most get embarrassed apologies from those who disagree. I also wish that people would remember their history, logic, rhetoric, and so forth, and realise that presenting an argument depends on more than 'our children deserve better than this!' or 'my sainted mother told me that...'

In the early days of the Internet, when I first rejoiced at the potential for online resources and then realised that the down side was that whinge bags and nut cases all could become authors immediately, I remember a tale which still makes me laugh aloud. It had to do with (no, this is not a joke...) Barbie dolls! I imagine it was the domain of parents who, deep down, would like to be protesters, but so fear losing the favour of the Establishment that they take refuge in picketting schools which have soda machines.

Well, one of the Barbie dolls 'talked,' and it seems that she commented that mathematics was difficult. (I heartily concur... I still have not the slightest grasp of mathematics.) Oh, for shame! Here, an image of woman was being promoted that would make females seem inferior in that field. Well, I have taken offence at many things in my day, but never once at words uttered by a plastic mouth.

This gets better! Advertisements showed said doll in settings where she was performing on stage and other rot of that sort. (It is not rot in a kid's imagination - but protesters on such matters have too much imagination in all the wrong places.) Children, of course, would see such things, and be disappointed that they could not reproduce the settings and special effects. The manufacturer, filled with social concern, agreed that further advertisments would show Barbie only in a child's hand, to make it plain what size the doll actually is. I am wondering what child was unaware of that in the first place.

Ah, but things do get worse! The wicked doll is destroying girls' self-esteem today! With her curvaceous body not meeting normal proportions (in fact, if I could grasp the simplest concepts of maths, I dare say I'd gather that a woman actually shaped that way would topple forwards), she is instilling 'body image issues.' If there is any relation at all, I'm sure the little girls here are managing to have their mothers turn them into nut cases, not their dolls.

I'll give odds of five to one that warnings about the DaVinci code are sly and ironic... but that the crusaders against doll-dom are dead serious. I am trying to remember, regarding the latter, just which author originally said that it is futile to try to have a battle of the wits with an unarmed man.

Monday, 18 April 2005

Frog free zone, anyone?

In strong contrast to my usual practise, today's post shall be highly personal, if only so that others pursuing the spiritual life have no ideas that those doing so are any less 'nuts' (see my March archive) than those who do not. Not that, for example, it ever was denied that the English Church had some rather extravagantly eccentric characters (acceptable for the upper class - working class kids like myself are just 'crazy.') I understand that the Orthodox actually have a deep affection for the larger nut cases in their history - witness that Saint Simeon Stylites is honoured, rather than an embarrassment.

I believe, if I search hard enough, I shall find my lineage stretches to John the Divine. (Too bad I've learnt he is not the Evangelist, if indeed the evangelist was the apostle, and the apostle was 'the beloved.' I was born on the feast of John the Evangelist - or Apostle - and always felt affinity with one who was not only highly loving and steadfast but had his days of wanting to call down fire from heaven.) You'll recall how, in Revelation, John sees the evil spirits come forth as frogs. Though I have never had any visions (thank heavens), were I to see evil spirits that is precisely the form they would take. I am deathly afraid of frogs. For some reason, they remind me of evil.

Having always lived in large cities, I obviously was not likely to have any evil spirit figure hopping by - and I imagined that frogs were way off in very rural ponds. (I never was one to take chances, nonetheless. One of my good friends lives in Basildon, yet I've never been to her house, because I know the creatures hop by now and then. Nor did I ever visit a friend's house in North London, because his neighbour was a frog-o-phile.) It was only with my recent flat-hunting (never a fun prospect in any case) that I learnt that, even within this urban area, the very places where buildings that could be propects are located are near (I would imagine, manufactured) streams and ponds. And, somehow, from near and far, the frog community is always finding new homes.

I have resigned myself to that lower income people are not going to make those selling properties leap for joy. I have learnt that 'immaculate' means stripped to the bare bones - that "park like atmosphere" means 'next to a boarded warehouse' and so forth. Yet never did I imagine that, in a city, one would have to say 'frog free zone.' Nor that the only places available within my budget are near these blasted ponds.

Were I Francis of Assisi, I suppose I'd go out and preach to them - some ecstatic little sermon to Brother Frog. Not likely. I'm more inclined towards the fairy stories which have the same imagery for the creatures that there was in Revelation.

