Monday, 3 December 2007

Blog of a nobody

No, my friends, I am not suffering from an attack of 'bad self-esteem.' I must use that disclaimer because, in these Internet days, lots of nut cases who are into pop psychology send me condescending email that makes me laugh... or, on a day when I am irritable (all too common in cold weather) send back somewhat sarcastic responses. How well I remember when a wry entry I wrote on a forum, in which I explored the humour of how different upper class Anglican coffee hours are from Italian Franciscan churches, prompted a response from a (clearly rather bent) woman, totally unknown to me, who had decided that I suffered from "imagined slights." She proceeded to write about two reams telling me all about her "journey with Prozac." For once, I had the good taste not to respond that such a self-absorbed, weird rambling - not to mention the inability to understand humour - showed me, all too well, that, wherever the "journey" took her, it clearly was not to anything resembling health.

"Blog of a nobody" was a game which lasted briefly on a forum on which I participated, where many entries were clever and funny. Recently, one bit of correspondence I received (from a sincere little soul who apparently reads only the titles on my Internet site essays... she asked me to send her a blessing for her Book of Shadows) enquired about why my blog is purely on spiritual matters and the like. She wanted to know why I don't share day to day happenings in my life.

Well, the fact is that self-absorption is not exactly my style, and that I do not have the sort of life of which details would be particularly exciting. However, I shall add this single entry, in the style of the short-lived "Blog of Nobody Game," which actually records some of what has happened in my life these past few weeks. I am sure those curious about my everyday life will be satisfied with this sampler and ask for no more. :) (Many bloggers who write details of their lives use no pronouns to begin sentences - so, in cases where I did not, please do not think I've snapped and become illiterate.)

  • It was a cold and stormy day, and I had just exited from the library. I ate my packed lunch (tuna and a few tiny tomatoes which I got on sale) in the frigid park. Was joined by a homeless man who mistook me for a Daisy O'Leary who taught him when he was a school boy. The cold make me shiver - I threw my scarf over my face - and, for a brief moment, thought my nose had fallen off.

  • The cat was talking very fluently one evening - and, when she says more than two 'words' at a time, she always is telling me something. Unfortunately, for all my extensive language studies, I never learnt Cattish. Walked into the kitchen to find that the people upstairs had a leak, from the back of their sink (thank heavens.. it could have been worse), and that water was pouring through a new hole in my ceiling. Exercised my wonderful mechanical abilities trying to plug the ceiling with mailing tape.

  • Awakened to find that ceilings cannot be fixed with mailing tape. Tried a towel.

  • Went to the gym. Decided to have some time in the 'spa', then a sauna, before the class I like. Settled in the sauna, feeling rather like a spoilt princess, and began massaging my Rubenesque self with what's left of my aromatherapy products. Suddenly was interrupted by a gym staff member - a pipe was leaking from their ceiling (lots of that going around, I suppose...), and all ladies had to exit the locker room area, because a repairman was on his way in to fix the hole. Wrapped towel about myself and dressed behind a small curtain which usually hides the scale. Dropped my glasses - lens fell out - searched for someone with good eyesight to find the lens - raced to optometrist to get the lens stuck back in - realised that the surest way to feel like a living icicle is to race out in the cold when one has just been in a jacuzzi and sauna.

  • Attended the gym class. One exercise, performed sitting, was "knees to the chest and upright row!" Discovered that one advantage to entering the High Middle Ages (of one's life...) is that placing the knees to the chest becomes quite easy, because one's chest is now hanging practically to one's knees...

  • Needed a few grocery items. I went to a grocery store in the car. Found that the windscreen wipers refused to shut off, no matter how I fiddled with the controls - which was puzzling since I'd not turned them on in the first place. Realised there must be a short in the electrical system. Burst into tears, because I'd specifically petitioned God last night that I have no unexpected expenses for a few months.

  • Intended to settle down with a warm blanket, a Dickens novel, and a cup of strong Earl Grey tea. Entered the flat to find that the cat was throwing up.

  • Began to make notes for an essay on John Duns Scotus for the Internet site. Realised I was already behind in my philosophy of religion studies. Stood in the sitting room and delivered an imaginary lecture in which I refuted Richard Dawkins to thunderous applause. (That's often how I teach myself a concept. My cat has an excellent theological education - I'm going to have her write the first textbook on the subject in Cattish.)

  • Went to a wonderful church service for the beginning of Advent. The first hymn was a great favourite of mine, "Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending." Hoped I could have the joy of singing out. Found that no sound was coming out of my throat, probably because I'd had a cough drop before the service began.

  • Nearly danced for joy when a dear friend sent me an early Christmas present - a wonderful Byzantine Canterbury cross, in silver. Decided I must wear it the next time I went out. Discovered that I did not have a chain.

  • I was delighted to find some large, delectable looking sausages on sale. Soon discovered the reason for the wonderful price. When I cooked one, I took it from the pan to find that it had shrunk to the size of a sewing needle.

  • Replaced the light bulbs with those which are supposed to save energy. Found that they were adequate, but made it hard to see well enough to thread a needle.

  • Scrubbed the kitchen floor to a fare-thee-well. Got a piece of steel wool in my finger. Soaked it in epsom salts. Phoned a handy acquaintance to ask him to do something about that ceiling. Towel had been ineffective. Reflected on my dad's 'book learning but not ways of the world' theory, since he, for example, would have made sure the ceiling was totally fixed before he scrubbed the floor.

  • Sewed three buttons on to my winter coat. Then took two hours to put up a hem by hand, because I found that using the sewing machine was a physical impossibility with a cat who thinks the needle to be a toy. Refrained from spending the evening taking stitches out of a paw.

  • Thought watching a Christmas film on television (of which I'd never heard... the film, that is, since I know the television for years) would be a pleasant diversion for a romantic like myself who still believes in Father Christmas. Found that the title was misleading - turned it off as soon as I saw it was a dismal script about a young woman who goes into a coma on Christmas Eve. Watched Albert Finney in the musical Scrooge (for which I have the tape) instead. Realised I knew the dialogue by heart.

  • Went to get postage stamps. A young woman holding a tiny poodle was standing before me in the queue. Said poodle was wearing what seemed to be a very elaborate tartan coat, which cried out "please admire my dog." Complimented said dog's taste in coats. Was informed, by the slightly insulted 'owner,' that it was not a coat - it was a dress! Held in laughter. (Note that, in the case of dogs, one can probably say 'owner.' It must be noted that no one owns a cat - the reverse is true.)

  • Happily got out my Christmas decorations from my storage closet. (Quite a feat - I had to move out my paper products and cleaning stuff to do so, and this without knocking over the electronic keyboard and sewing machine. Brief period of mourning for the piano I no longer had room for when I moved.) Had a happy nostalgia trip, remembering how the beloved ornaments (which I've collected for years) brought back wonderful memories. Decided that, since no one is usually here except myself, it would be all right to put up the decorations and enjoy them throughout Advent. Brief period of mourning when I found that one of the Father Christmas statues now had no head.

  • Decided that Pope Benedict's "Eschatology" would make for wonderful Advent reading, and dug out the volume. Became distracted (and it is ultimate humility for me to admit this in public.) Settled on re-reading "A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations." Developed a yearning for smoking bishop - then found I was out of both gin and wine. Pondered why it's so hard to find goose nowadays.

If those of the likes of the Prozac lady have read this far, they may be assured that this is only a sampler. There is much more to my life than this, of course, and much of it is quite wonderful... but it would seem quite banal to many. See my previous entries on the banality of orthopraxy for details.

Blessed Advent, all!

The great-a God! He became-a so small!

No question - Advent is a marvellous season, of anticipation of the parousia and memories of divine promises fulfilled in Christ. Yet I need to be a bit silly today (and, with how cold it is, my brain hasn't thawed out), so I'm sure I'll be forgiven if I 'rerun' a story I mentioned a few years ago. As with all my anecdotes, this one is perfectly true.

Winter blues and loneliness (all the worse knowing that winter has not even started as yet, and the cold is already getting to me) have put a damper on my quickness. I am not ready, at the moment, to write of Israel's expectation, the Incarnation, or the church waiting in joyful hope... though I'll get to it eventually. For the moment, I shall share a memory of my days with the friars.

Father Michael was unusually short and slight, but highly expansive, and his gestures tended to be fit for a man the size of Goliath of Gath. Michael was Italian, and had learnt his English from a woman who had a very high, light voice, whom he imitated a bit too well. Consequently, he spoke English (though not his native tongue) in an extremely squeaky voice. The combination of massive gestures and chirping tones gave a general effect of a jumping-jack in an uncharacteristic brown costume.

Michael's warmth and sincerity were enormous as he reminded his congregation, during an Advent sermon, that this was a time when "we have to thank God for the c-u-u-u-te little-a beby Jesus!" (No, for once that is not a typographical error - I'm trying to truly catch the flavour.) Raising his arms over his head like the risen Messiah, Michael expounded, "The great God!!!" (Hands now at breast height, illustrating the size of an ample newborn.) "He became-a so small!" Michael's sermon continued for a time, with repeated references to the 'great God who became-a so small,' and, though I was biting my lip not to laugh aloud, many of the congregation were moved nearly to tears. (Franciscan theology can be odd at times - but their sermons do stimulate a sense of the vivid.)

I was congratulating myself for not having lapsed into a laughing fit - which would have been most uncomfortable for a highly visible director of music. And all went well until Michael's little voice piped, "Behold-a the lamb of (pronounced 'lay-ma') God!"

I may have retained what little was left of my composure had the friar next to me not whispered, "He became-a so small!"

Saturday, 1 December 2007

What worries me is that I understood what he said...

I cannot remember where I first read this very apt item: "I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant." How very true that is, and frequently. People often finish others' sentences (convinced that the person to whom they didn't listen said this or that); assume what another must be thinking or feeling, and mentally 'finish the sentence'; pick up on key words and respond as if they were some online FAQ.

Yet there are other times when I am quite amused because, for all that I think murdering the English language should be all but a capital offence, I know what someone did say... and worry only because I do know what they meant. (Please bear with me - I just took a shot at the language, albeit not death-dealing, by using the 'quasi singular,' but I'm so tired of having to write "he or she" all the time that it's more restful.)

