Wednesday, 3 December 2008

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!"

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

For my precious Mirielle

This will be a brief entry - but pet lovers will understand. My precious cat, Mirielle, died yesterday. I may write more of her on another occasion - she was a delightful kitty - but my grief is too intense right now. I've been sobbing for two days.

I am including this entry because those who have lost pets may be interested in this little Candle Ceremony, whether participating on-line or performing it alone. It's a charming meditation.

Yes - I know the super-orthodox amongst you may be astonished both that I love imagery of the Rainbow Bridge (from Norse mythology originally... believe me, I have no desire to pal with the old Norse gods...), and that I'm implying that cats live on in an after-life. No, my friends, I am not denying the unique human dignity we have, or our faculties, etc. per omnia saecula saeculorum. Certainly, we are in God's image in a unique fashion - and Christ took on humanity, not mere animality. Yet all of creation glories in its Creator - and, as Francis of Assisi expressed in his Canticle of the Creatures, a cat glorifies his Creator merely by being a cat! Only we humans fall short of our potential. :)

The images from Asgard have a beauty that sustains me - my beloved cats happy and still loving. (Today would be my parents' wedding anniversary, and it is my deceased friend Tom's birthday - I like to think of Leonora and Mirielle prancing with them.) As well, memories and love endure always.

Pet lovers, do pray for me. It is hard to explain how, even when one has lived alone for years (other than with a cat), it can be frightening to be all alone. Both my cats were darlings who had lengthy last illnesses with rather revolting symptoms, and, with the vet bills I accumulated, I think it is best I not get another cat. But I'll still be looking for Mirielle for months... cats all know how to make themselves invisible, and it will be some time before I fully remember and accept that she isn't going to reappear.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Oh, heavens... not Neanderthal man!

I hope I don't sound too irreverent here - when I laugh at others, I'm not mocking, because I laugh longest and hardest at myself. I have a special passion for reflecting on eschatology. The trouble is that it makes perfect sense to me when I'm at prayer or meditation (and, somehow, I can write essays on the topic), but I don't understand a word. You can imagine the identity crisis - me with my combination of clouds of unknowing and burning a candle before the Infant of Prague (well, it worked for my mother.) I don't have the slightest idea what the Incarnation, resurrection, parousia, creation, or any of it means - though I believe every word of it and have no problem at all with any of those concepts when I'm at prayer.

Recently, I attended a lecture series related to Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope, of which the main topic was eschatology. One woman who attends the presentations, to whom I'll assign the fictional name of Phoebe, seems very full of herself - and I can see that without knowing her personally. I went to the coffee hour last week, for example, and Phoebe was telling a few others about a portrait she'd painted for some organisation. It wasn't on the order of "...and I'm very glad they were pleased - and that I had some inquiries for further work as a result." Oh, no. She must be the hottest artist on the market, because she went on about how everyone just raved, and they were astonished, and that once someone sees her work they all want portraits... I think you already get the picture. I noticed that, at the presentations, Phoebe has a habit, which I think extremely rude, of sort of lowering her head, placing a cupped hand to the forehead, and either shaking her head or silently laughing, as if whatever was read (even if it is Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Richard Hooker, and such other mental midgets) is too stupid to be believed. (I shall never forget her look of scorn when one of Hooker's works mentioned the perpetual virginity of Mary.) When she does respond, she has to refer to having been a journalist.

Well, in the discussion about afterlife and images of same (Tom Wright treats of how Jesus was not speaking of a kingdom 'out there,' or heaven 'up there'), Phoebe of course had to contribute. She first informed all and sundry that she is "very 'into' spatial relationships." (What the connection is there is beyond me. Perhaps because journalists always write of things which happen within time and space? I was puzzled for a moment, because the last time I heard that specific term was when I was involved with construction of a new building, and the building services' guys used it to mean how to fit furnishings into rooms. I'd forgotten how yuppies worry about their "space.") With a certain look of disgust, she was saying she cannot fathom the resurrection - hundreds of millions of people, all different levels, how would we get along, what if she had to (I swear this is a quote) be in the company of cave men?"

Quietly, with an air as if I were just having a random thought, I muttered (audibly) "perhaps we'll learn we are not quite as smart as we believed."

I haven't the slightest grasp of science - about my only understanding of the atom is that I wish it had never been split. Recently, when I sat my final exams, one of my papers for philosophy of religion was about eternal life, so I was steeped in Swinburne (...maybe Phoebe can sit near him), and all sorts of other writers who raised lots of questions that had never entered my mind. I never really thought about maintaining personal identity, reconstituting bodies, objective or subjective existence, and all of those other concepts. I just don't consider that degree of detail. (Belief in the communion of saints leads me to believe that our personal identity will never be obliterated - but I think the restrictions of our "time and space" perception keep God in a box.) Yet I have yet to know of anyone's speculating on whether she'd be disgusted at having to share eternity with the cave man.

The Cappadocians got me hooked on the idea of ever-growing, always more intense, white hot love enduring for eternity. That God cannot be fully grasped is an exciting image for me - we'll somehow ever grow in knowledge of and intimacy with Him, without ever finding that quest ends. Cool! I never stopped to think of the resurrection as the ultimate in over crowding, or of eternity as emptiness, or darkness, or obliteration, or any of the other things which my studies showed enter others' minds.

One priest whom I know is brilliant and has a stunning education, but he never did quite get past his evangelical roots. (I'm not being nasty - neither did Newman - but Father X was sectarian Protestant, which is somewhat more damaging.) He also attended a series on Pope Benedict's "Eschatology" - a superb work which I enjoyed immensely, and just might re-read for Advent. Most of those present just 'didn't get it' - they were asking questions such as 'how do we recognise Anti Christ?' or "when do we know the end times are here?," which of course had nothing whatever to do with Benedict's work. Father X ( whose face sometimes is filled with warmth, but at other times clouds... though, unlike C. S. Lewis, he is very handsome, like 'Jack' he shares the trait of being capable of envisioning Narnia or hell-fire alternately) suddenly, solemnly intoned (somehow, intoned is the only word): "The best part of death is that we won't be able to sin any longer."

Even Augustine, who seems to have been so harried by the unexpected call to episcopacy that he envisioned heaven as where he could rest, wasn't so dour as that. I hope, nonetheless, that the Cappadocians meet me at the pearly gates (yes, I know the Thomists don't envision, per se, a heavenly society - but I do, and I want to speak with Basil and Gregory just as soon as I find out how my parents have been doing...)

Monday, 17 November 2008

Brief thoughts about Elizabeth of Hungary

The link which I provided in the title is to - one of many sites with references to Elizabeth which one would find in a Google search. It is not the most detailed, or the most pious, but it contains facts which hagiography would exclude. As Dermot Quinn once aptly noted, "Histories of revelation are seldom very revealing, and histories of holiness are full of holes." I believe that many sincere attempts to honour the saints by sterilising their biographies reduce them to plaster statues. Reading this honest account can inspire another, I believe, because we need reminders that the saints were distinguished by their response, in love - not by having storybook (or horror story!) lives.

Elizabeth of Hungary is my patron - calendars vary on whether her feast day is the 17th or 19th of November, so I wanted to give her a bit of space today. I always loved her for her single minded dedication and her love for the poor - even if ( myself... though she never lived to be even half my age...) her zeal exceeded her prudence. Wryness tag on: Were my mother alive to read of Elizabeth, her first question would be 'what happened to her children?!' As for me... well, I think it's lucky for Elizabeth that she died at age 24, because I can picture a widowed queen, totally broke, despised and rejected by family... all alone in later years, realising that, for everyone she helped with the riches she dispensed, there were five who'd swindled her....

I remember, as a child, when I first was deeply impressed by one of the most popular stories about Elizabeth. (Incidentally, Elizabeth is my legal name - the name I chose in religion and at Confirmation - but it is my own choice, not my birth name, which you'll never learn here. Elizabeth is a special patron for me - though, in part, because the name means "consecrated to God.") Apparently Elizabeth was a bit secretive about some of her acts of charity, since her husband was loving but inclined to think her excessive (as indeed he might.) In this legend, Elizabeth placed a beggar (in some versions, also a leper) into the royal couple's bed. (As a child, I doubt I fully realised the reasons that the prince would have found that less than appealing. I loved and cared for the homeless for years, and still do, and have done their laundry, and suffice it to say that even I would not care to have one of them have a nap in my bed.) When Ludwig returned, and saw the beggar, in some versions he saw a crucifix, in others the image of Christ Himself between the sheets.

