Friday, 30 September 2005

Quite a few commemorations in October

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 September 2005

Edge of a precipice

Quote I had not read in some time, which was e-mailed to me today - from C. S. Lewis' The Weight of Glory:

“I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life." Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have "chosen" a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache: it is our nature. . . ."

I should like to write perhaps two paragraphs of the quality of Jack's before I die... unlikely, but one may hope. I studied his works intensely in my day - and he was such an intriguing personality as well as an exceedingly insightful writer.

I often have been irritated with myself, knowing how a desire for security kept me from being adventurous. I wonder if what troubles the believer most in this life is knowing that everything is always uncertain - we have no control over many events in this life.

I was speaking, earlier this week, of my dabbling in excessive charismatic pursuits and some of what today would be termed "New Age" in my young adult years. Another group with which I was acquainted - mostly priests and young religious - became very involved with Silva Mind Control. I was never as 'into it' as some of the others, but some of the ideas were dangerous, as I can see with hindsight.

Certainly, some of the Silva method, such as rejecting negative thoughts, can be valuable. How little we really do know of the mind - and I have no doubt that it can effect us physically as well. Focussing, cultivating the memory, discipline of thoughts (though, for my money at this point, I'll take John Cassian...), all are valuable. Yet there was another side - appealing, exciting, and, if I recall correctly, based on that we use only a certain, small percentage of our brain power normally. (It did not occur to me or any of the others to question whether it was possible to harness the rest of the mass and develop a super-brain. None of us were scientists, but all were intellectual sorts... Lord have mercy, if I could have ten time the brain power... what I could accomplish. But I digress.)

In the Mind Control training (as I noted, I had less than the others - today, I am grateful), there were several techniques which were supposedly able to counteract illness. Cancerous cells could be wiped out by the proper brain usage, in this presentation. I loved this prospect... until one of the lovely young priests who taught Mind Control was dead, of cancer, before he was 40. I am not about to discount mind-body connexions beyond anything of which we may be aware. Yet I believe I was not the only one who was somewhat shattered at realising that even those most trained in the method were not immune to agony.

One exercise in which I never participated (and never would) involved 'putting on another's head' and exploring what thoughts the other had. I have no notion of whether the impressions one receives are the others' true thoughts - and am more inclined to think that one can mistake one's intuitive sense for such 'insights.' If it were possible, I would think it totally invasive of another's privacy and highly dangerous. Yet if, as I suspect, it was not, how much more dangerous to believe we can see inside of another's mind.

None of the people I knew had anything but kind, loving motives. Those who wanted to see inside another's mind, or know the other's problems, believed that their own thoughts could, for example, wipe out another's disease, or that they could be available to others by knowing their needs. Satan is always that angel of light (and, when I say "Satan" here, I am not suggesting that anyone there was wicked! I mean the Accuser, the Tempter - the one who cleverly deceives. In fact, I think that I am talking more of the distractions of our own minds than of any wicked spirit in this context.)

I had another e-mail today, from my spiritual 'Abba,' who is poles from the sort of romantic, dryad and faun imagery that tends to keep me chasing after charms. He is a very blunt sort (...essential in a spiritual director... though I must admit that I sometimes wish I could have a little 'stroking'... which of course would not do the job...), and reminded me to stop with the interior monologues in order to be open to the dialogue with God that is the essence of my life of prayer. He reminded me of what he termed the 'Virtue of Surrender.'

Not terribly romantic - but it is Truth. Those of us who wish to have control we cannot have (and here I am not referring to the twisted use of power by the wicked, but the fairyland excursions of prayerful lovers who are afraid) ultimately must rest in the divine Heart. I have been most fortunate in having someone to help me 'see straight' - maybe, now at around the half century mark, there is hope for me. (If I take after my father's family, when I am 80 or so my heart will stop. If I take after my mother's, I'll be 104, wishing it would stop... so I should have some time ahead.)