I'm smiling in remembrance of such conversations as those I shall whimsically recall here (all of which are perfectly true.) For example, John, one of my old friends, sometimes had others comment that his parents were quite 'on the September side' to have sons who at the time were still under 30. John's mother had been married young, but was thought to be sterile, and it was ten years before she conceived a child - then, surprisingly enough, her second son was born only a year after the first. Once, when someone asked John if his parents had married late, he said they actually had been married for years when the firstborn (his brother Ray) arrived. As John put it, "They didn't think my mother could have children - and, after she had Ray, they were sure."

Now, this, taken literally, makes about as much sense as the much-quoted Yogi Berra's saying "it's not over till it's over," or "that restaurant is so crowded that nobody goes there any more." But, admit it, you know what John meant as well! (One Christmas Eve, when John was going to his parents' house for dinner, my sister accompanied him. His parents were feeling a loss, because their dog had died only a week earlier. John told me, with great sincerity, "I'm so glad your sister is coming - my mother and father miss the dog terribly." Whether a plate of dog biscuits was presented to her when she arrived I never did ask.)

Here's another gem - again from an actual conversation:
"Andy, is Tony J. dead?"
"You know why I'm asking - I saw him the other day."

That I perfectly understood that one probably means I'm even worse off than I thought.

Given the nature of the person, I naturally have to include a liturgical example. I know how to play a guitar, so I often had the penance (then, I'm sure, supposed to be a privilege) or performing at 'folk Masses' during the 1970s. Remember the favourite "Hear, O Lord"? The first verse was "Every night before I sleep I pray my soul to take. Or else I pray that loneliness is gone when I awake." Many people were quite moved by the lyrics, and indeed "Hear, O Lord" was a very popular request. Yet, were one to take a second (or even hard first) glance at the lyrics, it does seem strange that anyone would be praying to die tonight, and see this as preferable to being lonely tomorrow.

I rant about busybodies on the Internet often enough, so I'll just caution those in truly pastoral roles to be very careful about 'filling in the blanks' thinking they know what people mean or should mean - much less picking up on 'key words' and making up the rest. But I had a very true reflection which has its tragic-comic elements.

Certainly, many fields (for example, medicine, law, or other sciences) have very specific terminology which has a totally different meaning in the vernacular. The theological realm is no exception! (I read an Internet thread, on a theology forum, about 'nominalism,' and jumped in, thinking someone was just about to refute William of Ockham. I had to read half a thread before I realised that no participant up to that point had any idea of what nominalism is. The original post on the thread was about people who are churchgoers but not otherwise avid Christians, so they are purely 'nominalists.') It is hard to find a balance between necessary precision and misunderstanding.

I'm thinking of Walter Hilton for a moment. (Well, why not? He had some excellent ideas - and it's highly unlikely that anyone else is thinking about him at the moment - but you can find some information about him in the link in the title if you wish.) He not only had to deal with confusion in English terms which have a different meaning in the vernacular than academically, but was the first to write a book about theology in English. One might assume that it would be simpler to write in his own native tongue than in Latin (though a civil and canon lawyer would have used Latin constantly), but it actually presented significant difficulties. There are many theological terms in Latin (or Greek - in fact, the latter even more so... ask anyone who was dealing with Athanasius or the crises that can come from an iota) which have a very precise meaning. The English equivalent word may differ, in nuance if not in specific meaning, and there often is no precise equivalent at all.

I'm not suggesting no one realises this. The trouble is that too many of those who do, rather than explaining a term, 'dumb down' what they are saying as if the hearers were incapable of understanding. And those who have true gifts for explaining are often discouraged... because those who just like to hear themselves talk will interrupt, say, a talk on Pope Benedict's brilliant "Eschatology" with a question about how one will recognise the end times...

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Meet you in hell before I stand you another...

Forgive me - This is one Sunday when I have no friend to meet in a pub, so I suppose my discouragement left me unable to resist quoting that old toast.

The Feast of Christ the King is a great favourite of mine. I can think of easily fifty themes on which a sermon for this feast could be structured... in fact, if my mind gets fully into gear, perhaps I'll compose one and post it later this week. I may not be John Henry Newman, John Wesley, or Benedict XVI, but I can guarantee that whatever sermon I composed would have to be an improvement over the travesty I heard this morning.

Most of the time, I attend churches where there is exceptional music, liturgy, and preaching (well, most of the time. I've never much favoured those of one young curate who always seems to include anecdotes about games he played as a child.) This morning, I was delayed, and ended up paying one of my occasional visits to a local Catholic church. (It shall remain nameless. There are many words of praise I can sing for this parish in other ways, so I am not going to refer to its name lest anyone think the bitter 'meal' of this morning's sermon, which still leaves me with some indigestion, is standard fare - quite the contrary!)

Not having been there recently, I had not known that the parish now had a Tridentine Mass. With Papa Benedict, whose motu proprio was long overdue, I love it, but clearly some people there did not, and many complained, on the way out, that they felt as if they hadn't been to Mass at all. A relatively young priest said the Mass impeccably (if one likes 1962 rubrics... it was a basic 'dialogue Mass,' but the people don't even recite the Credo and Lord's Prayer, and the canon is silent), though I doubt he had yet seen the light of day in 1962. His sermon killed the effect - for my readers to get the picture, it was the sort of sermon I indeed heard in 1962, and which James Joyce immortalised in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He preached entirely about Hell, and indeed read from Alphonsus Liguori's work on the subject, quoting passages about the physical torments of hell, especially for sins of the flesh! (I suppose I'm home free... though I have heard there are ten commandments... and something else about said commandments sealing a covenant, first at Sinai, which foreshadowed one which involved a Church...)

I have some sympathy with the great Alphonsus, of course. In fact, some of his writings on moral theology, which so allow for how one can be deficient in intention, will, or reason, are positively brilliant. Alphonsus, who was bishop of the diocese which neighboured on that of my parents, was dealing with people who had used 'the son of a bitch had it coming to him' as a defence for murder since the days of the Roman Empire - I once heard of a case where one man killed another (this in my parents' day, not Alphonsus') because the guy who was murdered was grandson of a man who'd stolen a piece of cheese from the killer's own grandfather (a cheese merchant.) I suppose that Alphonsus was trying to put a bit of the fear of hell into those in the congregation (not a majority, but surely those who paid for the stained glass windows) who might belatedly be expected to grow a conscience.

For this young priest, I had no sympathy! He kept going on as if Hell were our default location for the next life. Of course, when he mentioned that, with this being the end of the liturgical year, he's going to use Alphonsus' writings for his meditations this week, I could not help but think of how many more suitable writings I can think of to warm up for Advent... (If he's dead set on Alphonsus, how about the humane, pastoral, loving care for penitents?)

Christ is King of all creation... the judge who sends many of us to hell... charming picture... Cosmic redemption, anyone?

It is unfortunate that, in our teaching, sermons, and focus, including in some elements of worship, we have lost the awe which the earliest Christians had for the resurrection - and which was expressed in their liturgy. Just as one example, Martin Luther, who whatever his strengths did illustrate an uncommonly high degree of angst, was totally preoccupied for years with whether his contrition was sufficient. The prayer books, which many read at the Eucharist before the time of any congregational responses, focussed unduly on Jesus' death as a source of forgiveness (to the exclusion of little details like the resurrection, ascension, public ministry as prophet, hidden glory, coming in glory which we await...), and tended to consist of a string of prayers for mercy.

Catholics, for all their reputation for having excessive guilt, are extremely tolerant in doctrine. There is no idea that only Catholics (or Christians) have a chance at eternal joy in God's presence - or that God is a vengeful, or at best indifferent, judge who consigns most of his creation to hell! I've seen far worse in some other varieties of Christian, who seem to think that even baptised believers are headed for a fiery destination if they haven't pronounced the magic words of a second 'born again' formula.

I often wonder, if I were an unbeliever, if 'believe, and behave, and obey on all things, or head for hell' would do anything except get me running in another direction. I would not care to know a God such as that. I'm not denying the wickedness in this world, of course, nor am I minimising the obstacles to union with God inherent in our own sinfulness. (The heinous sins I personally do not consider to be the result of weakness - I'd call them demonic, because they are against even the instincts of our humanity. But note that I am referring to the Hitlers and Pol Pots, not to most of us garden variety Christians.) But our sins hamper the intimacy to which God calls us - and repentance opens us to this intimacy.

I never discourse on Hell! Yet I shall quote a reference from a sermon I heard, also recently, in response to questions about hell, which I greatly prefer. "You can go to hell - if you really insist!"

Presumably my readers would be more interested in the positive side of the afterlife (and may even believe that our life in Christ actually begins right here...), so I'll close with a quote from Papa Benedict. Would that I could write one paragraph of this quality before I die!

"Heaven, therefore, must first and foremost be determined christologically. It is not an extra-historical place into which one goes. Heaven's existence depends upon the fact that Jesus Christ, as God, is man, and makes space for human existence in the existence of God himself...It is by being with Christ that we find the true location of our existence as human beings...Christ is the temple of the final age; he is heaven, the new Jerusalem, he is the cultic space for God...

If heaven depends on being in Christ, then it must involve a co-being with all those who, together, constitute the body of Christ. Heaven is a stranger to isolation. It is the open society of the communion of saints, and in this way the fulfilment of all human communion."

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Who would want to be under 25?

The link in the title is to an interview with Imelda Staunton, who is one of my favourite actresses, and is related to her new role in Cranford (which features just about every living favourite actress of mine!) Imelda and I are about the same age - though, having seen (and loved) her in "Vera Drake," where she seemed much older, I sometimes have to remind myself of this. :) Though her interview was about acting roles for women who are beyond their first youth, I longed to borrow the title.

It often puzzles me why women in our age group (and many who are even younger) are often so preoccupied with looking younger, or being thought to be very young. I remember a conversation I once had with a well-known hairdresser (the sort who 'does' the famous), during which he was telling me that some 'makeovers' do not at all make the women look prettier - but that does not matter, because what they want is their 'new look.' I was all the more surprised to learn that even women who are 20 sometimes will do anything to change appearance, even if it is not flattering in the least, if they think it makes them look younger.

