Wednesday, 25 January 2006

Papa Benedict's First Encyclical

I undoubtedly shall have some comments about this within the next few days, but I found that the encyclical captured some highly essential concepts very simply. Click the title of this post to read the text.

Very odd 'post' indeed!

I never was one much for 'current events,' largely because I long have known that I (doctor of humanities, after all) never understand anything in the news that is less than 100 years old (preferably 600.) I surf the Internet very much indeed, and always have ads popping out (or spam mail coming in) recommending Viagra (the last thing I'd need even if I were a guy...), the South Beach Diet, and other even less reputable business. But, as far as news is concerned, I check the headlines online, and only explore further is there is a major world event (or catastrophe.) Therefore I ask that my readers forgive me if I'm 'slow,' because the subject of today's brief entry is one of which I just became aware, but which (obviously, since various nations must have voted on it over time) probably has existed for awhile.

Apparently, it is now possible for anyone to have himself or his pet immortalised - on postage stamps, and this at quite an inflated price. In fact, the article I saw mentioned that pets and babies were the most popular topics. I have no intention of immortalising my cats in such a fashion... even the feline mind knows that there are queens and queens, and does not confuse the definitions. But cats are incredibly wise creatures, and assuredly would not fall into the sort of self-absorption of which such actions as sticking oneself to the upper right corner of an envelope would indicate.

Various countries have agreed to allow this exercise in marketting, and I am not about to "Google" to find out what previously was featured on their postage. Yet the degree of prominence which people who appear on stamps genuinely held seems one odd to claim for oneself, and on one's own authority. (The United States Postal Service site shows that all sorts of things and fictional/cartoon characters can appear - but I believe their recent decision to allow just any old person to be featured is particularly generous because no one could be on a stamp unless s/he was already dead...)

Oh, naive I am not - I did spend many years in purchasing, and well remember, when I was a diocesan manager, having a 'phone card' company wish to know if I would be interested in phone cards bearing a picture of the pope. Bad taste is not only common but epidemic. I can only imagine the market for this recent gem. (I'm wondering if it will be more likely a popular 'gift item' than personal purchase.) I'm sure pictures of weddings, new babies, people at milestone anniversaries or birthdays, candid shots of situations one would have preferred to forget but a friend thinks hilarious... all will be popular.

There are only three possibilities I can see. First, it might be a joke - and jokes which last more than a minute, in a particular context, never are funny for long, but seem nearly inspirational at the time when one conceives the idea. (Ask anyone who gives a co-worker or school mate a 'joke present.') Second, people may be so starved for attention that they'll consider any option. Third, well, one may think oneself so important that everyone will be honoured to see one's face on a stamp...

Me? I'll wait to look down from heaven and see myself on holy cards... perhaps (heretic though I am) I can be the first Franciscan woman canonised as a Doctor of the Church...

Why not? It makes as much sense as personalised postage stamps.

Tuesday, 17 January 2006

The masked truth

Dear Lord, give me the truths which are veiled by the doctrines and articles of faith, which are masked by the pious words of sermons and books. Let my eyes penetrate the veil, and tear off the mask, that I can see your truth face to face.

Saint John of the Cross

Christian mystics of any era would have seen the truth in what John expresses here: God is so beyond us that doctrine, critical though it is, serves less to tell us of God's nature than to remind us that our own vision is limited. I still cannot help but shudder at the reaction the Inquisition would have had to such a prayer as this. John, of course, lived at the height of the Counter-Reformation. With the church recently torn by disputes, emphasis on obedience, conformity, and practise was an understandable (indeed, in the context highly important) refuge.

Most of the greatest theologians were outstanding in their prayer. Whether we speak of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century or, for example, Karl Rahner in our own, they would have known that, in view of the divine majesty of which we can only catch a glimpse, it was (to borrow Thomas's words) "all straw," no matter how brilliantly the straw was presented. I am not suggesting that doctrine is unimportant! Indeed, divine revelation is an essential concept if we are to have any sense of awe in his presence - and we fulfil our Christian vocation as a Church. It is unfortunate, nonetheless, that adherence to doctrine (which, when there is conflict, can be interpreted to a degree which those who set it forth never intended) can seem to be an end in itself.

