Tuesday, 31 October 2006

All Hallows' Eve thoughts

The link in the title is to last year's post, Dwelling on the mysterioso, which is a bit more theological than tonight's probably shall be.

My taste in clothing is far from conservative (fifty does not mean frumpy, and my tastes are half Paris, half Woodstock.) One of my prized possessions, being a medievalist, is a purple cape, the front of which is decorated, right near the closures, with the symbols of alchemy. I well remember when a young man, seeing my cape, told me he sensed that I was "a very powerful witch." Stifling a giggle, I told him I was not a witch at all. He then asked me if I could predict the future. Smiling now, I said, "I am Christian - that's not in my line." He responded, "But that is very powerful, too! Do you do laying on of hands?"

With the combination of romantic and mystical that beats within this heart, I'm the last person who could do laying on of hands. I'd probably try to raise the dead or something. No - I'm someone who has to stay with liturgical prayer, lectio divina, and all that other boring and banal business. :)

My wicked side will share a story from my convent days. We still wore the 'old habit,' and I must say that our congregation did not have one of the more attractive models. Our dress was a near duplicate of the garb of the Friars Minor, and the veil was very unattractive - stiff headband across the forehead, a coif that came round about the ears.

My congregation was based in Italy, where I hoped to remain, but I was stationed at a mission in the States. (Serves me right for speaking English well... but at least it wasn't the leprosarium in Africa.) Halloween, at least then, was the time of avid 'trick or treating' for the younger set. Coincidentally, it was the 31st of October when I had to go grocery shopping with Sister C.. I'm not being unkind saying this, because it must be mentioned if the rest of this tale is to make sense: C., though she was probably aged all of 32, was one of the ugliest women I've ever known - the picture of the story book witch.

We were waiting on the queue for the till, and a young mother behind us was horrified when her daughter, aged 4 or so, saw C. and piped up with, "I'm going to be a witch for Halloween, too!"

November is a wonderful month liturgically - beginning with the remembrance of the communion of saints, ending with the feast of Christ the King (the latter an image I dearly love.) Advent to follow is better still. But the part of me that loves folk tales and the like does see an appeal that is not... specifically liturgical in All Hallows' Eve. I'll spare you the history of the holiday (there are sites which can show you that far better than you'd find in my impromptu writings.) I'll just make 'public confession' of what I'm doing this week. :)

I have a great fondness for the monster films (the entire Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man bunch) produced by Universal studios during the 1930s-40s. I cannot abide later 'horror pictures' - they are too gory, frighten me terribly, and (using, as one example, the theme of exorcism, which I wish were as popular now as anything related to the reign of Christ) too often draw on what is just too explicitly 'real.' I'm having a little film festival now, watching those films once again.

They have great humour in them - police tend to be very colourful cockneys, which is quite interesting for Transylvania and Germany, and I suppose I'm always happy to hear someone whose accent is worse still than mine. The history behind the legends is often interesting. The films do not frighten me, because they remind me of the reality of life rather than merely evil. Many of us struggle with the problem of evil - the sense of sources beyond us that we cannot control - the uncomfortable awareness that fear (of death, of being separated from those whom we love, and so forth) can become an idol and drive one to desperation. As long as I don't dwell on genetic engineering and cloning and to what they may lead (that really frightens me, though I hope that my own life will have ended before the results are produced - I'll be gone within fifty years at most, and far less than that unless I take after my mother's family), I can weep when Frankenstein's monster cries, "Friend! Friend!" when he seeks love and inspires terror. In fact, I can almost feel sorry for Victor Frankenstein (renamed 'Henry' by Universal, for reasons I've never discovered), who is so wrapped up in the thought of a scientific breakthrough that the outcome of his experiment is far from what he'd expected.

Of course, my greatest sympathy is reserved for Laurence Talbot (the Wolf Man), and I'm glad that, in "House of Dracula," he finally is restored to health. I find the gypsy woman's wisdom, and "The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own," very moving.