It will never be easy for one like myself - I wonder if it ever will be accomplished. C. S. Lewis knew that struggle. He was multi-dimensional in his own personality - the sober and rational man who spoke, with seemingly great detachment, of suffering (until he faced intense suffering of his own) - the writer who could present 'mere Christianity' and the insights of Screwtape - but also one who wished to fall through a wardrobe and end up in Narnia.

Tuesday, 20 September 2005

San Gerardo mio, prega per me

The title of this post is a mere invocation asking the intercession of Saint Gerard Maiella, though there is a song with those very words as its refrain. Processions of people in southern Italy will be singing it - some in wonderful voices, others dreadfully but with fervour - a few weeks from now. My mother (and many of her relatives and friends) had a very deep devotion to Gerardo, an 18th century saint who was from the diocese neighbouring on her own.

Gerardo is the patron of expectant mothers - which may seem an odd situation for a Redemptorist lay brother. The reason is that he was unjustly accused (by a young woman whose affair with a prominent man could not be divulged) of fathering a child. This created quite a scandal, not only, of course, for Gerardo himself, but for his community. His superior, the great moral theologian Alphonsus Liguori, was unaware of Gerardo's innocence, because Gerardo would not inform him of the injustice of the accusation. The Redemptorist rule instructed brothers not to defend themselves if they were corrected wrongly... Gerardo was a very simple man, who would not have grasped that there are times when unjust accusations need to be refuted. (He also is patron of the unjustly accused.)

What distinguishes Gerardo from most modern (as opposed to mediaeval) saints is that he was known for being a channel of miracles during his lifetime. Some verged on the bizarre - my favourite being when he accidentally dropped a key into the well, lowered a statue of the Christ Child into it, and found, when he retrieved the statue, that it was holding the key. Much as my intellectual side makes me want to scoff at such tales, I'm afraid that I see another side. Perhaps, in a time and place (this is a region not that far from where Januarius' blood liquefies) where people are open to such manifestations, they can and do occur.

Gerardo was sickly and died before the age of thirty. There are no intellectual or ministerial achievements for which he is noted. But he is valued as a powerful intercessor, which I am sure is why he is such a well-loved saint (in many lands, not only Italy.)

The communion of saints, which has powerful theological aspects which I am not going to treat today, also reminds us that we, the Church, are 'all in this together.' The days when saints were widely invoked (and anchoresses pestered and remembered in wills) were those when people did not want to be alone with their fears, guilt, worries about family, concerns about their eternal happiness.

I wish I had my mother's simplicity in prayer. She would turn to Gerardo (her paisan, after all - those from the same region are especially likely to be invoked) as one would to a good friend, confiding worries and having them lessen by the mere fact of being shared.

Elizabeth Gerarda asks now: San Gerardo mio, prega per me.

Sunday, 18 September 2005

When I was young and Gnostic

There has been an odd blend for me this weekend. I attended a discussion group for which the topic was Benedict VXI's "Eschatology," about which I've been rambling so much recently. I then put on one of my tie dye shirts and attended a street fair. One of the entertainments offered was an 'oldies' rock band - indeed a very good one - to my delight, even if the young going by were commenting "but they're old." However much the rest of the lyrics may not fit my situation, I found myself joining in as the band sang, "But I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

Quite. Were I to lapse into the astrology and such which we all referenced when I was a young woman, I would remind others that I, as a double Capricorn, was born old and am living backwards. But I shall refrain, considering that I have since learnt that New Age (as it would be called today) dabbling is quite a serious distraction in the spiritual life. It tends to lean towards wanting to acquire special knowledge, or to have control over this earth to a degree that one cannot. Neither tends to lead one to true adoration.

I should like to preface my comments to follow with a 'disclaimer.' If, as Thomas says, the gift comes according to the manner of the recipient, I am not about to criticise the manner in which any Christian prays. Pentecostal glossalia may well be helpful to many - and the New Testament would make it appear that such always was the case. However, for me (and I'm sure for many others), the excesses of the charismatic movement during the years when I first loved tie dye shirts left much spiritual confusion to be undone.