And now, to hide somewhere.... because I just know that I have new readers today, who otherwise might find my site helpful if not edifying, who are retreating at my nuttiness.

Sunday, 17 April 2005

Oh, yes, a conclave

O Gracious Father, we humbly beseech you for your holy Catholic Church; that you would be pleased to fill it with all truth, in all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, establish it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, re-unite it; for the sake of him who died and rose again, and ever lives to make intercession for us, Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.

There is much speculation (especially in this, the first conclave since the Internet was begun) about the papacy ahead - amusing (such as the bookmaker in Ireland), interesting, frustrated, sad, whatever. I am enjoying being able to consider this from a distance, in a sense. I'm not about to reveal just which candidates, for whom Paddy is giving nearly even odds, I am hoping do not end up on Peter's throne...

Many people are discussing what they should like to see change during the reign of the next pontiff. (I am sorry that it seems that all anyone remembers of John Paul, or perhaps any other contemporary pope, would make it seem that we mortals were composed of bodies that went only from the waist to the knees...) I am far from old, but, even if I copy the longevity common in my family, forty years from now I'll be gone. There is much hope that I have for the future of the church (and my use of Catholic hardly means Roman only), and which I shall not live to see if indeed it does occur.

I'm becoming quite 'patristic' in my 'old' age. I shall save lengthy essays on that for another time - but I do believe the papacy needs to move more in the direction of the early centuries. John Paul began his reign when the church was in quite a mess - his centralising authority may have kept things from crumbling. Yet one with less hard life experience - or less warmth - could not sustain a similar stance without becoming an autocrat.

I should like to see Rome finally admit that the judgement about Anglican Orders has "evolved" since the days of Leo. I cherish my own celibacy, but believe that it further is time to allow married men to be ordained. Yet what I should like to see change most of all is uncommon, and therefore merits mention here.

Though John Paul cannot be faulted for this, I should like to see far more respect for, and encouragement of, consecrated life. It saddens me greatly that the Roman Church, which its vast and rich heritage of monastic and 'active life,' lost so much in that area during my own lifetime.

Where does the 'universal call to holiness' (which I frankly doubt ever was in question!) become compromised by a life dedicated to monastic norms - and dating from the early centuries? Why has the 'age of the laity' and 'getting the people involved' , for all the value there can be in those efforts, led to a denial of the value of permanent, vowed commitment to the counsels? We need to recover the eschatological dimension of this witness - not merely emphasise the 'work' or the 'corporate identity' of such religious as are still here.

One old joke in the days when I first studied logic and rhetoric was this fractured syllogism: "God is love. Love is blind. Therefore God is blind." Perhaps a little understanding of the use of the predicate in logic is in order. Edvard Schillebeeczx, some years ago, made a statement about how, once a strong theology of marriage became common, vocations to consecrated life would decrease. (It is a surprise to me, since I never noticed that the married doubted the value of their vocation, but be that as it may.) Even if this were true, and I believe there are many totally unrelated factors which led to the situation today, let us not 'argue backwards.' It does not mean 'here is a candidate for religious life - she therefore must not realise the value of marriage.' Nor should religious (as they often did in the years following Humanae Vitae) see the Church as oppressor of women - therefore fighting such 'oppression' as their own major focus.

All right... I have one last wish (fulfilled only when I attend Westminster Cathedral, it seems, as far as RC churches go.) Let us remember the musical heritage as well... and that the eleventh commandment is neither mediocrity nor 'everyone must sing everything.'

Blessings on the conclave - and on the entire Roman Catholic Church - ubi et orbi.

Friday, 15 April 2005

How we do punish ourselves...

I have been cleaning out my library, which contains quite an assortment of old books which I inherited from elderly priests who long have departed this earth. I was thumbing through one, entitled "The Sisters are Asking," which, far from being ancient, was authored during my childhood. One chapter particularly made me shudder. It encouraged the use of corporal penances (instruments that cut the skin... one example is sufficient, I am sure), and in fact saw this as a mark of more advanced devotion, though always with the caution that one who wished to inflict physical pain on herself should have permission from her superior before she ordered the instruments.