Looking back over my life, indeed I had great promise as a young woman - and I'll concede I bitterly regret that, with being forced into business jobs for sheer bread and butter, I never had any chance to fulfil that promise. I enjoyed my years of university and graduate studies (well, they are still going on... but I mean the first 20 years or so of my education), singing opera, writing, lecturing - and it would have broken my heart had I ever known I'd hit my peak at about 25 and then slide 'downhill all the way.' Yet I honestly haven't the slightest desire to be very young again!

I suppose that it would be different were my chief interests in, for example, athletics, or becoming a ballerina, or otherwise in areas in which youth is a huge asset. To pick one of my interests out of the sky, though young adults indeed can be knowledgeable in theology, truly innovative thought, wisdom, unusual insight, the skill to be a spiritual director, and other aspects require far more experience and time to mature - rather after the fashion of any good wine save that served in Cana. (Yes, I know that neither Jesus of Nazareth nor Francis of Assisi had long earthly lives, but Jesus is in a class by himself and Francis had many gifts, of which wisdom was not one.) There are various theologians, worthy of great distinction, who are in my age group - and, for that field, they are just beyond babyhood.

I would not be 20 again for anything on earth. Perhaps those who look back (in most cases - I certainly could understand if someone had a devastating illness or some other horrid problem later) are glorifying the memories.

I'm thinking of when I happened to meet a girl with whom I'd attended school. Though she did have much school involvement in those days, and I'm sure has genuinely happy memories of much of this, having known her at the time I am fully aware that she was a sensitive sort who seemed to spend about a third of her time crying in the loo. (I naturally would never remind her of this!)

Of course, those who did not have the good fortune to be able to pursue higher education have a very idealistic, even ridiculous, picture of what those years were like. (I was delighted when I received my degree - not so much so when a cousin told me, "This was fun - now you have to go to work.") The images of endless fun, carefree living, and so forth are very much off the mark - just ask any student preparing for finals, or trying to crank out a thesis, or juggling miserable jobs with massive studies.

My own memory is a video camera (which naturally did not exist in my youth), where many others have more of a photo album mentality. Think of it - a photograph of an occasion (even if it was nothing that wonderful) can make things appear splendid. Videos capture too much - that's their downfall. :)

So, I shall record this virtually useless entry mainly to record my puzzlement. (I also shall pause for a moment to think of the cast of Cranford - Imelda Staunton, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith et al - and doubt that anyone would say their acting ability is less than that of those much younger...) For me, 50 is about the brink of any possible age of wisdom. The early days are valuable training, formation, what-not, but looking back to them with 'rose coloured glasses' only makes us pine for what might have been (though what 'might have been' may have turned out no better), or picture a blissful lost age that makes us discontented with this one.

(That is allowed at the age of 80 only! I had no qualms about my mother and her friends speaking with fondness of the war years... even knowing that no one could picture their 20s as being a happy or idyllic era!)

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Some brief thoughts on Richard Dawkins

It is odd what one can find in one's 'mail boxes' (electronic or real) on any one day when one maintains an Internet site. Within today's batch were an announcement of a presentation on Thomas Aquinas with the excellent and apt title of "How to Be Happy," which made me glad that people attending will (possibly for the first time in their lives) be exposed to the extensive emphasis Thomas actually placed on this. I also received an email from an irate evangelical, who was scolding me for including an essay on Chaucer's "Miller's Tale," which he saw as an endorsement of adultery and sorcery (astrology... I had not noticed that Chaucer exactly recommended listening to astrologers in his text, and the adulterer hardly fares well), because I find it to be an hilarious story. My mail also included a few with obscene subject lines - I did not open them, because they clearly were advertisements for pornography sites, but I dare say that whatever search mechanisms the originators use do not have the sophistication to distinguish between 'bestiary,' the mediaeval home of the unicorn, gryphon, and ant-lion, and a vaguely similar word which... has no connection with any practises I would be likely to embrace. I then received a highly unwelcome package from someone who clearly has not read my site (mediaeval spirituality) or most of this blog (which I'd hardly find a depressing spot), and who saw my infrequent, brief illustrations of points which referred to my convent life as imprisoning me in some form of bitterness and inaction.

Will someone please get me another gin? I'd best make this one a double... (Oh, heavens... now I'll be getting email about 'substance abuse' from those who have no understanding of irony...)

As my faithful readers know, I've been studying the philosophy of religion in great detail this past year. Never one to scimp on the scope of an area, I 'spent' this afternoon with Richard Dawkins (in the sense of reading his works, not having a gin - for all of our ideological differences, the man indeed has wit and intelligence, and I'm not sure a pub visit with him would be entirely unpleasant.) Now, I suppose that, in Dawkins' view, I am rather hopeless, if not stupid or lacking in intellectual integrity, considering his assertion that "dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument." But we faith heads can take heart - his views of Yahweh are so hateful that, by contrast, we get off easily.

I am neither scientist nor philosopher, nor (with the study and writing schedule I have now) do I have the spare energy to refute Dawkins in the first place. Yet certain thoughts came to me when I was exploring his work. I know, from other (sincere and honourable) email in my inbox that a few of my readers think I am wasting time (which could be better spent with, let us say, scriptures or classic theologians... though it may be no surprise that I hang out with them quite a bit as well) by reading the works of atheists or 'Christians' of odd bent. My own source of strength (beyond divine grace - and I'm not about to try to explain just what that is) is very intellectual. There are current philosophers, historians, and even theologians, with whose conclusions I would disagree drastically, yet whose work is of value for other reasons than fostering faith, or who (as in Dawkins case) raise questions which theists are overdue in addressing, and which require further scholarly treatment. (This is not to say that no one is taking care of the latter - but the matters under consideration should have been reviewed in more depth centuries ago.)

"The God Delusion" is a rant, and frankly a poor illustration for one of Dawkins' clear intelligence and learning. (By contrast, I found his Blind Watchmaker to be an excellent and worthwhile refutation of the 'design arguments' along the lines of Paley's, which I have long found to be more problematic than inspiring.) One could receive the impression that all Christians are miserable souls who are haunted by guilt, longing for the liberating truths which Dawkins shall impart. (I know there are those who were exposed to miserable religious ideas and threats of hell - but the extreme examples Dawkins gives somehow remind me more of pathology than faith. I cannot recall any element of my own life, for example - whether presentation of catechesis, my essays, any part of my prayer, or any element of metanoia and conversion, which has the slightest connection with avoiding a fiery destiny. I never think of hell at all.) It is more irksome that Dawkins assumes that his own colleagues (scientists) who are theists are basically liars - pretending to a Christian faith to win acceptance, or that those who, for example, still espouse a form of teleological argument are in an "epistemological safe zone" where rational argument could not reach them.

Yet Dawkins work, as I see it, falls into two categories for a faith head like myself. Such scholarly works as "The Blind Watchmaker" have enormous value - just as, for example, for all my disagreement with John Dominic Crossan, I think his work on first century Palestine is ground breaking and valuable to any theologian. Books such as the "God Delusion" seem far more aimed at a popular market of those ill informed, or 'burnt' by past religious experience, or who smugly assume that no one with any intelligence (...I suppose that John Hick, Josef Ratzinger, John Polkinghorne, and countless other geniuses are in that category) could believe in theism.

Even books in the latter category can be valuable. Philosophical arguments for the existence of God, as even the most avid Thomistic philosopher today would concede, in many cases indeed are self contradictory. Others are obsolete in expression. Still others seem distressingly naif, today, because they are based on long outdated scientific or historical premises. There need to be fresh presentations, even when some are of ancient ideas (...Plato and Thomas Aquinas, or Augustine and Aquinas, or Augustine and Aristotle, were hardly contemporaries...). The mockery of one such as Dawkins, narrow though it is, can inspire exceptional Christian writings.

I must add that I agreed with a large amount of what Dawkins did say in refutation of certain ideas. (I'll not devote much space to that, considering hate mail and assertions of certain varieties of 'Christian' whom Dawkins mentioned, if I believed in capital punishment, which of course I do not, I'd string them up at dawn. But, in half a century of being a Christian, I must admit that, happily, I've rarely, if ever, met the likes of those who write such letters or have such limited perspectives.) Pascal's Wager (which I'd always assumed to be rather ironic, but who knows?) indeed does seem an inspiration merely to feign belief in God. Richard Swinburne, whose work I respect in various ways, irritates me with his harping on courage and suffering being fostered by evil - and anyone who can state that the Holocaust gave Jews a chance to show courage and the like, as if this were part of a divine plan, ought to spend his Purgatory shining Eichmann's shoes.

Dawkins also is woefully correct about how certain presentations of Christian doctrines can lead to images of a masochistic, punishing, thought-reading (and more... I'm too weary to quote it all) God. Of course, I always have an allowance for that inspired scriptures still were written with human pens, and basically strong images of a faithful Yahweh, for example, can drown in justification for human violence. I also know that Anselm, Augustine, et al - whose writings on atonement and original sin can make my skin crawl - presented ideas which, while essentially expressing images of divine salvation, revelation, and fidelity, need serious, contemporary treatment which preserves the essential while tossing a good deal of the wrappings.

The bitter Christians whom Dawkins mentions, and whose pain I would never minimise, are hardly representative of the species. For Dawkins, religious ritual is a ‘charade.’ He also focuses on extremes – and on those whom religion has made miserable, where many Christians (and believers of all faiths) have found their faith to be highly enriching. One could come away thinking that religious practise means inevitable misery and pain. My own experience has been based on a model a far cry from neurotic guilt! Even when one considers conversion (to which we all have a constant calling) when it actually means (running for cover at introducing a forbidden word...) repentance, it more often is a peaceful, warm, lovely experience of being aware of the embrace of divine love. For many of us, it stems from no fear of hell, but from awareness of an invitation to greater intimacy.