I think God indeed may have been more of a showman during the Middle Ages, when people were more open to the miraculous. Yet I must leave my readers with a pious thought. Perhaps Ludwig did see a crucifix or vision - but there is a more important matter here. If Ludwig indeed saw the beggar himself, but saw that this man, like himself and all of us, was created in God's image, or if he saw Christ in this man's poverty and suffering, that is the greater miracle.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Wanting to invite Father Christmas in for mulled wine

Yes - it is nearly sacrilegious - here is someone totally steeped in liturgical studies (and who sadly will talk on the subject endlessly, especially when I've had a toddy or mulled wine), who is already indulging her Christmas obsession when it is not yet even Advent. Shocking, indeed. But I loathe winter (yes, I know winter is more than a month off as well... but that's one dreadful season that always seems nine months long), and, once the days grow short and I need to sponge and press the heavy coat, I immediately need to dose myself with Christmas cheer of some kind.

This, I am sad to relate, is a difficult task for my generation, who went from being quite 'cool' ( know I don't mean chilly) in young adulthood, to being the worst crop of frumps since the Puritans. Oh, it isn't that they, like the Puritans, consider Christmas to be wicked - they only think it's 'just for children,' as if the little brats would have the slightest concept of the Incarnation. Still, considering that I emerged from excessive Franciscan austerity c. 1993 (I had so feared compromising poverty that I steered into deprivation for two decades), reclaiming my laughing Mediterranean heritage to the full, I had never expected that, just around that date, those in my age group would emerge as prudish sorts who think that everything that makes one smile is somehow a danger to the children - or that it now would be (at least unofficially) illegal to eat (ah, cholesterol!), drink (anything but water), smoke (yes... the secret is out... I did, and I do, and I am not looking for your 'help' in giving it up), or otherwise indulge in any form of recreation except going to a gym. (Games that once might have taken place in gyms, which then were recreation centres, even cease to be fun when one is wearing a monitor and has to have this on the daily calendar as a 'fitness programme.') Just when I was ready to have fun, everyone I knew settled in for a gloomy stress on "health" (translation: obsession with illness and death, and deadly fear of doing the wrong thing and ending up dead some day... which I'd heard was inevitable in any case...)

Well, back to my Christmas fixation. :) Today, eager for diversion, I re-read a superb book entitled "Dickens' Christmas," by Simon Callow. Though it contains much background about Dickens, it also has a fascinating section which traces Christmas customs right back to the beginning, even to the pagan origins. I'll take a healthy helping of it all: Saturn, Pan, the Sol Invictus (remember him? Constantine had a most fortunate connection there...), boy bishops of the Middle Ages, wassail bowls, pageants with Father Christmas (who was not so sanitised before Christmas became 'only for children'), carols reverent and sly - the lot. Here is a quotation which Roderick Marshall reconstructed from the old Mummers' plays.

Welcome or welcome not
I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot.
Christmas comes but once a year
And when it comes, it brings good cheer.
Roast beef, plum pudding, strong ale, and mince pie.
Who likes that better than I?
I am here to laugh and cheer
And all I ask is a pocketful of money
And a cellar full of beer.
Now I have brought some gallant men with me
That will show you great activity.
Activity of youth, activity of age,
Was never such acting
Shown upon Christian stage...

Yes, puritanical streak crowd, move over. My own focus, of course, is strongly religious - Advent and eschatology, the Incarnation and so forth. (With the current economic Depression, I know that no one has a pocketful of money - but the sort of roast beef I can afford isn't all that bad when it's marinated and served rare.) I don't think we should be sent on 'guilt trips' over enjoying ourselves! I shall admit that I'm not all that partial to beer, but, when I do make my annual purchase of cheap wine to mix with cinnamon and such, I absolutely refuse to beat my breast because I didn't give the money to the poor children.

I love it all - presents, food and drink, decorations, the little tree with its collection of ornaments (which I acquired over 35 years) that is my pride and joy, my Christmas CDs which are everything from medieval to Victorian to rot such as "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" which somehow become irresistible in the shadow of Christmas lights.

My collection of Christmas books is wide, and I have one long out-of-print book (Lord knows how I came by this in the first place) entitled "Merry Christmas, Mr Baxter." George Baxter is a man of substantial means, and 'his' story has value for me only in that it helps me understand others of his ilk whom I meet here and there. His view of Christmas is dismal: not a single religious element, grown children who won't even set a place for their own parents at table because it's too much work now that they grew modern and stopped having servants, no more provision (from his very ample income) for the unfortunate than Scrooge would have made before his ghostly visitors arrived. Yet I could vaguely grasp, without understanding per se, an attitude which somehow explains the "Christmas is for children" crowd a bit.

I could understand George's pining for childhood Christmases if the reason were that his well off children are selfish shits - no hint of that in his thought. No - he has everything he needs and more, and can afford everything he wants, and he sees presents (which I would think of as ways to show love and caring for those whom we love) as a burden. Oh, he has things of which he still dreams: a Jaguar, private plain, country home - but those won't be in his stocking and, though he can afford them, deep down he knows they'd be more a burden than pleasure. But he is nostalgic for the Christmas of childhood because it's the only time in his memory when one could hope for, and receive, a present for which one pines (pun intended, however dreadful.)

I, of course, always was one of the 95% of the population who did not have everything we wanted, nor everything we needed. Mr Baxter appeared in 1954 - today, his counterpart would be a miserable 'old' man (he's in his 50s - but my generation are 'older' than people of 90 used to be), who shrugged off presents with "they should have given the money to charity where at least it did good." (The ones who say this, by the way, are the same ones who resent that poor mothers get free inoculations for their children.) He'd probably be dragging his grandchildren to a homeless shelter on Christmas Day (and I say this though I cooked in them for at least 7 Christmases) - not to make them love the poor, but to make them feel guilty about what they have and fall down in adulation, not of the Saviour, but of their wonderful parents who provide everything.

I wish I could have a Christmas party... but my flat is not 'smoke free,' my food, however modest, not vegetarian - and I can't think of anyone I know who would ride out to zone 4... Not to mention that the Christmas cards, which I send as both a blessing and sharing of joy or gratitude, will be greeted with either 'but we're stopping...' or 'you shouldn't have spent the postage...'

If my readers are surprised by my cynicism (forgetting that is the natural outcome of being a burnt idealist and romantic), be assured that it was reinforced when I did a Google search for Christmas goodies. Among the 'heartening' images with which I was presented were (1) those of Santa Claus urging low fat diets (apparently he is no longer able to be of ample girth, what with the dangers of the obesity epidemic), (2) a children's site, with an FAQ about Santa Claus, responding to the little ones' questions about such matters as whether he was lactose intolerant, (3) a message board, on which disheartened young people (who seemed to think it might be fun to play at being mentally ill... maybe they'll play at having cancer or kidney disease next week) wrote of losing faith in their parents and/or Christianity by learning that the legends about Santa Claus are not literally true (adjective mine - I believe in Santa Claus all the more because certain traits are more valuable when figurative, but then my definition of 'myth' differs from that in the vernacular), (4) television blurbs which show that those with the digital boxes can have such 'great Christmas treats' as new films about dysfunctional families of Santa Claus and about who went into a coma on Christmas Eve.

...I don't think mulled wine is going to be strong enough to get me through this... or even a gin toddy...

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Surveys, statistics, stereotypes and such

Earlier this week, I (uncharacteristically) participated in a telephone survey. It was totally electronic, of the "press one for more, two for less, three for about the same" variety, with no room for comments. A number of the questions had to do with economic situations - so, for example, I was asked if my housing expenses were higher than a year ago, and if I was concerned about my financial situation (I'd like to know who is not), and whether, in the coming month, I expected my outlay for recreation (such as films, theatre, dining out, or gym memberships) to increase, decrease, or remain the same.

Considering that most people I know, at the moment, are finding that the price of necessities such as groceries have doubled or tripled, I'm sure I'm not alone in that it is a rare month that I spend a single penny on what was classed as recreation. I must be a bit too logical, because my answer to the question about that area was "the same.' I cannot, after all, spend less than nothing! Yet it occurred to me later that anyone surveying results could determine that someone whose money situation is worse than a year ago (just like the rest of the world) is not decreasing spending on entertainment.

I'm very cautious about surveys, for various reasons. First off, even when one does have the chance to comment (which one seldom does - I've seen surveys which present the conclusions the compiler wishes regardless of how one answers), lots of people give the "correct" answer rather than the truth. (Witness that sales figures for tabloids are far higher than those for distinguished periodicals, yet few people would admit to reading tabloids.) Second, I've seen surveys for which results totally puzzled me, and which had to be slanted. Third, I'll just give an example of confusion in that, until very recently, figures for 'life expectancy' did not mean that everyone who lived to adulthood died at 34 - the very low figure was based on that infant mortality was high.

Stereotypes worry me the more - because those who believe them will assume what often is far from true. I well remember, in my young adult years, when many of my acquaintances were pursuing jobs in the education of children. I grew up in an era when large families were relatively common, and I doubt that any mother of 8 would have illusions that all children are the same (indeed, she'd know everyone is different from day one), or that everyone acts the same way at 3, 4, or 8. That did not keep those who were disciples of a 'child development' credo from assuming these very general ideas, which often were based on 'averages,' applied universally (or that any child who deviated from the average was somehow damaged.)