Readers who are expecting elaboration on themes of sadism or masochism here shall be greatly disappointed. I not only never saw a trace of that in convent life or my lengthy association with nuns, but believe that most women in consecrated life are quite innocent - in fact, most of us, were we to see a man with a whip, would think he was a horse trainer. No, I doubt the self-inflicted pain had any sexual connection. It came from a distorted sense of sin, forgiveness, and even of atonement.

For many centuries, popular theological thought seemed to provide quite a cut and dried picture of redemption. All centred on the cross, not on creation or cosmic redemption. The formula unfolded as follows: God creates the world, with mankind in a painless, blissful paradise. Adam and Eve disobey and insult him, so God indulges his sense of justice by making the world quite a dreadful place in which to dwell, then bolts the gates of heaven shut. (When the original plan of creation was thwarted by man's free will, God had to go to Plan B.) Because God needed restitution, and this could only come from one equal to himself, his Son became man, and the crucifixion satisfied the justice of the Father, who allowed entry to heaven afterward but would not remove any of the earthly agony he imposed in Adam's day. This world was not only a vale of tears but one in which God sent his friends suffering - all one could hope for was happiness in heaven.

We tended to forget that Jesus suffered because of other people - that his crucifixion was a dreadful but natural outcome of his following his vocation to proclaim the kingdom. Paul, indeed, spoke of suffering but, again, his own imprisonment, martyrdom, and so forth were natural consequences of his vocation.

It is interesting that Julian of Norwich, though explaining visions which were of the crucifixion itself, could leave us with a picture of Christ laughing at the defeat of Satan, and taking joy in all of us. This is not a day when meditations on the Passion are popular (and when Freud, regrettably, would leave us a legacy of seeing what is sick in what is merely expressive... God knows what Freudians would make of depictions of Christ's blood, where I have another view since I just drank some.) Yet those of Julian, as one example, and however graphic they are in mourning Jesus' suffering and the sin of ours which contributed, are very positive and warm in their way. There is no suggestion of a God to be appeased - or that we need to inflict pain on ourselves.

My logical side tells me that, in Julian's time and place, suffering of all sorts (the Plague being a key example) was too 'near' to be ignored. (My own generation are convinced that they'll never die if they only join the right gym...) I have my own theories about the development of the excess strain on suffering - may write a book on it some day - but one point is on my mind at the moment.

Perhaps because we live in an era when persecution is not at our door, and when even those of us who are relatively poor have better health and shelter than those of the past, there is a sense that God is not going to let us be that 'comfortable.' Yes, the days of Nero are rather a faded memory - but the Sisters who taught me were not about to forget other persecutions and massive deaths, quite a lot closer to home.

My theology is totally at odds with 'God as punisher' images - yet those ghosts still do haunt me now and then. In fact, it can become "I had best punish myself before God takes it upon himself."

Perhaps I need to brush up my Greek and Latin even more than I have needed to do for my divinity course. If I really achieved high facility in the Greats, I would recognise that image - of a God who is insulted, takes revenge, inflicts punishment, needs constant placating - very well. He looks a good deal like Zeus...

Thursday, 14 April 2005

Site update

Those interested in my reflections on The Cloud of Unknowing (a classic example of my being able to comment on texts while pouting about having to live their principles) will find that I have updated the section to include my personal commentary on the selections from the Cloud.

Wednesday, 13 April 2005

The unknown God

A. N. Wilson, in God's Funeral, a work on the "Victorian Crisis of Faith," notes the following:

"The nineteenth century had created a climate - philosophical, politico-sociological, literary, artistic, personal - in which God had become unknowable, his voice inaudible against the din of machines and the atonal banshee of the emerging ego-mania called the Modern. The cohesive force which orgainsed religion had once provided was broken. The nature of society itself, urban, materialised, industrialised, was the background for the godlessness which philosophy and science did not so much discover as ratify."

Later, he makes the telling point: "God's funeral was not the end of a phase of human intellectual history. It was the withdrawal of a great Love-object." (Emphasis mine.)

I have no talent for the social sciences, and dare say that ego-mania dates to the days when our 'first parents' took the word of a serpent that God was depriving them of the fruit of the tree lest they have knowledge equal to His. My own speciality in theology, if indeed I can claim any expertise at all, is ascetic. It is difficult for me to fully grasp the sorts of faith crises which stem from believing that intellectual integrity is at odds with faith, when (for example) belief seems to contradict 'facts,' because I know, all too well and for all of my own intellectual leanings, that worship is a matter of Love. (It deserves the capital L.)

