Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Magical, mystical miracles... dum-dee dum

I'm happy to see February nearly at an end - and hoping that warmer weather is ahead very soon. My brain will need at least a month to thaw... in fact, I cannot even remember which popular (and rather silly, IIRC) song contained the line I used as header for this post.

I had previously written of my struggling with the philosophy of religion, enriching and necessary though I find this study. Heaven knows, I have written far more often of how I loathe pop psychology. Today, my circuits having been rather overloaded by reviewing philosophy notes (these related to prayers and miracles), my random thoughts will contain a few reflections on memories which came to me - far from philosophical, I might add.

It is interesting how, as one grows older, one remembers much from the past - but can forget details, and factors which made a past idea, decision, whatever, very reasonable in the context of the 'moment,' even if it's hard to remember those elements clearly now. When I was reviewing the 'miracles' section, it suddenly struck me that, deeply religious though I always was, generally the attitude toward the miraculous was that physical healing (or rising someone from the dead a la Lazarus) was more or less reserved to the New Testament and causes for beatification. (I'll save my experiences from my charismatic days, when there were testimonies to physical healings - none of which would meet Rome's or Hume's definition - at weekly prayer meetings, and when I once saw a perfectly sane and sincere priest try to raise his nephew from the dead... a task all the more difficult to contemplate since his nephew was embalmed.) Anyone of my age or older will remember stories of miracles - but probably only those very devout will have taken them to heart from the beginning. The miracles (in a manner similar to those in anecdotes of the Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen, whom I mentioned in an earlier post) generally were about conversion, not anything defying the laws of nature.

During the 1980s, a small monastery with which I had some connection had Vespers each Sunday, followed by a film presentation of some sort (not Hollywood variety - more filmstrips and little religious subjects, such as one might have seen in the classroom during my youth.) Odd that this should have sparked a memory, but I recall one regarding the green scapular. In this filmstrip, a child whose father was somehow troubled (one is not told how - but he wasn't a churchgoer) confided her worries to a religious Sister, the latter of whom provided her with a green scapular which she placed under her dad's mattress. His conversion was fairly rapid afterward.

I'm not one to oppose devotions by any means! I know there are many people who have great devotion, and express this, in part, by using sacramentals such as scapulars. But, today, I see a very "magical" element to such a story as was in that film. Still, it reminds me of a powerful idea to which the very devout were often exposed, whether in sermons, lectures, articles, books, and the like. The power of Christ can lead to great transformation in a life. (And I believe that wholeheartedly!) The other element was that He often can use individuals as instruments (which I'm not about to question, essentially, either - there certainly have been influential people in my own life.) These ideas, fine in themselves, could lead to difficulties if one would, for example, meet the con man, the psychopath, the hardened criminal, the habitual liar...

I read this so many years ago that I cannot even recall the book's title, but it was one of a genre very popular in recent decades: the "I was rescued from Christianity" sort (and these had the greater bestseller potential if the author had been a priest or Religious.) The author, whom I believe was called Carol, had belonged to a religious community which had visiting people in their homes as their apostolate. From her writing of the days she spent with them, I gathered that the principal intention of their visits was to reach out to those who were not practising Catholics. Though the Sisters made reports of where they visited, and I believe might refer unusual cases to other sources, most of their contact consisted of informing those who were not churchgoers of Mass schedules (I'm sure neither the Sisters nor those whom they met thought a lack of same was the reason anyone did not attend church, but it had its welcoming side), or enquiring about whether children had been baptised, made first communion, and so forth.

Carol expressed certain frustration - which I can well understand. (Though, as I'll get to in a moment, I equally understand her congregation's care about not getting too involved with those whom they visited, and having prohibitions on the circumstances in which a Sister could meet others.) I would imagine that, during her visits, she met people who were very troubled, perhaps longing for spiritual guidance which Carol could not provide - nor did she have anyone to whom to refer them. It must have been difficult, hearing people raise legitimate questions, but knowing one could only repeat the teachings (at most.) I can see where, if someone seemed to be a huge mess but leaning towards conversion, one might shake one's head to think that all with one could provide him was a schedule of services.