I have no flair for mathematics, but have some vestige of common sense. Even assuming that this-or-that was absolutely true for 75% of those surveyed, or aged 8, or of those in a particular classification (and I strongly doubt this is ever true), it would seem wise to recall that the individual 'subject' may be one of that other 25%!

My own concern, of course, is largely pastoral - but it applies to all human relationships. Once one assumes that this-or-that just has to be true of anyone, or of any member of a 'classification' (be it based on income, class, education, citizenship, or who scratches his nose with the left forefinger), one will not see the truth. In fact, if the other explains that the stereotype does not apply, he may well be assumed to be lying, deluded, or bent. Haven't we all known people who finish others' sentences? (They cannot, of course, hear the actual response.) Or who have a textbook model (literally or figuratively) of how someone is supposed to think or feel (even if said other is a member of a very large set, such as 'male' or 'female'), and are convinced that anyone who does not conform to the stereotype is lying, crackers, unenlightened, or insufficiently educated? Or who are so utterly convinced that their doctor, prayer group, reading group, nutritionist, guru, or acupuncturist has the answer to all the problems of the world that they are responding with a recommendation for physical exams when the other speaker mentioned a house fire or job loss?

This hardly applies only to pastoral situations (in fact, it is frequently a trait of those in any way involved in the medical profession, I'm sure with equally hopeless results), but I'd add this word of caution specifically in that realm. I would say, after a lengthy career in church work, that most people I have met genuinely wish to help others. (The trouble is assuming both that the other needs help, what it is with which he needs help, and that he wants it from you.) Assumptions ruin any possibility of communication far more than fostering same.

I'm the least observant of people. It is perfectly possible for me to not notice that someone I've known for twenty years is standing next to me when I'm waiting for the bus. I do have a strong intuitive sense, but it seldom gets out of hand because I both think the eleventh commandment is 'thou shalt mind thine own business,' and am highly unlikely to notice what anyone else does in any case.

My first rule for intuition (beyond not assuming it is a direct communication from the Holy Spirit) is to realise that, even if one does 'pick up on' that another is happy, troubled, or whatever, this in no way means one knows details, or should assume what the others reason for happiness or sadness is. Those more observant than myself, but equally intuitive, need to be all the more careful. They are more likely to shoot five darts, have one hit the target or somewhere in the area, and manage to think they know someone else's entire story and are qualified to advise them - when they may have no notion of what the circumstances are in another's life.

I have no objection to charismatic prayer if one finds that helpful, but, as I've discussed elsewhere, it was not a healthy approach in my own case (though I certainly thought it was at the time... I all but thought I could raise the dead.) I recall its going from very popular to just about dead within a few years. I cannot say why, and am sure there were many reasons. Yet I think, at least in some part and for some participants, disillusionment played a role. Many people I knew in the groups were very excited - seeing the Holy Spirit as inspiring them, bringing others into their lives, giving them insight into others' situations, even thinking they'd witnessed miracles.

Yes - I believe strongly in divine providence, and think that, all the more with hindsight, we can see places in our own lives where it well may have been at work. I think there indeed are times when an insight can be the gift of the Holy Spirit - though usually such are a call to repentance (not necessarily from wickedness, but in a sense of removing bars to divine intimacy) and directed at one's self! I've known many good, devout people with many gifts, but discernment is the rarest gift of all - and those who do possess this gift would be the last to base it on whimsy or stereotypes.

Friday, 31 October 2008

My Hallowe'en prank

From The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, page 107:
The Merlin followed Igraine with his eyes as she came back to him. She looked into his face and said, "Here and now, my father, from this moment, be witness that I have done forever with sorcery. What God wills be done."

The Merlin looked tenderly into her ravaged face. His voice was gentler than she had ever heard it. "Do you think that all our sorcery could bring about anything other than God's will, my child?"

Now, indeed, the Mists of Avalon is a fascinating novel, with a very original 'take on' the Arthurian legends, and a perfect read for Hallow e'en night. It gives a highly negative image of Christians, but remains enthralling. Still, were one to speak not of creative literary efforts but of the 'real world,' one goal of the Druids could never be accomplished. The book has a scenario where Druid and Christian would worship at the same altar, combining their rites.

Certainly, Christianity, from its first Gentile mission, had to adapt for those formerly pagan to have some understanding of its philosophy and often incorporated pagan holidays into the calendar with a new flavour. Yet it is totally wrong for Christians (some small number, based on what I've seen on the Internet) to believe they can remain true to this faith and practise witchcraft.

Yes, I love Halloween - and not only as All Hallows Eve. Costumes, literary or dramatic uses of mythology and folklore, and so forth are fine with me. Yet most of such folklore has to do with powers of darkness. What is the appeal of the old gods? They clearly never heard of "in all things harm ye none."

I believe there is much truth in the old myths, and that some are literary masterpieces. Still, the old gods are far from romantic (even if an image of Apollo on a chariot is rather appealing.) They are super-powerful versions of humanity at its worst - violent, jealous, vengeful.

I would imagine that the appeal of the images of the cauldron has at least some basis in that it is frustrating to see how very powerless we are over much of our lives. Spells can give one an impression of having some sort of control... but the fact is that we do not.

I'm all for folk religion, and know that some devotions can seem magical to those unfamiliar with the deeper meaning. But there is a huge difference between prayer and spells. Intercessory prayer calls on the mercy or power of God while admitting that He is not under the obligation to perform miracles. It has the element of "if you will not grant what I ask, then change me - let me not falter in loving you and my neighbours whatever the outcome." I think the temptation to dabble in the occult comes from a desire for power, and it is dangerous because it can give us the impression we have powers that are beyond us.

May I add that I am doing my best to enjoy Halloween, and looking forward to All Saints Day. :) I'm sorry I was unable to find anyone broadcasting the Universal monster flicks from the 1930s-40s (I can't watch recent horror films, because they really terrify me and are very violent. But the 'old flicks' I do enjoy, the more with the camp and humorous elements of, for example, cockney cops in Transylvania.) But I did find reruns of some old and dreadful Bela Lugosi films, and am using that as a consolation prize. The cat is curled on my lap, the incense burning - my one regret being that, when Mirielle was a kitten, she broke the ceramic jack o'lantern my mother made...

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

And He told them, in plain English...

I shall caution my readers that this post will be far from profound. Somehow, today I was smiling, remembering a friar I knew who was preaching about Jesus' sermon on the mount. At one point, he said, "And what did he tell them - in plain English?!" Actually, the friar was not a native of any English-speaking country himself - but I was giggling inwardly, knowing full well that "plain English" did not exist until long after Jesus' time, in any form, and that, however active were the markets of Galilee, no one there would have heard anyone speaking even one of the ancestors of the English tongue.

(Fear not - Cranmer remedied this. But I digress... Bear with me. In my in box today, there not only were the usual number of announcements of my having won lotteries or been left inheritances which, in total, would allow me to buy Harrod's. There was one which supposedly had to do with my estate, and asked for confirmation of whether I was alive or dead. The temptation to respond 'from the grave' was nearly irresistible.)

I indeed love language - even when I use it badly (which sometimes is intentional - rather fun, is it not?) I cannot recall the source, but, some years back, I remember hearing an esteemed scholar of literature comment that spoken English is "the vernacular of vernaculars." I'm sure I am not alone in that I like formality in written English and such situations as liturgical services and legal transactions. Still, dialects are just fine. It is political correctness and trendy, annoying stunts which I abhor.

Certainly, to use religious terminology as an example (well, I would, wouldn't I?), there can be times when misunderstanding stems from that a technical, theological term has a far different meaning in the vernacular (as is true for all seven of the capital sins... and, if you really are a glutton for punishment, try Neo-Thomism.) That is true of many fields, including the natural and social sciences. Way back in the 14th century, Walter Hilton (a doctor of both civil and canon law) wrote the first work on spirituality in the English language, and what a chore that must have been. Many terms which are very precise in Latin or Greek lose something in translation - to any other language, the more those which continue to evolve.

But political correctness is quite another matter. One would need a daily update to discover just what word had changed meaning (for example, the perfectly respectable term "issues" now is used as a euphemism for "problems"... and old timers like myself who use the word in its true sense will be taken for commenting that something is wrong when nothing is.) Words which never were offensive suddenly can lead to ire - as I learnt, for example, when I referred to 'diversity' meaning 'diversity of thought,' and was assumed to be speaking of race. Many professions can no longer be referred to by names by which they've always been known - as if the work someone did was so shameful that it cannot be mentioned. Yet (ask any female manager...) now that secretaries have all sorts of ridiculous titles, the women who genuinely are in higher positions are assumed to be ... secretaries with ridiculous titles. I've also learnt that referring to someone as blind (which I thought merely meant that they could not see) or deaf (could not hear?), neither of which were states I thought implied a defect in character, morality, or intelligence, has horrid implications, such as meaning (I got this from the Internet..) that they had no recognition of their sexuality. (I cannot imagine what the connection is, nor why it is assumed that everyone is so preoccupied with everyone's sexuality.)