One of the most painful parts, perhaps especially for the intellectual sorts such as myself, is that prayer does not involve knowing anything at all. There is no certainty in faith. We have no 'proofs' for the resurrection, revelation whether at Sinai or in the Incarantion, and so forth. Somehow, I am recalling the glorious words of John of the Cross: "I entered in, I know not where, and I remained, though knowing naught, transcending knowledge with my thought. So borne aloft, so drunken reeling, so rapt was I, so swept away, within the scope of sense or feeling, my sense or feeling could not stay."

The great mystics all had their different emphases. Just to mention a few I treat on my own site, Julian of Norwich had a tender, homely way of speaking of God - expressing great truths in 'parables' of the Trinity as a family. Her total solitude must have been agonising (nearly as much as the gossip the supposed 'seekers,' must have brought to the grate.) Francis of Assisi, a great lover but fragile, extreme, and passionate, needed to keep most of his expression to images of the earthly Jesus - the poor man who was humble in birth and suffering. Francis never could get past the remembrance of his own sinfulness, and perhaps the divine Logos was too overwhelming an image, unlike an impoverished Holy Family or agony in a garden.

Yet the mystics would have agreed with the agnostics on one point. God indeed is unknowable. We who believe can seek to see the hand of the Creator in the world, to try to 'know Him through his actions.' I suppose that all of us devoted to prayer have times of intense, silent awareness of God (or is it imagination - or a wish?) If indeed it is a glimpse of Him which we caught, awe inspiring though it is momentarily, afterward one is left with the doubt... or the sensitivity which makes the world's evil all the more painful.

Where are you, Lord? is a constant undertone. (Naturally accompanied, at times, with the "Are you there at all?") Pining with love and longing, the idea that we cannot truly know the beloved leaves us in 'limbo.' Are we merely recognising, and this importantly, the limitations of our own vision? Or have we 'created God'?

The Gnostics would claim indeed to 'know' - and, in the process, strip God not only of omnipotence but of any part in Creation, let alone Incarnation. In modern times, too many of those who 'doubt' lose me, because either I wonder what faith they really had in the first place, or why (just to cite one example) they shuddered that Genesis might not be an explanation of the details of creation when I cannot see it ever was intended as anything of the sort. I see the emphases, in the century preceding my birth and the one in which I lived, on 'progress' and 'family values' as idolatry, and this though I am an avid Christian socialist (which at least a few Victorians were, even if the richer ones words leave me with an aftertaste of calves' foot jelly) and one who, at least, cannot be faulted for caring for family. I pine for knowledge, read the theology with a passion, yet have the sense that Thomas Aquinas had a point about its being all straw (and who, after all, felt all he could define was what God was not.)

In the end, truth about the divine (...Master, don't let me discover you are not there!) can only be expressed in doxology. It is not that I doubt one word of orthodox teachings - yet it is impossible to provide a logical explanation, and, once we allow for divine intervention and revelation, a 'scientific' treatment can become bizarre. A man who was crucified, then rose from the dead - his continued presence in Church, sacrament, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit - there is no explanation. I can be caught in an intense love and silence, praying before the Sacrament, yet the simplicity of a Creator who can express himself, so that the ultimate awe can be accompanied by the knowledge of kneeling before a piece of bread, is beyond me.

I am beginning to see that, at best, all a doctor of humanities (such as myself) can offer is a history of belief. Yet A. N. Wilson, who hardly was writing for devotional purposes (and whose insightful and witty work I'd highly recommend), does capture an important point in one of his comments. All many believers can do is act with faith.

Quite. Perhaps, one of these days, Christianity shall catch up to the Judaism which knew that the kingdom is here - that God is acting in creation - that our own actions express worship more than any creed. (And this not denying the creeds! A good part of the action is the doxology I previously mentioned.) We can get so caught up in wondering who is right - how we are going to be rewarded or punished in the next world - whatever. The true God indeed is not our own creation - but how do we know Him, when we indeed do create many idols?