In the course of her ministry, a young man named Manuel, a clearly rough sort (to put it mildly - he once tried to attack Carol in a hallway), asked Carol for a personal meeting. He seemed interested in Christ and the Church, and I would bet my last penny, if I had one, that Carol hoped she had been an instrument of Christ's boundless power, and that Manuel was on verge of conversion. Though meeting in this fashion was against the rules of her institute, she agreed, and was to see him the following Wednesday.

Apparently, in Carol's community, which did not staff institutions, transfers at any time were common enough. On Friday, she received word that she was being sent to another house the following day. Carol was troubled that her meeting with Manuel would not happen, the more because she could not contact him, nor have anyone else inform him that she would not be there (given that it was against the rules for her to attempt this meeting at all.)

Far be it from me to ever think the voice of a superior is a voice of God (well, at least not any more than any of us ever are) - but this is one situation where I think the Holy Spirit may have given Carol's superior a nudge. Several months later, when Carol was on a visit, she saw a newspaper - and Manuel was in the headlines. He was a gang leader, arraigned on multiple murder charges.

God only knows what pop psychology (or even psychiatrists - see my previous post about Karen Armstrong's work) would make of this, but one who has always been devout, always anxious to be an instrument, might understand Carol's initial reaction to that headline. No - it was not "thank heavens I never met with Manuel privately - he may have cut my throat, since he was quite good at doing that elsewhere." She was pained, thinking that Manuel had been on the verge of conversion, and that, had she had a chance to meet with him, perhaps these crimes would never have happened.

Of course, there are many factors here. Carol had no experience dealing with criminals, and I would imagine that, though her community had rules restricting meetings, she may well have never been given an explanation of the important reasoning behind such rules beyond "that is what we do." In my own experience, though I fortunately have not dealt with too many sociopaths and criminals (...and have great scars from the few I did meet), some of the most dangerous people on earth are capable of enormous charm, warmth, and seeming sincerity. Indeed, there are many people (perhaps a majority of the devout) who do desire solid spiritual guidance - and many who have had experiences of conversion which they will always cherish. It is a shame that those who have been burnt by the sociopaths too often retreat to a cave (speakign figuratively) and tell others needing help to join groups or go to therapy...

Certainly, part of spiritual maturity is realising our own limitations. God indeed can use us as instruments (though I doubt we know it at the time), but zeal and charity require a balance of prudence and discernment. Yet I am mentioning this incident because the devotees of the pop psychology could assume that those like Carol had no good in their actions (and the psychiatrists can convince them later that they were totally selfish, deluded, thinking themselves saviours, and so forth. To believe in God, or even to be a churchgoer, is acceptable because it fits in with convention. Anything beyond that is an 'obsession' or symptom.)

Carol's degree of naivete is hardly universal amongst the devout, but neither is it unusual. I have known people, in many different situations (by no means only nuns!), who have been used, swindled, lied to, and so forth, when they were seeking to practise virtue. Yet they should not be assumed to be crazy, or to be thinking of themselves as powerful. It was Christ's power they saw as infinite - and, with all the tales of miraculous conversions of which we heard (not just those of, let us say, Francis, Augustine, or oneself - but of the uninterested who had the good luck to have daughters who placed scapulars under their mattresses), we saw such miracles as not only possible but likely, and hoped our desire to be there for others would lead them to the Christ for whose sake we were doing this.

And now, good readers, you probably have a vague idea of why I've been an utter fool many times in my life... and why I don't have a penny (the reason not solely being that what one gives in tithes is not returned a hundredfold...) ... and why I keep my reflections to blogs and now restrict my ministry, such as it is, to liturgical prayer and occasional essays. :) I've met a few Manuels in my day (though even I, admittedly, never met with anyone who'd tried to physically attack me). I care about them, but I'm not the one to serve them - I'm far too innocent, and have no gift for discernment in the least.