During the patristic era, when the Arian controversy was underway (and the emperor favoured Arius), accounts were written which give the impression that discussion of and controversy about the nature of Christ was tossed about in the tavern, with a vigour which, in our own day, was normally reserved for football. Yet I believe that even Athanasius was well aware that Christology and the Trinity, indeed revealed truths, equally are reminders that we know very little. "One substance with the Father" cannot be explained as if it were a scientific presentation.

This week is the feast of the Abba Antony, one of the earliest desert ascetics (and one who was not fleeing from taxation or the military.) :) Athanasius, assuredly not one of the cuddliest creatures in church history, would write a biography of hermit Antony - and I find that rather telling. Antony was a great man of prayer - yet he would not have been particularly useful in the political sphere, or in defending the nature of Christ, or in refuting heresy (which often was the theologian's main occupation.) In fact, hermits at the time had a life which would place them beyond the pale of any concept of the "good Catholic" on the Tridentine model. Their life was not focussed on liturgy, and many of them rarely participated in the Eucharist. They went their own way (at least until Basil wisely codified things a bit, foreshadowing the brilliance Benedict would later show in that area.) They therefore were often great saints, or blatant heretics, or schemers who sold pardons for those who'd not been ready to face execution during persecutions (with the pardons sometimes issued in the names of martyrs already dead.)

I'm making two points here, albeit in a shakey fashion. Not only doctrine but a certain degree of discipline is necessary for the Christian life - and the discipline I mean here is that of the 'disciple,' being open to teaching, revelation through the Church, and the wisdom of history. (My definition basically is "take a look at what is proven to work, and what tends to lead to disaster, and take heed.") But trying to have all the answers - to codify revelation - to attempt to explain what is beyond us - can deter us from the life of prayer.

John of the Cross was far from heretical, and would have believed every last letter of Church doctrine. He was not asking to disbelieve, but to know that God cannot be boxed - that everything we see is a shadow. In the Christian tradition, which is built on creed and judged by orthodoxy (where others are not), it is commonplace for the great mystics, whose glimpse of the divine is beyond the norm, to sound as if they were agnostic. (Well, at least to the Inquisition...)

Monday, 16 January 2006

A new planet!

It appears that a tenth planet has been found. I'm all excited - the heavens (perpetually, of course, telling the glory of God) fascinate me. Unlike my co-contributors, whose sites give ample evidence of abilities in science, I never had any flair for that subject. (That is putting it mildly.) Yet, for me, various scientific topics are wonderful starting points for meditation.

I am totally fascinated by the solar system. Some years ago, right after all of the Voyager explorations took place (these were pre-Internet days, for which I'm grateful because I'd rather curl up with books than computers), my sister and her family gave me three Christmas presents I'll always treasure - books about the solar system, which contained the Voyager photographs. I was not too enthralled with the technical information (I'm not technically gifted, and need a diagram to unwrap soap), but I nearly blasted off into unitive prayer just gazing at the surface of Mars, the rings of Saturn, the grandeur of Neptune and Jupiter. The discovery of many new moons on those journeys had me off on a cloud thinking of how very little we know of creation, and how our Earth is such a tiny part of its vastness.

It is not only the planets which give me scientific thrills. :) I know that the common idea is that only children are mad about dinosaurs, yet I'd defy any kid to have the fascination with them that I have. (I once held a T. rex's tooth! It was as big as my forearm.) Again, I am reminded of the limitless power of the Creator - and of the limitations of our knowledge. Amazing that these creatures ruled the planet, as it were, millions of years before mankind existed... and for far longer than we can begin to fathom, latecomers that we are.

Oh, this gets worse... I once was all but transported to the seventh mansion, looking at a representation of the DNA molecule. :)

Well, I must take a better look at the site to which I linked. If I ever get started reading that page in another window, the blog will crash the server... considering that one planet's set of moons are named for Shakespeare characters... another's for the gods of ancient mythology...

Sunday, 15 January 2006

Through the Looking Glass...

I love the writings of Lewis Carroll, and indeed appreciate them far more today than when first I 'travelled' with Alice forty years ago. I believe the parodies and word play in Carroll's books have a brilliance perhaps unmatched in popular literature. I should like to write just one parody to match, "You are old, Father William, the young man said, and your hair has become very white, and yet you incessantly stand on your head, do think, at your age, it is right?" (It's far funnier if one has read the original, to which there is a link here." It is one of those pious little items which absolutely cries out for parody... and, as one of great piety but not excessive reverence, I find it delicious.)