I've rambled quite enough for today, but I'll add one last thought which may surprise those of you who know that my own reflections are often intended either to inspire prayer or virtue (even if in unconventional fashion), or to clarify misunderstood doctrines (argue to doomsday, but at least base it on the actual point you wish to smash.) Long live controversy! The disillusioned readers to whom Dawkins is appealing are nothing new - they were common during the Enlightenment, and haunted every pub in Oxford (where Dawkins is) during the "Crisis of Faith" in the 1800s (even if the other students were crowding in to see Newman.) I'll take an honest atheist over a sycophant or a supposed Christian who has only his own motives in mind. But many of those in the Victorian crisis of faith mode, for example, probably never had any faith to lose! Their 'faith' was based on a glorified image of family, or on fear, or on duty.

One cannot come to a mature faith (in many cases - I've heard not everyone is interested, and that a few here and there never give philosophical arguments a thought...) unless one thinks, and challenges, and forms one's own viewpoints. One cannot build intimacy with God on 'obedience' and 'duty' - that is formation for a child (or perhaps a soldier), but not for the Christian calling - which is love. If one actually is not a believer (though many an atheist, some quite prominent Christians later, is not an unbeliever for life), I'd prefer being true to what one really believes - one cannot develop one's true self by its denial.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Perhaps this will enlighten me - excellent link

This is not one of my own 'blogging days,' but I just visited Father Gregory's blog, and the excellent article to which I've linked in the title not only makes superb points but just may get me to develop a slim grasp of the anthropic and quantum mechanics - both of which I've mentioned in recent entries.

Friday, 19 October 2007

When did privacy become a crime?

Some years ago, I remember enjoying two books by author Marie Killiliea, both of which centred on her family and their efforts to find proper treatment for their daughter, Karen, who has cerebral palsy. The books were written with great flair and wit. The first book, Karen, focussed mainly on Karen herself. In the second, With Love from Karen, much of the emphasis is on the Killilea's (apparently) adopted, older daughter, Gloria. Gloria was a convert to Catholicism, very staunch in beliefs, and much of the action refers to how Gloria and her husband waited seven years for an annulment of his first marriage in order to marry.

The books are far from ponderous, dull, or depressing! Both are filled with accounts of varied activities amongst all family members, and contain an ample dose of humour. Of course, there are themes which undoubtedly cause the books to have a bit of a slant. My impression is that Karen had a dual purpose - to emphasise the potential of people who are disabled, and to show Karen herself as the perfect Catholic who never complains, always sees God's hand in her suffering, and the like. With Love from Karen is great fun in many aspects, but here Gloria is the major saint - through Karen's influence in part. The latter book is a 'happily ever after' story, where the couple who remained faithful to Church teachings are settled in a charming red farmhouse with their two beautiful new daughters.

When I stumbled upon a Yahoo discussion group about the Killileas (which I do not recommend - one must spend hours sifting through tens of thousands of messages to find the 1% that have any relation to the topic), I was surprised and saddened to read that, not long after Marie's second book became a bestseller, there was an electrical fire in Gloria's house, which caused the death of her two eldest daughters and a niece. I also learnt that, though the Killileas had been public figures for some time, with Marie's being highly involved in organisations related to cerebral palsy (and the lot of them avidly involved with exhibiting their show dogs), in recent years they have carefully guarded their privacy. (Marie and her husband, Jimmy, are long dead, and Gloria and Russ have died as well. The family members who are still living are not public in the least.)

This seems perfectly understandable to me, as I get out Ockham's razor. In Marie's second book, she mentions receiving massive amounts of correspondence, daily, from readers. I'm sure that, with readers having no way to know of the fire, Marie must have received many letters enquiring about what the (dead) girls were doing now. In later printings of Marie's books, the latest being, I believe, in the early 1980s, though she includes a preface with information about cerebral palsy work and a brief reference to both Karen and the show dogs, there is no update whatever about the family. Perhaps the pain would have been too intense to be displayed, though the fire happened long before then. As well, considering that part of the charm of the later book was in seeing the faithful couple in a near-storybook life, presumably blessed for their fidelity to the Church, for readers to know what utter tragedy awaited Gloria and Russ not long afterward (the picture book house burnt to the ground, the two blonde angels in the grave) well might spoil the effect of the writing.

On another note, the more because I myself am a private person, I would imagine it is extremely difficult for anyone to be featured in a book. I'm sure that Marie's books were highly valuable and instrumental in educating the public about cerebral palsy, and indeed they are quite delightful by any standard. Yet I would shudder to imagine, at any time but perhaps all the more in childhood and adolescence, having details of my life available for the mass market.

It must have been all the more difficult for Marie's children because all books where authors write of their families seem to be half fact, half fiction. I'm not suggesting that the authors are writing what is not true, but such works must be highly selective. (Who would find the bare facts of any family's existence to be entertaining, let alone inspiring?) I am sure it was trying at times, because, unlike some authors who are, for example, merely looking to write humorous stories of family life (and being featured in those must be quite hard enough!), Marie was also carefully emphasising her kids as the amazing daughter who overcame disabilities (Karen ends with Karen's confident assertion that "I can do anything!"), and the perfect Catholic family.

There is no slur in these reflections of mine. I am only imagining how hard it must have been to live one's life in a fish bowl, and also to have to remain true to themes, as it were. Had I grown up in such a situation, I'd probably be digging holes and crawling in beside the hedgehogs. Marie mentions that, when she appeared at autograph sessions, television interviews, etc., she never brought Karen - too easy to become prideful. Yet I am wondering if another element existed. Perhaps Karen was more noticeably disabled than the books show, for example. Since some other characters in the books (already adult when Karen was a child) are totally extraordinary (for example, a young woman with cerebral palsy whose achievements as a lawyer, though she could not even write and her speech was slurred, would match those of any famous figure in law), even if Karen were highly functioning she would have to be a superwoman to fully back up the image that disabled people can 'do anything.'

Which brings me to the matter which is title of this post. I was appalled to see that those contributing in the discussion group, once they learnt of the Killileas desire for privacy, assumed sinister elements. For example, since the Killileas were devout Catholics, and numbered many priests amongst their friends, various contributors assumed (for no discernible reason except that the media paints the clergy black these days) that their children must have been sexually abused!

Don't many of us prefer to not have our lives broadcast from the housetops? I know, in my own life, that though there are no details that would interest tabloids, much is either painful, or of a nature where I would prefer to forget, or, let us say, an untrue family myth which I don't want shared with friends because they well might believe it rather than the truth. I learnt, painfully, that, though most people in such situations not only have done nothing immoral but are exemplary, the moment anyone hears that anyone was dismissed from a religious Order, the immediate question is "With how they need people today, what could she have done?"

Just to use my own situation as an example, when I was forced out of convent life, I was in emotional pain so intense that I was utterly shattered. It was all the worse because it could not be shared - everyone I knew was glad I was 'out,' and quick to 'diagnose' my continued devotion to consecrated life as 'clinging to the convent,' or 'mourning the convent,' or, supposedly, some delusion where I was assumed to still think I was a member of the congregation. No one was supportive - in fact, they wanted to help me 'snap out of it,' and I often was assured, for example, that I still could catch a husband if I were slender. This, and other elements of my own life, I did not discuss - because others' reactions only intensified the pain.

Never having been a mother, I cannot imagine the agony it must have been for Gloria to watch her children die in a fire, or how painful it must have been for Marie to receive enquiries about children who had perished. Why would it be surprising that they did not care to be high profile?

There is too much stress on child abuse, particularly sexual, today. I noticed, in the forum I mentioned and elsewhere, that it is immediately assumed that anyone who values privacy is a victim of molestation. Yet it is ironic that those who share every detail of their lives for all and sundry normally have a degree of self absorption which could try the patience of Job.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

For the scientific among you - just this once :)

One of the areas which I've been pursuing, now that I've plunged into the deep waters of the philosophy of religion, has been arguments for an intelligent designer of the universe. (Yes, I knew about William Paley long ago... it always seemed sloppy to me that he didn't refute David Hume's much older writings, but be that as it may.) Now, I certainly believe in a Creator, but my concept of a 'designer,' for reasons that must be obvious, always leant towards the artistic. After all, I can design clothing, Internet sites (well, back in the days when they were beautiful), calligraphic manuscripts.

Unlike my co-contributors, I have no aptitude whatever for higher mathematics or science. My total grasp of the latter is that I so love dinosaurs that I'll endure being in the company of children (quite a penance, that) in order to view their skeletons, and that I am sent into one of my minor ecstasies when I see representations of the DNA molecule. I therefore was pleasantly surprised today, when I read an essay, in the Peterson anthology to which I've provided a link above, entitled The Anthropic Teleological Argument, by L. Stafford Betty and Bruce Cordell. It presented a strong and fascinating argument, on grounds of both physics and mathematical probability, for an intelligent Designer of the universe. This theory seems to far outweigh the possibility of, for example, the Big Bang's having been totally random.

Those of you who enjoy religious philosophy, and also can wade through the intricacies of quantum theory and the like would undoubtedly enjoy the article immensely, the more because it contained quotations from many contemporary scientific studies. Even I followed most of it - though, where physics is concerned, I doubt my brain capacity exceeds the size of a proton. Yet I had to share a marvellous quotation from the end of the essay, which I found nearly courageous for scientists to make. :)

The authors conceded that, in itself, the teleological argument shows a good case for an intelligent designer, rather than the random, but that it obviously would not show us precisely what characteristics God would have. (They then went on to explain generation of amino acids... but I 'came back' with the next paragraphs.) They did not see that there wasn't a hint of a Creator being far more than a 'supermind.'

I don't think this passage is long enough to violate copyright, so I present it for your reflection. They first commented on how the significantly greater cannot evolve from the significantly less. :

"Would it not be a violation of this law if so much moral goodness as appears in this world were to exceed the goodness of the supermind? ... We occasionally meet Mahatmas, more frequently little old ladies who unfailingly greet us with cheerful smiles in spite of severe arthritis. Not only is there much nobility and goodness in our own species; there is also a reverence for truth and a love of beauty. Beauty, truth, and goodness - those three fundamental values of the Greeks. Do large numbers of human beings significantly surpass the supermind in these 'constraints of the spirit'? This would have to be so if the supermind were merely a mind... It would have succeeded in creating a good of which it knows nothing...