Yet I have never been the sort who could just keep to placing green scapulars under mattresses... ;)

Sunday, 10 February 2008

The hazards of the confidences

Now and then, two thoughts may coincide which lead to my sharing some of my 'wisdom.' (Not that I'll ever have wisdom - my judgement is dreadful, and I'm the type who'd have Jack the Ripper in for tea if he gave me the impression he was on verge of conversion...) I heard from a young woman this week who, understandably, was upset because someone who'd seemed to be a close friend, and whose troubles she'd heard (without ever betraying the confidences, mocking, using them against the other, or other dreadful tactics that some who invite confidences employ) endlessly, was now avoiding her. I'm equally good-hearted - and just as naive, my only advantage being that I've lived longer. (I'm a cynic of sorts - but, as I once heard somewhere, cynics are not realists but burnt idealists, so I fit the bill.) I'll get back to this in a moment.

I had an odd memory this week as well, possibly because I was thinking of my mother (Chip - a bastardisation of Cipi, which is a generic Italian nickname), since this would have been the day of her 89th birthday. Chip must have insulated herself extremely well, because she was so innocent that she'd have made me look worldly, and a part of her was like a child till the day she died. She often told her daughters a story that had an incredible impact on her, which I'll relate here.

When Chip was still in school (aged 12 or so), the girl pupils once heard an address from a lady who had been a headmistress somewhere, and Chip would never forget said headmistress's tale of caution that no one should ever confide in anyone else. It seems that Margaret, whose mother had a drinking problem, confided this in her closest friend, Anne. Anne told Margaret's boyfriend, Danny, about this (she probably had her eye on him for some time...), and Danny abandoned Margaret as a result and became Anne's new boyfriend. Bear in mind that Chip would repeat this (I heard it easily a hundred times) in ominous tones, as if she were relating someone's visit to, at the very least, the Castle Dracula.

Towards the end of my mother's long life, she recounted this tale to me once again. I could no longer resist expressing that I was very surprised that someone who, at this point, had walked this earth for more than 8 decades did not see that the headmistress's story made three things very plain to me. First, Margaret was most fortunate that she never married Danny - if he'd toss her aside as he did, I can only imagine the grief she would have had with him for a husband. Second, between them Danny and Anne were not worth a brass farthing; they deserved each other; and good riddance to them both! Third, Margaret's only fault here was poor judgement in her choice of friends/beaux. (As a postscript, I have a strong sense that the headmistress well may have been speaking of herself. Too bad that she ended up the stereotypical 'old maid schoolmarm,' seeing herself as unfit for the marriage market because some other little bitch might tell another potential spouse that Margaret's mother drank.)

I myself am a private person, and prefer to confide only in close friends. I think the current trend - where people not only tell every last detail of their lives to all and sundry, but indeed might post intimate secrets on the Internet - is far from wise. Yet I believe that being able to share concerns with others is a great blessing.

It is sad but probably universally true that all of us have experienced a 'down side' to confiding in others (or even having others know details about our lives). We all have had the experience, at one time or another, of someone's using information about us to degrade us (usually because they see some advantage in it for themselves, even if it is only to feel self-important as the one who is 'in the know.') Most of us have known the pain of a confidence being betrayed (with malice at times, at others merely because someone who hopes to help us assumes actions on the part of the hearer that are different from the result.) Considering that the Headmistress was addressing girls just entering their teens, her rather excessive stress on 'tell no one anything' might have temporarily been good advice. To love to reveal whatever one knows about another, especially if it will shame them or cause them embarrassment, can win points with other 'friends' during the teenage years. (Sadly, some people never grow out of this.)

I feel genuine sympathy for my young friend (of the first paragraph), and have to admit that, as one who heard many confidences (the more because I was in religious work, and because I was definitely the sort who did not betray what others told me), I myself still am saddened by the 'negative side' of hearing what others have to relate. It is not unusual, for example, for someone who has poured out a woe to later be embarrassed at what happened at the time, and to avoid the other (even if she never refers to the situation) just knowing she knows. A friend who hears many sad tales can also find she is thought of more as 'counsellor' - there for support, but not one to be included in social events.

There also is much in this world that is illogical! (Think about it - someone could know another for twenty years, know nothing ill of him, yet will be ready to believe the first 'dirt' she hears, even if it is untrue or grossly exaggerated.) I'm sure that all of us have friends whom we love dearly, but who dislike one another - and normally we'd no sooner bring them together, if we sense the tension, than we'd place a lion and lamb in proximity anywhere except in scripture study. Yet, by the time we should be mature, we also know that, for example, differences of opinion (and those of us who love the academic spend half our time listening to or reading of just that, while respecting both sides) do not have to mean dislike of another.

