Saturday, 29 July 2006

Odd images of Martha and Mary

One dear friend of mine, a brilliant woman but not one all that conversant with theology, could never bear mention of Martha and Mary. She would bristle, annoyed that Jesus 'told Martha to get back to the kitchen!' I have many a New Testament text in my library yet, even allowing for that my Latin and Greek can use improvement, I have yet to see any edition which has Jesus saying any such thing. I would not blame Him if he had (apart from the indiscretion of Martha's usurping the servants' position in the first place were she to do so.) With the way the anxious Martha was needling her sister, I would have told her to go to the market.

Martha or Mary are so seldom understood - sometimes with hilarious, if unfortunate, results.

On Saturdays, I often attend a midday service at a charming Anglican church near the library where I am a permanent fixture. The vicar is a welcoming, pleasant man whom I regard highly, but his preaching, shall we say, shall never be compared with that of John Wesley, nor even with Fulton J. Sheen whose folksy genre is well known. I found myself in tears from suppressed laughter at his sermon today - and am still trying to decide whether he meant it to be funny at all. (Correction - I think he did intend humour, but not for the reasons that made me nearly fall on the floor.)

Content was along these lines:

"Most of us have to work. We all know people with a more passive approach to life, and they usually have people to wait on and take care of them. I never had that - I might like to try it, but I'm not good-looking or rich enough to find someone to support me. I picture myself flipping hamburgers. I cannot understand Mary's sitting listening to Jesus, so I leave it to your own meditation. Let us just hope that, in heaven, Martha gets to rest while Mary does the work."

I come from a Franciscan background, and, if Francis' gift for contemplation is undeniable, nonetheless the Order is one where constant work (whether 'in the vineyard,' because of demands of the house or neighbourhood, or for no reason other than that superiors fear a moment unoccupied might lead the underlings to idle and useless talk) is the norm. I'm an anomaly in being an intellectual Franciscan. Bonaventure, Anthony of Padua, and John Dun Scotus notwithstanding, the intellectual sorts are an embarrassment. It is stressed that Bonaventure was cooking when he received his cardinal's hat, and that Anthony was so unprepossessing that no one even knew he was a priest until there was a situation where one was immediately needed.

I was an avid Martha for many years, I must add (and, like many Franciscans, unfortunately neglected my intellectual development in the process.) Adjusting to the life of 'a Mary' is difficult. A part of me cherishes the life - the other teases that it has no value and is mere indulgence. I alternate between gratitude, even awe, that I could be privileged to have intimicy with Christ and serve his Church in a hidden but special manner - and the knowledge that 99% of people, including the clergy, well might hope that Mary is flipping burgers in heaven while Martha gets a rest. (Calvinist influence, undoubtedly... I have papers on that topic, which I shall be happy to photocopy for anyone interested.)

The life of the contemplative is not, and never was, understood. The mystics of whom I have written on my site had to live with the doubt, questioning, uncomfortableness, to which I have made reference on this entry. They were valued, in an era when purgatory seemed to loom, as intercessors, but I doubt too many people saw them as anything except puzzling, totally dependent oddities. (Essays on those from the 4th century who really were parasites seeking exemption from taxes or the military also are available on request...) The 14th century "Rule for Anchoresses" gives the impression, considering how much its author cautions against this, that the solitaries were thought of, if at all, as ready ears for village gossip.

Martha would see Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, and would confess that He was the Christ - she cannot be seen as having a lack of inspiration or openness to same, and one cannot be much more intimate with Jesus than having him as a dinner companion. Martha well may have provided at least a part of the support for the Son of Man who had no place to rest his head. Yet she herself could not see the 'best part' which Mary had chosen.

So, through the centuries, the Marys of this world shall inspire a frown. If recognition of this ever troubles me, I shall laugh at the memory of this new image: Mary flipping the hamburgers, Martha finally not troubled and anxious.

Friday, 28 July 2006

Common sense, anyone?

I am not suggesting that I possess this in any great degree. My dad, who was no model of academic intelligence but had his share of street smarts, used to say of many of the educated "They got the book learning, but not the ways of the world!" (Of course, it probably is obvious who it was that he usually meant.) Concedo!

I'm thinking of the few cherished friends I have, whom I see as possessing good sense, with whom I share ideas to achieve some balance. (I'm hopeless - not only a sheer romantic, and so caught up in intellectual ideals and ascetic theology that I always have this vague, underlying sense that everyone is looking to get to Teresa's seventh mansion. I'd have Jack the Ripper in for tea and believe him when he convinced me that he had great trust in divine mercy, never seeing he had no conscience at all.) They invariably are very honest (with themselves, not only with others) and can see things clearly.

I also have a few, equally cherished friends, talented and intelligent as they may be, who would pour ice cold water into a hot glass beaker and be astonished that it shattered, or who would wonder if the cat did not have respect for the fine home with which she was provided were she to drag in a mouse. Some have the most marvellous ideas... but whether these are 'workable' would elude them.