How is "Spirituality in Universal Monster Flicks" as a topic for my next dissertation? Blessings to all. May the saints, in heaven and on earth, be bound with the love to which Christ calls us tonight... while Gloriana takes a night off with the monsters.

What is the attraction of bullies?

This is not likely to be one of my more insightful posts. I live in a basement flat, and the cat has been in one of the windows, howling in a manner which makes me think there is something to black magic at this season. It's more likely that a stray found his way to the outside, but the annoyance of the noise is worse than that of my CD-ROM drive, which also has gremlins and has been opening and closing, of its own accord, for three days.

I never was one much for varied Internet fora. In the earlier days of the Internet, I did belong to some highly interesting mailing lists, about theology, books, humour, and other areas that I love. Yet it takes very little for some pest to derail entire lists. Nonetheless, now and then I drop in to Yahoo chat groups and the like... I seldom stay long.

I have stayed long enough to see that (regardless of the list topic, since any bully can derail a thread) there are many people out there who thrive on being bullied. It seems to boil down to "this is what I am 'supposed' to be doing - I hate it - so, if someone abuses me, treats me as if I were a liar, traps me in every word I say, this will 'motivate' me to spend my time on what I hate, out of fear of the abuse. Someone who treats me like trash must really care."

Yes, that is true charity and friendship... to destroy other people's sense of self-worth, play ego games, help them to feel terrible about themselves, perhaps doubt their own integrity. It makes me shiver to see how popular this can become. It reminds me of a sad but prevalent idea that dominated my own youth. Many people in authority (not only 'high up,' but parents or teachers, for example) were interested only in conformity to rules and standards. If the person under authority did not comply, it meant that he was not afraid of the authority enough - so he had to be brutalised.

I heard a very sad story recently. A young man, in his teens, has bipolar disorder. He has been doing what the self help books would call 'acting out.' His insomnia disturbs his parents - the profanity that sometimes spews from the mouths of the mentally ill is 'disrespectful' - the anxiety is taken for an act - the depression for not realising what a wonderful home he has. He probably is crying out for help when he shouts, but it is mistaken for a desire to 'scare' his parents. They are trying to find ways to be more brutal because 'he has to learn.' (If their child had cancer or heart disease, I suppose that he could get that to disappear with sufficient punishment.)

How narrow and self centred we mortals are capable of being! We cannot see the suffering of those around us, because all we see are the effects on ourselves. Sadly, too many of us have a notion of God that is of a bully who will punish us unless we do what we hate. Perhaps that forces many of us to turn, not in love but in fear, to an image of God which makes us want (and often create) punishments for ourselves.

Though I had seen such examples, many times, in my youth, I was amazed to see that, on Internet fora with people much younger, the idea of 'temporal punishment in reparation for our sins,' asking God to increase pain for the sake of one's salvation, and so forth apparently are still in fashion. To return to the idea with which I began today, no one would want to be mistreated unless one hated what one was 'supposed' to do in the first place. What is this, in the spiritual life? The practise of virtue? Seeming deprivation? Wanting to suffer here lest we have to suffer in eternity?

I received an e-mail today with a quote from Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe. It is quite lovely, and also reminded me of a truth I'm slowly learning. Gratitude, not guilt, not fear of punishment, tends to foster love of God and neighbour, and true worship. I should like to share the quotation with you"

"To see ourselves as gift from God is just to look deeply into ourselves, to see ourselves for what we really are. You cannot love yourself, your real self (as distinct from valuing your price or what you will fetch) without being grateful to God, without thanking him, thinking him through yourself. And it is only when you do this, when you thank God for yourself, for the gift of existence, that you are released from the prison of self-seeking to value others for their own sake, which is to value them too as gifts of God. That is why Jesus tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves. He is asking us to love our neighbour in the way we love ourselves — in gratitude to God.