Monday, 11 April 2005

Assorted thoughts

To begin, one that is on my mind is just which prophecies and elements of the Scriptures the Risen Christ explained to those two disciples at Emmaus... even I may overcome my aversion to exegesis if I could read that account. There must be a wonderful course of thought to pursue, contemplating the Risen Christ in our midst, present in his Church, his spirit, his word and the breaking of the bread... but I need to warm up to that one, since my thoughts are far more playful today.

I have noticed, these past few days, what fun the media are having, condemning or commenting upon who grasped the hands of whom at the Peace during John Paul's funeral. I suppose, for example, that the Prince of Wales was supposed to focus some sort of death ray on Mugambe during this liturgical action... though I find the apologetic stance of the Mid-Eastern leaders to be somewhat more entertaining. Of course, the seating arrangements were the Vatican's doing, yet I cannot help but wonder, remembering what a man of peace and of prayer John Paul was, if he were not looking down from heaven and pushing a button.

Today, based on what I read on a discussion forum, there is quite an uproar about Cardinal Law's offering a Mass as part of the mourning for the Bishop of Rome. The media would give the impression that Law was being given some very special honour, as if it were an endorsement of his past negligence or what transpired in Boston. Lord have mercy, Jesus is the High Priest - should there be all sorts of bitterness arising from the exchanging of the Peace of Christ or the Breaking of the Bread?

Monday, 4 April 2005


My self-control this morning was admirable. A group of employees of a church had been debating a question which was directed to me for resolution. Was the Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" a reference to the old custom of tapping a deceased pope's forehead to ascertain that he had died?

With today's being the Feast of the Annunciation, there are easily fifty related themes on which I could dwell. Though I prefer the approach which Irenaeus, rather than Augustine, took towards original sin, the Franciscan in me cannot help but recall a position which my own Order held, and which has a certain charm. Franciscans, whether they understood Augustine or not (more likely the latter), did tend to promote the Immaculate Conception during the Middle Ages, much to the chagrin of Thomas Aquinas. Well, developing that favourite devotion most creatively, some Franciscans spoke of how , with Mary's being preserved from the impairment of reason and will which had existed since the unfortunate expelling from Eden, her 'fiat' was unique, amongst all save Christ, in that it was free of any selfishness.

That treatment is poetic, of course, but poetry is a favourite mode of expression for me. Luke would place a canticle of humble trust in God, and of exaltation in God's fulfilment of covenant, on Mary's lips in his account of the annunciation.

What on earth is total conformity to the will of God? Rhetorical question, of course - I doubt any one of us could have the answer. It goes beyond morality, most certainly, and most of us have quite enough struggle with that alone. Yet I would imagine it has much to do with such absorption in praise and worship that selfishness is quite alien. The great mystics reached a point where the only desire they had left was for God - and then had to deal with the frustration and darkness of such total love for the Transcendent One.

In the light of the Incarnation and Resurrection, Mary would know that, in her otherwise probably very ordinary life, she had been the tabernacle for the Incarnate Lord. May the grace of God transform all of us into His image and likeness. (Oh, how Augustinian of me!) ;)

Sunday, 3 April 2005

Things could be worse

I am flat hunting at the moment - surely not a prospect that anyone would find particularly enjoyable. Fool that I am, I naturally asked others of my acquaintance if they knew of places available. I had forgotten that there is a human weakness for hearing of a situation and deciding to inform the other of how much worse things could be. Between, "how are you going to afford this?" or "you'll never find a buyer for your parents' house," (my flat money comes from that), and so forth, I was left with total tension and frustration... and, in a few cases, a strong uneasiness that those less fortunate than I (we all are working class, but my dad managed to buy a little house) were intensely jealous of me (even though my prospects are for the most modest of accommodations.)

Bad fortune, good fortune - it matters little. Too many people delight in upsetting others, and reminding them of how much worse things could be, or decreasing the value of the good. I normally am the most private of people, and had only mentioned the situation to others looking for prospects. Henceforth, I'm telling no one anything... I am too superstitious, and do not want the jealous ones hexing me.

However, if any of my readers see this forgettable post, I do ask for prayers - both that I find decent accommodation and that I do not stuff any of the ill-wishers up a chimney...