If such a law (significantly greater not evolving from less - EGM) holds, then it would follow that the supermind must be superior to us, not only with respect to intelligence... but in every other important way as well. That mind must be characterised by knowledge, power, beauty, goodness, and love to a degree not known to us mortals. If so, it must be in some sense 'personal,'... for such traits as goodness and love would seem to ahere only in that which is at least analogous to persons. Whether or not the supermind has these perfections to an infinite degree... cannot be predicted by our argument. Nonetheless, it is clear that we are not far away from a God whom we can at least admire. And if admiration should grow to love - a not unnatural progression - then the God of the great theistic religions is not far away. Religion and science will have joined hands."


Wednesday, 17 October 2007

The more bizarre in the miracle department

(The link in the title is to a previous post about devotion to Saint Gerard, whose feast day was on the 16th of October.)

Frequently, I am 'torn in two directions' in my religious faith. My faithful readers will recall that I currently am studying the philosophy of religion in depth. Two of the areas which this involves are related to miracles and to prayers of petition. Neither, even if they were taken to be valid (which I certainly believe), could be presented as proofs for divine creativity in this world - I rather like John Hick's apt comment that, were God to make his presence clearly, much less majestically, clear, our response could be that of those in awe or fear of power, rather than one of trust and love.

Saint Gerard, who was a favourite saint of my mother's, was one of those saints who it would be wonderful to honour, but generally a poor idea to imitate. He was a very simple man, excessive in penance and devotion, one to take things far too literally. Unlike most post-Reformation saints, he was known for miracles of all sorts, some quite strange, during his lifetime. As a child, he had the Child Jesus (in the form of a statue which periodically came to life in Gerard's presence) for a playmate. Said Child also provided Gerard with loaves of bread. In later years, Gerard was known to fly through the air, appear and rescue a ship in danger, use his old friend the Child Jesus statue to retrieve a lost key from a well, and so forth.

This is unrelated, but permit me a loose association. David Hume, who was Gerard's contemporary (not that they'd ever have met or known of each other...), raised questions which did need to be asked about miracles. Hume also was a total snob and fashionable atheist / sceptic. I would be the first to have reservations about reports of miracles. I firmly believe that, when what is not miraculous is reported as such, or when (as stories of Gerard would appear to those unfamiliar with the overall picture of the man) odd happenings seem holy in direct proportion to their element of the bizarre, the well intentioned can find that they detract from, rather than enhance, understanding of a God who is not only creator but active in his creation for always. Yet I think Hume was very wrong on two of his snobbish ideas. First, he assumed that believers who report miracles generally know them not to be true, but will not compromise lest they spoil the 'good cause' in which reports of miracles are supposed to encourage faith. Second, he believed that tales of miracles were common to uneducated, lower class people who were very open to 'wonder' but not likely to consider the unreality.

I'm wondering how many lower class people Hume actually knew. (I'm lower class but educated - those of us who are highly educated in any area other than sciences are sadly addicted to 'wonder' in many cases.) I could understand how, for example, an intelligent, prominent writer such as Arthur Conan Doyle (and this in a period of bereavement) could be ready to accept the photographs of the Cottingley faeries as genuine. (Granted - my medieval background gives me an image of faeries as rather less benevolent and sweet than the Victorian standard, but I'll blush and admit that I'd read a report of faeries sightings with great interest.) Were I to replace the 'subject' with, let us say, my father and his brothers and friends, I know it would be more likely that they'd consider such photographs to be, at best, nice liners for the cat box. I could far more easily see some great 1st century intellectual, filled with philosophy, literature, Plato's ideas of the soul, whatever, believing a man rose from the dead than imagine such a far fetched idea being congenial to Mediterranean peasants such as the apostles.

Returning to Gerardo and other souls disposed to the oddly miraculous: For all my romantic side, I am very wary of miracles, much as I believe they are possible. Yet there is an element in 'miracle stories' which those too ready to scoff often forget. First off, miracles (including those of Jesus) normally involve expressions of faith, personal conversion, and reconciliation to a community. Second, far more miracles have to do with one's already having been disposed to prayer, trust, and awareness of divine providence than with demonstrations of power to prove anything!

I would not care to have experienced having a statue come to life as a playmate, or flying sans aircraft, or commanding a demon to lead my horse when I was lost. Fortunately, I am caught in the banality of orthopraxy, largely saying Offices, rather than in manifestations which (given my own temperament, dispositions, and the like) would have landed me in a bed in Bedlam. Yet I am not ready to rule out that such things, possibly, could happen in cases where one's dedication and faith were such that one was open to, indeed expected, divine providence.

Hume assumes defiance of the laws of nature in reports of miracles. Far more often, at least in common parlance, 'miracles' do not involve the sun and moon standing still in the sky, or anyone's amputated leg growing back, but in a sense of providence. I'm too intellectual, and never had such tender and trusting faith. I'd fear seeing God's work in my life as providential, because I'm too aware of the wickedness in this world, and what horrid suffering is part and parcel of a majority of lives on the planet. Yet I sometimes wonder if prayers of petition (whether they led to the result for which one prayed, or changed one's life and attitudes, whatever) might be far more effective only if one already had embraced a life of metanoia, prayer, conversion already.

Cautious though I am about reports of miracles, the fact remains that my own faith is basically constructed on reports of 1st century peasants who saw a man who had risen from the dead.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

What would you do before the end of the world?

The link in the title to this entry is from a recent survey: "An asteroid is on a collision course with the earth and you have one hour left to live. What would you do in your last 60 minutes?"

Vaguely, this reminded me of a survey I saw, perhaps twenty years ago. That one asked people, if absolutely nothing were an object (money, talent, whatever), what would you be doing that you cannot do now?

This, I shall caution you, will not be one of my more insightful posts. I happened to read the news story I linked this morning - and it got me to thinking. I'd prefer to expand it a bit. Were it only one hour till the world was destroyed, I imagine that there would be such total panic that the earth would be pandemonium, and I would be in shock, as would everyone else. But what if I knew the earth would be totally gone in one week?

I'd love to say that I would spend it all in prayer, but, though my life centres on prayer, such a response would be a lie, and I do not lack candour even if I lack holiness. The fact is that I would try to enjoy that last week, more or less partying with dearly loved friends. Frankly, it would be a relief to know that my death would come from the world's being obliterated. I shiver, often, fearing that my last days will be like those of my parents - suffering, lengthy hospitalisations and the like. I'd rest more easily knowing that none of that would be ahead (I'm neither a hypochondriac nor any form of health freak - in fact, I miss the fun one might have had before the health obsession became popular, but one does fear a lingering death at my age, perhaps the more if one's parents had these.) It would be a relief, as well, to know that the world would be gone - that I would not need to fear living after, let us say, devastation from nuclear war.

Unlike many people, death is not at all my biggest fear. At best, death would mean closer intimacy with God. If my religious beliefs are incorrect, my existence (and all the suffering of this world) would merely be ended. (Of course, I hope to heaven there is no reincarnation.)

So, what would I want to do that last week? The answer is "enjoy myself." No need to fear for tomorrow! I'd want to spend it with the friends I love best - eat and drink whatever I wish, listen to music, laugh, reminisce, smoke three packs a day, watch a sunset with no fear of tomorrow... or, better, watch a sunrise because I'd be enjoying myself all night.

I'm not referring to doing anything wicked. But what freedom, with no tomorrow to fear, I would experience! Struggles with money, and with battling a lifelong weight problem, have made me miss a great deal of enjoyment in this life. Even in youth, I missed many social events because I always had to be on diets - and one had to eat just this at just this time... How wonderful it would be to have prime rib, chocolate cheesecake and the like, with no fear of gaining weight or of wasting money. I can promise I would not spend one minute in a gym. And I would have a Starbucks cappuccino twice a day, not needing to fear that spending extra money would mean I could not pay my electric bill next month.

I would not need to pray any more than usual. I don't think that God needs to be placated, and I believe in cosmic redemption, so I wouldn't be begging him for my fate and that of others.

Of course, I'd have to find a friend with some deep pockets, to have those wonderful meals before we go. :)

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Powders, pills... and pests

No, this is not a tribute to the cockroach or fly. The pests to whom I refer in the title are those who, on seeing anyone else's situation (preferably problem), just have to make 'sage' contributions which will only make things worse. Of course, I've never understood the kind of 'curiosity' (I cannot think of a better term, though I sense that one is inadequate) which makes some people relish others' misfortunes. Perhaps it is fear - if I "know it all," then similar misfortune cannot come to me. In other cases, it may be that it gives someone a sense of being important.

One of few rules in my own life is that, if anyone has any sort of major misfortune (perhaps illness, being sacked from a job, being victim of a crime, losing one's home), a close friend may make an 'ear' available, but there should be no questions, much less any unsolicited "advice." Yet ask anyone who has been in such situations! Even vague acquaintances will be looking for details, asking for more information, "instructing" the other in what s/he should have done...

I was performing an Internet search today, and, though my search had not the slightest relation to health, the side panel of the screen yielded an advertisement for a prescription drug. I've noticed these in abundance recently. (Worse yet, I've also noticed many a 'know it all' on Internet fora with "health advice" - and this might not seem surprising unless I note that none of the ones I'm likely to visit has any relation to health!) I am not opposed to disinterested, purely factual information being available about health care, nor to people sharing their own experiences (though they should save the 'health' experiences for a forum on that topic only.) Nor do I have any inherent problem with advertising - though I handled capital purchasing long enough to forget that not everyone views advertising with discrimination (where I know all the tricks, often joined in the game for the sake of the sport, but never mistook advertising for fact.)

I feel very strongly that advertising for prescription drugs is highly dangerous. It doesn't matter that one needs a prescription - doctors often are inclined towards believing claims as well. Ask anyone with a chronic condition. A heart patient, for example, may finally find the drug that is genuinely helpful to him - and, next visit, the doctor wants to change it for another just because the latter is "new." Someone with anxiety disorders will have a doctor want to change the (finally!) useful drug because 'it's too sedating.' (Wasn't that the point?) I shudder when I read of how some doctors think nothing of how a drug may have been found to have side effects that can be deadly.