But there is much more to it than this. For when you do it, when you actually thank God for your being and for others (not just when you think about it but when you do it), you discover a further truth: that the thing you are most grateful for, the greatest gift of God, is the gratitude itself. The greatest gift of God to you is not just that he made you, but that you love him. The greatest gift of God to you is that you can speak with him and say ‘thank you’ to him as to a friend—that you are on intimate speaking terms with God. God has made us not just his creatures but his lovers; he has given us not just our existence, our life, but a share in his life.

Saturday, 21 October 2006

Media should love this one

I shall caution my readers that, contrary to custom, I shall not be having great theological reflections today. I'm going to indulge my rather naughty side for a moment. I just read that there will be a webcast, plus satellite coverage, for the installation of ++Katharine Jefferts Schori as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. I know nothing of Washington DC, but recall watching the broadcast of Ronald Reagan's funeral from that cathedral - a singer who sounded as if he belonged in a tavern, jokes, an odd treatment of the 'city on a hill' gospel as if the evangelists had Reagan in mind. I am hoping this service will be dignified, glorious - everything that Cranmer plus the Oxford Movement would have intended. (I doubt it - a Washington e-correspondent led me to anticipate a far different picture.) And I do hope it is treated, liturgically, no differently than were it any other bishop. I saw too many 'relevant' liturgies turn into circuses in my day. It certainly is a monumental event, and one which should be quite interesting in the right hands of the press.

My immediate thought was the potential for boring, predictable media statements from those who believe themselves to be newsworthy. Not to mention any names, of course, but I can think of at least one US priest and Sister (prolific, if not deep), both "American Catholic" (therefore technically Roman), who would love a spotlight to go on about how Catholic women have to endure job discrimination (not being priests) because the eleventh commandment (US separation of church and state, which somehow is more sacred than anything at Sinai) prevents their suing employers and demanding equal rights. Then there are those, along the lines of Falwell (who somehow thought Osama bin Laden's action five years ago were divine punishment - God having lifted a 'veil of protection' - for the US being a place where abortion is legal and gays exist), who can see anything involving the Episcopal Church as somehow connected to abortion and gay rights, and therefore the work of Satan. (Sadly, there is another variety of Roman Catholic - as some web sites to which I'd never link would show, which would be Falwell with a rosary in hand.) And I'm sure there will be some loud-mouthed ECUSAns who will relish the thought of a split with Canterbury because it is a remnant of 'colonialism'...

...Yawn... Talk about old news... :) .... Considering that, from all my studies, I have seen that, in the first generation after Jesus's earthly life, apostles (beyond the Twelve, such as Paul) were specifically those who gave witness to the resurrection and all that this meant for the new church. The first witness to the resurrection, and the one who shared this news, was Mary Magdalene, so women as apostles seems a longstanding tradition.

Sunday, 15 October 2006

Spare me "God's will"!

Note that the link in the title is to last year's post about San Gerardo Maiella, whom I am recalling on his feast today.

Gerardo had a childlike simplicity which it is difficult for me to grasp. I heard something quite interesting about him just this week. A Redemptorist Father, who wrote a biography of his Order's most famous saint (yes, perhaps more famous than Alphonsus Liguori, as far as devotion goes), stated affectionately that Gerardo was a child of God - indeed, a spoiled child. Consequently, he tended to get that for which he asked. I heard that, in praying with a dying woman, Gerardo told her basically - "let us get God to do what we want."

How refreshing! How often have all of us been exposed to the idea that there is a dismal, unknowable oppression called "God's will." One never knows what it is, until one become heartbroken, gravely ill, sees everything one cherishes taken away - whatever.

Note here that I am not speaking of God's true will - or denying that this is beyond our grasp. God truly willed creation, the Incarnation, the resurrection, our deification, his presence in Church and sacraments. We have no answer to the pain and suffering in this world, but what I resent more than an idea that everything is God's will (with Archbishop Runcie, I'm agnostic about Auschwitz) is the one about how God sends us suffering.