Now, having revealed what a superstitious, irritable little character I can be, I shall 'tell one on myself.' Appropriately, it has to do with the election of the recently deceased pontiff. One must recall that this was the 1970s, a time of great tumult for the Church indeed, but also the period of excessive charismania and a New Age flavour to the spirituality of young adults.

I was a director of music in a parish then, and the organist, who also was in his 20s, was a devout, deep, but rather eerie sort. Though his family was from the Ukraine, Paul took his seers where he could find them, and was very interested in the (probably spurious, and easily twisted... but who knew that then?) prophecies of Saint Malachy. When Paul VI died, Paul told me that, if the next pope came from the Slavic area, it would be a sign of the end times - so I had sighed with relief when delightful Albino Luciano occupied Peter's throne.

It was terribly sad, so few weeks later, when John Paul I departed this earth. I was watching the next papal election with my parents when the white smoke proclaimed 'habemus papam.' When Karol Wojtyla's election was announced, the screen showed a photograph of this young, robust, handsome Pole - and I went into a panic! "There's the last pope! It's the end times!"

It's different now. I have no notion of who Malachy has announced as the next successor to Peter... but, at this age, I have few worries, because Paul had told me that two more pope's would follow the one from Poland, each to reign as long as John Paul did. In fifty years, I'll be dead... so my own end times are not far off. :)

Saturday, 2 April 2005

May the angels lead John Paul into Paradise

Bishops of Rome and Canterbury meetingI'm breaking one of my own rules today, allowing purely personal observations (and therefore of no general interest). Yet somehow I wanted to record the context of learning of John Paul's death. I finally read the confirmation on Yahoo news, and turned on the BBC coverage, which I'll undoubtedly have on for hours to come. I joined in the Italian prayers and hymns, so wishing I could be in Rome today.

I admire John Paul's integrity - and indeed crossed the Tiber because of my own. I just cannot 'sign on the dotted line' on everything, and too much local RC public worship had become an intellectual and aesthetic wasteland. :) I also am more of the patristic "Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, (Canterbury, Moscow)," mindset than the later papal model. How well I remember John Paul's election. I was in graduate school then, and for some reason was with my mother and father that afternoon. When my dad heard the Dean of the College of Cardinals announce the new pontiff was Ka-ROL Wo-TEEE-ya, he told me that an African pope had been elected.

John Paul was the 5th pope to reign during my own lifetime. I was a small child when Pius XII died; old enough to remember warm, merry, and homely John XXIII; came to maturity during the time of insightful, aristocratic Paul VI, whose later papacy would be a time of such grave tumult. Before his election to the papacy, Karol Wojtyla was hardly more than a name to me.

He was a man of strength and conviction - I never saw him as the autocrat that some others do, but he always gave a sense of tough-mindedness. I greatly admired his concern for social justice; his opposition to war; his frank condemnation of the atheistic, materialistic 'religions' of both communism and capitalism; his meeting with and gathering those of all faiths, Christian or not. As Eamon Duffy aptly mentioned today, John Paul had a total dedication to respect for life in what he saw as a culture of death. (They were by no means the only tyrants in John Paul's lifetime, but heaven knows that Death was a very close friend of Hitler's and Stalin's, and Karol had ample acquaintance with the tactics of both. I, too, have yet to see evidence that a culture of death is a thing of the past... but I doubt anyone will see that day.)

I am very glad that a pontiff of such intellectual abilities, and extraordinarily diverse life experience, could reign for a quarter of a century. Gladder still I am at the glory he must be contemplating right now! What a wonderful close to the octave of the Resurrection... and isn't tomorrow's gospel that of the Good Shepherd?

Welcome, Sister Death

I'm assuredly not alone in having expected the doors of the Vatican to be closed this morning. I have this odd, perhaps silly, idea that John Paul shall 'hold out' until Monday - with his Marian devotion, for him to die on the feast of the Annunciation would be most appropriate. (I never underestimate the inward will of the dying, or how it can affect their last hours.)

Francis of Assisi's welcome to Sister Death sounds in my memory today. Franciscans often puzzle others with their attitudes towards 'her' visitation! I can remember, for example, an elderly sister of my acquaintance. Her motherhouse had a cemetery for the congregation, and, when one nun died, the community found it less expensive to have the grave dug not only for the deceased sister but for two others who would be joining her shortly. The other two calmly recited their devotions outdoors, on the lovely spring day, in no way troubled by watching the gravediggers prepare their spot.