It's all getting exceedingly boring - and those who are inspired (God help us) to explain the deeper meanings for every term they use are not assisting communication, but merely broadcasting to all and sundry that "you must watch every word you say to me, or I'll go into a highly condescending and pedantic mode (normally playing psychologist in the process." I've had my quota for boredom filled amply in recent months. For example, a mother I knew, when asked by someone else if she had children, delivered a mini lecture on how, where she used to say she "had five children," she now must substitute "I am the mother of five children," lest she be possessive. Another major bore explained how 'diet' (which, to my knowledge, means only what one of any species eats... one may well refer to the diet of a bear) means 'a food plan one follows temporarily' - and of course went on, in some detail, about the reasons for substitute terms. (Why this character thought anyone gave a damn what she ate is beyond me, but I'd bet my last penny, if I still had one, that she belongs to Weight Watchers. People in that organisation will bring up what they were 'taught' there if someone mentions the weather, the war, or that the continent of Australia sank into the ocean this morning.) Perhaps worst of all was a very young woman, who clearly finds herself totally fascinating and talks ad infinitum about her therapist, in as many contexts as those for the Weight Watchers bores, who will explain "I language" at any provocation.

I'm just as naive, but I've lived longer. "When you did this, I felt that way" will undoubtedly make many people, especially those of my generation who used to get psyched out on EST training, respond 'well, then you chose to feel that way.' (Many of the love and peace generation got their kicks from treating others like dirt, then insisting the other 'chose' to feel bruised as he tumbled down the stairs from their kicking.) Others will wonder why they are supposed to care how you felt. And, sad but true, people indeed do sometimes mean to be offensive or hurtful... and some greatly enjoy seeing that they achieved that goal.

I'll not accept a plea of 'not guilty' for all in religious work, many of whom, of course, take political correctness to even greater extremes and assume that psycho babble makes them look relevant (or whatever 'relevant' is in its current incarnation - remember I'm a 1960s-70s throwback.) Believe it or not, someone who asks for the schedule of services just might not be inclined to pay the church a visit if their simple question is answered with elaboration about how "the common worship is at 11:00, but the service should be a part of everything about how we live." (You know perfectly well what the person meant - don't pretend you weren't playing a game!) One priest for whom I otherwise have the highest regard has a similar way of twisting and turning words if anyone mentions "going to church," and responds with "I never go to church...", then expounds in a manner not unlike "the service has just begun..."

These games do not improve communication. They more often curtail it, or even make it impossible. (Those who recognise the game will think that the speaker is a fool. They are in less danger of alienation than those who are timid or feel ignorant, who are likely to 'choose to feel' that they are the fools. The former are correct...)

Monday, 27 October 2008

Doubt or disbelief?

One of my friends raised an interesting question this week in relation to faith: what is the difference between wanting to believe yet doubting and disbelief itself? I'm not suggesting that I have the answer, but I thought I would record some thoughts which came to mind.

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

Perhaps John of the Cross is not the ideal saint to quote in this context, because, as God leads each of us on the proper path based on who we happen to be, John's road was unusual by any standard. For example, I would imagine that one could be a Carmelite abbot for fifty years and never know anyone who was in "The Dark Night." Yet I quoted him not only because he is a favourite of mine, but because no one could think that my source was heretical. :) John had an intensity of devotion, a height of prayer, which hardly anyone reaches in this life - and which would lead him to a combination of delight and darkness we can barely fathom. He was not denying doctrine, or the revelation the Christian or Jew believes to be its source. John's total, single minded oblation to God had given him a glimpse of divine glory - and I suppose that, the more one has had intimacy with the Beloved, the greater is one's awareness of how we barely scratch the surface in our understanding.

I'm quoting from memory here, so those more knowledgeable are asked to excuse any flaw in the quotation. In another work, An Ecstasy of High Exultation, John of the Cross writes, "I entered in, I know not where, and I remained, though knowing naught, transcending knowledge with my thought. So borne aloft, so drunken reeling, so rapt was I, so swept away, within the scope of sense or feeling my sense or feeling could not stay..." And even the newest to his poetry will have read, "One dark night, fired with love's urgent longings - ah, what bliss!"

Knowing naught - transcending knowledge with his thought - dark nights coupled with bliss. We never can truly know God, and I think that those who were unusually close to Him, having caught that glimpse which I mentioned, are aware of this to a high degree, yet delight in that the divine essence is so far beyond the limitations of our vision. I in fact believe, as did some of the early Fathers, that heaven will be constant growth as well - coming to heightened knowledge of God, without ever coming to full knowledge.

Now, to return to earth.... :)

I am sure that many Christians would agree with me that we reach a point where, even when we are not conscious of this, our actions, viewpoints, ethics, whatever, all are strongly grounded in our faith - it is not restricted to worship. Perhaps many others, like myself, see that the faith gives value to everything in our lives, yet we never lose the fear of losing this. I gather that this means faith is very important to us, but we recognise how very fragile we can be.

No one (except possibly Gnostics and Jung) would be able to say "I know there is a God," much less that one could know with certainty that God is loving, the creator, omnipotent, omniscient, the redeemer. I would imagine that most believers have times in our lives when we especially were aware of divine providence at work (the more with hindsight), but we can never be positive that there truly was a divine origin. During my childhood, one of the catechism prayers was "I believe these and all the truths which thy holy Catholic church believes and teaches, for thou hast revealed them, who canst neither deceive nor be deceived." Well, I could still recite that prayer - but it fails if there is no God, or no revelation. We can never know for sure. It's always a leap of faith... and faith is a grace... and there is no grace (share in the life of the Trinity) if there is no God... and what if there is not?

The late Jaroslav Pelikan, whom I consider to be an outstanding theologian and church historian, was an interesting combination - he'd gone from Lutheran to Orthodox. One very powerful point which he made always remains in my mind. Pelikan, in treating of the developments of the early creeds, and how much had been implicit in liturgical texts long before the actual creeds were formulated, pointed out how many doctrines make perfect sense 'on our knees,' but are difficult, if not impossible, to explain in some rational formula. My own life is built around liturgical prayer - the doxology at the end of each psalm - and it makes perfect sense at prayer, but I'd hardly undertake to explain the trinity, revelation, the resurrection, the Real Presence, or even what Creation means! I've said this before, I know - but there are days when I wonder if there is a God, while concurrently being positive that I just received his Body and Blood.

In my own case, and this unusually for someone who is overly intellectual, I cannot say I ever had a period of atheism. My own struggles were those unique to the theist: believing there was a God, and one who continued to act in creation, and therefore wondering why He did not. Sometimes Auschwitz and comparable tragedies were in my mind - at other times, raised on tales of mini miracles, I wondered what I'd done to offend Him, why he'd rejected my using the gifts with which he endowed me for his Church. But I'll save expounding on that for another day, adding only that deism sometimes is appealing as very restful...

Genuine atheists (a modern innovation, I might add) may be indifferent to religion, or hostile, or have an opinion of its being foolishness, or (these are the ones particularly dangerous if we are very young in either years or faith) see it as immaturity. Yet both agnostics and great mystics would agree on "I don't know."

Doubt comes in many flavours. If one is not an atheist, it can mean coming to greater maturity - getting past images that were suited for us in childhood or later, but which are inadequate. (Such progress is frightening, because we lose a certainty which sustained us.) It's also possible that there is some sin against faith - but I don't think one should worry about this unless one is actively doing something contrary (for example, dabbling in the occult.) Other times, our emotions can be in tumult, or we can be in a period of suffering, whatever, and we may be confused about our own identity, or integrity, or whether religion was 'a crutch' (just visit any Internet forum, and there will be contributors who will cast one in another mould).

But doubting when one wants to believe (and I think all the saints have done so) shows that our will is essentially turned towards God. One who hadn't made that step in love would not care in the least whether he believed or not.

I may not express this well, but I think that most of what we have to offer is action alone. If we seek to act with love - or to act in worship - it is the sign of response. Once we believe we are certain, we just might close our minds.

I did mention, at the outset, that I do not have an answer - I have no abilities in discernment whatever, for all that I'll not deny I have a rather encyclopaedic knowledge of certain areas of theology. I may be far off the mark. Yet I believe doubt can be very healthy, because it keeps us from over-estimating the scope of our own vision.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Jeremiah was a bullfrog

As my readers know, I have no fondness for frogdom, and indeed think that John the Divine had a point when he spoke of evil spirits coming forth as same. No, that just happened to be the beginning of song "Joy to the World," which just came up on my CD player. The time has come, once again, when I must dose myself with a plentiful amount of rock music from the 1960s-70s. I spent nearly two hours last night, dosing myself with Bob Dylan, for example. I also did not realise two Sundays ago, when I (uncharacteristically) attended a small eight o'clock service at a very formal church, that, when we came to the point of exchanging the Peace (in this spread out and small group), that I flashed the old peace sign (the one that resembled Winston Churchill's V for Victory... don't I wish peace could be seen as victory...), perhaps to the astonishment of the staid crowd.