If "I" am friendly with both Jane and John, I may get wind of that they have points of disagreement, but I probably will not be aware if they hate each other. (If Jane knows John is my friend, she will save her tales of hating him for other ears!) Yet Jane may well assume, however incorrectly, that I must be 'two faced' (and gossiping about her) if I am friendly with someone she dislikes.

Now, I'm sure you knew I would move into the religious realm, so I shall not disappoint you. There indeed are many times when those who are troubled in spirit, conscience and the like absolutely ache for someone knowledgeable and compassionate in whom they can confide. Turning to the clergy, sadly, can sometimes lead to such reactions as treating one as immature, or recommending joining groups, or "offer it up" (well, that one is rather out of style, but I remember when it was rampant), or "go to therapy." But here I am speaking of an important element which those who may genuinely be compassionate need to remember.

Even if someone does ache to confide in another, that 'other' should not be assumed to be oneself. (I remember a ghastly woman I knew years ago, who would pester people about their situations, and could not accept "I don't care to discuss that" with "but it's reality!" Yes, I dare say they knew it was reality, since they were the ones living with the problem. They were not denying reality - they were saying "I don't care to discuss this with you.") Second, never push for details. On the one hand, it sometimes can mean a personal wish to feel important or superior - but, even when there is truly good intent, it can be mistaken for meddling. Third, one must quickly become resigned to that, in most cases, there is nothing one can do. Listening in itself can be a great gift - but wanting to be Mrs Fixit will not only cut off all genuine listening (which will masquerade as such, but actually only be listening for key words in order to share one's own ideas - which may have nothing to do with what the other said..) but can lend to smugness.

So much for my sermon for today. But it indeed is difficult, for those very devout, to realise that actions which are charitable, caring, and truly kind can be resented later. I have no answer to that one - except to say it must be faced.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

I'll give you an example...

I shall caution my more intense readers that today is one of my sillier times. The heading, "I'll give you an example," was a favourite expression of my dad's. He was highly talkative, and ready with daily stories of co-workers, those who shopped in the store where he worked, etc.. He tended to go from stories to varied "sub-stories," and would often lead from one to the other with "I'll give you an example." He then might proceed (just as one example) :) to recall when he was six years old and a cheeky kid he knew took his kite.

Levity is more my style, and it may seem odd that I am indulging this at the beginning of Lent - but I think we need to laugh at ourselves, and I always did that well. I attended a wonderful choral Eucharist today (packed with not only regular worshippers but those who never see the inside of a church but wish to get smudged annually... never realising, I'm sure, how very appropriate the mark of the penitent is), and nearly had a fit of giggling. The reason was that, a few weeks back, a priest whom I know was telling some of us that, when the parade of those "coming for ashes" goes on, some respond to "remember, man, that dust thou art..." with "Thank you!" When he aptly added, "I've just reminded them they are going to die, and they say thanks," that sneaked into my subconscious or something, and I naturally nearly laughed aloud when the ashes were placed on my forehead today. (Vain little thing that I am, not to mention that I hardly want to advertise being a penitent in the public streets, let alone the Jewish Division of the library I was visiting after Mass, I carefully washed off the ashes before I left. I did, however, later read a typical theology forum debate, where the "ashes vs. no ashes" crowds debated whether wearing ashes all day was an example of Christian commitment or one of forgetting Jesus' injunction against the hypocritical Pharisees.)