Some years back, I recall reading of a multiple choice test of general knowledge (questions such as 'what was Shakespeare's name?') which was administered to people of various backgrounds. The more formal education they had, the worse the scores. I understand well - perpetual students, myself among them, are so used to 'revisionist histories' and to hearing that what they learnt twenty years ago is no longer considered valid, that we are always looking for the 'trick question.'

I certainly believe there is such a thing as common sense, though in the current climate we'll need to use some version of Occam's razor to find it.

Nothing is allowed to just be any more. We cannot see the obvious, because we over-analyse, filtering everything through all sorts of versions of psychology, looking for the hidden motive (for example, someone who merely likes privacy will be assumed to either be a criminal or be either repressing memories of or sheltering one), losing a moral sense because we are so busy looking for the hidden reasons why we act that we cannot admit to the actions (and our genuine motives) themselves.

It seems to me that, at some time within the past 30 years, people have become extremely self absorbed - and the odd result was that meddling in others' lives, always being ready with 'advice,' complaining of others at the slightest provocation, and so forth has increased. Perhaps we are so unaware of having any human value that we're forever seeking worth. And common sense has got lost in the shuffle.

I'm thinking of a very silly example I saw on an Internet forum. The mother of a teenaged girl was telling of how her daughter had declined an invitation from a boy who seemed interested in her. Said mother, plus many of the others on the forum, had all sorts of reflections about, for example, how the girl may have fantasies of another man and prefer fantasy to the reality of relationships, etc., etc., etc.. It did not seem to occur to any of them that perhaps the girl did not like the boy who extended the invitation or that she well may not care to be spending time with "John" when she's hoping for some interest from "Paul."

On another forum, a regular contributor (the sort who is always going on and on about herself - usually in reference to how much weight she's lost this year), was full of woe about her own adolescent daughter. She fears said daughter has 'body image issues,' instilled by her exposure to Barbie dolls. I daresay to imagine her daughter has such problems is quite believable - but I am inclined to doubt that any doll was the source. (For the record, to my knowledge it is only neurotic mothers, not kids, who are torturing themselves with concerns about comparison with foot high, plastic women.)

Thirty years ago, a total bore (and the self absorbed are in that category as a rule) might realise she was just a bore. Today, she's more likely to think that those around her cannot deal with changes in herself (about which, I'm sure, they all think all night, and which are of paramount importance to them), and will be exploring whether she needs to enlighten all and sundry or go to therapy.

Some of the basic principles of common sense would include recognition that everyone is different - that we never know either the pain or joy which another may have in whatever circumstances - that we must not assume another's motives - that actions have consequences (this to be used in evaluating our own situation) - that the decision one made in 1969, which did not have the effects one expected, was not motivated by subconscious hatred for oneself just because what was promising then was no longer so in 1984 - that not everyone is seeking one's advice (and practically no one is) - that, if a church organises a social club for young, unmarried adults, those in attendance are not there because they feel the Church gives insufficient attention to 'single life as vocation' (in fact, that is the last option they wish to fulfil) - that recognising one's own limitations is part of maturity, not 'putting oneself down' - that we're all going to do things we regret or which are stupid (especially in youth), but that there are many cases where one can only learn by experience - that the crook who passes bad cheques each week is not going to reform just because you trusted him with your money.

I recall a news report I once heard regarding a parade. One float contained a huge balloon which was diverted, crushing into the crowd, with the danger that someone might be smothered. A policeman, who had a knife, cut into the balloon to prevent this, and lots of 'protestors' saw this as 'violence'. My niece, Alison, who was all of 4 years old at the time, heard the report, and turned to me, puzzled, saying, "But that was not a person - that was a balloon!" I breathed a sigh of relief that she already was showing signs of the common sense which I imagine she inherited from Sam.

Sunday, 23 July 2006

Clarence told me...

Some years ago, I knew a lovely Franciscan Sister - the sort of genuinely sweet lady whose desire to be helpful to others is totally embedded in her nature. The congregation to which Anne belonged had Sisters in a wide variety of ministries, and a few of them (far more worldly wise, of course!) were chaplains in a prison. The chaplaincy there had a weekly, evening Eucharist, and on occasion Anne had attended.

It happened that, one week, the Sister who was part of the chaplaincy was unable to be present for the Eucharist, and Anne decided to attend on her own. One of the prisoners, Clarence, had told Anne that it was quite a shame that only those who attended the Eucharist were able to see her witness, and that she could do much good if she accompanied him to where she would find the other inmates. Fortunately, one of the guards intercepted Anne's effort! When he asked her why she had not thought of the dangers which could have awaited her, she replied, simply, "Clarence told me to come."