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

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

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

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

I'm tempted to add that the refrain more than expresses my feelings on some days, but I have the good taste not to add its lyrics here...

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

And I work in his factory, and I curse the life I'm living,
and I curse my poverty, and I wish that I could be Richard Cory
Note that Simon and Garfunkel wisely included a repetition of this refrain even after the final verse, in which we learn that Richard Cory put a bullet through his head. Telling, that.

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

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

Yes, Petula, point taken.

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

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

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

Since I've shown my cynical side (standard equipment for burnt idealists) in this post, I must lighten it just a bit with a funny story. (This anecdote is perfectly true, though some of you may think it is dramatic licence. I can assure you that I could never make up anything like this...) I'm remembering, c. 1969, when my cousins' son was baptised. It was a 1969 special: conducted in their home, with a candle in the shape of a peace sign. Believe it or not, as a gesture of communal fellowship or something, everyone joined in a popular song - my cousin would tell me later she only thought of this one because it was a chart topper and this happened to be a very rainy day. Yes - they all sang "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head." It is three times as amusing because the proud parents, who at that time considered listening to the Godspell record at breakfast to be wonderful alternative worship, were completely unaware of the humour of using such a song at a baptism!

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

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

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Silence has more than one use

A few years back, I remember attending a christening for one of my brother-in-law's family. One would consider that to be generally a very happy occasion, but somehow the conversations became rather spine chilling, mainly centred on speculations about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan escalating, nuclear holocaust, and other dismal possibilities.

My nephew, Christopher, is very interested in political science, and has a passion for current events - he knows what is going on, and this in detail, in every nation in the world. (By contrast, I have no understanding of current events, or even events during my own lifetime. I can't remember who it was who said 'history takes time,' but it certainly is true. I love history, but am lost about journalism - I need to consider a perspective of a century at the very least.) Much as I would have preferred to steer this miserable talk in another direction, it occurred to me that Christopher, who really did know facts about everything under discussion, remained silent. (He often does - not a trait inherited from my side of the family, though I'm shy and his mother would make me look silent.) Christopher is part of debating societies and pursuing a career in law, and I suppose he saves his words for when they are necessary or at least useful. I may have far more life experience, but I believe he's learnt something relatively early - it's no sense talking, even if one's knowledge is vast, when it will have no effect. (Even I, who admit my deficiencies in the 'current events' area, knew full well that Saddam Hussein, who was still in power at the time, was not likely to launch an air offensive which would throttle the combined power of the RAF and United States Air Force... the more since Saddam did not have enough of an air force to even attack Israel.)

It is not unusual for those in religious work, politics, teaching, and so forth to have one lesson they never learnt. Don't say anything about areas of which one knows nothing. For example, clergy (whether Roman or Anglican) normally are highly educated in not only theology but logic, philosophy and the like - most could speak eloquently of the use of reason. Yet it is not unusual for some of them to spout about current topics using none of the skills they should have acquired. I myself trained not only for theology but (university) teaching, so I'll not be penalised, I'm sure, for admitting that even those who may have excellent training in a particular subject can be prone to spout at length about those not remotely related to their area of expertise. (Politicians are in another category, I believe, because they are more likely to be employing rhetoric. However, such little memories as those of George W. Bush's seeking support from moderate Arab nations by announcing, of all things, plans for a crusade show how rhetoric can have a totally different effect than one might have foreseen.)

Those of us with high religious ideals often have accompanying tunnel vision. It is not that our viewpoints do not have value, not at all - but we can be so focussed on a particular ideal that we don't see the bigger picture. It can have odd results. Loving literature and theatre as I do, I never fail to be exasperated, for example, when I read accounts of religious sorts organising protests and demonstrations, and urging boycotts, for books, plays, or films which have not yet been released / produced. It does not seem to occur to them, in their fervour, that it is best not to refute books which one has not read or films one cannot possibly have seen.

Many religious people are well aware of the value that one may find in silence in relation to prayer and meditation. Perhaps it would be wise to borrow a good idea from Christopher and keep one's mouth shut when one has insufficient information or when, even if one is very learned, speaking would do no good. In my much longer life, I still never seem to grasp that lots of conversations consist in talking about nothing!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Remembering Saint Gerard, as usual for this week

As any of my regular visitors remember, devotion to Saint Gerard was a great favourite of my mother's - and she tended to achieve amazing results with his novena. For those who wish a bit more on the topic (in the sense of my reflections, not hagiography per se), here are a few previous posts:

Yesterday, I was speaking with someone I had met by chance (not previously known to me in the least), who has a great devotion to Saint Gerard. With its being his feast day, I'd naturally brought him some petitions, one of them being relief from my aching shoulder (it's keeping me up at night, the more if the cat nestles in the window and leaps on to my shoulder at 3 AM...) That was the least of my concerns (the others are too personal to share on a blog), but, as it happened, the lady with whom I was speaking laid a relic of Gerard on the aching spot as we spoke, just feeling that this was necessary.

No - the shoulder is not healed. Yet I had the feeling that I needed a reminder of the sort of simple faith which Gerard and my mother had. I also was moved by the similar devotion I saw in the new acquaintance who blessed me with the relic.

My only concern was that she mentioned how God blessed Gerard because of his extreme physical mortification. Indeed, that was one of Gerard's practises, but it would be unwise for nearly everyone.

God reaches us as we are, where we are. My love for Gerard, and my thinking him to be a great saint, does not erase that he was most unusual (...not that holiness is ever commonplace, but I mean odd in other senses.) Much of what he did (see previous posts!) would be crackers coming from nearly anyone else. Always sickly, it is likely, I believe, that Gerard's physical penances contributed to his having such a short life (died at 29.)

Gerard's individual actions would leave most of us acting like half wits, or lapsing into dangerous self punishment. In his case, I gather that he was extremely literal minded, and he acted with such simplicity and love that divine grace transformed even the oddest actions into expressions of devotion.

With Gerard and many other saints, it is very true that they had their weaknesses, odd behaviour, even somewhat bent way of looking at the world or God. (I love Francesco and Caterina and cannot praise or quote either of them enough - but models of sanity they were not.) This does not cast a slur on their holiness, but shows that God can work with whatever material we happen to offer. Nonetheless, we need to be careful of imitating saints in the particulars.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Elizabeth and Screwtape on Humility

I know this may seem to be a totally unrelated idea, but bear with me - as usual. I was telling someone just recently that I'd noticed one telling difference in a single sentence of Julian of Norwich's Showings. In the first manuscript, Julian, at age 30, wrote, "what I wretch I am." Though otherwise the overall passage is much the same, at 50 she'd changed this sentence to "what a wretch I was." My guess would be that this was the result of a combination of awe at divine grace, which Julian possessed in abundance at both times, the transformation which occurs in 20 years of devotion to her prayer life, and a bit of the wisdom only age can supply for most.

Both virtues and vices are often misunderstood, and all the more because some have a far different meaning in the vernacular than they had for theologians. (Remind me to write about that at length some time.) Humility (which is truth) indeed is a rare and wonderful blessing. Unfortunately, the perception of this virtue can be taken for abasement - for finally realising that one is rubbish.

I remember once hearing an excellent sermon, delivered by a priest of my acquaintance who ranks among the best homilists I've ever encountered. There was quite a bit of trouble, including a complaint from a very vocal parishioner, when he mentioned Jesus' being perfect in humility. I was very puzzled at the negative reaction. It would seem to me that Jesus, and He alone, would be perfect in all virtues. I can only suppose that the mental picture of 'humility' as being linked with realising one is terrible made the very hint that Jesus (the Way, the Truth, and the Life) could possess this virtue as meaning he was a rogue by nature.

Considering that, for centuries, the concept of the Incarnation focused primarily on the crucifixion (and that each of us put Christ on the cross), and much preaching and writing was centred on calling the hearer to repentance, the idea of truth became far too limited. Indeed, we do need to repent (I'm defining that as spiritual transformation, not only turning from sin, though heaven knows we all need to do plenty of that). Yet our nature is glorious - created by God, the human nature assumed deified by the Logos. There was such emphasis on "the fall" that many a writer would give the impression that we were so unbearably wicked that we needed punishment to remedy matters (...I often wish Augustine had stuck to the Trinity... but too many later theologians, notably not including my friend Thomas, were not pining for paradise lost but seeing their goal as getting us to the point of self hatred.) Any recognition of self worth, which one would think appropriate considering creation and deification, was assumed to be a stumbling block.