Gerardo was a simple man - and he was young enough to be my son when he died. Unlike most saints of the modern era (he died in 1755), he was known for many miracles during his lifetime. My family was from the neighbouring diocese, and all thought of him as a very powerful saint, to whom they turned with woes, unembellished, and their needs, unashamed.

Since whatever wit and insight I possess has been sadly lacking in my recent posts, it may be apparent that I am troubled at the moment. I mention this because, contrary to my usual theology and such logic as I possess (let alone the fear of "God's will"), I lit my candle to Saint Gerard this week, entrusting my worry to him. I wish I had my mother's faith - she'd be sure she'd get her petition answered... and would.

Sufficient to each day is the trouble thereof!

I have to admit that, whenever I read the scripture passages about 'consider the lilies of the field,' I wish with all my heart that I could believe God provides for our temporal needs. (For the benefit of someone just dropping in to this blog, I am not speaking of lavish spending, but of basic needs.) Unfortunately, I worked with the homeless for seven years - saw the homeless huddling together trying to not die of cold near the office where I worked - and knew, all too well, that this was in the 'prosperous west.' I am too aware of poverty (disease, war, etc.), not to mention the horrors humans can inflict on one another, to have that sort of trust.

Yet Jesus (who 'had no place to rest his head,' and was undoubtedly dependent on others for his subsistence when he was an itinerant preacher... I wonder how much his family complained about his abandoning carpentry) certainly was spot on with his question of to what it avails us to be anxious. I'm a case study in anxiety, so I am hardly suggesting that I have an answer for this one. Still, it amazes me (since I deal with fear every day of my life) that I often encounter people who, rather than wishing diversion from anxiety (as I do), seem to relish discussing not only how bad things are but how much worse they could be.

In recent weeks, I have been at what one would think were celebrations of happy occasions - a christening party, a feast at a church with many Italian immigrants. They were the sort of settings where I can picture the wise Jesus of Nazareth changing water into wine. My spiritual director keeps trying to get through my thick skull that much of what is most valuable in our relationship with God is trust and gratitude - and the occasions I mentioned were just the sorts where one would think gratitude and joy would be prevalent.

Instead, the conversations (which were among people at celebrations, not military leaders...) tended towards the dangers of germ and chemical warfare; it is a matter of 'when, not if' Iraq, Osama or whomever wipes out the west; that social services are going bankrupt.... and so forth, and so on. Some days, there is not enough gin in the entire world...

Why can we not enjoy the joy that might be on hand today?

Admittedly, I might be too earnest and scholarly (as my father used to say, 'book learning, but not the ways of the world') to see that some of this talk is... well, just talk. It is possible, I suppose, that people bring up such topics because it makes them look well informed. (I noticed that my nephew - the one very learned in current affairs, whom I mentioned in a previous post - had the good sense not to participate in this conversation.) Perhaps not everyone who is talking about such things as germ warfare is thinking about it later in the day.

Years ago, when I first studied the Holocaust, which took place in the decade preceding that in which I was born, I was stricken with such horror that it took me years not to awaken in fear of ending up in a concentration camp. My horror is no less today, but I think it best not to contemplate the transportation when it is highly unlikely to ever happen. Still, I remember a wise comment from the Diary of Anne Frank. She was hardly more than a child, and Lord knows, with Bergen Belsen ahead, this poor girl soon would know hell on earth. She mentioned, in one part of her diary, 'how does it make anything better today to think about how much worse it could be?!' Her family already was in constant danger. The outcome would be a horror. Yet making the best of the time in their 'secret annexe,' and hoping for safety in the future, was far wiser than adding the terror of the future.