I want to qualify yesterday's entry - because I have read comments on other sites from those who see John Paul's death as a blessing because they hope his successor will 'bring the Church into the 21st century.' My 'Te Deum' had no flavour of 'glad to see him go.' It is based on gratitude and on joy at John Paul's entering the next phase of life - growth, adoration, possible purification, whatever, which fits mortal eyes to behold divine glory in its splendour. (And that progress shall never end...)

I seldom make personal observations, but I shall add one because others may be a bit curious at what enters the mind of those in consecrated life as far as death is concerned. I fear suffering on this earth as much as does anyone, yet am not afraid of being dead, which I see as only progressing to another stage of intimacy with the Beloved. If there is a practical reward for celibacy, it is that one need not fear a child's being left without care at one's passing. Nor do religious have any illusions that their work is irreplaceable.

Yet, on a more human and emotional plane, most of us know that our memory will die practically at once. Were I to leave this world today, no one would truly mourn me. I served many people through the years, but the detachment which consecrated life brings keeps one from the sort of intimacy where one remains cherished and remembered. Those whom we have served forget us as soon as our work for them is finished.

This is rather silly and selfish, as I well know. :) Those of us who embrace consecrated life know, deep down, that our witness is primarily eschatological - a reminder that there is more to human life than what one sees on this earth - and that creation and cosmic redemption are glorious yet vague concepts because we do not have divine minds.

John Paul is in no danger of not being remembered - how many lives have more historical significance or impact? He is well loved, and billions will mourn him. (And just as many shall speak of how they feel his pontificate went on too long and halted progress.... but that is for others to chronicle...) Yet they did not know Karol - most are seeing the incredible impact he had on world affairs, the wonderful ideals he promoted, the stability he showed in doctrine and / or the progressive stand on social justice. They are mourning the pope, not Karol, who undoubtedly had a great detachment, and resultant solitude, because of the role ordained for him.

The great people of prayer (and this observation is based on my having studied their writings practically since I could read) had a joy and sorrow which is beyond average comprehension. Having caught a glimpse of divine glory, they had a longing for the Beloved (whom they could not fully know - and who is no Lover who provides fun times and emotional sustenance) :) compounded by a heightened awareness of the evil in this world. They loved creation, certainly, but had a frustration, a sense of longing for what is beyond this earth. Intense love of God would mean such for neighbour as well, naturally. Yet, in the end, there is silence, unknowing, solitude - and always the uncertainty.

He already sees and touches the Lord

The latest BBC report on John Paul's last hours moved me deeply - and the heading for this post is a comment by one of the Cardinals (...I am a bit sleepy, and cannot recall all of the sources.) And here I am, sitting the vigil, waiting for the Vatican to confirm that John Paul has passed from this life.

I do believe he may already see 'into the next room' - the screen between the two, as it were, can be a thin one, and I can remember other dying souls who could already see departed loved ones or have a sense of encountering God himself. (Somehow, I am reminded of how I cried when I read of how, in Queen Victoria's last moments of life, she looked up with joy and cried out to Albert.) I am very glad that John Paul is at home, not in hospital, so that his life can close surrounded by people who love him and are supporting him in prayer. My memory makes me picture Saint Peter's Square, and I do so wish that I could be in Rome now.

I have been in the pope's company four times. I remember, smiling, when an archbishop arranged for me to have a papal audience - and I sat directly behind the Spanish royalty. The reason I must laugh is that I had to pick up the tickets at Via de Umilta, then (not being royalty of any kind...) catch a bus. Now, in Rome, surely the sight of one in 'papal visit' clothes is not strange - but I knew the entire bus was giggling, because my attire was not as common - my being 'a white' rather than 'a black.' No woman that age (I was 40 or so) would advertise she never got off the shelf, so the white garments meant a religious commitment... and one not highly valued in a land which believes one is giving up the chief pleasure of life. :)