But there are two other reasons I object. If the Internet is any indication, people have become utterly obsessed with "health" in recent years. (If someone has a multiplicity of conditions, all of which could have been fatal, and it is a miracle that she is alive... if she isn't ready for the Olympics this week, or even has a bad day, pests will be upon her, insisting she doesn't have the right drugs, shouldn't be on medications at all, needs to see a nutritionist, needs vitamins, should be on a macrobiotic diet, doesn't go the right doctor...) People are so used to information (it may be misinformation! but those who are hounds for it think they are very well informed) related to 'health' that they may not step back and recognise advertising for what it is - mistaking it for a news report or scholarly study (in effect.)

I would think it tragic if someone who is ill saw an advertisement which gave him unrealistic expectations of what effects he could expect. Perhaps just as sadly, if someone has a condition, and is doing well all things considered, a relative or acquaintance could see, let's say, the drug which makes it appear that depression will disappear, or the one that will give someone the sexual potency of Casanova, etc., and think that the person who is ill "refuses to be helped" - or could be with the advertised drug.

There also are manufactured needs which those in the overall "health" business could seek to cultivate, when we're talking of advertising rather than disinterested information. As a simple example, menopause is a perfectly normal, natural process - yet I've seen advertising for everything from acupuncture to nutritional consultations to alternative therapies presented as a vital "management programme." Of course, I'm aware that some women have serious problems at that time of life, but I doubt they are anything but a small minority. By taking a natural process and turning into a 'condition' to be monitored, some controlling character will create a false need - and laugh all the way to the bank.

The paradox is tragic. The "information" (which is either advertising or the smug assumptions of pests) can lead people to the modern versions of snake oil - make those who genuinely are ill have false expectations of what can be done - or can make relatives and friends shrug off, or misjudge, the genuine suffering a loved one endures.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Loving what a motley crew we all are

Admittedly, my scope of reference here includes mainly those who are devout in some sense, and also hopelessly intellectual. I enjoy how even those who are brilliant and/or perhaps in the category of saintly can see things very differently. I am not a member of either set, but let's just say that there's enough of an element of 'longing from afar' to make me love the diversity of God's human creation when I see how we vary in approach.

I shall ask my readers to bear with me, because, since I so cherish creativity (not a common property, since conformity is more profitable in many senses), I've been rather staggered by what I consider unwise use of same. My studies take up much time, and I've tried to unwind with watching such films as I can see on the television. Now, isn't trying to improve on Shakespeare a bit much? I was not exactly thrilled by a version of As You Like It (one of my favourite plays), which I turned off after ten minutes of seeing it begin with violence in 19th century Japan. (Huh?) But my just finding a film advertised which embellished on Othello (another favourite) by creating a version where the main character is a black basketball player in an all-white US school that I had to turn from television to blog.

Anyway, back to our merry Church situation. I've always enjoyed seeing how those, well grounded in theology and dedicated to the faith into the bargain, can have totally different perspective on details. For example, a liturgical scholar will applaud common themes in a lectionary, where the specialist in scripture will protest (often quite correctly) that the set of readings has no exegetical basis in common. A sociologist and a moralist, though their pastoral practise may be the same, will express very different bases for their versions of 'family values.' Those whose lives have been devoted to educating children will often see the very liturgy which I'd consider to be an aesthetic and intellectual wasteland as what would bring families into the church.

I believe I've mentioned that I'm avidly preparing for my exam in Philosophy of Religion. (It is not till next May - but, since it's an area I find rather difficult, I cannot store up my avidity until later.) I naturally am hopeless, since my own emphasis (however accidentally) has so been either cultural (doctor of humanities, after all) or in ascetic theology. I realise, of course, that no theist thinks he can prove divine existence or describe the godly essence - and no atheist philosopher can show there is no god. (Don't be offended - atheist philosophers are speaking of a 'god,' not the Christian God. And no theist worth his salt would presume to explain all the attributes of the Christian image of God.) It is mainly a matter of asserting or challenging that an attribute, or worldly condition, whatever, is or is not logically feasible.

I am no lover of Anselm - his 'atonement' makes me cringe, even if he wrote some very lovely words about prayer - but I'm afraid I'm a little too far removed from Greek thought of Anselm's day to think that what one can imagine has to be true - much less that the ultimate in what we can imagine is divine. (As one with a passion for the medieval, I have seen Hildegard of Bingen, in her noted work on medicine, describe the humours of the unicorn and gryphon. Hildegard may be forgiven for lack of scientific method, having lived in a day when zoology was studied in libraries, and she presumably had it on some testimony that the gryphon's feathers alleviated hay fever or something along those lines. But let us say that I have some reservations about how what we can imagine points to its being true.)

I'm growing a little bored with all the readings about whether God could create a stone too hard for him to lift. My all too practical side (yes, it's there under the romanticism) wonders why a being who is pure spirit would be lifting rocks in the first place. I also doubt that Jesus of Nazareth, even if he had to fall into certain feats such as walking on water to get his message through the thick skulls of the apostles, would have been lifting Gibraltar.

Today, I devoted hours to study of the 'problem of evil,' the particular unit which I've been pursuing this week. (I'm not referring to the massive pastoral problem of evil, but entirely to the philosophical problem of whether the existence of evil means there can be no omnipotent, all loving God.)

Of course, no one has the answer to evil, but the efforts to show it is compatible with theism yield interesting results in the works of many authors, ancient, medieval, or modern. I did enjoy John Hick's "Irenaean theodicy," which he develops on the concepts Irenaeus had of our being an immature creation with glory in the future. (I'm drastically over simplifying, of course, but, coming from a western Christian tradition so focussed on 'the fall,' punishment, and salvation as the end of punishment - even if one must either roast in purgatory for a time if one is Catholic or be obliterated till the last Judgement if Calvinist - I love the Eastern emphasis on constant creation, growth in this life and beyond, deification, and, ultimately - how we cannot imagine - sanctification of the cosmos.)

Yet something occurred to me when I was reading some of the philosophers who are theists, including Hick. They are working not only from the assumptions that a Creator God remains active in his creation, but, seemingly, from a perspective which assumes that spiritual considerations are foremost in people's thoughts and actions. Had I spent my life in the anchorhold, without my long exposure to parish work and the like (not to mention 'the world,' but I cite parish and diocesan work specifically because it involves people who are both believers and seeking to practise Christianity), I might not have grasped that, for example, many people are 'moral' because a lack of the appearance of respectability could damage them socially or financially.

Hick, in speaking of natural evils as opposed to those rising from moral choices, gives a detailed presentation of how living in a world with its own laws, and one which is no paradise, fosters responsibility, maturity, and compassion. (Not necessarily... but he makes a good point overall. I'm not going to go on in great detail, but it was superbly presented.) He notes that there would be no morality if no evil action could cause harm. I need to step out of my normal mode to understand and discuss philosophy! My immediate thought (which is pastoral, not philosophical - Hick is not addressing pastoral cases, but showing that evil does not make theism implausible) is that no real virtue exists if one's concern is avoiding consequences alone.

Perhaps I'm just refreshing my weary memory, but, in the same unit on the Problem of Evil, David Pailin, whose approach is highly scientific rather than what might be termed the more mystical approach of Hick, made an excellent point. The problem of evil makes moral evil seem as if God were manufacturing humans as one might make a drinking cup, or is fostered by a non scientific approach where everything is as we find it because God fashioned it precisely that way. (God could not have made dinosaurs, or they would have survived...) Pailin's fine point was that we cannot understand fully what "God is Creator" even means! How can we say that an omnipotent, all good, God would have done things differently, when we cannot begin to understand what creation fully entails? (Though Pailin dislikes Hick's idea of the earth as a proving ground for maturity, Hick actually is not beyond the scientific - because he depicts a God who is always creating, not one who created a perfect world, had his plans botched by a fallen angel and two humans, and then had to go to plan B.)

Here's a quote from David Pailin that I found interesting. It was presented in acontext of showing that evil does not make a god logically impossible, and that speculations (by atheists) about what God 'might have done' were the will to do it there imply "a transcendental understanding which it is hard to render credible". (One of the amusing parts of my study of philosophy, Lord forgive me, is noticing how atheists implicitly seem to believe they have the greatest knowledge of what omnipotence, beneficence, goodness, whatever, would be if only there were a god.) He notes first, and aptly, that atheists who go on about how a god who permits evil is not omnipotent, all good, and so forth, ignore that "It is far from certain that we are sufficiently clear in our apprehension of the nature of divine power to be able to warrant the implications of 'omnipotence'".

"Theism sees God as deeply involved, as One who experiences all suffering produced by human evil... and seeks, by love, to draw us from perverted conduct arising from our sense of unimportance into acts of creative love made possible by the self-respect that comes from knowing their total acceptance by God."

I'll never be a philosopher, and, unlike my co-contributors, all I know or understand about science is that I love dinosaurs, the DNA molecule, and the planets. (Pailin is superb on showing how images of God which present faulty theistic arguments often are based on "certainly pre-Darwinian, perhaps pre-Copernican" images of creation.) Yet that last paragraph I quoted was as powerful a meditation for me as anything I've read at my orisons.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Hazardous hagiography

This past week, I've noticed some brief news reports about how Pope Benedict needs to reassure the flock that Mother Teresa's book, in which she writes of struggle, pain, and doubt, does not show an unusual situation for a saint. On the contrary, many of the greatest saints lived for years with darkness, a sense of aloneness, confusion, an idea that they were not genuine and the like.

God leads us to him in ways that differ greatly. For example, were someone to have been a spiritual director for forty years, he may never have met anyone who went through the "Dark Night" which John of the Cross describes - yet there indeed are cases where that total emptiness, complete awareness that one cannot know God's essence, is a means to sanctity. Teresa of Avila, despite huge physical sufferings and troubles with the Establishment, was a Carmelite of another flavour. Her own prayer was filled with consolations - and she saw them more as distractions than as helpful. There is no one mould for the making of saints!