It is a warm memory, but I have noticed that, even with religious people who have had a great deal of exposure to the elements, or who may have had dark clouds in their own past, some have the innocence of a child in one area or another. I am in that category, but I am far from alone. There are cases where, no matter how much one may love and care for prisoners (for example), and regardless of what classes one has attended or books one has studied, recognition of a 'two edged sword' of one's blind spot (which usually is the other side of a virtue which has become second nature) is crucial. Anne's own desire to be a witness to the gospel was so much a part of her that it would not have entered her mind that Clarence and friends may have had a different motive.

Unfortunately, some of the very practises which religious were taught, as acts of humility, charity and the like, do not transplant well beyond the (real or figurative) monastery. In the community which I entered, there was a custom wherein, if two Sisters had an argument, and even if Sister A was responsible and had been rattling Sister B's chains for months, A had to apologise to B, then B had to respond with "I'm sorry I provoked you." There is some sense in this - it often, if not always, takes two to make an argument - and the response was intended to be humble and charitable. Were one to do the same in a far different setting, the hearer would undoubtedly see it as final evidence of one's own weakness.

There have been times when I have dealt with the criminal element (fortunately very few - I am so convinced that everyone's goal is union with God in some way, and that basically everyone is enthralled by ascetic theology, that I may eventually have invited a latter day Jack the Ripper in for tea. Both I and a Sister of my acquaintance, hoping for his repentance, wrote to Ted Bundy assuring him of our prayers for his salvation... you will never hear me defend the death penalty, but I do think it most forunate that he was not going to be let out...) Far more often, I have been shocked by more subtle wickedness, which does not involve physical violence but seeks to destroy others, or to perjure oneself for perceived gain.

I mention this because recognition of our own limitations - and of our own strengths, without losing awareness that the other side of them often makes us vulnerable - is vital. I possess my share of vices (and, unlike Anne, I doubt anyone would describe me as sweet), but, ever since childhood, I always have been totally honest. It just is not in me to lie - and, since I always assume others are being truthful, this has led to much hurt, manipulation, betrayal, and sometimes actual danger.

In my early adult years, my zeal greatly exceeded my prudence, and I had times of being highly judgemental. Though I fortunately, after years, was able to get past this, the root sprouted a problematic seed. I fell into a pattern of so avoiding judging, and of (sometimes very stupidly) assuming good intentions and motives on the part of others, that what little judgement in the best sense (not that I had much in the first place) fell by the wayside.

I'd best not attend the Eucharist in any prisons any time soon.

Saturday, 22 July 2006

Feast of Mary Magdalene

I do love this great saint - who was the first witness of the resurrection. It is unfortunate that she, Mary of Bethany, and the sinful woman who anointed Jesus ended up a composite in the Christian hagiography. All three of them (along with Martha) have much to tell us about Jesus' amazing attitude towards women, yet it is somehow lost in the same loss of distinction.

I must admit that, particularly during lengthy train rides, I sometimes indulge in Philippa Gregory novels. Her recent one about Mary Magdalene, though it does omit the usual misconception about Mary's having been a prostitute, frightened me terribly. Philippa was weaving a tale based on Jesus' having 'cast seven devils' out of Mary (I suppose the temptation to wonder what they were is overwhelming), and she describes things demonic with a vivid touch which left my skin crawling. (Admittedly, I shudder at the gospel's noli me tangere as well.)

Mary Magdalene was the first witness of the resurrection - not one of the Twelve, but, in the sense in which it would be used within a generation, as such a witness she was the first apostle. (Apostles other than the 12, such as Paul, were distinguished by being witnesses of the Risen Christ.) Martha confessed that Jesus was the Son of the Living God, the Christ (perhaps not so dramatically as did Peter, but I assume a bit less impulsively.) Mary of Bethany shows us the disciple - truly listening. The sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet (unfortunately in rather an exagerrated situation - not stopping to think of how this was just not done at formal dinners) shows us transforming grace from hearing the word and seeking reconciliation.

I am not at any peak of energy at the moment. The heat is beastly, yet its being stormy means the cat wants to snuggle, and, for all my love of summer, I am not at my best when I'm sweating to this degree. I'm not able to be insightful or original for the moment. So, I shall merely raise a Pimms and toast Mary, the first of the apostles in the infant Christian Church.

With apologies to Paris Leary, I shall add one more: "To all our desires. May they all be hot and holy."

Tuesday, 18 July 2006

Anniversary in the new flat

Yes, it is a year since I found my 'new' home - and this is an expression of my gratitude, and also a bit of 'rerun' fun for those who themselves are flat hunting. This being more or less holiday time, I'm providing an excerpt from my original notes when I moved.

Here's the excerpt... and it all still holds. :)

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 (I suppose) 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 as if 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!

Thursday, 13 July 2006

By their fruits you shall know them

In recent weeks, when I have read of the tumult within the Anglican Communion (much of which had to do with homosexual unions or women being ordained as bishops), there is one element which has troubled me deeply. (In some cases, and more from what I have heard from individuals, not formal statements.) I am the last one who would dissuade anyone from expressing a point of view, or indeed from avidly pursuing what they believe to be right. What worries me is that dialogue can be cut short or, more importantly, charity and justice sacrificed when one assumes one knows another's motives, and equally that they are hateful or sinful.