I tend to be such a scholarly sort that my lighter (or, at any rate, not studious) reading is essential to a balanced life (not to mention one filled with the laughter which I could no more live without than I could go without music, red wine, or a cat.) My bookshelves, much as they are weighted down with theological works, history, and the arts and humanities, are amply stocked with Lewis Carroll, Dickens, Sherlock Holmes, an entire shelf of Jack the Ripper books (I cannot stand the details of the crimes, but love the 'case,' the more when anyone claims to know his identity), and (I'm blushing now) A. J. Cronin... even (much deeper blushing) Maeve Binchy. My 'problem' is that I cannot resist borrowing every book about my favourites from the library.

It will come as no suprise that I am no authority on the social sciences (which I really hate) nor on human sexuality (though, on that latter, I thank God for some Italian horse sense which my dad fortunately imparted. Otherwise, a super romantic such as myself might have melted into the arms of the first rake she encountered, assuming he just had to be overwhelmed with love.. but I digress.) Nonetheless, I think that Lewis Carroll himself had less of an imagination than some of the writers who are speculating about him today... Victorians were the last people who could both have intense (and not physical) friendships, and (since Freud already started loads of trouble but was not yet considered author of the fifth gospel) be honest. I have no addiction whatever to children, yet I have known many fanciful, gentle, unmarried people who find them fascinating, and indeed cherish their innocence (in which I personally disbelieve...) Those trying to cast Lewis Carroll in the role of paedophile are probably just catering to a currently popular market, but honestly!

I read a commentary on "Alice" recently which was just s-o-o-o earnest. Supposedly, Wonderland and the Looking Glass reflected (pun intended!) the fears children have of the adult world. (Yeah, sure... I can only imagine what Freud would have thought Alice feared at the rabbit hole...) I prefer duchesses whose babies turn into pigs than people who can turn brilliant usage of our language and wry parodies into musings of a wicked sort.

All I know, based on correspondence I sometimes receive (and recall that my site is about mediaeval culture, mostly the banal practise of Christian mysticism), is that I would shake my head less at encountering the creatures from Wonderland than the self absorbed nut cases who tend to send me e-mail or comment on my messages on fora. Please do not think me unkind - this is not a criticism of the mentally ill, only of those who pretend to be so because, apparently, they think it makes them fascinating. The worst are those who think the rest of the world is crazy and that they must set them straight.

I once wrote a satirical post about moving from Italian Franciscans to Anglican coffee hours - a stranger (and strange indeed she was) wrote me a missive, somewhere around the size of the first draft of my MA thesis, about her 'journey with Prozac' and how it could remove my idea of 'imagined slights.' (What imagined slights? Sigh! Even apart from encountering one who cannot understand satire, does she really think that a stocky working class kid, with olive skin and curly hair, imagines being slighted? Don't let on... but we peasants actually find it very amusing.)

We do need more of a sense of the ridiculous today. It seems to have disappeared with the Reformation, honourable though the aftermath of that was (not least for Rome, in the end.) Yes - boy bishops, miracle plays where Joseph moans about being 'olde and colde,' salty tongued friars who would say, as Francis of Assisi once did, "tell the devil 'open your mouth and I'll shit in it."

God himself is highly playful. Those of us who are firm believers in the Real Presence in the Eucharist (as I am indeed) can see his design in that, when we are rapt in prayer before the Sacrament, we equally realise that we are kneeling before a piece of bread. Abraham's haggling 'what if there are five just men?' - Aaron's 'but we just dropped the gold in and this golden calf popped out' - Jeroboam and the donkey... and people think the Old Testament is frightening! Can we imagine, today, a God so friendly and intimate as the one with whom Abraham chatted... and please spare me the tale of Isaac, because you'll recall that Abraham did not slay his son.

God keep me loving the Looking Glass. The Franciscan jester in me must not die! :)

Saturday, 14 January 2006

Just a quote for today

Karl Rahner, a great favourite of mine, first delivered the sermon from which this excerpt is taken in Munich, 1946. The 'run on' quality and use of the 2nd person, familiar form, is in the original. I thought I'd share it as a brief 'retreat' for those who are weary. It moved me all the more to think that Karl wrote this in the rubble of the Third Reich's collapse.

