Wednesday, 30 August 2006

Much truth can be captured in fiction

It often has amazed me how much the great writers of literature, poetry, and theatre can capture truths about life - or even the metaphysical. Yet even those who are not a Shakespeare or Chaucer, and of any period, sometimes are able to capture elements of a period or situation which those like myself, who have no gift for fiction in the least, would not be able to express.

I'm not suggesting this is the only area, but, as one example, I have seen religious fiction - some not great literary work - which expresses much of what religious Orders or the "church at large" has faced in our own day. I can see the truth in this - but it occurs to me that much of what I know came from extensive contact with communities, personal conversations, presentations, 'workshops,' attendance at charismatic prayer meetings, what-not. Were I to try to write a book on some of these matters today, it would be unlikely that I could do so. Much which I witnessed would not be enshrined in documents, available in published collections, referenced in interviews. The 'anecdotal,' even if one could fill 1,000 pages, cannot be used.

I am far from being any fan of Andrew Greeley's - in fact, the sort of Catholics he depicts (self-centred, greedy, often devious sorts, whose main occupations in life seem to be playing the stock market and having sex, mostly with women who are magnificent Celtic goddesses...Lord, bless the girl who never married him) would exasperate me. His plots tend to get out of hand about halfway through a work. However, some of his earlier novels did strike a chord with me! As a simple example, the melodramatic "Virgin and Martyr" had a section presented in the form of a young woman, in noviciate, corresponding with others. One could see how some of the convent practises, intended to instil obedience and humility, could be vehicles for teaching one to hate oneself.

As another example, the Australian mini-series "Brides of Christ," much as it left me wondering just where the spirituality was, was in many ways an excellent depiction of what communities faced. Yet Sisters who were in the same situations would be unlikely to volunteer the information (unless they were the bitter, 'no longer believing' types who love to write and smear the church.) Nuns tend to be fiercely loyal to their communities, and, even if they believe developments were negative, will resent anyone's saying so.

If I had a gift for fiction, there are many characters I could present in religious writing. Not a word of it would not be based on what I myself saw or experienced. But I do know I'm not going to find certain comments in official documents, much less in interviews.

I just may develop this topic along the way.

Monday, 21 August 2006

Mal occhio!

One thing for which Franciscan poverty equips one splendidly is enjoying days out (which I sometimes call 'playing tourist'), though one can spend perhaps enough for a coffee. I spent a peaceful few hours reading on Sunday, looking out at the river (which I always enjoy doing), and naturally pretending to be a shopper in nearby stores (which probably fooled no one.) I saw a vendor with goods of which I'd never before heard - all sorts of "Angel Eye" products (jewellery, largely, but clearly also something on the lower spectrum of 'home decor'), which were presented as having a special function of protecting against the evil eye - those dangerous, envious looks!

I should not have been surprised, I suppose. My grandmother had a horn in her home, and I knew people who wore miniatures of same around their necks (often next to the cross), for such protection. If a headache persisted, or constipation, one knew who still knew how to 'pass' the mal occhio and enlisted such services. I blush to admit that, if I feel the hostility which obvious envy (of any kind) brings in others' attitudes, or if I say anything favourable about myself (therefore fearing it will be taken away - one can inadvertantly envy oneself), everyone who knows me is aware that I make the sign of the horns with my outer fingers and immediately, in Italian dialect, say the words to 'burst' the evil eye.

By now, I'm sure, unless you do the same, you are shaking your head at the superstition. Yet I do not know that this, as with other superstitions, is not founded on a truth. Envy towards oneself is hostile - and that which one directs towards others can be a form of idolatry. A dear priest friend of mine, who I hope will not mind my quoting a brief and important fact of which he reminded me, put it well in saying that idolatry (envy, frustration, fear, and rage that we generate by our fascination with the things others seem to have that we do not perceive ourselves as having)is a grandiose form of ingratitude, true denial that we are or have enough, or that God loves us.

I wonder if my fear of the mal occhio is founded in that I have had to fight envy (with anger, my 'principle defect') all of my life. It can be especially subtle amongst those who are a bit bohemian, the more if they have strong religious commitments, and particularly if they are Franciscans (where there is such stress on poverty.) I am by no means one who cares to live in the street, yet my envy is not always easy to detect, because it is not about wanting material riches (well, all right, I envy the old rich, but not those who have houses full of great stuff but no time to enjoy it) , or about covetting my neighbour's spouse (whom I probably find to be a bore), or about wanting fame (Lord have mercy, if I had to worry about being in tabloid headlines, I'd have a bed in Bedlam.)