I speak from experience, I am sorry to say. I was a young religious (and aspiring young religious - I am on the cusp of the era when entering a convent meant having carrots dangled for years) during the 1970s. It was a time of great confusion in the religious life. There were people with whom I strongly disagreed, and whose actions I believed were harmful - and my opinions on either count have not changed. My fault - and one which sometimes led me into rage, bitterness, and injustice - was in failing to see their point of view (even while disagreeing.) I saw the religious life being destroyed, and to a large extent I believe I was correct. Yet I assumed bad motives on the part of those with whom I disagreed, and my own love for God and neighbour was seriously compromised in the process.

Obviously, there are times when someone has acted in a fashion so hateful that the underlying wickedness is clear - I have no justification for Auschwitz. When this is not the case, have we reached a point where we cannot love and respect one another? I am growing weary of hearing anyone describing another's 'subconscious motivation.' (How could we even know our own?) There can be valid reasons - of theology, ecclesiology, sociology, whatever - why someone might oppose something another believes to be critical. Dialogue and understanding are scrapped when it is assumed, for example, that anyone who sees possible danger in the institution of marriage being redefined is a closet homophobic, or that those who see reasons that women should not be in the episcopacy are 'rationalising' clear misogyny.

'Switching gears': I read an interesting post today on a theology forum. A young woman, who is a candidate for holy orders in the Anglican Church, had asked if God had always called women to be ordained, and if it was the Church that had prevented them from following the call. I have an odd concept of vocation - I believe it exists, but I can no more define the mechanism than I could explain the Trinity. Yet I could not help but bite my tongue not to comment that priesthood has always involved acceptance of one's role by the Church. I can think of a number of female saints who may have made marvellous bishops (...and of Catherine, who would have preferred to be in solitude, who managed to get the pope back from Avignon, a task that, had she been in the right time and place, I'm sure Teresa of Avila would have relished.) It was not possible for them to be ordained - yet to think they were thwarted is missing the larger call to holiness. It seems to imply they were serving God and the Church less, or that their holiness was compromised.

I have known many RC nuns who feel that they are facing discrimination or injustice because they cannot be ordained. Some of those whom I have known who were the most vocal hardly were displaying charity or justice in the process. In a few cases, I knew those who would not attend the Eucharist because only men are priests. It is fine with me for these Sisters to pursue dialogue on this topic. Yet should one miss the good one can do today by being steeped in bitterness?

I'm not about to make public confession on the Internet - but suffice it to say that I know well what it is to have great frustration in one's goals (and this stemming from a genuine religious commitment), and to have bitterness be a cancer of the soul.

My spiritual director needs to remind me, every time I see him... and one would think I might have caught on by now, considering the decades I've devoted to studying ascetic theology. It is fine to aspire to anything - but the only 'place' where we can serve God at the moment is where we are.

Margery Kempe, the mother of 14 and wife of a living husband, could not be topped, perhaps in history, for pilgrimages and devotions. Still, as the essay on my site illustrates, she had far more devotion than actual virtue. She was so preoccupied with wishing to live as, and be known as, a consecrated virgin (...retroactive, I suppose) that she drove everyone, particularly her confessors and husband, mad. (Someone who tells her confessor that, if he does not give her permission to wear the garb of the virgin, she will reveal his sins to him is somewhat lacking in understanding... it might have been helpful if the rocks in her head could have been used to plug the holes in his.) When her own husband was dying, Margery was focussed on what graces she was gaining from the sacrifice of helping him, and seems to have had no compassion for his own pain. True love could not flower - for God, spouse, or neighbour - in a climate where her desire for a consecrated virgin's life amounted to obsession, even avarice.

I myself am a militant sort - the passion within me is such that, if I feel anything at all, I feel it with fire. I've walked at right angles to the world since I could toddle, and I doubt anyone (who at least asked) would ever wonder what my opinion was about anything. Those who seem 'disobedient' or to provoke dissent may be seen, with hindsight, to have been blessed innovators, perhaps channels of the Holy Spirit. Those who seem to be bowing to a conservative line may see essential, timeless truths which might be in danger of compromise.

Yet no one knows that for certain at the time. A hundred years from now, much happening today may seem momentous, all the more will be long forgotten. By their fruits you shall know them... love and justice. Let us not forget that the crusades, the Inquisition, and deterioration in religious life or doctrinal integrity which I witnessed within my own short life span seemed to be a good idea at the time.

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

Quick link

Blogger is having an outage today - which begins in a few minutes, so I'm just going to post a link. Do not miss the new Affirming Laudianism site, or its companion Frankly Unfriendly Catholics.

If there is one thing of which the Church needs more, it is laughter at our own expense.