With the virtue of hindsight, I can see several deficiencies which were quite common. There was no theology of discernment (if, indeed, there was much attention to theology at all, back in those days when most of us thought we had an individual, direct line to the Holy Spirit.) Emotion was mistaken for inspiration. Many of us did not hesitate to speak whatever thoughts came into our minds - thinking we were speaking in prophecy. Those who decided to engage in instant exegesis (...I was far too shy for anything such as that - I only tried to cure the sick) based the interpretation of scripture on impressions and emotional reactions.

It was rather thrilling to hear all of the 'testimonies.' Seldom did a week pass when there were not reports of physical or mental healing, relationships mended, God's having led someone who just knew he had a mission to the very people or places that made this possible. I would say that was what I found most appealing.

I was devout from childhood, and did not deny any doctrine - indeed, I said the Office and attended the Eucharist nearly every day. Yet I was sick to death of the image of a God who offers us only suffering in this life. (Yes, I have theological deficiencies here, but if Augustine can talk about his pears, I can talk about my ephemeris and so forth. I never could deal with evil and suffering, either.) I had a vague view, which at least seemed in accord with what I'd heard in sermons and classes, that God, for example, wanted Bernadette only to be happy in the next world, and wanted the poor little children in Fatima to have horrid sufferings (little Jacinta begging not to die all alone still makes me shudder.) He could do all things - perform any miracle - but was only inclined to do so (as far as temporal pains or needs are concerned - I'd grant he did give us grace to repent, even if, at that age, I was not aware I had to repent of anything) if he was on earth and trying to prove his divinity or in heaven and wanting to confirm who should be raised to the altars.

As far as I know, none of us young charismaniacs denied the Incarnation or thought that creation was the work of a Demiurge. Yet indeed we did tend towards gnosticism. We believed that we were superior to other Christians - that we had a knowledge and insight that had been infused and ways of defeating illness, pain, whatever. It was very comforting to me.

I have read and heard many excellent works about how, in Christ, death was defeated - the fear of death erased. Yet I was not, and still am not, afraid of being dead. If my religious beliefs are true, I shall be closer to God - if they are not, I'll be gone, and the sufferings of this life ended. (I do hope there is no reincarnation...) My fear is of suffering here, which I know God does not alleviate. My generation, even those of us who were working class, did not have the hardships our parents had known, but we were born after such occurrences as Auschwitz and Hiroshima. (I used to have nightmares of being in concentration camps.) For all the wonderful benefits of technology, mankind also had gained an unparalleled capacity for destruction. As well, for all that medical advances meant that life could be improved or lengthened in some cases, it terrified me (then as now) to know that one's agony could be prolonged.

Without going into detail, I shall add that my health was not the best. God had not yet healed me, but I knew he would once I asked in the right way, brushed up on my healing abilities, or showed him enough faith. (I was by no means the worst. I knew a few people, including one priest, who tried to raise the dead... even when they already were embalmed.)

Today, I am grateful to God that a combination of grace-filled situations during my middle age cleared up the remnants of the faulty theology and practise. (I have the same fears I had then - and still wish that I could find a way to have control over pain - but the gnosticism passed.) Laughing at myself for a moment, in a way I miss the romantic flavour.

Earlier this week, I promised you a story, so I shall deliver one now. There is an Italian legend that, when Peter and Paul were arriving in Rome, the god Pan sounded his horn, signalling to the old gods that they were to fade into the background - the new God was now going to reign. (I understand that a similar event caused the wee folk to become small, perhaps around the time that Joseph of Arimathea planted trees in Glastonbury.) The old gods (I remember an exquisite passage in Morris West, where he speaks of young lovers telling each other the old secrets of the dryads and fauns) are still there, though they accepted that their reign, as it were, had ended.