(Another topic which I'll save is how many a religious sort, convinced that s/he is as wicked as the worst of murderers, can be manipulated by those who've chosen to be genuinely wicked. Fortunately, to be truly wicked is not easy - it takes years of closing oneself off not only to grace but to one's own human nature... and the good shepherd continues to go after the wicked nonetheless.)

Screwtape is, as usual, quite clever in instructing Wormwood in how to fix the new Christian's attention on humility for maximum damage. Again, I'll remind the reader that the quotation following is correspondence between one demon and another - the Enemy is God.

"By (humility), our Enemy wants to turn the man's attention away from self to Him, and to the man's neighbours...Abjection and self hatred... may do us (the demons)) good if they keep the man concerned with himself, and, above all, if self-contempt can be made the starting point for contempt of other selves, and thus for gloom, cynicism, and cruelty..

You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a ... low opinion of his own talents and character... The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what threatens to become a virtue. By this method, thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly, and clever men trying to believe they are fools..

The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour's - or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things."

Now, I can hardly be expected to match Screwtape in wisdom (it's angelic intelligence, after all), but I can admit that humility is a virtue I worship from afar. I say this because it took me years to realise that it frequently is not pride but fear and insecurity, both of which I possess in abundance, which keep us from the truth about the value of ourselves / creation. I'll leave my readers with that thought, because I have a sense that I am not alone! It is unfortunate that many in positions of authority or teaching (whether in the pulpit, home, classroom, whatever) so thought that reminding another of weakness, lack, and so forth to an excessive, indeed untrue, extent (...whether to make them work harder, or to keep them from pride... pick a card, any card...) filled us with a fear of our best qualities.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Little reunion with Screwtape

Now and then, I 'take a break' from authors with whose work I have been acquainted over many years. I studied C. S. Lewis' at great length some time ago, and such a break is necessary to read them with a fresh perspective. Even the New Testament or Francis of Assisi can become 'stale' when we've read them so often that we feel we know them backwards.

Today was one of my periodic "retreat days," a bonus I give myself when I've been rather tense or preoccupied. I enjoyed looking around at what is left of flowers and autumn foliage, and re-read The Screwtape Letters. This always was my favourite Lewis work, perhaps because it encapsulates such insight and wisdom, and because, for the most part, it lacks the dreary side which Lewis' books often had. (My loving much of them does not mean I cannot see the misery - and Franciscan jesters, with the Mediterranean flair for a laughter which might be seen as close to irreverent in northern Europe, aren't much ones for the dualism that creeps into the father of Narnia and dismal treatises on suffering.)

Most of my readers undoubtedly are familiar with Screwtape, but I'll provide a brief synopsis - which certainly cannot do it justice, but may whet the potential readers' appetite for more. (It's a deliciously witty and insightful volume.) Screwtape is a well seasoned devil, with years of temptation experience, who writes a series of letters to fledgling demon Wormwood. The inexperienced Wormwood has been assigned to divert a young man, who recently embraced Christianity, from his religious convictions and any budding practise of virtue. Screwtape reminds Wormwood of how to confuse and discourage a human - not in such a blatant fashion as to tempt him to rob a bank (why tempt those? they are already in Satan's pocket), but with despair, vanity, a sense of losing faith when the 'honeymoon is over' spiritually, wanting esteem from others, seeing humility as self hatred and the like. Naturally, every Christian has such experiences in different fashions, but I doubt a one of us would not recognise the tactics which Screwtape urges.

There is much of great richness in "The Screwtape Letters," and I'm not about to cite many examples, lest I spoil a first reading for anyone. I would, however, like to explore a reference which is a sample of how the evil ones work (and, unlike C. S. Lewis, who saw fallen angels as responsible for everything from temptation to natural disasters, I believe that many of the 'evil ones' are tendencies within ourselves. [Note: I am not referring here to Screwtape itself, which I see as mainly a commentary on our weaknesses. I need to look up where Lewis referred to fallen angels meaning that literally...] The more devout one is, the more these weaknesses may masquerade as angels of light.) My readers will have noticed by now that two pet peeves of mine are distorted images of humility and detachment - the genuine articles are priceless, but the counterfeit likely to infect the soul. Here is Screwtape on detachment (and remember it's a demon writing - "The Enemy" is God.)

"And now for your blunders. On your own showing you first of all allowed him to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks to his friends. In the second place, you allowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there... In other words, you have allowed him two real, positive Pleasures. Were you not so ignorant as to see the danger of this? ... How can you have failed to see that a real pleasure was the last thing you ought to have let him meet? Didn't you foresee that it would just kill be contrast all the trumpery which you have been so laboriously teaching him to value?... As a preliminary to detaching him from the Enemy, you wanted to detach him from himself... Now, all that is undone.

Of course I know that the Enemy also wants to detach men from themselves, but in a different way. Remember always, that He really likes the little vermin, and sets an absurd value on the distinctness of every one of them. When he talks of their losing their selves, he only means abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, he really gives them back of their personality, and boasts (I am afraid sincerely) that when they are wholly his they will be more themselves than ever....

The deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting point, with which the Enemy has furnished him. To get him away from those is therefore always a point gained..."

It occurs to me that, too often in religious training of any kind (books, sermons, whatever), we were taught to fear, rather than value, who we really are. We could even receive the impression that, if Jesus exhorted us to love God above all things and our neighbours as ourselves, somehow we'd best not love that self very much.

My prayer, for myself and my readers, today is that we cherish who we are, and that God gives us the grace to be as real as we can be.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

It is all in the expression :)

Though they are out of print and largely forgotten now, in my youth I greatly enjoyed Betty MacDonald's books. (The most popular, The Egg and I, was the only one I did not like - her style was not refined as yet in that one, and it was not engaging.) Betty wrote of situations in her life and that of her family which often were very far from funny. Job losses, struggles during the Great Depression, a year in a sanatorium with tuberculosis, an unhappy marriage at age 18 and a divorce which left her with tiny children... these hardly are enjoyable topics. Yet Betty had a flair for describing situations, dialogue, and individuals in a manner which cast them in a humorous and clever light - alternating between affection, wry laughter, cynicism and so forth. She clearly had a gift for depicting the human condition, "warts and all," and even her gallows humour now and then made one see that she had a great enjoyment of life.

For once, I'll pen a post with but a single religious reference. I may be one for the clouds of Unknowing (by which I do not refer only to the book of that title), yet I find the image of God which might be spun by a Franciscan jester to be far more appealing than the hell-fire sort, or the creator who is forced into a punishing mode because of our depravity, or the sombre God who wants but sacrifice and suffering. Expression can be everything - and I rather enjoy a playful God.

A year or two ago, a family friend, who remembers my parents' old neighbourhood well though she is perhaps fifteen years younger than my mother (Chip), was telling me of how fascinating she found my mother (then in her twenties) and Chip's sisters and friends when she saw them walking about during the war years. To a child, these young women seemed the height of what my generation termed "cool." I had to smile, because Chip's life was so sheltered as to make mine seem worldly. She was the youngest girl in a well spaced family of 11 children (8 of whom lived to adulthood and old age), and both the 'baby' and a 'mamma's girl.' I know, both from her reminiscences (Chip most definitely did not have a flair for humour... she lent towards the morose) and from my dad's, that normally the only place to which she was en route with the other girls was the municipal bath house or, on really exciting days, the park. Grandma was well into her 60s then (old age for the time) and arthritic, and her circle of elderly friends would gather at the flat at night - while attentive Chip ironed, cleaned, and made the older folks hot chocolate. This hardly is the stuff of romance novels, yet Dolores was intrigued. (Now that I think of it, about the only part of this which might have been vaguely interesting would be how they obtained chocolate during the war.) To a child, young women walking by seemed exciting, perhaps even glamorous.

The wryness tag is on for the rest of this post - but I believe there is truth in what I say of perspective, even if I am exaggerating a bit.

As it true of most people, I believe, I am ambivalent at times about my home, and often self conscious about my appearance. Well, let us take a look at how my home could be described.

Version 1: Elizabeth lives in a cosy, charming flat, where the air is scented with the combined flavours of exotic incense, pot pourri, and espresso boiling. The ambience is lovely, with classical music in the background, bookcases everywhere, and delightful memorabilia. Posters and prints commemorate everything from Paris cats to Globe Theatre seasons, and the shelves are decorated like Aladdin's cave, with royal memorabilia sharing a spot next to a fanciful faerie, Lladro images of Daughters of Charity, Hummel figurines, astrological figures, and medieval items. It is perfectly suited to one person plus a cat, uniquely off beat and perfect for showing a flair for self expression.