"When you stand firm and don't flee despair, nor in
despairing of your former gods - the vital or the
intellectual, the beautiful and the respectable, oh
yes, that they are - which you called God, if you
don't despair in the true God, if you stand firm - oh,
that is already a miracle of grace... you suddenly
will become aware that, in truth, you are not at all
rubbled-over, that your jail is closed only to empty
finiteness, that its deadly emptiness is only the
false appearance of God, that his silence, the eerie
stillness, is filled by the Word without words, by him
who is above all names, who is everything in
everything. And his silence tells you that he is

..In your despair, notice that he is there.. Become
aware that he has been expecting you for quite some
time in the deepest dungeon of your rubbled-over
heart. Become aware that he has been quietly listening
for a long time, whether you, after all the busy noise
of your life, and all the idle talk that you called
your illusion-free philosophy of life, or perhaps even
your prayer during which you only talked to yourself,
after all the despaired weeping and mute groaning
about the need of your life, whether you finally could
be silent before him and let him speak the word, the
word that seemed only to be like a deadly silence to
the earlier man who was you. ... He actually does not
have to enter your rubbled over heart, rather that you
have to comprehend that you should not try to escape
from this heart because he indeed is there, and so
there can be no reason to flee from this blessed
despair to a consolation which would be none and which
does not exist. "

Wednesday, 11 January 2006

And then I had a nightmare...

Well, I suppose that is what happened - I rarely remember dreams, and last night was no exception.

I had many wonderful thoughts about the Baptism of the Lord this week. My images ranged from 'firstborn of all creation' bringing about cosmic redemption... and the first revelation of the Trinity when Jesus was baptised... and how his ministry began at the time... and I nearly got chills thinking of "Behold the Lamb of God." Typical of me, but still quite marvellous. Then, last night, to quiet myself when I was frustrated that I could not seem to retrieve my scholarly quickness, I spent a wonderful hour of lectio divina, reading Karl Rahner's "The Need and Blessing of Prayer." So, one would think that, even with my current uncomfortable sleeping arrangement (see previous post), I would have slept the sleep of the just, perhaps with dreams of divine doves descending.

No such luck. I suppose it stems from my having studied 18th and 19th century Evangelical trends in depth recently. (...Dare I admit that, given a choice of the two, I'd have found the 18th century to be a far more fun and interesting time to live? ... At least if I were wealthy, or knew some rakes who were... oh, but I digress.) I loathe the 'family is the Church - full stop' attitudes, in any century, and am far too sacramentally minded to go for some extremes in the Evo market. But there are a few other big differences in my approach.

Though I certainly believe that Christian commitment will lead to a stronger sense of virtue (and therefore moral behaviour), I seldom think of Jesus of Nazareth primarily as a 'moral teacher.' Now that I think of it, those who did rarely wrote of virtue in any case. The unavoidable undertone is 'what wickedness will people do if they do not fear hell?' (Thus the conclusion that unbelievers were uniformly wicked...)

None of my reflections, writing, or teaching ever centred on hell. I believe that our sinfulness indeed is a barrier to intimacy with God - and intimacy is that in which prayer consists. Yet I awoke during the night, in a panic, suddenly fearing that God would send me to hell. (What on earth I dreamt I had done that would place me on that road I do not know.)

It made me shudder. God keep me from ever seeing the life of prayer (with Karl Rahner, I use that term to mean more than time spent praying formally) in terms of reward and punishment. Love does not spring from either concept.

Yesterday, in particular, I had been studying a text regarding Puritan trends in Victorian England. Englander, a fine writer and historian, had painted a vivid picture of the sombre Christian - workaholic, always fearing wasting time, so conscious of having to account for every moment on earth that the entire effect is joyless. I shuddered at his description (based on writings in journals of the period - apparently the 'blog of the day' in some circles was a rigid examination of every possible personal sin and elaborate expressions of penitence) of self-punishment - of whipping oneself (... no, I did not read about those who literally did that) for every fault lest one be condemned.

It reminded me vaguely of Margery Kempe, with her endless desire to make a general confession. Margery, who was of some means, hired various confessors to accommodate this need. I found it telling (and hilarious) that the only confessor who endured this daily recital was one who did not understand English... Still, Margery was pre-Puritan by several centuries. I suppose I'd prefer Margery's pilgrimages to the dour Christianity that arose, first at the Reformation, then as a backlash against the 18th century excesses.