Musing a bit, it occurs to me that, in one form or another (and they vary drastically), most devout Christians have some desire to evangelise in the "they'll know we are Christians by our love" mode. Some forms can be quite drastic - an example being radical evangelicals, who fear that those who don't make a decision for Christ are hellbound, who preach the need to be saved on any provocation or no provocation. (I walked past one today - he was standing on a street, reminding passers by that they were doomed. I have no idea how he could tell that none of us were "saved" - maybe our haloes weren't shining. This much I do know - he probably knew those who "misbelieve rather than disbelieve" if he saw ashes on their heads.) But most of us are not that extreme. To give you an example - Catholics of all varieties (and in this I include C of E, Lutherans and the like) normally do not feel any calling to try to convert unbelievers or non-Christians. Ever since the Counter-Reformation, and particularly since the French Revolution era, if anything Roman Catholics would be more inclined to seek to urge other (non-practising) Catholics to attend church and receive the sacraments than to seek to convert a Methodist or Jewish neighbour.

Overall, probably the most common idea of how to evangelise (and the one encouraged most) was "example." Yet that approach can lead to several fallacies. First, one must be careful not to over-estimate one's own importance (as very avid Christians sometimes forget.) It's highly unlikely that another is looking to you for example. I must add that great saints, whom the hagiography (ignoring that Jesus of Nazareth not only was not universally popular and respected but met his end as a condemned criminal... the Son of God charged with blasphemy... Prince of Peace with sedition) would make one think held everyone in awe at their holiness, are honoured by many who'd utterly flip if their children acted in the same fashion, or who would hold a low opinion of someone they actually knew who lived as many great saints did.

It's best, not only for one's overall mental health but for any area of commitment, ro remind oneself that there is no such thing as "how others see you." (Incidentally, any "helpful" sort who wants you to "see yourself as others see you" is only warming up for an ego game. She's only telling you how she sees you - and it always will be negative!) Moving from the sublime to the silly, probably the woman dressed in what I consider dreary, dowdy clothing thinks she looks professional - and finds my batik to be tacky or too youthful. Those who spout details of self-improvement kicks, who believe they may inspire others, can come across as self absorbed, superior / childish bores. The adult "class clown" may be seen as insufferable by some, as an utter riot by others.

If someone achieves legendary status, in any field, probably those who knew him years back, and perhaps in no way found him extraordinary, will recall how the marks of greatness always existed. I'm making this up - but let's say that someone who is now a famous artist was always working on drawing and painting, even in his earliest years. (In fact, most of us in the arts, acclaimed or not, had a passion for the art from childhood, even if we did not have early training or come from artistic families.) In a biography of the now acclaimed master, old friends or family members who are interviewed will speak of this passion with great esteem. Yet, when he was eight years old and forever pining for his easel, probably his mother was nagging him to go out and play - his siblings mocked him - his father wanted him to toss aside the oil paints and pursue a field with a future - young friends who were more interested in tossing a ball thought him weird. (If, instead of being a famous artist, he was later of the "starving artist" set - which happens often, even with those whose talent is great, and even in the rare cases where those in the pauper's grave are later legends in another era - the negative attitude will persist - and be mentioned even at his funeral!)

When John Paul II occupied Peter's throne, he canonised and beatified a massive number of people - in some cases, those who had not died that many years earlier. I occasionally read testimonies from those who had known them. I do not doubt the truth of the testimonies for a moment, yet I sometimes wondered if a trait which the old acquaintance now remembers as a wonderful example might not have been exasperating at the time. To give you an example... though the name of the Servant of God escapes me at the moment, I recall reading of a member of a religious Order (perhaps even a founder) whose contemporary spoke of how, whenever there were social settings, the Servant of God had managed to turn the conversation back to Christ. Edifying in memory, I'm sure - yet even I, who have been known to have some very interesting theological discussions in my day, and who even think it must have been fascinating to live in the times when debates over the Trinity, rather than football, made pub life spicey, doubt I would not groan if a bit of fun and relaxation were interrupted by someone who always turned social conversation back to Christ. (Lord have mercy, even Jesus Himself hardly avoided the social, and I'm not referring only to his turning water into wine, which makes him a man after my own heart. He must have been quite involved in social occasions, considering how many Pharisees complained about the company he kept.)