It is never this blatant, of course (if so, I might recognise it), but it takes different forms. I'm irritated with God at times, because I thought I was giving up so much to serve him... and, had I known the situation I'd be in when I was dismissed from the convent (and that it would be as bad as my dad's, when he had hardly any education and had slaved that I might have my own), I'd have driven off a cliff. I envy the 'old rich' not because I want mansions, servants (...though a charlady would be nice every week), posh gatherings and the like, but because I see them as having had choices, and not being forced into dreadful jobs they hated out of the sort of desperation one has who sold all she had, gave it to the poor, and then found herself chucked out by her community.

I had many gifts as a young woman - for music, the other arts and humanities, writing, lecturing. I'd won awards for some of these things, and had a splendid academic record. My intention was to be a university professor. I'm in the odd situation, at the half century mark when every dream is crushed, that I'm envious of my young self! Lord have mercy, the time I spend tossing about 'if only I'd done this or that differently.' (Yes, typical of the half century mark. Had I ever been married, I would probably be envying my kids.)

I offer prayers of gratitude daily - carefully coached, thanking God for creation, the Incarnation, the resurrection, our deification, the sacraments... because I fear thanking him for my own good fortune. He might smack me for thinking I'm better than someone in Biafra for having more. Mal occhio!

Still, I know, deep down, and will some day come to show in my own practise, with God's help (...he is patient even with those who keep making the sign against the evil eye), that the only place we can meet and serve God is where we are. Once we start looking for a different time and place, we cannot find him if he is staring us in the .... (oh, Lord!) eye. And the remedy for envy is gratitude.

Thursday, 17 August 2006

"Bonds" in gossip

It is amazing what one can find oneself reading when a bus or train is delayed. I found myself looking at a woman's magazine (which I shall not distinguish with a link, because its huge popularity must be among people of low intelligence) which had a brief article about how sharing conversations which consist in criticisms of others lends to 'bonding,' because the two 'friends' are sharing a sense of being superior to the others.

If it were not that I have become aware that the term now has a widely accepted meaning quite other than what I intend, I would have called shared superiority of this type, with its blinding effect on any sort of decency, justice, or charity, bondage rather than bonding. Lord knows I have had enough times when other women, I suppose trying to make some initial gesture of 'friendship,' have taken every opportunity to criticise other women (usually about their appearance) to me. Even apart from any consideration of the virtues, I have no desire to be friendly with people who do not have better things on their minds to discuss.

Still, there is one trait, in the same vein, which I find even more irritating. Its identifying trait usually is a tendency to say "but I'm trying to help you!" - and invariably in situations where the other party has done nothing which could be taken as requesting help. The unsolicited "help" is always a criticism, and always has the element of "I know better than you do what you should be doing."

I suppose the other side of this nonsense is a desire to be special. I'm thinking of some particularly annoying women I knew through the years (and fortunately with whom I have no contact now.) One, who had a peculiar and inexplicable obsession with doctors (every other word out of her mouth was about either doctors she knew or health items of which she'd read), never listened to anyone - she was only warming up to urge them to have physical exams. Another, who for reasons I could not fathom always made herself up to look like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, thought she was the ultimate glamour girl. She'd approach every woman at a gathering with, "I've been looking at you, and I've decided...", then tell the other what she should do with her hair, makeup, or whatever. The list could be much longer... I remember one who used to weep and, as it turns out, the reason for her upset was that no one noticed her 'new look'... and, when the weeping subsided, she'd urge the other women present to adapt whatever her own new look was that week.

Well, now I know the reason that mutual nonsense of this type is so popular - it's such fun to feel superior as a group. And here, considering some of my background, I thought the competition was about who could be perceived as the holiest, greatest in self denial... and God keep us from those who wanted the prize for humility.

Wednesday, 16 August 2006

Paltry fruits, you shall know them

I suppose that all of us, whatever our overall passion for a subject, have certain areas which we 'leave for last' in our studies because we find them confusing. I'm blushing to admit this, but, despite my having had previous study of philosophy (and somehow having done well back in those days when I had youthful quickness), I've done just that with Philosophy of Religion. I have no illusions that any of the brilliant scholars who provided 'proofs' for divine existence really thought that this ever could be proven - though the best of them were great men of prayer who knew that God was so beyond us that no description could scratch the surface. (Today, it is worse yet, because we are so Enlightened that we know better to think that it's generally assumed there is a God in the first place. In fact, being agnostic is more a mark of intelligence today than otherwise, in certain circles.)