Well, this is not a part of the legend, but how very often we do worship the old gods (unaware, of course)! They were mankind at its worst with gruesome powers. They needed to be placated. They wanted all sorts of sacrifices.

We can see that this is not true of God. Yet it is very hard to believe that one who is omnipotent cannot (or will not) help us in temporal needs. And that, I am sure, is a pain that every believer, especially those who have persevered in prayer, faces eventually.

Middle age can mean finally admitting that there are no answers. Not much, perhaps - but I suppose an improvement over thinking I had them all, by direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, 15 September 2005

The value of 'story'

This is on my mind today, oddly enough, because it is the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Loving popular devotions as I do (however weird - not that I embrace all of them myself), I still do regret that the images from sermons aimed at fostering such devotions often took on a life of their own, and the essential truths could be lost. Yet, equally, I think that the sort of devotions, grotesque though some of them were, which flowered in the Middle Ages have great value - because one could internalise truths which may have not matched the scriptural image but could have important implications in one's own life.

Moving from the sublime to the irritable for a moment, I well remember (this on the 'story' topic I hope to develop) a highly annoying girl with whom I attended college. I have never found a solid definition for what a 'jerk' is, but, were there a contest, I know she would have taken the grand prize. Her 'humour,' which she thought rich, was as stupid as it gets - but she never noticed that no one else laughed, because her priceless lines ("Did you hear Bing Crosby died?" "No, when?" "He froze to death singing White Christmas.") were followed by a cackling laugh on her part. It was a flat "Ha! Ha!" (short A), which gave no impression of mirth but much of derision.

S., for reasons that shall immediately become puzzling, was studying English literature, and had aspirations of becoming a writer. It is no wonder that she did not complete the course, and that the stories and plays she wrote were utter nonsense. In any discussion, in class or out, of any work of literature, woe to the person who uttered a word about theme, plot, characterisation, or any of the other elements to which one normally refers in such a setting. S. immediately would cackle, "It's only a story!," and this was followed by her dreadful, scornful laugh. One professor was quite noted as a teacher of creative writing, but S. could learn nothing in her class. When this professor handed back any of S's work, with the sort of comments most would find highly useful (...normally about theme, plot, characterisation and the like), they were wasted - cue for the cackling laugh and "it's only a story!"

As anyone (with this single exception) who has any interest in literature is well aware, there is no decent fiction that does not contain powerful truth. As well, legends, which are based on true events but have, shall we say, fictional embellishments, can contain more truth than the bare 'facts.'

In relation to the scriptures, may I say that I by no means think of the New Testament as 'fiction.' Yet I have learnt (I whose proficiency with hermeneutics required great practice - I keep slipping away into meditations) that it is quite important to consider what is happening in each account 'as story.' What truth was the author seeking to express? And of what value to his particular local church?

I remember chuckling over an Internet site's proclaiming RC scholar Raymond E. Brown a heretic because he denied the literal truth of the visit of the Magi. Those who condemned this great man apparently could not see that, if indeed the story of the Magi is not literally true, its essence is exquisitely powerful. The Gentiles gave homage to the King of Kings, after all.

Raymond Brown (a favourite of mine - and will those who love private devotions please recall that I value him for his expertise as a scripture scholar) makes an excellent point in his detailed commentary on the Infancy narratives. Too much popular devotion has focused on these events with an emphasis on Mary's psychological dispositions. For example, the Finding in the Temple becomes a study in how Mary felt when this cheeky kid disappeared for three days - and just what did she ponder in her heart afterwards? I am not knocking such speculation - indeed, I am sure that many a mother has found comfort in knowing that Mary herself had a child who could be a handful. Yet the essence, that Israel (Simeon, Anna, Zechariah, Elizabeth) had recognised the Son of God, and that now Jesus, just entering manhood, refers to 'his Father' and therefore acknowledges that status himself, can disappear as one wonders how on earth Mary got this formidable child to be obedient to her.