But were all of the Victorians so devout... or were they just being proper? Obviously, that would vary greatly from person to person... but did 'serve the Lord with gladness' not jog them now and then? The evangelical element (and this without denying their many accomplishments) could never get past the concepts of fallen nature and atonement at the Cross - to the Incarnation, Resurrection, Ascension and our deification.

Perhaps we should dwell on the full meaning of Jesus' baptism just a bit more. (Hint: it certainly had nothing to do with saving him from original sin inherited from Adam.)

Tuesday, 10 January 2006

Romance of Lady Poverty... ahem!

Yes, I'm a romantic at heart - hopelessly so. Yet, now and then, I let my readers see that I do not perpetually hover, somewhere between the Cloud of Unknowing and past the stars, in romantic Franciscan bliss. I embrace the consecrated poverty - it can be quite liberating. But it ain't always fun. :)

There is a coin operated washing machine in my building, and I was delighted, yesterday, to find that my coin count was sufficient to do several loads. I was not quite as happy to realise that I was the one to discover that the dryer, though making its best efforts to toss everything within about, no longer was getting hot... I dried the bedding with the iron, and was just about to admire how very nice it all looked (even if it remained slightly damp), when the bed broke. Yes, just collapsed - the wood frame breathing its last. (I have never heard of that happening... and, for the benefit of readers unfamiliar with my site, may I add that no one was sharing the bed with me except the cat.) So, now, I am doing my best to sleep curled on a settee... the bed and lovely bedding leaving only the cat to sleep in the wreckage.

Still, absolute necessities of life I do have, and even a few treats (bath gel, good Earl Grey tea.) Years of vowed poverty do foster a great deal of gratitude for what one has. It also makes one quite skillful in turning the ordinary into the special. For example, one unschooled in the art would be amazed at the attractive meals I can make from whatever I have on hand.

God grant us contentment.

Saturday, 7 January 2006

Vigil of the Baptism of Our Lord

My own post about this feast shall appear in a day or so. For the moment, anyone looking for a glorious (if lengthy) meditation would surely find a source in the Blessing of the Waters, b.y Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem. "Today the whole creation is watered by mystical streams."

I do so prefer cosmic redemption to atonement...

When You, Lord, were baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest, for the voice of the Father bore witness to You and called You His beloved Son, and the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of His word. O Christ, Our God, who revealed Yourself, and enlightened the world, Glory to You!


Luke 2:30-32 - Revised English Bible:

I have seen with my own eyes the deliverance you have made ready in full view of all nations;
A light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel.

I just love Epiphany, and indeed consider it a season unto itself whether or not the new calendar would. :) It speaks to me on many levels - a sense of awe, a thrill at 'revelation to the Gentiles' (and how incredibly extensive that would become within a short time after Jesus' lifetime), an indulgence of my taste for symbolism and for the exotic. I believe that Raymond E. Brown was one of the greatest scripture scholars of the 20th century, and have gone through his work on The Birth of Christ on many occasions, always enriching ones. Yet I do hope that he is mistaken about the tale of the Magi being expressive only of the greater truth (revelation to all) rather than an historical account. My intellectual side tells me, of course, that the theological truth is what really matters. Yet I'm sure that I am not alone in loving the images of wise men following a star.

My concentration in theological studies (and in my humanities degrees) was largely mediaeval and renaissance, though I fell in love with the patristic these past 10 years or so. I naturally love not only the tale of the Magi, but the embellishments in the apocryphal books, art, popular imagination. The idea that the 'three kings' came from Babylon, Persia, and Ethiopia, with 'dromendaries' carrying them at incredible speed, so that homage from ancient (pagan) nations could be given to the true King of Kings, is magnificent. Naturally, I love the symbolism of the gifts - to the prophet, priest, and king.

As was typical of my generation (baby boomer), I dabbled a bit in astrology during my young adult years. It is easy to forget, when one was of an era where ... princesses hired astrologers to help them plan their diaries and avoid problems, that, for ancient man, there was a terror of cosmic powers. Astrology was not a means to have romantic and 'protective' insights (as it would be for us latter day temporary Gnostics). The stars might be a source of knowledge, but they also 'ruled' - there was a concept of tyranny of cosmic powers which (as is clear in Colossians and some of the letters of Paul, as well as other very early Christian writing) it would take Jesus of Nazareth and the True God of Israel to dispel.