Francis of Assisi, when one of his friars was terribly distressed at demonic temptations, told him to just tell the devil, "Open your mouth and I'll shit in it!" Pious, English Luke Wadding, in his translation of Francis' biography, turned this into "one has only to say dung to him." What a shame.

Sunday, 9 July 2006

The third heaven

I heard quite a good sermon this morning, which contained references to how many people have a sense of having had unusual, deeply spiritual experiences. The priest mentioned how Paul speaks of having been in 'the third heaven' (look out, Elizabeth... between this and Ezekiel, you may jump into Jewish mysticism before you've mastered the Christian... and recall you've studied the latter for over 30 years.) He spoke of how he has often wondered just what Paul heard - what God might tell one in such a state - what we would hope God would tell us.

Please don't read this paragraph if there is diabetes in the family, or it may throw you into insulin shock. I sadly am not totally immune to the excessively anthropomorphic. I therefore shall confess that what I should like God to say is "I love you. I love who you are - and not because it is my nature to love, or because I am Love, or because John Duns Scotus defines love as sanctifying grace, or because I love all of creation and created the damned bunch of you in the first place because the Trinity was relational..." Such are the wages of being overly intellectual. Were I someone with true simplicity - Francis of Assisi, for example, or Thérèse, even if the latter's expression tended towards the syrupy - I would say that God is 'saying' that eternally. I can be most unsatisfactory a good deal of the time.

Now, back to the third heaven or thereabouts. I have not been there - in fact, I have at no time in my life had any extraordinary experiences such as visions, locutions, and the like. (That, in my case, is a blessing. Those who did have them, such as Teresa of Avila, seemed to find them more a distraction than anything, and I would imagine one is just spent afterward. My practical side also tells me that, were I to soar to such a state - in this life - I either would not be able to return or would be upset when I did.) Paul clearly was a 'tough guy' - argumentative, always in trouble with someone or other, and so forth. I dare say that, with so hard a nut to crack, the Almighty had to knock him off horses to get his attention.

Now and then, I receive rather interesting e-mail. [By which I do not mean the fifteen messages in today's inbox informing me I was a millionaire - or those informing my cat that she is eligible for a US green card (why would one who already is a queen want that?) or that her bed and breakfast site was receiving insufficient exposure.] It is not unusual for those who read my essays about mystics to write me that they'd never thought of mysticism as being Christian. (Well, one question is answered for me... no wonder I spent some years teaching... computing.) Others seem to have an idea that the mystics - who must have been floating about the ceiling most of the time, or otherwise transported in ecstasy - had no use for Church, word, or sacrament.

Dear ones, the writings directed towards or composed by Christian mystics (especially of the era I treat) did not have to mention the importance of Church, word and sacrament. It would have been such a part of their lives that to mention the same would be like instructing someone to make sure she breathes.

But back to my inbox. Recently, I received a note from a young woman who told me that both she and a friend were mystics. (I perked up for a moment... if they really were, perhaps they could teach me a great deal... I can write and speak of mysticism, but living it is rather eluding me.) She'd asked me what to do to cultivate the mysticism. My reply was that I am purely a teacher - that is, about topics, not an Amma qualified to direct others in the spiritual life - and she would need solid direction. In the interim, I suggested that, considering liturgical prayer was the centre of life for all of my mystic friends (in heaven), they might want to accustom themselves to saying the daily Offices. I have a feeling that was not the expected response...

Of course, getting back to 'religious experiences,' I have had many times in my life when I believe divine grace was especially at work - and these times often were when I had the Good Shepherd come after me without even being aware that I was lost. There are times in my life which, with hindsight, nearly bring me to tears of gratitude with the memory. Yet all He ever 'tells' me is to repent. In fact, when I am praying in the Presence of the Sacrament, my interior eye sees the tabernacle or pyx open, and I inwardly hear the distinct words "Elizabeth, what have you done?" (He speaks to me in Italian dialect at those times, and it admittedly loses something in the translation.)

No, my life has not been that of any highwayman or otherwise picturesque sinner. :) The fact is that our spiritual lives are about 95% repentance (in the sense of constant calls to conversion), and the other 5% is (fledgling mystics may ignore this part for now) banal. It is not romantic (I blush to admit, since I wish it were) - there is no glamour - it rarely if ever is emotionally comforting (which is why I have to push myself to get out the Prayer Book, every time... I'd rather it be so.) And there always is doubt in a sense: are you really there? Did you really call me to be your own? Has anything I've done, trying to live the gospel, really been a manifestation of Love? Am I a sham? What if I'm talking to No-one?

There are many days when I am not even sure there is a God - but perfectly sure I just received His Body and Blood.

Would it be easier had I been transported to the third heaven? (It just occurred to me that another reason that would work with Paul, tough guy that he was, was that I doubt he'd have believed in a leprechaun had it perched on the end of his nose. If I had visions, I'd be behaving like a half-wit.) I doubt this. It would only give most of us doubt and confusion - or lead us to Gnosticism and self-absorption, as it did with the very Corinthians whom Paul was addressing. Paul, who'd really been there, 'returned' knowing he could boast only in weakness. For most of us, unusual experiences would give us a sense of power - and probably a desire to harness this. We'd be led more into error than faith.