I don't recall the source or the priest's name at the moment, but, a few years ago, I remember reading an interview with a priest-friend of the Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen. The interview was with someone who not only thought very highly of Fulton, but indeed was giving testimony for his beatification. I was not surprised when, with no lack of love or respect, he mentioned two difficulties Fulton had with dealing with other priests socially. First, Fulton had certain causes which he considered very critical - and, if others did not share his commitment, he tended to go on about the matters, as if to convince them that they should see them as primary concerns. Second, Fulton, for all his academic brilliance, had a very simple, even childlike faith, and, as the priest mentioned, genuinely believed that there had been many miracles in his life. Fulton would speak of these not only from the pulpit or podium, but socially. His intention, as those very close to him knew, was to inspire people to faith and to trust in prayer. Still, to those unaware of this (and especially in view of the vanity to which he himself freely admitted), it came across as "look how special I am."

I'm not even going to get into such beloved heavenly friends of mine as Francesco and Caterina - who today would be assuredly "diagnosed" unfavourably by the growing crowd of pop psychology devotees. My point is that even the most devout and virtuous of people hardly are shining examples to all and sundry. My old friend Julian of Norwich is rather in vogue today - though for reasons that often have little relation to her true message. Yet I can only imagine the reaction of anyone were s/he to actually meet a solitary...

I'm not deriding the value of example, though I dare say that those who give the best of this are not seeking to do so. But the Church has endured purely because of divine grace - anyone with the slightest vision (inward or outward!) or acquaintance with church history is all too aware that it was not our shining virtues, at any time, which led anyone to God. The saddest part, of course, is that, though major shites may well have managed to pack pews or fill collection plates, the truly great saints, to whom there may be great devotion (from afar!) today were unlikely to have been valued when they were alive.

(Not that they would have had the slightest worries about 'how others saw them.')

Blessed Lent, all.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Spent the day with Elijah, Hume, and Hildegard

Now that I think of it, the three would indeed make for interesting dinner companions. (And I can use a few... I almost wrote this blog entry on how very much I miss the 'pre-health kick' days when I could have unwound tonight with any one of a hundred others who still smoked, drank, ate, laughed... but I decided that pining for paradise wasn't on the menu at the moment, at least not in that incarnation.) Naturally, what I am writing of is reviewing my notes for theological studies in varied areas. Bear with me, dear readers, for winter is a time when my brain goes into hibernation. I hate the cold, the dark, the claustrophobia in the winter coat, not being able to have packed lunch in a park or feel warm breezes, and being spared the comfort of windows wide and a well aired flat. Those of you who are ones for intercessory prayer will kindly remember me - that my brain thaws before I sit exams in May.

There comes a point in study, I have found, when one has read so many authors on the same topics that separating 'who said what,' while trying to form one's own arguments and perhaps manage a little originality along the way, that one must step back from further research for a time and review what one already has. (That my attempts in that area today made me all the more convinced that I'm approaching brain death is another topic for another entry.) I started out, this morning, with reviewing the Deuteronomistic History, specifically with reference to the Books of Kings. Now, even one like myself, who is a member of the Monarchist League and who entertains idealistic images of a very Catholic theocracy, can be inclined to find Kings to be (dare I admit this?) not only rather bloodthirsty but discouraging, and occasionally very boring. But I did have an odd thought about Elijah (which I'm writing here lest some insanity lead me to record it on exams, which would never do.)

Zealots such as Elijah, and those in any era who receive divine revelations personally and the like, are unlikely to have on their minds what your garden variety theist is thinking of at the moment. (Bear with me once again... I reviewed Amos yesterday, comforted by the thought that I well might not be the most pessimistic creature in history, and was diverted by the idea that not all of his hearers, the king in particular, might have been enchanted by his fixation on social justice. I'm no capitalist, as my readers know, but I do have this sense that there were those who would have found much to praise in Jeroboam's kingdom.) I'll not even dwell on that slaughtering 450 priests of Ba'al was rather excessive in its own right. No, I'm thinking on a very basic level. It was a time of drought - and Yahweh's seeming opponent, Ba'al, was widely thought, in the influential Canaanite circles, to control life (not only human, but of nature), naturally including the rains. I doubt Elijah, who would not have been the most refined of dinner companions on the best of days, was exactly endearing to people who would have hesitated to risk raising the ire of Ba'al, just in case the rains really did depend on him!