Given the tale of the 'three kings,' and I'm sure you'll excuse my indulging my literary fancy, I love this image of the 'old gods' taking the last moment of glory to lead the kings of great and ancient civilisations to the newborn Saviour. (That, within a few centuries, Rome would bow the lowest of all is another topic for another day.)

Sometimes, I need to shelve my intellectual emphases, just to become lost in adoration. I know that the chances of the visit of the Magi being, literally, exactly as Matthew presents this are about even with those of my winning a lottery. I doubt the Magi could have passed through Bethlehem or Nazareth unnoticed. The 'slaughter of the innocents' I could believe - even if Josephus did not mention this, Herod had often shown he was capable of such an action. Yet Herod was far too conscious of his own power to have let the Magi slip off to visit a rival king - unobserved, en route or afterward. (I'll confess that the implication that the Star led the 'kings' only to a general area, and that they assumed the kinglet must be Herodian, has an undertone of the rich, broad, Semitic humour one often finds in the Old Testament. Powerful though he was in a limited sense, Herod was far too unimportant in the larger scope of things for the heavens to take time to point to him - he had little taste for either the God of Israel or the 'old gods' - and I doubt Herod needed the cosmos on his side when he was so close with Marc Antony.)

The images are very powerful - I believe I'll rest in them for awhile, not understanding, merely offering praise.

Wednesday, 4 January 2006

Potions and spells...

No, I am not recommending either! Yet, just today, after I received an e-mail, I clicked a link which took me to a story of use of a Wiccan love potion. I've already written elsewhere about the dangers of what I class as Gnostic, yet there was a passion and longing the woman who wrote this story expressed which reminded me of a lack we often can experience in the Christian life.

I do not know if it is rooted in an excess of being rational or a fear of emotion, but there are ways in which Christianity is presented which make it seem that petitions for one's own needs are taboo. (I well remember one of the nuns telling us that it was a sin to not retain one's composure. I knew then I was doomed...) During my childhood, RC kids had the strong message that prayers could be offered for souls in purgatory or the intentions of the Holy Father - but to pray for oneself (unless it was to discern a vocation, ask forgiveness, or otherwise not speak of temporal needs) was hardly encouraged.

It varies between classes, but, as a working class kid, I am of the generation whose parents often had grown up in extreme poverty, then began working, under dreadful conditions, in the 1930s - and were young adults, often recently married, during the War. We were far from prosperous, but indeed were better off than our parents had been, and advances in eliminating communicable diseases also meant that we had a far better chance not only of living to adulthood but of not having deafness, a damaged heart, and other such souvenirs of bouts of illness. I'm sure our parents wanted us to have gratitude, and much reminded us of how much we had compared to 'their day' - but it sometimes came across as if they rather resented our 'easier' lives.

By the time I was a young adult, those of us who were 'churchy' tended to be very committed to social justice. Wonderful thought that is, it had another 'down side.' We were very conscious of the pains of the third world or of areas torn by war (we were not old enough to remember major war ourselves). But prayers of petition had to be for the entire world - not for oneself. As I mentioned in my pre-Christmas commentary, too many people forgot that, in recognising one's advantages, gratitude, not guilt, fosters a healthy spirituality.

I've written before about my mother's simple faith, which I so envy. I believe that more of that 'folk approach' would enrich us immensely. I am both too intellectual and too afraid! :) I was raised (not at home, but at school) to see Christ as one who sent his friends suffering (and we'll not even think of what he did for his enemies... justice, of course, was the point, but it did leave a bizarre picture of Jesus as vengeful which the gospels do not support.) Heaven knows that I knew the children of Fatima not only had to give their water to the sheep but had to endure all sorts of suffering for poor sinners... and little Jacinta begged Mary not to have to die all alone. Shudder! Considering that I always had a disposition towards friendliness with the Almighty, I wondered what suffering he'd have to cook up to show we were on good terms.

There often were devotional emphases which made it appear that one had to inflict suffering on oneself for a prayer to be heard. Ascetic practise was seen more as punishment than as the wealth it is.

I am rambling, I know, so I shall try to make my point. :) I am not recommending spells, potions, and the like, but such practises do express a longing of the heart that 'offer it up,' and even 'your grace is enough for me' can deny. I wonder if, at times, those who fall into non-Christian practise merely are hoping for a source of strength which involves help with one's needs and desires right here on earth. (Not that I would consider the old Celtic and Norse gods to be especially congenial... Jesus of Nazareth definitely was a more compassionate sort, but it is not Jesus that I am speaking of as the 'inflicter of suffering,' but images of him that others created later.)