The Book of Common Prayer, however 'banal,' is probably a safer alternative. :) But I do hope to meet all of you in the third heaven... after my ashes have been scattered in St James's Park, of course. Pax et Bonum, mysticlets - and much love.

Saturday, 8 July 2006

Bo Peeps in the catholic and apostolic church

How well I remember an hilarious conversation I had with a dear priest friend, Fr Thomas, during the early 1990s. Tom was quite a brilliant moral theologian and dedicated friar, and I must add that he had an aversion for things English which perhaps can be polished to perfection only by one who, like himself, was native to southern Ireland. Arch-conservative in many ways, and always feeling rather afflicted by his flock as well as the Establishment, he tended to have a tendency to think of himself as Thomas Becket - indeed, more than once, when he felt he was being opposed, he'd stare out at the congregation from the pulpit and sternly say, "Will no one rid me... of this meddling priest." (He was a tiny man, barely five feet tall, and stood on a step stool in the pulpit. When he uttered that line, in a Richard Burtonesque style, one had the impression of Goliath.)

On the morning I well recall, Tom was in quite an uproar. Being one to begin conversations without stating the topic he assumed the hearer had seen in a crystal ball, Tom told me, "There are limits! The pope can dispense himself from anything, but this is ridiculous!" Floundering through puzzlement, I asked, "Are you referring to the Pope's meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury?"

Little Becket bristled at his title's being usurped. "There is no Archbishop of Canterbury! There is only a Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster! That character in Canterbury is not a bishop! He is not a priest!" (Crescendo) "I suppose you think that Anthony Quinn was the pope!"

I'll spare the rest of this text for the moment, but must add that Becket continued with a comment on the then-ongoing discussions of women's ordination in the C of E. "There is but one holy, catholic, and apostolic church! And there are no Bo Peeps in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church!"

(When Tom was going through his last illness, I quietly took over most of the parish administration to ease the burden on him. I suppose that, in many ways, it was clear I already had a strong 'Bo Peep streak.' And, right now, he's undoubtedly looking down from the heavens, his rumpled wings poking out from an oversized and patched robe, calling down, "And the back of both o' me hands to ye...")

As Tom well knew, I have never seen a theological reason that women could not be priests (which is not to say that I thought individual bishops should consecrate them independently of authority of the larger Church, nor that women should miss the good they could do 'today' because they devoted all their energies to moaning over not yet having that privilege.) I loved John Paul, but his explanation that Jesus had not bestowed priesthood on his own mother (...I don't know... her already being a tabernacle would make that seem to be overkill), and that women were not present for the Last Supper (which John Paul knew full well was not an ordination ceremony per se), always seemed an evasion. The bit of a logician which resides within me made it all too clear that taking the latter example to its logical conclusion would mean that women could not attend the Eucharist (and John Paul had a hundred times the abilities in logic which I possess, and knew full well that the Last Supper was not, per se, the Eucharist either.)

Lest I shock anyone, my ideas about sacramental theology could not be more orthodox. I firmly believe both in the ministerial, ordained priesthood and in the Eucharist - but not that these were known before Jesus' resurrection and ascension, Pentecost, and a bit more of an interval to get the infant Church past the learning curve. Jesus did not leave his Church alone - it would take continuing, divine revelation, in light of the resurrection, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, for the fulness of the Eucharist and priesthood to be recognised.

The title of this post contains a link to the news about the vote for women bishops in the Church of England. I have neither the political savvy nor the realism to analyse the many implications that this action, particularly in view of the proposal for a two-tier communion, may have. Yet I am wondering if, two hundred years from now perhaps, this action (which, in my overly romantic mind, currently resounds as "it's about time, after 2,000 years") will be seen as prophetic, with the English Church being a vehicle of the Holy Spirit (and introducing an innovation which Rome later will follow), or whether ecumenism will be so badly hampered that Rome and the Orthodox will move yet further away.

I am not denying ecclesiology. I believe that Peter indeed had primacy (and this, in fact, predates his going to Rome.) Yet I see the beginnings of our Church as times of glorious diversity - Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, Jerusalem.... I'm getting a happy shiver to think of how quickly the gospel spread during a relatively short period. Conflict has always been a part of this (and I've treated this in previous posts.) Yet, for example, would Jesus have been so fully the 'light to lighten the Gentiles' (in our perception - divine power cannot be qualified) had non-Jews not had an equal status with Israel? And it took the far from diplomatic Paul to challenge the church at Jerusalem (and the very fallible Peter) for this to begin.

I have no crystal ball - my chances at being prophetic or discerning are slightly below those of my becoming a prima ballerina - and, were I to see visions or hear locutions, I would call for an ambulance. What I express here is only a hope - that the English Church is manifesting the Holy Spirit, and that this will have implications for the larger church catholic

(The side of me that is more mischievous than sublime is looking forward to the debates that shall follow... that part should be great fun.)