Yet the Elijah incidents reminded me of an element, related to worship even in times when monotheism was not yet firmly established, of which I'd never before thought in relation to the era of Kings, or perhaps of the entire Old Testament period. I had always thought of the image of God in the monotheistic faiths as one of revelation, of course. Still, I had never seen the marked contrast with idols such as Ba'al in that Ba'al (et al) did not communicate, and was not active, loving, etc., in the lives of the people. The pagan gods were seen as in control of forces (and demanding placating often enough), but were remote, where Yahweh, however transcendent, had a unique immanence.

Skipping ahead to this afternoon (pondering the revisions of the Deuteronomistic Historians and other redactors had me exhausted around the time Elijah boarded the chariot, so I needed to move to another topic for a while), it was back to philosophy of religion, and a review of notes about the design argument. (Having recently reviewed Hildegard of Bingen's notes about the humours of the unicorn and gryphon, I couldn't quite deal with the cosmological argument, because I have a strong sense that what we can imagine does not necessarily exist at all. This not to be hard on Hildegard, since hers was a time when zoology was studied in libraries...) I've written previously of my struggles with this topic, so I'll just share a thought which came to me today - and which reminded me of an eternal struggle that makes the one between Yahweh and Ba'al seem rather trivial by comparison.

Paley's time, and Hume's, was a heyday of deism among professed Christians. (I'm not suggesting that either of those writers was promoting deism, but, since the design argument does not attempt to present attributes of the Deity, such as omnipotence, love, omniscience and so forth, I would imagine a deist would find much of it appealing.) In case anyone has not noticed, I happen to be a theist - but I'll concede that deism must be very restful at times. A god who merely set creation in motion, then left us more or less on our own, eliminates the 'problem of evil,' the pain of unanswered, fervent prayer; the recognition that God is Almighty yet seems to have no interest in relieving suffering (...anyone who writes me about God's sending suffering to us as a necessary element in developing holiness will receive forty years in Purgatory - and don't think I'm not connected!)... well, such a concept removes many of the dilemmas with which the theist must struggle, burdened with questions yet knowing there are no answers.

Many saints, mystics, and theologians of the theistic faiths would have seen God as unknowable in His essence, and I would agree. (Even if I light candles to the Infant of Prague now and then... folk religion is not without other benefits, and my mother used to get amazing results from that novena.) Even if we speak of God as, for example, omnipotent or all-loving, basically the divine is so far beyond our comprehension that we cannot truly define what those attributes mean. Yet I'm sure that Elijah, looking down from wherever he ended up on his chariot ride, is not surprised that Yahweh (the Trinity, Allah - the god of the monotheists) has many millions of those who adore and love Him to this day, where Ba'al and friends are a distant memory by comparison. (I say 'by comparison' only because, though I know of no Ba'al societies, any Google search will show that some pagan gods still have a following.) Yahweh communicated - revealed Himself, even if our comprehension was limited and his transcendence side by side with the immanence - loved, suffered with us, was active in creation.

The dilemmas about evil and so forth will never be resolved - there are no answers. But deism is not such a comforting place to be after all. I may be a cynic, apophatic, often going through my daily prayers (all liturgical) without a stir of comfort or emotional 'connection.' Yet I know, as I'm sure Elijah did and as Jews and Christians know to this day, that, for all the philosophical problems deism can seem to remove, it presents a larger problem!

How does one worship a "Ground of Being," or a "Source" who merely set the world in motion? Creeds can never capture all of what God is - nor can reason, or theology, or anything fully within our power to analyse. But Hebrews pained by Babylonian captivity, just to choose one example relevant to the redaction I mentioned earlier, still could worship. Effectively, worship is all that we have - everything in our relationship with God. Much will arise from this - moral improvement, social involvement, virtue, actions (even if not so dramatic as Elijah's.) We cry out, one way or another, for what goes beyond comprehending or seeking to practise orthodoxy. We don't know much at all - and, the more we explore theology, the more we concurrently may be stricken with awe yet aware of how we've barely scratched the surface and never will.

"Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit." It makes perfect sense on one's knees, does it not? Yet I defy anyone to explain it in 'exam terms.' :)

In case I do not "see" you before then, I wish you a blessed Lent.