I am not one for pictures of swords passing through hearts - though a number of sermons, as far back as Anselm or more, were quite colourful in their treatment of those swords. Yet Mary's 'seven sorrows' are valuable, even if such an emphasis does not have to do with exegesis. They can remind us of Jesus' humanity - and of the sort of sufferings, common to the human lot, which both he and his mother would endure because of his vocation to proclaim the kingdom.

I am embarrassed of my own peasant dialect, yet how I should love (were I able to understand, of course) to have heard Jesus' salty Aramaic - or Peter's preaching in the slur of Galilee - or Paul's Greek with the flavour distinct to the Jew. I was trained to a certain refinement (much of which did not take, as I'm sure is obvious... but the Sisters from Cork did try their best), and love the openness of these great story tellers. Jesus' parables have the flavour of the pub and market - he had the gift, genius though he was, for reaching people 'where they were.' He was perfectly capable of engaging in the fiery debates of the synagogue - heavens, even at 12 he was amazing. Yet he was equally comfortable with those of his own class - speaking in vivid, earthy dialect and images.

Why do many fear allowing for literary forms and story in the scriptures? Oh, I'm perfectly capable of writing an historical treatment of this - but I'm using my pub and market voice today. To know that admission of 'story' is no threat to doctrine involves two important elements, I would say. First, the language of doctrine was born in doxology - and, indeed, much of it is perfect in that context and confusing otherwise. (I'm not about to explain the Trinity - yet I invoke them in every one of my prayers.) Second, and some of you will dislike this one, we need to remember that the scriptures were not the 'end' - that Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, speaks through his Church. I am not about to define just how this comes about, but tradition (in the true sense) is essentially exegetical. (I know, I know... when I was younger, I too pictured that Jesus told the apostles, "Happy Easter - I'm the Second Person of the Trinity" - then spent the next fifty days giving them an intensive course in theology, perhaps even in rubrics. I still am sad at times to think that "Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations," was an inspiration of the church rather than Jesus' own words...)

I think I may tell all of you a few stories in the days to come. Blessings for now. Blessed may He be.

Behold the Cross of the Lord

..flee, bands of enemies. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Son of David, has conquered.

I suppose one could ponder the mysteries of the triumph of the Cross till doomsday - at which point one may finally have the answers. I love this feast, and only noticed today that the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows is the next day. Franciscans, of course, always think of Jesus' humanity - and of his being part of a family. :)

Previously, I mentioned being engrossed in Benedict XVI's "Eschatology." In quite an interesting treatment of the Litany, he mentions that 'evil' is not merely wickedness, but all that mankind fears (and this with good reason - certainly, if there ever were popes who doubted all of the misfortune in this world, let alone all the evil, it would not have been the past two.) Pestilence, famine, war - well, you all know the words.

Though I have not seen the film, nor do I intend to do so, I noticed on Yahoo today that yet another exorcism film is making box office records. What is the reason that so many are fascinated by exorcism? I do applaud William Peter Blatty's novel (of 30 years ago), but his book had theological depth. It explored faith, despair, and various other important points. It is quite different in some other treatments. People who may believe in nothing much seem very fascinated by the thought of demonic possession.

Myself? I am deathly afraid of the Evil One - and all the more ashamed to admit this. The last thing about which I care to think is demons. I remember a dear friend of mine, Tom, who was a Franciscan friar. He often read of exorcisms, and would become absorbed in Malachi Martin's book on that topic. Tom scoffed at my fear, reminding me that the power of Christ would protect us. Nonetheless, when an excited woman from the church brought in her nephew, who she thought was possessed (he was not - he had Tourette's Syndrome) and asked Tom to exorcise the demon, Tom moved the vestment rack to bar the door of the sacristy where he was seated a moment earlier.