After I read that story, I went to a nearby church and prayed before a statue of the Infant of Prague. (He was very well turned out - rich gold for Christmas.) Perhaps, here and there, a bit of use of sacramentals, or prayers offered (simply, for our own needs) with a hope of a compassionate answer... and the prayer offered without the undertone of "how could you help me... your people are dying in the streets?"

Now, will my readers please pray for me, that I get out of this rut and write an insightful post, with wit and humour, within the next week or so?

Tuesday, 3 January 2006

Frost and chill, bless the Lord

Somehow, I can never recite that line from the canticle without shivering. I loathe winter - feel claustrophobic in a coat, hate the ice and cold, basically feel very trapped. The Christmas season at least has its pleasant aspects, but, with its ending later this week, all there is ahead are months of shivering, dark, cracked skin and lips which have the skin peeling when I drink my tea.

I keep reminding myself of the Light of the World. :) Of course, it is highly unlikely that he was born this time of year, but linking the feast to that of the Sol Invictus was a stroke of brilliance. At least, today, most of us have heat and hot water (albeit not as much as we might wish), and, as usual, my prayer of gratitude for that stirs up petitions for those who do not have these basics. It is painful for me to picture the homeless (with whom I worked for many years), shivering in cardboard boxes, trying to get some warmth from contact with one another.

Lord, if I may borrow a powerful image from Dickens - deliver us from Ignorance and Want.

Sunday, 1 January 2006

Hymn of Philippians 2

Philippians, 2:5-11 - Revised English Bible

Take to heart among ourselves what you find in Christ Jesus;
He was in the form of God, yet he laid no claim to equality with God,
But made himself nothing, assuming the form of a slave.
Bearing the human likeness, sharing the human lot,
he humbled himself and was obedient, even to the point of death,
Death on a cross.
Therefore God raised him to the heights and bestowed on him the name above all names,
That at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow -
in heaven, on earth, and in the depths -
and ever tongue acclaim, Jesus Christ is Lord!
To the glory of God the Father.

There are various scholarly opinions regarding the origin of the hymn which Paul presents here - yet it seems clear that its elements, including the "Jesus Christ is Lord" acclamation, were liturgical. It continues to amaze me, considering that this epistle was written not long after Jesus had walked the earth, how often the Church can grasp wondrous revelation in its worship, before it could be expressed 'logically,' if indeed that latter is fully possible at all. Yes, I know it is popular today to say that Paul had no concept of Jesus' divinity, or to note that Jesus never spoke of himself as divine. (I'm too practical at heart, I suppose. Jesus could hardly have referred explicitly to divinity before the resurrection. Nor could 1st century Jews have been told "I am God," which could not have been comprehended before Christ's Church had an awareness of the Trinity.) Paul's use of the reference to Jesus' name and to every knee bowing, every tongue swearing, cannot have only an accidental similarity to Isaiah 45 - this is a reference to God Himself.

I believe it was Thomas Aquinas who, in treating of divine grace, would aptly comment that the gift is bestowed according to the manner of the recipient. I often envy the simplicity of those who approach God as a loving Father - and who are comfortable with intercession and petition, undiverted by confusion, not fearing that God will smack them for asking for bread when someone dying in the streets does not even have the snake. My own 'path' is that of paradox, as it is for many Christians. We can express in doxology what we could never explain (...though we tend to be the very ones who try to explain.) God is unknowable - and, for one like myself, given to the literary and poetic, loving theology, passionate about history and culture in relation to mankind's grasp of the divine, there is a longing to speak of Him despite a difficult awareness that everything one could say would not present a fraction of the reality.

In relation to the passage from Philippians, Tom Wright (among others) notes that Jesus' not 'grasping at' equality with God tells us that Jesus would not use for his own gain the glory he always had. Peter T. O'Brien, expounding on Wright's work, explains the clause as not concessive but causal. Precisely because he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard this equality with God as to be used for his own advantage. F. F. Bruce explains that it is not that Jesus exchanged the form of God for that of a slave, but that he manifested the divine form. Divine equality meant sacrificial self-giving. The Hymn reveals not only what Jesus is truly like, but what it means to be God.