Those who read this blog must have caught on some time ago that I most definitely am a believer... who fell down an apophatic 'rabbit hole' and is able to set forth doctrine ad infinitum, with an odd identity crisis of 'I cannot describe anything about God - sometimes I'm in doubt of whether there is a God, but I'm sure I received his Body and Blood today.' I'm trying to make myself enjoy the particular subject - I'm mad about theology, in case that was not obvious, but philosophy of religion leaves me even more confused than usual. So, let me have a little reflection here and there. (Ideas are a good thing, indeed... Anselm's work always left me wondering both why what one could imagine meant that it could be proven to be real. I sometimes imagine what it would be like were a genie to give me three wishes.)

I always laughed a bit (inwardly, not on exam papers) about the design argument. Not that it is funny in itself, but because of the excessive enthusiasm with which it was embraced. (William Paley made it sound like a biology text.) At most, all the design argument proves is that it is logically probable that an intelligent source created the universe. I doubt Darwin's work would have been so upsetting had anyone stopped to consider that creation does not require some assembly line production of creatures, each model custom designed, with the environment carefully set to foster their best features.

At the moment, I am reviewing the 'argument from religious experience.' (I began with that one because I grew sick of the cosmological argument about a quarter century ago - just wrote a paper a few months ago about the design argument, albeit to 'prove' that half the evangelicals who lost their faith in the 1800s had little faith to lose - and I'm saving 'divine simplicity' for those dreary winter days when I'm more or less grounded.) I'm very cautious about 'religious experience,' even if I do come from a tradition based entirely on the witness of those who saw the Risen Christ, some centuries after Yahweh appeared in a burning bush, all the more so because I am of a generation where the friend who 'met Jesus' last week or laid hands on someone who was healed yesterday was also likely to be the one to interrupt a party with 'quiet! the ladders are sleeping in the attic!'

I have never had any strange religious experiences - which is fortunate, because I not only doubt I'd survive them but would never dream of revealing the messages I received. (I never awakened the ladders in the attic, either, goody two shoes that I was.) Yet I truly believe that I have had many striking religious experiences - which I know I could never use to prove anything. I can be stricken with awe at how I believe God worked in my life (with a little luck, not ending the prayer of thanksgiving with "and where in hell were You when that happened?") I know this does not prove existence of a God - an unbeliever would probably think I was 'conditioned' to think it was God's work, or that I'd abandon everything with a few good bonks.

Today, I was reading some selections from William James' "The Varieties of Religious Experience." (An interesting work, I must admit.) I am reflecting - not enough to draw a conclusion, which I'll save for later - on how James reacted to two of my favourite mystics, both Carmelites.

William James saw Teresa of Avila as a woman of huge intellect and other gifts, who placed all at the service of her religious ideals. His problem with her ideals was that they were "paltry according to our present way of thinking." He wrote that, "in the main, (Teresa's) idea of religion seems ... an endless amatory flirtation between the devotee and deity." James equally sees John of the Cross as going to absurd extremes - and such fanaticism (in these and other saints) as stemming from a narrow intellectual outlook. He concedes that Teresa would have insisted that 'by their fruits you shall know them' - but finds the fruits to be rather a disappointing crop.

When he gets to Francis of Assisi, I'm leaving the room.

I'm just wondering (and I'm no expert on James, and also loathe psychology, which was his field) if my totally unscientific mind may disagree. James' approach was that all varied and conflicting creeds have elements of uneasiness of some sort in the individual's situation, and a 'solution' where one is saved from wrongness by connection with higher powers. I believe that Teresa (who indeed was flirtatious, even with God) and John (who could be exceedingly extreme.. and I normally would not qualify that adjective) were past being concerned with their own inadequacy, wrongness, and so forth. The mystics who had the most intense relationships with God reached a point of indifference about the relationship - because they no longer were focussing on themselves or what they felt.

I will say this for Teresa and John (though their experiences were at opposite ends of the spectrum, one filled with 'consolations,' the other in a dark night.) I doubt they would have seen experience as proof of divine existence. The first reservation about their own experiences would have been 'is this God or the devil?' (Or is it just myself?)

I must close with a delicious reflection by J. L. Mackie. He mentiones how Soren Kierkegaard sees those in pagan territories as praying to the true God when they pray to the idols in good faith. Though I am sure S. K. has a point, Mackie mentions how this is not an argument for the Christian God, since one could argue that Osiris, Vishnu, et al, are equally tolerant when Christians go through their false rituals.

Now, I'm off to see if I have the energy to participate on a theology forum, where someone has raised the wonderful question of whether C. S. Lewis' "Jesus was either mad, bad, or God" is logical. I already noticed, to my delight, that someone commented that the 'mad or bad' exclusions are also applied to Lucy when she fell into Narnia.