I do not wish to give the Evil One too much credit. As mankind has proven since Cain and Abel were young, we are perfectly capable of every sort of violence on our own. I read an interesting passage recently regarding the Black Death, and the latter part was quite telling. The author said that the Plague was terrifying for how it could wipe out entire populations so quickly... where, in the twentieth century, mankind had the technology to do that for himself.

Most of our sins are from weakness and self-deception - indeed, needing divine grace to be overcome, but not true evil. Evil always involves deceit, violence, a thirst for power. It not only means a turning from the divine ways, but a hardening of basic human inclinations. It means reaching a point of having no conscience.

I suppose because my own life is centred on liturgical prayer, for some reason I am thinking of the Cross tonight in the context of public worship. Baptism - Eucharist - blessing of the dead - absolution, and so forth all bring in the Sign of the Cross. Interesting how, in our worship, the great High Priest's glory and suffering (the former my preference - I love the gospel of John) are constantly there. 'Take this cup away from me - this is my blood of the new testament.'

This is probably my worst post to date - mea culpa. Christus vincit - Christus regnat. More soon - pray for me. :)

Sunday, 11 September 2005


The readings at the Eucharist today, regarding anger and forgiveness (seventy times seven - surely a feat for the volatile Peter), impressed me deeply. I have no notion of how one truly goes about granting forgiveness, but perhaps one can begin by adapting Thomas Aquinas's definition of love: willing the best for the other.

Just this week, I was reading Papa Benedict's brilliant work, "Eschatology." (I'm sure you'll be hearing more about that from me soon.) For now, I'll mention one lovely sentence - he mentioned how "forgiveness turns guilt into love." I would say, with people that I love, that nothing reminds me of Christ more than forgiveness. But the definition there is sadly limited. Indeed, being granted forgiveness from another is one of life's greatest graces, and I believe strongly that the love we mortals have for one another is sacramental in a powerful sense. Yet the only time we tend to want or to grant forgiveness is if the incident which requires this involves a relationship we genuinely value.

I am of both working class and southern Italian background. I cherish many of the qualities which one gets from both - but sadly have to comment that neither fosters a forgiving attitude. Perhaps because the labouring classes are so often treated with contempt and injustice, the sort of vulnerability that comes with forgiveness is not a high priority. In fact, it often is taken to extremes. Even in cases where a problem may have resulted from a misunderstanding and could be resolved, acquaintances or even good friends can be 'shelved' for any slight. (My dad used to say, regarding those by whom one was wronged - even if they were not fully aware of having done the 'wronging' - 'bag'm!' How one 'bags' people is beyond me - but his years in the grocery business must have led to this term, much as I just found myself saying 'shelved.')

I am immensely proud of my Italian background - as certainly a musician, poet, artist, writer, and fervent Catholic would be. (Don't be put off by my leanings to the English Church - Italian Catholicism is very much like the C of E, as I'll develop in later posts. A land which had that many popes has no illusions about perfection at the top. We're anarchists, anyway.) Overall, I would say that it is a culture with a degree of responsibility (for family in particular - but close friends are also in that category), politeness, generosity, hospitality, and devotion to those in need (witness the societies formed to care for the poor and ill during the Counter Reformation) which is extraordinary. Yet honesty compels me to admit that forgiveness is not a strong point. (Some, here and there, are quite vindictive. For several millennia, the defence for murder was 'he had it coming to him.')

What family has not seen arguments or disagreements tear an extended family apart as everyone takes sides? What parish, or other religious institution, has not had times when the sense of community was torn to pieces in much the same fashion? And half the time no one even remembers how it all started. I am tempted to use the cliché "that is how wars start," but shall refrain because I just noticed the date of this post, and to do so would be quite tacky.

Forgive my playfulness, please. Yet I see a common thread. Forgiveness means vulnerability in cases that are not horrifying. (In those that are, it can mean horrid victimhood.) As I learnt (it takes nuns a while, but they normally catch on after being badly burnt), seeking to practise humility, charity, and acceptance often can make one known for weakness.