I am not a scripture scholar by any standard. I do not lose sleep over the synoptic problem - or about whether an original source might have been "Q" or "M". I love the new lectionary for its liturgical 'themes,' even if, were I to be pressed, I'd concede that they often have no exegetical connection. The words of the scholars whom I quoted in that last paragraph (and they are only a snippet from the wonderful commentaries on Philippians which are on my shelves) leave me with awe. Yet another part of me is saying, "How can divine omnipotence leave us with sacrificial self-giving being a glimpse of what it means to be God? How could God have manifested this except in his human nature?"

With a little help from divine grace, I then will see that the answer is "I do not know - I cannot understand," at which point I shall recite the same hymn as one of praise.

Happy New Year to all

Nothing profound is forthcoming tonight (or, I should say) this morning. I'm all alone with Mirielle (my cat), having just had a nice drink and said the Night Office, watching my small but beautiful little Christmas tree, reminding myself that I'm embracing the world with love through the prayer even if I have no one with whom to celebrate this year.

Some of you may notice that I posted a new link on the blog site - that of a booklet with prayers for peace from the 12 major world religions (it dates to the conference in Assisi, nearly 20 years ago.) Lord knows that war has always been a fact of human history - I wonder if the last sounds on this earth will be those of battle, and this alone can make me weep. Yet we also need to pray for peace in a greater sense - peace with others, peace within ourselves, petition that our own violence and greed (though normally nothing on a par with Hiroshima in impact) do not hide the image of God in us.

I loathe New Year's resolutions, as I've made plain elsewhere - they tend to be very self-absorbed, not to mention ways to transform oneself into a total bore. Yet to the serious seekers who may read this blog, I shall leave one thought (other than 'repent,' because we never like that one much, do we.) :) "Self-denial" can be a path to misery - and more for that which its practitioners tend to inflict on others than the effect on oneself, since smugness can sustain us. Religious practise, asceticism, the sacrifice that is a part of any dedicated life, should not have shades of self-hatred, punishment, misery, or guilt for enjoying the goods of creation. It should remove distractions to union with God and love of neighbour, not create new ones.

I am sure that most of us have had times when, even if we are lifelong believers and sincere in Christian commitment, we can become discouraged, bitter, tired of it all. I indeed have experienced this. When this led me into a period of total frustration and weakness, what sustained me was fostering a spirit of gratitude. I'm trying to practise this most difficult virtue once again, knowing that it has a way of fostering peace and love within us - so, I share it with my readers., get me another gin... Happy New Year, my friends, and pray for me that this little holiday I'm allowing myself till Twelfth Night refreshes my mind so my studies and writing can improve. I am much stronger than I was a few years ago, but still am frustrated that I have not recovered my quickness. There is much I wish to share - and my language ability is still hampered - so, for now, I leave you with knowing that good wishes and prayers are with everyone who reads this blog.

Now, lest I end on a discouraging note, I shall leave you with a funny (and, as always, true) story. When I was a child, the 1st of January was the Feast of the Circumcision. The nun from whom I first learnt this, when I was aged 6 or 7, cryptically mentioned that the Circumcision was 'the first time Jesus shed his blood for us.' I naturally was puzzled, and then as now was someone who tends to asks questions even when it is clear that the person I am asking wishes to evade the issue. So, when I asked what 'circumcision' was, I received the odd answer 'ask your mother.' (In those days, nuns from Cork were not likely to refer to certain unmentionable body parts, especially when such were perceived as the source of much sin in humanity. It is fortunate that the 'sinful' part was not mentioned, or I - then as now one who thought James' letter was spot on - would have thought Jesus' tongue had been cut out.)

By the age of 7, I, a fairly sophisticated child, would not have been inclined to consult my mother on matters theological, but there are times when one has no choice. Mum was southern Italian, and had none of the reticence of southern Ireland, but was a champion hypochondriac, a state which would influence her answers on just about anything. (Mum was fortunate to be of an era and class where people had nothing to do with doctors if they could help it, and when such business as 'support groups,' online information, self-help books, and 'preventative care' were decades in the future. Had she been born in a later time, she'd have been dead at 40, but I digress...) Though she did tell me what circumcision was, she explained that it meant 'cutting off a piece of his penis so there would not be any infections.'

I suppose that was my first impetus to read the works of great theologians (though I wonder what Augustine would have made of that one....) I was left with a very puzzling picture of the Church's placing a feast on the calendar to commemorate that Jesus was prevented from having penile infections.