Yes, this post has little value. With much of the world, I am sitting quietly, checking Internet news sites, waiting for news of John Paul's death. I want to sing a Te Deum at the news - to express both my joy in the glory to which this great man is going, and in thanksgiving for how he has enriched Christ's Church. I well remember the chaos of the Church in 1978! Paul VI was a great man, perhaps a saint, yet I wondered if he had a great idealism (as do I) - and never could have expected the messes that came forth from some of the changes (positive though they may be in theory.) Karol Wojtyla would have had no illusions - he was brilliant, but a down to earth peasant - and one who had all too much inside knowledge of totalitarian regimes. Many think of him as 'rigid' (where I found him very pastoral), but they fail to see the positive changes in these past 26 years. Ecumenism, a constant plea for peace in a world of violence, the collapse of the Soviet bloc ... well, the media will carry many complaints and many tributes. But my enormous respect for John Paul is through an admiration for his integrity.

It does not matter that there are some areas where John Paul and I disagree. His integrity was a light to the world - and in an age where many of us, myself included, sometimes worry so about being inclusive that we cannot see that this can appear to be a moral compromise. He valued life, peace, human dignity. He reached out to all of Christ's church - not only our Christian sister churches, but our brothers and sisters whose paths to God have not been in recognition of Jesus' Lordship - and this despite severe criticism.

I believe that John Paul has chosen to die with dignity and serenity. He gave Death a run for his money, indeed - but, when the end did come, il Papa seems to have shown resignation. I am hoping that his persistence during this past year - when it made me wince to see how he had deteriorated - will remind people of the value of the lives of the ill and elderly. Perhaps some of the aged, who are ashamed and distressed by what they see as the indignity of their declining health and strength, will see this persistence as an icon of courage and trust.

It is shortly after 1 o'clock in Rome, I believe. Perhaps John Paul has already gone to the Master... I must check. Dear brother, 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 (and rise in glory.) Juravit dominum et non poenitebit eum - tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchisidec.

I shall borrow the words of Francis of Assisi - Welcome, Sister Death!

Friday, 1 April 2005

Annunciation and Anawim

"A Little Litany" by G. K. Chesterton

When God turned back eternity and was young,
Ancient of Days, grown little for your mirth,
As under the low arch the land is bright.
Peered through you, gate of heaven - and saw the earth.

Or shutting out His shining skies awhile
Built you about Him for a house of gold
To see in pictured walls his storied world
Return upon him as a tale is told.

Or found his mirror there; the only glass
That would not break with that unbearable light
Till in a corner of the high dark house
God looked on God, as ghosts meet in the night.

Star of his morning; that unfallen star
In the strange starry overturn of space
When earth and sky changed places for an hour
And heaven looked upwards in a human face.

Or young on your strong knees and lifted up
Wisdom cried out, whose voice is in the street
And more than twilight of twiformed cherubim
Made of his throne indeed a mercy seat.

Or risen from play at your pale raiment's hem
God, grown adventurous from all time's repose
Of your tall body climbed the ivory tower
And kissed upon your lips a mystic rose.

Reading of Pope John Paul's nearing death today, it saddened me to think that, when he does leave this world, the media (and many bloggers) shall forget his enormous contributions, preferring instead to cast him as a misogynist who opposes contraception, the ordination of women, and abortion. (I am strongly 'with him' on that last - not on the first two matters - but think it silly that, again and again, these topics are dragged out as if everything were in the hands of one man... who was whimsically throwing around his authority...) I recall, during the days when I had reason to read the Catholic News Service, that John Paul, who seemed strong enough to carry a cathedral on his back and surely was not one for sentimentality, referred to the Mother of Jesus nearly every day. I heard today that he hoped to live until the feast of the Annunciation is observed on Monday next.

Undoubtedly, I shall think of a few reflections on the Annunciation, yet, for the moment, I am reminded of how Raymond E. Brown gave Mary's "exaltation of the lowly" quite a lovely treatment. Fr Brown wrote of the Anawim of the first century - those who embraced an ascetic vocation, based on simple, humble trust in God. My own readers may brace themselves for a fuller exposition of that idea later...

Who more than Mary had to face much she could not understand? Or more of being misunderstood herself? With the feast's being transferred this year, a liturgical nut like myself is reminded of how Mary had the horrid solitude of Calvary - but also came to much understanding of her Son's full identity only in the light of the resurrection. The awe Mary must have felt at Gabriel's greeting undoubtedly paled next to that of the post-resurrection understanding.