Version 2: Elizabeth's place is a kip. The floors are crooked! Everything is cramped. She should get rid of those dust collectors and all of those books. Doesn't she know that her furniture is not in style? How does she stand the noise in that neighbourhood? And I don't know about you, but I'd never have an indoor cat - and with a litter pan in the bathroom! What a shame - with her education she could have made more money...

I do know this much. How we express ourselves, whether in outward descriptions or our own thoughts, can very much colour all of how we see life. I'm glad that, in my early days, I decided that 'doing a Betty' (see the first paragraph) was quite a good option.

Saturday, 4 October 2008


I'll admit to a small disappointment today - which unexpectedly led to an enriching reflection. When I attended a midday Eucharist, naturally expecting it to be in commemoration of the Feast of Saint Francis, I initially was sorry to see that it was the parish's monthly commemoration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Those of you who dislike commemorations of saints altogether may skip over the rest... but those who have Marian devotion may be assured that, even if my own devotion in that area is "Mary as icon of the Church" and such, I would not be sorry to see such a votive observance except on the Feast of Francis.)

It ended up being unexpectedly enriching. The gospel was the text of the Magnificat, and the sermon was a very good one on that theme. The young priest who was celebrant (and who is devoted to Francis) was telling me afterwards that Francis, of all saints, would have been glad to take second place to another observance (especially one of Mary).

I love Francis, of course, and anyone who doubts that may click the title of this post to read my Internet page on the subject. I'm his loving daughter - but, as most of us know (and anyone new to spirituality may be assured is not unique to 'beginners'... inverted commas are there because all age teaches us is that there is no Christian who ever is beyond being a beginner), the most loving child has days when s/he is confused by a 'parent.' My own confusion (I blush to admit) is connected with why Francis thought radical poverty so attractive. Thank God, I've never slept in the streets or been covered with lice (Francis' love for animals seems to have extended to every species, and he didn't flinch at their being boarders on his person). Yet I have conflicts about poverty. I can certainly see freedom in not living for the material or for accomplishment, yet so much of poverty entails endless, back-breaking labour - or, if one is fortunate enough to become educated, still having no chance to use the gifts because one must take whatever dreadful job one can find - worry - struggle - I could go on. There are many days when even my great admiration for Francis does not leave me without a wish that I had a Pietro Bernadone around to turn to in need. (Some of you are going to hate this... but conflict and questioning are true in all spiritual lives, and I doubt a little frankness is not valuable for the Church. Indeed, it is a Franciscan tradition. I'm remembering when a friar who was troubled with temptation confided this to Francesco, who told him to tell the devil, "Open your mouth and I'll shit in it." Compared to Bernadino of Siena, Francis' language was elegant.)

Now, you may be wondering by now where the Magnificat comes in - and it does, most beautifully. Certainly, the infancy narrative in Luke's gospel is one of the familiar and most cherished of scriptures, but I must admit that I regret that, through the years (and often through the influence of Franciscans), it has been reduced to reflections on Mary's dispositions and the Holy Family's poverty. This does not do it justice. Luke shows us various models of Israel (Mary, Elizabeth, Zachariah, Simeon) seeing fulfilment in Jesus.

Raymond E. Brown, in his marvellous Birth of the Messiah, treats of how the canticles in the infancy narrative (which have a liturgical flavour) may have come to Luke from a circle of Jewish Christians - who, in turn, were drawing on a piety developed at Qumran. The elements of history and theology which are pertinent are too lengthy to develop here - but Brown's presentation is exquisite. I'll quote a few points here:

"Although this title (Anawim) meaning 'Poor Ones' may have originally designated the physically poor (and frequently still included them), it came to refer more widely to those who could not trust in their own strength, but had to rely in utter confidence upon God... The opposite of the Anawim were not simply the rich, but the proud and self-sufficient who showed no need of God or His help. ..A good case can be made for the contention that, in post-exilic times, the Anawim regarded themselves as the ultimate narrowing down of the remnant of Israel...

Jewish Anawim might well have found in (the Saviour) the fulfilment of their messianic expectations, and have used hymns to hail what God had accomplished in Jesus (just as the related Qumran group resorted to hymns to express their thanks to God and to celebrate their anticipated victories in the eschatological wars.) The Magnificat... would make perfect sense in such a setting...

Luke took these general expressions of the joy manifested by the Jewish Christian Anawim over the salvation accomplished in Jesus.."

There is much more - and I cannot do it justice here. Yet it certainly makes for a fine meditation to consider how both Mary and Francis (and this beyond physical poverty) needed total trust in God - a regular giving of a "be it done unto me according to your word." I have no idea what the answer would be, even for myself - but it may open our eyes a bit to step away from concepts of sacrifice, suffering, heroism, achievement, or whatever else blinds us, and to rejoice in, rather than fear, what a 'yes' entails.

I have studied Francis' writings, and those of his contemporaries, for over thirty years - and I am not about to profess to understand the breadth of what he meant by holy poverty. I think its essence is trust and thanksgiving, and also humility (by which I mean truth, not self hatred, though Francis himself had to fight that last. Too often, the concept of humility was distorted, and I should like to cross out every line in spiritual books on the order of 'despise yourself.' Despising our sinful tendencies is valuable - but God's creation, including ourselves, is not to be despised, and our sin is about the only thing we have that He did not create.)

Friday, 3 October 2008

Why are tale bearers appealing to anyone?

This question, for which I have no answer, occurred to me today when I was studying moral theology (one of the subjects I am finally pursuing in greater depth.) In reading one of Bernard Haring's works on the subject of truth, I noticed his explanations of various grave sins against charity and justice. In one section, I was surprised (most of you will never believe this, since I'm not exactly a youngster, and I think most people know this by age 10... so much for idealism) when he referred to tale bearing - where one employs calumny or detraction specifically intending to destroy the bond of peace and love which exists between friends (or others whom one loves.) Not that I had never witnessed tale bearing - I haven't been that cloistered! But what surprised me was that Haring mentioned how, though this in no way minimises the gravity of such an action, those who are tale bearers normally have the motive of replacing the other (whom they have slandered) in his friend's affections.

It occurred to me that I have seen this happen - many times. What strikes me as so confusing is that the motive of replacing the other in affections often works! I've never understood why. Certainly, I would think that, were someone to trash another to me, especially someone I loved, I would want no part of the likes of her. I'd also be wary of anyone with this tendency, because even I am not so naive as to know that she's probably be trashing everyone, including me, along the way. Still, tale bearers whom I have known often are quite popular, sometimes surrounded by the former friends of people whom they have trashed.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Macquarrie wisdom - 'ransom'

My 'regulars' know well that I hold the late John Macquarrie's works in great esteem. I particularly like his ability to combine theological insight and historical perspective with a very realistic, compassionate, sound pastoral attitude. I was re-reading his Jesus Christ in Modern Thought, an excellent treatment of Christology, and initially intended to write a blog post about his words relating the scriptures to art... and you may be sure such is forthcoming shortly. :) Yet a television programme I recently viewed (and which inspired not only devotion but the stirring up of some old goblins from childhood!) led to my focussing today not on art (my favourite area) but erroneous notions of atonement (my least favourite.)

Macquarrie, in writing of the concept of 'ransom' in the gospel of Mark (this naturally with reference to the crucifixion), cautions the reader to detach from later ideas of ransom as appeasement. "Christ's surrendered life might be a ransom paid to the devil (Gregory of Nyssa), or a satisfaction offered to the Father for the outrage done to his honour (Anselm), or a propitiatory sacrifice (Council of Trent.) All such views are open to serious objections - the first because it assumes that the devil has proprietary rights over the fallen human race, whereas, if there are any devils, they are not to be bought off, but annihilated; and the second and third because they picture an angry God and set the Son over against his Father. The underlying problem with such theological theories is that they fail to recognise the metaphorical character of the language, and try to impose on it (too precise an interpretation.) If we put Mark's words about 'a ransom for many' into context, they occur not in any grandiose theory of atonement, but in a commendation of the life of service as opposed to a life of rule and self-assertion." Macquarrie expounds, then, about how we should see 'ransom' in a context of what it implies for Christian discipleship. "The Christ the transvaluation of all values, the exaltation of servanthood and even self-emptying above domination and acquisition. The 'cross' which the disciples must take us is 'dying' to the standards and values of the 'world' and becoming united with Christ in the new life he offers. The 'ransom' paid by Jesus was his own sacrificial death... which is seen as the price of human deliverance from enslavement to sin."

I would applaud such insights as these on any day of the week, but what prompted me to write on this particular topic yet again is that, just last week, I saw a documentary about the life of Thérèse of Lisieux. It actually was quite interesting, treating of her autobiography and others' recollections in detail, and including a 'tour' of the Carmel where she had lived. Though I am not particularly devoted to Thérèse (as opposed to her namesake from Avila), I believe that, with the possible exception of Anthony, she is the most popular 'favourite saint' on the calendar.