I wish I myself could attain this degree of separation from anxiety, so please do not think my comments to be smug. I've dealt with a great deal, throughout my life but particularly in recent years, and I sometimes awaken with nightmares of some of what happened, terrified of being in the situation again. I saw the horrid suffering of my mother's final illness, and shiver at facing the same myself. (I probably don't think much of having the atomic bomb dropped on me, only because, to my way of thinking, it would be nothing to fear since I would be dead. I sometimes forget that, for many people, the worst thing that could happen would be death. Not me - I think the worst hells are right on this earth.) I'll not mention any more of my personal experience here, but I dealt with fears for good reasons. Nonetheless, there were worse things that indeed could have happened that did not.

Deep down, I wonder, do people feel so guilty that others have it worse than they do that they cannot give thanks for today?

Monday, 9 October 2006

A word about 'the present moment'

Just recently, I was reading a treatment of the approach of Pierre De Caussade, in a book which was summarising various approaches to spirituality. In a nutshell, the brief treatment of DeCaussade spoke of how he focussed on worshipping God in the 'present moment' - which, of course, is the only place we can find God at the time. A dear priest friend of mine is very much one to refer to this spirituality - where thoughts of past and future can blind us, whether through desire, discontent, fear, anxiety and the like. (This, of course, is far from an exhaustive treatment of DeCaussade - I never favoured him much, because he seemed chilly to me, and I saw dangers of quietism... but neither is that what came to my mind today.)

The dangers for a Romantic such as myself is that, much as we pine for heaven, we always tend to feel, deep down, that we can find a better 'place' than where we are at the moment. This can inspire a great deal of creativity but, in the spiritual life, it tends to cause pain, jealousy, and, at the top of my own list, dreadful fear. I think one of the hardest things in this life is its total uncertainty. None of us know if we'll be here tomorrow - yet it is not death that I fear. (If my religious beliefs are true, I'd be closer to God - if I've been totally wrong, at least it would mean no more suffering since one would have no existence.... that is, oh please God no, unless those who believe in reincarnation are correct...) My fear is suffering, here - of wishing one could die just for the pain to cease.

It occurs to me, thinking of some wonderful, highly artistic people, some spiritual into the bargain, who are Romantics like myself - and the 19th century had a great many. The sort of knots of fear into which we can tie ourselves make me think that, for all that I despise Freud, a Romantic era may have been one that led him to assume everyone was neurotic.

Yet what I wish to share for a moment was a thought I had about DeCaussade's own time - post revolutionary France. It must have been frightening, with the (real) monarchy and Church having tumbled, and a few weak imitations of both coming forth. But a very sad part, focussed on 'merit' and 'reparation,' was clear in some of the works I studied about the 19th century. The Counter-Revolutionaries sought to replicate the suffering of Jesus Christ, and thereby save the nation which participated in the revolution’s crimes, and particularly murder of the monarchs. (Ideas of this type still emerge, albeit in an altered form. Just study any site today where people see the sole mission of Catholics, Baptists, whomever as to be to make reparation for abortions - which they did not have, but which seem to be on their conscience if they live in nations where it is legal, as where is it not? And I say that as one who does not believe in abortion.)

Perhaps DeCaussade's stress on the 'present moment' has larger dimensions, if we consider that he lived in a time and place where people were looking for 'vicarious suffering' left and right. It must have been difficult to remind people of the present moment - where they could meet God, but also where they could confront the distractions, weakness, and sinfulness which hampers such intimacy - in a time when one could be a noble victim in one's own mind by making supposed atonement for 'national sins' which dated to long before one was born.

Thursday, 5 October 2006

Francis, poor and humble, enters heaven a rich man

Well, I just carted out the rubbish (yes, for all) once again... and, as if on cue, found that the cat had taken an untimely crap, which necessitated my cleaning her box again and making another trip to the bin. I then found that, possibly because there are gremlins on the property, my casement windows were stuck open, and managing to close them meant cranking as if I were pulling up the anchor on the Titanic. I then prepared a cup of hot tea, only to find that the milk had curdled when I dropped it in. Small things, I know - but such is the world of Franciscan poverty on the practical level. (If you are looking for words on Francesco which are slightly more edifying, and certainly more warm, click the link in the title to this post to be transported to the essay on my site.)