Saint Mary the Virgin

I do grow so tired, now and then, of the endless fights over Mary's perpetual virginity or lack of same. There are times when, for example in Roman Catholic commentaries and theological works, the authors (whose topics actually have nothing to do with this specific matter) have to include footnotes about, for example, Jesus' brothers' having really been cousins - and one's attention is distracted from the topic of, for example, how the Magnificat is a superb example of Luke's showing us how devout children of Israel acknowledged the Incarnate Lord. Those of very Protestant dispositions - who have no concept of evangelical counsels, even if they are evangelical in other senses, and who place 99% of their emphasis on 'family values' - can progress from 'Catholics think sex is dirty' to 'the Catholic Church forbids people to have sex' to gushy reminiscences of losing their own virginity (in the marriage bed, of course) which strike me as more prurient than honest pornography. (None of this has anything to do with Mary's perpetual virginity, of course. It is based on her body's having been a tabernacle, and on that which is set apart - sacred vessels being a prime example.)

The reason I am treating of this topic, on this feast, is because it still is worth saying, even in these post-Freudian days: virginity or chastity for the sake of the kingdom has nothing on earth to do with sex being wrong, marriage being seen as inferior by the committed celibate, or consecrated life's denying the universal call to holiness. (Yes, Augustine had a highly negative view, but he was always pining for what he imagined it would be like in Eden - where mankind would have use of reason and will to an extent where, in his words not mine, a man could control his erections. Bear with Augustine - much of his own problem was that he could not.)

Every dogma or pious belief about Mary has two elements. The belief is related first to Christology - for any honour due Mary, the Queen Mum of the heavenly courts, derives from the unique identity of her Son, God Incarnate. The second element is that Mary represents the Church. In her virginity, which has a strong eschatological dimension of which I shall treat in a moment, we have an icon of the Church, in expectation of Christ's final glory at the parousia.

Yes, celibacy (often far from chaste) or virginity ( least in some form) was valued by philosophers who were pagan, but Christian celibacy does not have to do with the power of the goddess Diana or being free of distractions from intellectual pursuits (even if that latter is a nice bonus at times.) Consecrated chastity, in a Christian tradition, has quite another dimension. It was quite revolutionary, as we can see already in the letters of Paul, that those with the charisma could be unmarried (by choice, not widowhood), and this contribution be seen as of special value to the Church.

Ancient Judaism had no concept of an afterlife. Any continuation of one's life, in a sense, was through one's descendants. By the time that Jesus walked the earth, the concept of the resurrection had developed in Judaism, though it was not universally accepted and was thought to belong to the end of time. (That there was a surprise in store shortly in that regard I'll save for another post.) It occurs to me that it was only in light of the resurrection that total, committed chastity (no descendants) could be truly valued, because it also was then that the idea of a life beyond this one - in glory, with the new dignity Christ brought to our nature in his resurrection and ascension, not in Hades, not in reincarnation - was recognised.

Consecrated life always was a haven for weird ideas, regretfully. Some of the earliest monastics (and here I mean those sincere, not those trying merely to escape taxation and military service) wished to be angelic... even eating and sleeping were too physical for their tastes. Others in Augustine's era (though not Augustine himself, for all that he never completely shed his Manichean skin) believed that God's clothing Adam and Eve in animal skins meant that we never would have had human bodies had it not been for the 'fall.' In truth, consecrated chastity is eschatological. It is an icon of a church which recognises that our lives on earth, the children who may come from us, precious though they are, are not 'all there is.'

There is surely no denial of the physical. God became Man - the Eucharist is his Body and Blood (don't ask me how) - his resurrection reminds us that not only an immortal soul but our bodies will live eternally.

What has got into me tonight? (I doubt the Pimms was enough to set me off on this.) I suppose it is that I am so weary of two extremes into which Christians sometimes fall - either total embarrassment about the physical (no, I don't mean just sex - I mean feeling uneasy about the concept of a physical resurrection, for example), or a glorification of sex which makes the 'nitty gritty' of dealing with one's sexuality rather sordid in any setting except magical evangelical marriage beds. I have read books and heard sermons where a discussion of sex, in marriage, could not admit to physical desire per se - it all was along the lines of an 'overwhelming need to enfold the other with love' and the like. I am one of the most naive of creatures, but, as just one example, most fortunate that even I was not stupid enough to think that no man would want to have sex unless he was transported with love! (I cannot think of anything more dangerous for a young innocent to believe...)

Sex indeed is wonderful in the divine plan - it is a share in divine, creative power. But let us not think that the life of those consecrated to chastity is not so in its own way. Chastity may have other benefits to the Church - perhaps endless dedication to a ministry in a fashion that would be inappropriate for one with a family, or complete immersion in a life of prayer - but, in itself, it is an icon to remind us of the divine glory which, through Christ, we all have a share.

End of sermon - there will be no more entries such as this any time soon... Blessings for the feast of the Assumption.