Jeremiah was a bullfrog

Note before I begin: Because of maintenance on, there may be some difficulties with reading my sidebar, and with indices to the archives. Please be patient... a quality I'm hoping I may develop some time before the Judgement Day.

As my readers know, I have no fondness for frogdom, and indeed think that John the Divine had a point when he spoke of evil spirits coming forth as same. No, that just happened to be the beginning of song "Joy to the World," which just came up on my CD player. The time has come, once again, when I must dose myself with a plentiful amount of rock music from the 1960s-70s.

With that being the 'what's your sign?' era, I'll note that I was born with both sun and ascendant in Capricorn (moon in Pisces, in case anyone is taking notes - that's where I get the romantic side), and as a double Cappy I am entitled to be born old and live backwards, somewhat after the fashion of Merlin and with that troublesome moon making me even more inclined, at heart, to the magical. :) I also shall share the recollection that, old though I was in my teens, I once took a modern dance class, and ended up performing to "Joy to the World" (yes, the one that begins with Jeremiah) - in hot pants, no less. Then as now, I was the most awkward of creatures - and even then I was no sylph - but I was enough of a free spirit at heart not to care if I danced like rather an unbalanced trained seal.

When I was in my young adult years, priests and Religious of the generation before mine (who'd had an equally awkward time, coming to maturity in the age of twin sets and formality, and then trying desperately to be cool and relevant in a period when people were psyched out on... more than incense and innocence) occasionally tried to draw in the young. It worked, to some extent, because some universities and parishes which had basements where it was possible to sit on the floor for Mass and receive communion to "My Sweet Lord - Alleluia, Hare Krishna" catered to the youth culture of the time. One favourite 'meditation' technique was to seek Christ through Modern Music. Some over-enthusiastic sorts, who'd begin sermons with "How ya doin'?", would speak about or write of how lyrics to popular songs set forth the Christian message. (The congregation would be in awe, loving, everyone joining hands... but sometimes would look as if they were on drugs, which half of them undoubtedly were.) I once remember a highly innocent novice mistress, who somehow heard an obscure John Denver selection, and thought that 'talk of poems, prayers, and promises, and things that we believe in' would make a lovely selection for reception day. I can still remember my embarrassment at having to explain to her what it meant to 'pass the pipe around.'

Naive I am, but I have a certain native sense, and I thought then (and think now) that half of those inspirational lyrics were about sex and drugs. However, now that I am well into middle age, and years of an unconventional but intense life of prayer have had their effect, I shall concede that, even when I am listening to rock music (as I am right now), a lyric here or there will remind me of some aspect of the Christian life, so bear with me if I accidentally type any of them...

Saving up your money for a rainy day, giving all your clothes to charity,
Last night the wife said, oh boy when you're dead,
You don't take nothing with you but your soul, Think!

How very innocent I was then (I still am - I've just lived longer.) I admired those who could step out of the mainstream - not care for convention - risk security to seek peace and love - and so forth. (I still would admire this, since, much as I walk my own path, the fear of not having basic security has hampered me.) Promiscuity held no appeal for me, and my earnest mindset was such that I could have plenty of both highs and bad trips without any help from drugs, so I had no inclination there as well. But I was radical in many ways, and indeed still am. (It never occurred to this working class kid that many of those who were 'dropping out' of society did not have the slightest need to fear whether they'd have a roof over their heads tomorrow...)

And I work in his factory, and I curse the life I'm living,
and I curse my poverty, and I wish that I could be Richard Cory.

Sorry, the oddest passages from CDs are coming forth at inopportune times. I still am very much into 'peace and love,' and rather sad that many of my own generation have become very conservative, and quite devoid of a social conscience. (That Richard Cory puts a bullet in his head underlines that wealth does not mean joy... but anyone who has had the dreadful jobs I had, even after I had a doctoral degree, has cursed the life and the poverty. Francis of Assisi, pray for us...)

The other man's grass is always greener,
The sun shines brighter on the other side.

Yes, Petula, point taken.

You're my first love, you're my last; you're my future, you're my past... all I'll ever need is you. No, Elizabeth, stop right now - no sentimentality to that degree! Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

My religious path has been far from conventional. It started out rather like a love affair - and I was never a sort for groups, but a more private, retiring sort, who prayed in silence. (That this was not an era when discernment was valued, and that my loving but misguided heart led me to a temporary Gnosticism I have treated elsewhere.) It was later that I would still believe avidly, yet see God as unknowable even if Incarnate... and discover that those of us who are not well-suited to an Establishment, however defined, have to deal with loneliness and isolation, and the pain of being misunderstood when we would ache for love and respect.