I may not care for her style of writing, but Thérèse had a brilliance for presenting a healthy, accessible (if difficult, as all ways are because of our blindness) spirituality. It is notable that, in a time and place where there was enormous, excessive emphasis on suffering and gloom, Thérèse (if I may summarise and simplify) based all on loving response - and on serving Christ wherever one happened to 'be' at the moment. I believe it is quite important that her oblation as a 'victim for love' is seen in that critical context.

Unfortunately, there was one interview included in this documentary which could be confusing to those who are unaware of the overall thrust of Thérèse's spirituality. One nun who was interviewed, referring to the horrid suffering which Thérèse endured from the tuberculosis which would claim her life at age 24, spoke of the darkness in Thérèse's prayer life (a very common situation for mystics - including a Carmelite or two who is canonised...), and referred to this as Thérèse's 'facing the consequences' for her oblation as a victim.

In itself, this is hardly a problematic notion. If what Jean-Pierre de Caussade, a theologian with whom Thérèse had much affinity, defines as worshipping God 'in the present moment' (reasonable enough - where else can we worship Him?), one who is facing all the dreadful pains of tuberculosis, and this combined with a darkness and remoteness at prayer, has a 'consequence' - and one most beautiful. She is committed to being a servant of love (to borrow a term from Macquarrie above), offering her suffering as a prayer, continuing her prayer life despite the dryness. Yet a misinterpretation of the comment could conjure up images which could lead those about to lift the prayer book to run in another direction! The consequence applies if we define this as 'natural outcome' - one committed to love and devotion will have this show forth in her practise, regardless of what suffering she endures. It should not be interpreted as "Thérèse made herself a victim - so God sent her tuberculosis to make sure she had the maximum agony."

I say this often, but it merits repetition. I think the worst development in all of western theology, and this dating back to the early Christian centuries, was getting away from what I term a Eucharistic notion of sacrifice (praise and thanksgiving), and rather focussing on the 'propitiatory' idea which Macquarrie refutes above. For one who is suffering to offer this as a prayer is fine - but suffering, much as we'll never understand the evils of this world, is not the result of God's looking down from heaven and saying, "There's one of my friends - let's send some particularly horrible pain to him so he can atone for sin! And there's someone who wants no part of me - so let's send equal pain either to express punishment or to prevent my having to punish him eternally in hell!"

Why do I mention this as an 'old goblin'? Devotions focussed on 'suffering' and personal 'atonement' were exceedingly popular in my younger days. As a child, I was very frightened by, for example, the image of little Jacinta at Fatima, begging Our Lady, "Must I die all alone?" It matters little that Jacinta's illness was natural, and her regrettably dying alone was a consequence of others' negligence. (As an aside, it is most unfortunate that, in hagiography, it seems that the saints' illnesses and other sufferings were of supernatural origin. I believe that Jacinta also died of tuberculosis - tragic, but, in her time as in that of Thérèse, a very common disease which led many to an early grave.)

I could be wrong, of course, but those who are thought of as 'victims' (in the sense of having made an oblation) seem to me to have been following Thérèse's 'little way' (whether their lives pre-dated hers or not, I'm speaking of a basic concept). They were offering all that they had, in the circumstances in which they found themselves. Neither they nor Jesus Himself had sufferings that were directly ordained by God - Jesus' death came about through natural situations which sent many others to a cross.

To continue the thought in that last sentence for a moment, I wish to make yet another reference to John Macquarrie. His superb treatment of the Eucharist in the book I referenced sets forth the idea of specifically Eucharistic sacrifice in a

manner I'd like to match just once before I'm in the grave. :) I'll limit the reference to a few quotes:

"The language about Jesus' giving his life as a ransom for many, or about the disciple taking up the cross, or about the new covenant, are all brought into a unity of meaning in the Eucharist. There is already in germ here a doctrine of Eucharistic sacrifice...bringing the sacrifice of Christ before God... Geoffrey Wainwright claims: 'The Eucharist is a dominically instituted memorial rite which, not only serving to remind men but being performed before God, is sacrificial (in
that) it recalls before God with thanksgiving that one sacrifice, and prays for (its) continuing benefits to be granted now.' ....Whatever may have been the specific accusation (leading to Jesus' crucifixion), the real issue was that he

threatened the security of the established powers, and did so not by force of arms but by a transvaluation of values, in which the values of his non-worldly kingdom were supplanting the values of the world. Wainwright remarks: 'By keeping open the vision of a divine kingdom that transcends anything yet achieved, the Christian liturgy is to that extent subversive [of the existing order.]' The point has been put more generally by Richard Holloway: '(One) who worships God is a threat to every
other power which claims absolute authority."

The more I read of the classic mystics of the earliest centuries, the more I recall how sad it is that we Christians so dwelt on the cross, more or less forgetting the rest of the Incarnation: Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom; his resurrection,
ascension, eternal reign, call of his Church to glory. (I shall save my regrets about how common worship is often viewed, by contrast with that wonderful last paragraph I quoted, as an obligation purely undertaken out of obedience... or, worse, as merely a good for society, for another day.)

Friday, 26 September 2008

Abba, Father...

Be forewarned that this is one of my sillier posts. I love the image of the Trinity, and one of my favourite lines of scripture is that when Jesus, after the resurrection, refers to "My Father and your father, my God and your God." I normally would be writing with feeling, perhaps even insight, about our status as adopted children and the like. But I'm rather worn out at the moment, so I'm about to lapse into diversion - and make a silly point that I believe remains quite true.

My earthly father, Sam, was not what one would call conventionally religious, but he did have a strong sense of vocation - God's willing him to dedicate his life to spouse and family, and this was a vocation he fulfilled superbly. His own father, Nicholas, was not a 'churchy' type in the least, but indeed was devoted to his family. I often found it amusing how Sam would assume how God had (or should have) acted, because I think he confused Yahweh and Nick.

As a simple (and very amusing) example, Sam was convinced that the reason his brothers had only sons (not that Italian men weep over that - but their wives hope for a daughter here and there) was that they did not observe the custom of naming their first son after his paternal grandfather. (In the area from which my family came, the first two sons were named for the grandfathers - and normally the first two daughters for the grandmothers. It was considered an act of respect towards one's parents.) Sam would have named his first son Nicholas - had one arrived - and he was the only one of his family to have a daughter. (I don't know that Sam actually was looking for three girls and no sons, but at least God sent him the female offspring in acknowledgement of that any son would have been named for grandfather.)

I well remember Sam's saying, of his eldest brother (the obligation related to names fell the strongest on the eldest) whose wife longed for a girl, "The first one they name William. The second Anthony! So, when the third one came, they finally wised up and named him Nicholas, and God said 'to hell with you, I'm not sending you any more.'"

Italian people will never be noted for devotion to king and country, as I've explained in other posts. Basically (and I for one think this is wise), "I" think first of myself, then of my family. Not being one for structures, family is cherished because it is the one obligation we revere, and in which security lies. The elderly, ill, children, anyone in need will always have care from the family in our tradition.

In the company of others not of their background, Italian people do tend to assimilate all too well (and I say this with some regret.) I love when they are strictly amongst their own, and approach church (if, indeed, they approach at all other than at milestones of life) as 'my father's house,' being comfortable, even a step short of rowdy, in the process. There certainly is no excessive guilt (unless one neglected a parent!), let alone a fear of hell. Dad may be disappointed in a child. He may express anger - may even smack you. But hell? Unthinkable. And, one way or another, any Father will provide for you. (No one ever thought less of that for being poor. God still was providing, as best he could.)

Still, there are times when any one of us can be confused because, deep down, we confuse God with our fathers. I miss my father terribly (he died in 1997 - and how I still wish I could pick up the phone or turn the corner to the old street and find him there.) I'll admit there are times I've wept, the 50+ orphan, because I was troubled or needy and wish he was there to turn to - independent though one may be (I was independent in many ways before I could walk...), when one is alone one has the days of wishing one had a home to which one could return, at least now and then.

Sam certainly had no concept of the arts, literature, theology, mysticism and the like. I think he saw me as purely ornamental. It took him many years to see that I was not lazy. (Those who know me would undoubtedly be astonished that I, one so driven and passionate, could ever be thought lazy, of all things. But Sam saw study, music, writing, etc., as 'resting.' ) I sometimes become confused, because I can offer thanks to God for the gifts and vocation God gave me, yet fall into a sort of placating because they are beyond my earthly father's comprehension.

There's another side to this, of course. I can write of the philosophical problem of evil quite prolifically, and have done so on this blog. Yet, whatever Sam's shortcomings, I cannot imagine that, if he had boundless power, he would have not rid any of his children from disease, famine, war, and so forth. So - we often are tugged in two directions! Our image of the divine father can make us fearful or ashamed - yet we also wonder if God lacks the basic generosity of the earthly father.

No wonder it took millennia for God to be seen as Father, rather than as, oh, let us say fire in a burning bush. :)