I love Francis with all my heart, though he and I are hardly alike. Yet two things about him, currently popular (and one long popular) seem quite distorted to me. First, why do statues, pictures and the like of Francis make him seem (not only tall and handsome, when he was short and ugly) like a slightly 'spacey' dreamer whose main companions in life were birds? (Actually, a few of his companions were vultures, but I'll leave that for another day.) Even the rare picture of him with the stigmata would make one think (apologies to Padre Pio) that they were for decoration.

But the second is from the "Oh, I love what that mediaeval saint wrote... but s/he didn't mean that, now?!" It is popular now to say that Francis believed in only spiritual, not material, poverty. I doubt that any reading of Francis' works, or of anything written of him by his contemporaries, would make that interpretation possible. I would be the first to say that the degree of poverty which Francis observed would be unwise for most - but he was totally serious (even if impractical on some levels) about "Lady Poverty" whom he revered.

I have not the slightest desire to sleep in the street or have lice crawling over me - Francis would not wince at either. Yet he was essentially right, for all (Franciscans or not, called to high poverty or otherwise) about how possessions can possess us. I am not referring only to extravagance. I am of a working class background, have no notion of what a lavish life is like, and one does not miss what one never had. Still, I ache for a lost 'possession' - the respect and esteem which I had when I was a promising young musician, writer, and scholar / lecturer.

Francis was no stranger to material wealth - indeed, he would cost his father a fortune, and not only when he took it upon himself to distribute priceless silks from the Orient to beggars (who undoubtedly had a good laugh within the next ten minutes.) He knew full well that having property meant taking care of it... having arms for its defence.

I am very happy to have decent food, running water, enough heat so that I only have to climb under a duvet during the day time in winter. I have no desire to live the extreme poverty which was suited to Francis. Still, I have enough of the Franciscan spirit in me to know that vowed poverty can be liberating, if sometimes difficult. (I know what it is to lose everything, to have anxiety tearing one's body over poverty, so I hope this does not sound glib.)

The value of poverty is that it smashes idols and teaches us gratitude. One can enjoy whatever is at hand - there is no indication in Francis' life that he did not believe in companionship, or that he imposed excessive austerity on his friars (even if he did on himself.) As for humility - it is a difficult virtue to practise (aren't they all?), but is truth, not the humiliation, derogatory nonsense passing as 'correction,' or instruction in self hatred which I learnt in my convent days.

How I long to be witty and insightful today, as I reflect on my dear Francesco! But it is one of my off days for this, so I'll just close with a funny story from the days in which I served in a Franciscan parish.

The cook, Mary, was a talkative, no nonsense sort - possessed of a certain folk wisdom. The chief sorrow of her life was the corns on her feet, a woe which she shared, upon meeting, with all and sundry.

Well, someone had told me a stupid joke which I shared with a few parishioners. It was about a man who always made the wrong decisions. Once, when he had to take a flight, he was relieved that only one aircraft went to his destination - without a choice, he felt safe. Sadly, he ended up having the little aircraft falter and toss him out the window. As he fell, he called out "Saint Francis, help me!" A big hand came from the sky, grasped him, and asked, "Did you mean Francis Xavier or Francis of Assisi?"

One hearer said to me, "It must have been Francis of Assisi!" The next said, "Oh, whichever Francis it was, do you think he would have dropped him?" (You now know a bit more of what Franciscan poverty can entail... Lord, can I be a little snob...)

But Mary, in no nonsense tones, had the most interesting response to the joke. "It's no use talking to Saint Francis! Do you know how many times I have told him about the corns on my feet?!"

Pax et Bonum. And pray for this lady who once said that she "a poor sinner, begs for a life of penance." Little did I know just how true that is... :)