I hesitated to write this post, because so many nuts on the Internet spend too much time on the 'self help aisle,' and my ire is stirred when I receive e-mails from those who have 'guessed my secret.' (There are no secrets here - my life has no colourful traumas. But the readers of the self help crap take everything to mean what... it well might not.) On one occasion, I mentioned how my own 'principal defect' is anger (I'll not get into how this came up, but it was quite innocent, when I was reassuring someone who was terrified by her own weaknesses.) The ridiculous e-mail I received in response, where the assumption was that all anger comes from sexual abuse, made me hit the delete button quickly before I answered with excessive sarcasm. (It was the biggest online annoyance since I posted a silly comment about the reserve at Anglican coffee hours, by contrast with my Italian Franciscan days, and some self centred fool wrote me scads about her 'journey with Prozac,' and her conclusion that this drug could relieve me of the idea of 'imagined slights.' Get a life!)

With those who have hated us, or who have been cruel, it is very hard to think of how they never gave a care for the effect their actions would have. We do not value them personally - but we've suffered immensely from how they have used us. It's hard not to wish they'd burn in some version of Dante's Inferno. (And Lord did he target those who wronged him in mentioning who was in Hell...) Yet a betrayal from a trusted friend is perhaps ten times as painful.

We are aching for love - but, of course, cannot admit this today lest the self-help crowd think we are trying to manipulate them or indulge their lectures on how people hate 'the needy.' How much of my own rage is centred on my desire for love, acceptance, encouragement! Before my brain fizzled out in middle age, I spoke four modern languages (plus Latin), yet, for all of my verbal ability, I could never seem to get through to people whose love I dearly wanted, but who would not 'hear' me because they already had preconceived ideas of what I 'really' meant. (The line from Ecclesiasticus about forgiving ignorance was a balm... after the condemnation of rage.)

If we consider the full scope of what Jesus of Nazareth endured, his "Father, forgive them" becomes more powerful with each thought.

I could have written a meditation on forgiveness of which 'my mystics' would have approved. Yet I have shared this bit of disjointed rambling because, for all that we may struggle with anger, we can feel guilty about admitting this.

Thomas Aquinas left many a marvellous legacy to the Church. Cranmer left us with a daily admittance of the need for divine forgiveness - and that was not placed in the Prayer Book for decoration. So, as I recite my daily words of contrition, it often is a comfort to me to know that, according to the Angelic Doctor, just willing the best for the other will be a good beginning. :)

If we remember that there is much 'death' in this world beyond what that normally means, perhaps these words, again from Benedict, can be a useful meditation.

From Benedict's 'Eschatology':
'How can we describe that moment in which we
experience what life truly is? It is a moment of love,
a moment which is simultaneously the moment of truth
when life is discovered for what it is. The desire for
immortality does not arise from the fundamentally
unsatisfying enclosed existence of the isolated self,
but from the experience of love, of communion, of the
Thou. It issues from that call which the Thou makes
upon the I, and which the I returns. The discovery of
life entails going beyond the I, leaving it behind. It
happens only when one ventures along the path of
self-abandonment, letting oneself fall into the hands
of another. But if the mystery of life is in this
sense identical with the mystery of love, it is, then,
bound up.. with the Cross, with its interpretation of
life and death... Death is ever present in the
inauthenticity, closedness, and emptiness of everyday
life..(The failure to be with our true being) allows
the promise of life to evaporate, leaving only
banalities and leading to final emptiness...

(Benedict includes a section about how pain and
illness force us to face that existence is not at our
disposal, then continues.)

The same thing happens in the central region of the
human landscape: our intimate ordination towards being
loved. Love is the soul's true nourishment, yet this
food which of all substances we most need is not
something we can produce for ourselves. One must wait
for it. The only way to make absolutely certain one
will not receive it is to insist on procuring it by
oneself.. This essential can generate anger...
Conversely, we can accept this situation of
dependence, and keep ourselves trustingly open to the
future, in the confidence that the Power which has so
determined us will not deceive us.