No, I am not on a whinge fest! I suppose I am laying bare a bit of what it is like to be a burnt idealist - one whose ideals are no less strong, but who has reached the blushing point of admitting that much of the spiritual life is just 'going through the motions.' I'm not suggesting for a moment that this does not mean genuine belief or devotion. But there are no ecstatic moments, no piercing insights, no elation - just going on with the liturgy - and leaning on wisdom that goes back to the fourth century hermits (and what a crowd of hippies they were!) and psalms that are far older.

Turn back, O man, foreswear thy foolish ways... See you later, I'm going to the front of the the-A-tre...

Pray for me, my readers. :) Peace and love.

Friday, 7 July 2006

Naughty, naughty children

The oddest thoughts come to me when I am doing exegesis - this week, of Genesis 1-11. I do not read Hebrew, and am relying on some of the most detailed translations. I am seeing how Adam and Eve, after the 'fall,' did not merely come to a moral knowledge (nor to sexual knowledge in itself), but to a certain maturity, perhaps the beginning of wisdom. No wonder Irenaeus treated of the fall as immaturity - but, as we all know of Augustine, who was far more influential, he could never deal with immaturity in himself or anyone else. This applied whether he was speaking of kids throwing pears to the pigs or young philosophers who just could not possibly have wisdom until later.

As usual, the profound and silly went hand in hand in my mind. I thought of the various 'folk heroes' (in this sense, the kids who were always in trouble) during my childhood. Some of them were, and would remain, genuine problems - in fact, some met an early death which resulted from their own pursuits. But most were not anything approaching wicked - and, if they could be malicious, I doubt they realised the ugliness of this.

One trait that always surprised me in the rabble-rousers was that they often had this need to 'take their punishment,' or at least resignation to cause and effect. This is not to be confused with contrition of any sort. Let it not be thought that they had any intention of mending their ways. I suppose (not knowing, since I was a quiet child who had no interest in tumult) that they had some vague sense of guilt which needed to be punished, so they could proceed to further deviltry unhampered by sentiment.

Then and now, I thought it was unjust, but also rather stupid, that teachers tended to punish an entire class for the actions of a few. Now and then, I heard the justification for this as that 'the others will get after the ones who started the trouble.' This flies in the face of human nature. First off, those most inclined to make trouble not only would feel no guilt about how others were punished because of them, but were most definitely in the 'not to be trifled with' category. Second, if the only reason one has for behaving is the threat of punishment, is it not likely that those who did not have folk hero status, but were in the secondary unit, may have joined in the trouble because they knew they'd be punished in any case?

But not only teachers, parents, et al, had the attitude of 'punish to let out my anger / show I am in authority / take revenge.' I'm not going to trace the history here (because, as usual, it is a theological point distorted), but there was a very strong feeling that God was of that stripe. After all, he was so insulted by disobedience that he could not be appeased and unlock the heavenly gates until reparation was made by an equal (his own Son.) In an equally distorted notion of the imitation of Christ, I suppose, we learnt as well that being one of God's friends got one into further trouble. I've never quite known why, but it seemed that, the friendlier one became with God, the more suffering he sent.

This comes from a part of human nature I have not yet begun to grasp. (We always tend to create God in our own image, or that of authority figures. We cannot grasp his true nature - he's too simple for us.) Many people, and by no means only those who are religious, love to be punished. Nor will thousands of years of recorded history keep them from being convinced that evil, weakness, whatever, all could be wiped out were there sufficient punitive measures in place.

Skip ahead forty years from the time of the initial story ... and here I sit, having travelled a bit on the Internet once again. I'll not explain how I ended up at such sites, but I noticed the very strong trend for those in discussion groups to love the bully among them - the more insulting, the better. They seem convinced that, whatever their 'goals' are, they must fear abuse from an authority in order to meet them.

There is one site (to which I shall not link, lest anyone think I agree with the views presented - though it contains a library of texts I sometimes find helpful) which has a 'Question and Answer' section on matters of Catholic faith. (Most of the questions have to do with guilt - and that guilt is mostly about sex in marriage. No, I don't know why one would feel guilt about that, either - but I did have a sense of the folk hero here, bragging about the naughtiness and somehow wanting punishment.) One question had to do with whether a baptised infant who died would have the same place in heaven as his parents, who'd like to meet him.

My answer, of course, would have been that we have no knowledge of the true nature of the afterlife, and let's not be so literal. (And please spare me snippets from 'life after life' books, since, to my knowledge, all have been authored by people who are alive.) But this dreadful site stressed that, though no one would have pain of loss in heaven, the child could not be expected to have as high a place as his parents because they had a longer life of 'suffering and penance.' So, the idea of the God who relishes punishing still endures...

Why do we cling to this? Perhaps it is immaturity - or having learnt, early if not correctly, that punishing is a great act of love from a caring parent. There is no answer. Yet letting go of such images is the only way to mature in faith.

Then again, maybe I intellectualise too much. There may be those who fear what messes they'd be in were they to lose an image of a punishing hand keeping them from them.