One of my favourite quotes is from Dermot Quinn: "History as Revelation is seldom very revealing, and histories of holiness are full of holes." I shall refrain from writing a dissertation on church history for the moment, because, in the context of the thought I'm developing today, I wish to focus on the blessings and curses one finds in 'lives of the saints' - while noting that hagiography was the largest portion of most young Catholics' exposure to church history in any sense. The very young were given the impression of saints as obedient children (though saints tend to be controversial, and many were far from meeting the standards of obedience in their day.) Adults were presented with the "martyrdom with no trace of self pity" image - saints could see five of their kids slaughtered and remain peaceful knowing God works through all things. I suppose the underlying idea was to give an example, though it often distorted the entire picture and stripped saints of their humanity.

There was no question that the saints suffered, but we were given a vague idea that their opponents (who could not deal with seeing holiness before them) were responsible, or that God sent the saints suffering because His grace can't work unless evil is instrumental... The 'good' around them were perpetually edified, in awe of their wonderful temperaments, perhaps overwhelmed by their shining virtue.

It is very common for saints to have suffering of quite another source - the silence of the Beloved in response to the burning desire for intimacy with Him. Often, those who have reached a point where God is their only treasure are faced with a sense of total desolation. Images of God are always inadequate - but the sense of passion for one who now seems totally unknowable, which for many saints is the road to a greater maturity, causes intense emotional pain.

Inadequate though it may be, I think an example from the life of a very popular saint may shed some light on this. Thérèse of Lisieux, living in an era when too much French spirituality was focussed on suffering, had an amazingly positive spirituality. Her Little Way continues to be an inspiration for many, and certainly has no element of morbidity or negativity. Yet, during her short life, she went through years of having no consolation at prayer.

This analogy is far from perfect, but it may go some ways towards an illustration. Thérèse often was very childlike in her imagery - herself as a plaything for the Child Jesus, God and Mary as tender parents. Of course, her early love for Jesus was fostered in a family where she was a very well-loved child, with a doting father and sisters who supported her in her vocation from the earliest inclinations. There is an unusual, moving tenderness in Thérèse's writings about God, and she was of a sensitive, delicate temperament.

Keeping all of this in mind - her empty, dark years at prayer must have been emotional torture. For one whose images of God were initially of loving parents, it must have been horrid to be calling out, as she might have to the earthly father she loved so as to call 'her King,' and have him seem to be unresponsive, silent, cold. During the time when her body was wracked with agony from tuberculosis, Thérèse had no solace from consolation in prayer.

I'm sure no one had any illusions that Mother Teresa's work for the poor of Calcutta was any joy ride, but I suppose, based on images from past (and poor) hagiography about other saints, people assumed that Teresa was universally loved and totally peaceful and trusting in her faith. I wonder if the poorer grade of hagiography, which eliminated the possibility of adoration for an unknowable and silent God, is considered 'safer' because, otherwise, people might fear approaching the true God.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

How's that again?

My readers, I am sure, shall indulge me once again as I present my periodic silliness in what seem to be disassociated thoughts. This is illustrative of a tendency one often finds in people who not only spend too much time in prayer (consequently thinking, for example, that everyone is pining for ascetic theology - where the man in the next pew may be there because he's a minor politician and having parishioners see him at church may mean votes) but have studied too much theology (and assume 'motivation' for certain church matters which are so weird that we cannot see what would be glaringly obvious to anyone with an IQ above that of Lucy from the British Museum.)

Just to use one example, I recently read a book selection (from a book I'd not recommend, so it does not get a link) penned by a laicised Roman Catholic priest. (He clearly ignores that, as anyone in the Orthodox Church, Church of England, or Eastern rites would know, that having to sexually please a wife is not a guarantee of priestly sanctity.) Now, as far as I'm concerned, if he wanted to argue against mandatory celibacy for RC clergy, there is plenty of historical material with which to back this up, and he's welcome to do this till the cows come home. (Male cows are noted, I must add, for dispensing what seems to be this highly intelligent and learned man's current speciality.) But his premise, that he was released from active ministry to marry because he and others who did the same have a higher, 'new' theology of marriage, making them more advanced that priests who did not, is unlikely to impress anyone - and seemed pointed at self congratulations which would raise the eyebrows of most.

In the same book, the author comments about the decline in the use of sacramental confession. He sees this as positive, not only because the inferior beings who remained in active ministry therefore cannot indulge a need to control the laity, but because it shows a higher awareness of theology on the part of the flock than the pastor. Supposedly, those who no longer use sacramental confession have grasped, where the inferior clergy have not, that Vatican II teaches that the primary source of forgiveness is the Eucharist.

I could write a ream on the value I find in sacramental confession - and a library on Vatican II - but I'm not so inclined at the moment. My point is one quite different. This priest, during his time of active ministry, was an academic - and, like myself, probably often had times when he could not breathe in the breezes of good sense because too much dust from library stacks were crowding his lungs already. Yet I have a few advantages - one, that my family were the most pragmatic of people; two, that I spent much time in parish work and actually listened to the people around me.

To continue with his example - he's even more in outer space than I am if he thinks a decline in confession means a sophisticated theology of forgiveness through the Eucharist. (Another post I'll save for another day, but one dear to the heart of the medievalist, is how seeing Mass solely in relation to forgiveness caused some of the more regrettable excesses of the Reformation.) First off, as one who spends much time in churches on either side of the pond, I have observed that, in parishes which have the means to offer confession regularly / daily, such as Brompton Oratory, Westminster Cathedral, or Saint Francis in New York City, there is no lack of penitents on any day of the week. Many people clearly still find this sacrament to be very valuable, and one should at least admit the possibility that its availability affects the queues.

I've often heard the devout, quite rightly, be deterred from making their confessions because they've been discouraged (or even laughed at) in the past. I hope this has improved, but I can well remember when 'devotional confession,' which had been encouraged as a source of sacramental grace a year earlier, suddenly was discouraged. I also remember well when even one who made confession only once or twice a year was likely to be told 'nothing you are telling me is a sin.' (I think they must have only been hearing murder cases that year...) On a merely practical level, others complained that they needed to make appointments in churches where confession was not regularly available (that's awkward, especially in places where staff are trained to keep people from bothering clergy, or when one is embarrassed to approach a virtual stranger). Others wanted anonymity.

I'm not about to analyse any of these situations in any depth. My point is that anyone who is convinced that a 'theology of forgiveness' rooted in the Eucharist prevents confession is likely to be basing reasoning on a point which hardly enters most people's minds. (Of course, in the RC Church, anyone with a grave sin that is not confessed isn't supposed to partake of the Eucharist anyway... but people who know that probably listened in first communion class.)

On another note, I'm remembering when two friends of mine, in their 20s at the time, attended a meeting of a group forming in their parish. The group was intended for unmarried people in their 20s and 30s, and my friends, like everyone else who was interested, were hoping to meet new friends and possible spouses. For reasons that even my odd mind cannot fathom, the first meeting was introduced by a religious Sister, who spoke about how the Church had long neglected the 'single life as vocation.' It clearly had not entered her mind that the last reason anyone was in attendance was from having 'decided on a single life.' (Does anyone? It doesn't occur to those such as this speaker that, even if one regrets the choice one made, those who married or entered convents did make a choice. This should not be assumed of those who happen to be unmarried.)

I'm getting too prolix today - and prefer to save that for when I have more depth to the post. :) I'll just leave my readers with knowing that, just today, I received an email from, informing me that those who bought books on Walter Hilton (see my web site if you aren't acquainted with him) had also been interested in the early days of US television. (Must have been an odd key word search, because this is the oddest connection since I saw the works of Julian or Norwich classed as "New Age," or when "The Satisfied Life," a book on medieval mystics and concepts of atonement, was in the human sexuality section.)

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Talents and denarii

I'm sure I'll be forgiven for the dreadful pun. One of the discouraging parts of wishing to maintain a blog that has any potential for being of value is that, when one looks back over the past two years' entries, it seems the best to be said is already written, and too much already has been repetitive. So bear with me as I ravel some thoughts which struck me recently.

I'm studying two areas related to the Hebrew Scriptures, plus philosophy of religion, at the moment. Though I've had the good fortune to have a background in many areas of religious history, I need at times to have my memory jogged. I found Karen Armstrong's "The History of God" to be quite useful. I would not recommend it as anyone's sole source for references in the area - Karen, here as usual, displays some excellent scholarship and insight, while presenting ideas the greatest scripture scholars and theologians debate as if there were one, agreed conclusion. Yet I especially did enjoy this book, because it stresses the transcendence of God, and the limitations of our visions. It also explored aspects of mysticism (striking similar in many aspects) in various religious and philosophical traditions.

Occasionally, visitors to my web site (who often are surprised there is such a thing as Christian mysticism... no wonder Amazon classes Julian of Norwich's books as "New Age") are interested in mystic experience in their own lives. I am a doctor of humanities, however much I have specialised in theology, and, though I'll not deny my gifts for teaching, I am not qualified in spiritual direction, so I cannot provide the sort of guidance they desire. (Actually, in many cases I doubt they'd embrace genuine spiritual direction. Some writers seem to think that mystic experience is some sort of a 'high' - and that one can, perhaps, reach the seventh mansion of Teresa on a Concorde flight if they read the Cloud of Unknowing this Saturday.) I'm sure it's a disappointment when I admit, first, that I myself am not a mystic (for all my acquaintance with mystic theology), and that those who are such cannot have become so as a matter of achievement. Karen's book had a quote I found very apt - all of us have the longing for intimacy with our Creator in some fashion, but, as Karen mentioned, the mystics have a particular gift, much as one might have a gift for writing poetry.

(I shall pause for a moment to sigh, since most of my family would have considered a gift for poetry as a total waste, much preferring to urge one to civil service exams... but that is another topic for another day.)

Most of us who are committed to a life of prayer pursue, in one of my favourite new phrases, the banality of orthopraxy. For one it might be an orientation towards service, for another (as it is for myself) liturgical prayer and intellectual pursuits, whatever. One is not superior to the other - but this world, overall, would be boring indeed if there were only technicians and bankers and no poets or musicians.