And so it turns out that the confrontation with
physical death is actually a confrontation with the
basic constitution of human existence. It places
before us a choice: to accept either the pattern of
love, or the pattern of power. Here we are at the
source of the most decisive of all questions. This
claim of death upon us which we come across time and
again in media vita - are we able to receive it in the
attitude of trust which will usher in that fundamental
posture of love?...

The uncontrollable Power that everywhere sets limits
to life is not a blind law of nature. It is a love
that puts itself at our disposal by dying for us and
with us. The Christian is the one who knows that he
can unite the constantly experienced dispossession of
self with the fundamental attitude of a being created
for love, a being that knows itself to be safe
precisely when it trusts in the unexacted gift of
love. Man's enemy, death, that would waylay him to
steal his life, is conquered at the point where one
meets the thievery of death with the attitude of
trusting love, and so transforms the theft into
increase of life.'

Sunday, 4 September 2005

How VERY unspiritual I can be...

I suppose that every blog needs some posts which are purely personal. I've decided to oblige, lest my readers think that I am in a perpetual haze of seeking Light and floating on the ceiling or something. The fact is: life in the anchorhold just is. Prayer, mostly liturgical - long hours at the books - manual labour (my least favourite part) - and trying to cherish the solitude while, at least sometimes, inwardly wishing the loneliness would ease.

As those following my saga are aware, I moved into a new flat on the 24th. It's adequate for one person, certainly (three rooms, not a studio), and I'm gradually getting used to that, if I sit back in the computer chair, I may tumble into the bed. The location is good - bus and train nearby, stores walking distance. For a Franciscan, this is nearly a palace. It is a late Victorian building, once a home for a family and their servants, now split up into six flats. I have what probably was the servants' quarters (though, when I commented about this to the man who fixed the faucet, he said "it was probably just the cellar.")

But I'll reveal that I do have to whinge a bit. I'm not all that fond of housekeeping, but am meticulous about the cleanliness of kitchen and bathroom. It is taking me some time to adjust to that I must share the latter with the cat, who tends to need the loo just when I'm about to relax in a hot tub. Talk about destroying the one sensual moment of most of my days... The bathroom/toilet is directly next to the kitchen, and neither have windows, so I have this odd feeling that I am spending half my life either dumping the cat's box, sponging the floor, or burning incense (it is lavender or vanilla, but, somehow, in the close quarters, has a scent which makes it seem I'm smoking cannabis.)

Between all the lifting, carrying, and climbing up and down the back stairs, my back aches and my feet are badly blistered. Which makes me want to sink into a hot tub full of aromatherapy oils... which serves as the cue for the cat to need to crap once again.

The 'absent-minded professor' is no myth, as I've proven countless times during my life. I celebrated my first night here by setting off the smoke alarm - I'd put in toast, accidentally hit a button that cancels the toasting with my elbow, then absently just pressed the toast down again.... Later, I knocked over the cat food when I plugged the nice little canister vac I just bought into the outlet I did not realise was quite so near the canister. After a long struggle with dust pan and vac, I went to put the vac away... accidentally grasping, not the handle, but the part that releases the rubbish. So, back to the floor, which was now decorated not only with about a week's worth of cat food but all the dust and such that I'd picked up in the first place.

Lest anyone think I am unaware of the problems in this world, I not only most definitely am, but spend part of my day holding them close in prayer, whether war in the East or water devastation in the far West. I am fully aware that much of the world would be delighted to have what I do, and I am indeed very grateful. Were I doing as I was trained, and 'setting a good example,' I'd say that silly things such as those bothering me do not matter. Yet I think it is important to admit that often they do! The adjustment is hard, and I'm exhausted, depressed, and anxious. So, if anyone has read this far, I ask for your prayers.