I doubt I can express this well, but I shall make an effort. Those who do have the gift of mysticism (and who, in some cases, are not those with heroic sanctity) always needed the framework of daily worship, the scriptures, wise direction, and other practises that are far from exotic and exciting. Many saw God as essentially unknowable. Those who experienced 'consolations,' such as Teresa of Avila, were cautious about these expressions, and mainly considered them to be more distracting than helpful. Visions, for example, can illustrate a powerful drive to intimacy with the transcendent God, but always have a flavour of the individual's vision.

Francis of Assisi, a poet and man of passion if not the most emotionally stable of creatures, may have been excessive (by any standard) in his pondering Jesus' suffering and wishing he could have comforted him, or in dwelling on how our sins caused the crucifixion. Yet he'd reached a point of such love and self forgetfulness that the stigmata (surely a reflection of his inward pain) indeed was an icon of his intimacy with Christ. Catherine of Siena, whose mystical marriage involved seeing a wedding ring formed from Jesus' foreskin from the circumcision, and who gives many signs of having anorexia, also had reached a point of holiness where even her own oddness had the passion for intimacy which the great saints illustrate.

I love Francesco and Caterina, of course, but I'm ravelling a thread in another direction. They were unusual people, and some of the manifestations of their personalities and weaknesses (which will be part of any person's experience, but the more for mystics because their passion for God is so intense) might be judged pathological today. (Thank God they lived in the days before psychiatrists, or they might have been 'cured' by doubting their own integrity.) Very few people who are, for example, constantly dealing with emotional outbursts, fear, insomnia, and self hatred, as did Francis (those interested in this area may wish to consult some of Fr Benedict Groeschel's observations), could 'open the book' of looking for mystic experience, heightened meditations and the like. There is too much danger of having our inward sinfulness and weakness manifest itself - I do not doubt the evil in this world, but I believe that the overwhelming number of demons are projections of our own violence, jealousy, and so forth. It is too dangerous to pursue the desire for exalted emotion (when one is not at the point of self forgetfulness which Francis, John of the Cross, or Caterina would have reached), or our very weakness can disguise itself as special inspiration.

I had one other thought - perhaps a loose association, but one I shall include as a minor rant. Jesus is sanctifying the cosmos as a whole - we are a Church (and this applies whether we know it or not, because I'm of the mind that Adam and Eve were part of 'the Church.') It is not a contest for who is more important than another - those 'may we sit at your left and right' discussions are quite tiresome. However, if there is a 'poet' among us, if we have a desire to be special, and a jealousy towards the mystic, it can lead to spiritual avarice rather than growth.

One must totally disassociate one's perspective from the deplorable perspective of 18th through 21st century capitalism, which can infect the spiritual viewpoint. I loathe such clichés as 'you get out of life exactly what you put into it,' or 'practise makes perfect,' or anything of that sort. It is wrong, because it takes one aspect of achievement (though spiritual growth is a grace, not an achievement) - for example, that one greatly talented at the piano indeed needs years of training, practise, and the like to become a great artiste - and 'flips it around,' as if one without the talent who does not achieve such mastery just didn't work hard enough. (Never mind that I despise the 'get out of life what you put into it' crap because it's a wonderful excuse for the wealthy or powerful to despise the poor.)

We cannot decide to 'become mystics.' We are a whole - a Church - and those who carried Julian her food or carried away her waste were no less a part of this than was the mystic in the cell. It is not a 'course,' as if one who studies enough or engages in enough self hypnosis will be inspired by the Holy Spirit. (I suppose all of us have some inspiration now and then, but God protect us from thinking we can put in an order for take away at whim.)

Monday, 30 July 2007

The new self

Fear not, little flock - you'll find no nonsense here about any concepts of 'a whole new you' or anything of that sort. (I am not selling anything.) I suppose that, whenever I put 'pen' to blog, deep down I'd love to have the insight of Benedict XVI, combined with the wit of Chesterton. Instead, I more often have the problem of having too many ideas instead of too few, and find it easier to sort them out when I not only write but, at least in theory, am sharing them with others. It also is a valuable exercise in unwinding for me - especially necessary on days such as this one, when I not only had a very irritating conversation trying to convince animal control to remove the corpse of a cat from the building premises but sat next to a man on the bus (who really should try Hyde Park Corner...) who supposedly had read somewhere that anyone who protested the war could have everything they own seized. (I've been a dove all of my life - nothing unusual for a Franciscan - and was then haunted by old goblins, fearing that my modest little basement flat would disappear and I'd have to sleep in the street, covered in lice, like Francesco.)

I occasionally write brief meditations for an e-mail list, related to readings for a particular Sunday. Since I've been mildly unwell, and therefore not out and about very much these past few days, I had offered to 'do' the next available Sunday. (You will find the link to the readings if you click the title of this post.) Now, for me to write a 3,000 word essay is very difficult - but to write a 300 word meditation is an effort on a par with walking across the Channel on a tightrope (and with no net.) My first impression, from the readings as a whole, was that idolatry is as regular as the sunrise, and that I am not sure that Hosea, who after all only had to deal with Israel's bowing to Ba'al, wasn't in a position preferable to that of dealing with the self-absorbed, egotistical fool in Luke's parable (who says "I" about five times in one sentence.) At least those bowing to their neighbour's gods might be misled in good faith, where the latter character is worshipping himself.

I love the epistle to the Colossians, and it will come as no surprise that my only regret, in choosing that text, is that I would rather prefer to have floated away on a meditation on the incomparable 'cosmic Christ' hymn of chapter one, rather than the exhortations of chapter 3. After about 543 diversions - covering everything from Genesis to Gnosticism - I finally centred on a verse regarding "the new self - which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator." (Note to the pedantic: yes, I am aware that scholars disagree about whether Paul wrote this epistle. Whether he did or not, the epistle is clearly of the "Pauline school," and I therefore shall use "Paul" rather than "the author of the epistle to the Colossians." I find messages about 'who wrote the New Testament,' just as I do with those about who really wrote Shakespeare's plays, to be as stale as a week-old scone.)

Christianity, for many centuries, so often focusses on the afterlife, or on salvation as either the key to heaven or the antidote to hell, that it is easy to forget that Paul was thoroughly Jewish. The kingdom of heaven had arrived for Paul - and, while this concept certainly was not one which most Pharisees would have applied to Jesus of Nazareth, we do need to remember that Judaism had no real concept of the afterlife, with even the idea of a general resurrection being a fairly recent development in Paul's time. God already is Lord of history - we are already the Body of Christ, at God's right hand. For Paul, the Church already shared in the glory of Jesus, though the fullness of that glory was hidden. His exhortations to moral behaviour are not based on reward or punishment in a future life, but are a call to walk in the dignity of those already sharing in heavenly glory. (The Colossians probably were already tired of waiting for the glory for which they hoped, and finding orthopraxy to be banal. If there is any surer testimony to divine grace than that, then as now, people waited for a tomorrow that never seemed to arrive, and based their lives on having heard that a Galilean carpenter rose from the dead, I cannot think of one at the moment.)

It must have been no easy task for a Jewish man (by then a 'heretic' in the eyes of most of his own) to be presenting very new ideas to a Greek community. (Yes, most of the hearers may well have been peasants, but they must have had some inkling of the various 'party lines,' having come of the noble heritage of Alexander's empire.) :) In Greek philosophy, creation is inherently negative - this world is a trial, or even an accident. Only the soul endures - and the concept of 'soul' is basically 'intellect' if Plato is to be believed. By contrast, in Judaism God is a Creator, and not only in the sense of setting a world in motion but in being constantly involved in its history.

Centuries before the time of Jesus, though there was no concept of such a Messiah as He, Israel recognised that we are created in God's image. There are no nature gods such as neighbours of the Hebrews would have imagined. In our humanity, we are the visible 'icons' of the transcendent God. Of course, Jesus' being the divine Person is unique, but, for all of humanity, our true self is that which mirrors the divine qualities.

From the first books of Genesis, speech is constantly the tool of creation and revelation. Notice how "God said let there be..." shows the awesome power of will and communication, and how the words of the prophets and patriarchs (not to mention those such as Paul, who witnessed to the resurrection) relate to accomplishment of, and knowledge of, the divine plan. Our gift of making choices, and of communicating, is one to be cherished.

What of the 'wrath' of God, to which Paul refers? The Hebrew scriptures which Paul would have known were extensively compiled and edited during and after the time of Israel's Babylonian captivity. References to judgement and wrath did not refer to destruction or hatred, which are totally alien to the Creator's nature. Violence is always of human origin (whether in conquerors or when the Son of God was nailed to a cross.) Hebrew writings about wrath were intended to illustrate that God, in a manner beyond our comprehension, always remains involved in, and in control of, his creation and our human history (however poorly Israel seemed to be faring at the moment.) Human wickedness and lust for power cannot thwart omnipotence. Our own wrath mocks the divine power - leading to violence and destructive, not creative, results.

Idolatry is effectively a worship of our false self - the part of us which distorts and abuses the gift of our faculties, where we were created to mirror the divine image in which we were created. Our own abusive language and wrath are perversions of the gift of communication, and of our faculties for reason and choices. Sexual immorality abuses our share in creative power. Greed destroys the joy and gratitude we should be taking in the goods of this world (and sometimes grows into spiritual avarice, where we become blind to love for God and neighbour because we are so concerned with what goods of the heavenly realm we would like to be known to possess.)

We have a unique gift, among all of creation, to share in truly loving relationships - such as existed eternally amongst the Persons of the Trinity. Love cannot be coerced or rooted in fear, but must be a choice. Perhaps this is the reason that divine glory always is hidden. The fullness of it is beyond us, of course, but, were it revealed in the sort of fashion that (for example) calls down twenty legions of angels, it could inspire terror, or magical confusion. This would be incompatible with human freedom.

Now... can you see just how boggled this mind is? :) I'm just hoping that, of these seemingly loose associations, I can compile some sort of a coherent whole. But I can see how Paul (and 'apostles' till the judgement day) would see the importance of cautioning us against the sinful traits mentioned in Colossians. It is not just 'the benefit of society' and the like which is a concern. We are created in the image of God - and our true self will mirror, not distort, creative power, love, and truth.