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. :)

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

"Back to Church" and the prodigal son

There is a small forum, on which I participate, on which various participants are priests. One ongoing thread is about ideas for sermons. One of the priests mentioned that his parish is having a 'back to church' Sunday, intended to welcome those who have not been members in the past, and that the text on which he is to preach was the parable of the Prodigal Son. I find that parable, even at its most basic level (I'll get beyond the surface a little later), to be enormously moving - an exquisite setting forth of the total love of the Father (whether one son effectively wished him dead by asking for the inheritance, and the other had a public quarrel which would have been nearly an equal insult in the time and place.)

What surprised me was that some comments on the thread seemed very self absorbed. For example, three first-born children disliked the treatment of the elder son. (I am a first-born, but, though I gave away a fortune through the years, I did not fall into squandering in the manner of the son in the parable. The chances of my younger sister's ever being prodigal in any sense are on a par with those of the entire Milky Way galaxy's being wiped out by a mega-asteroid this evening.) Yet it did remind me that this parable, perhaps more than any other, is one to stimulate intense emotional reactions. I would imagine that, in any congregation (particularly one composed of more than the average number of those who have been away from church involvement), images in the parable could strike painful chords. Repentance is difficult but a deep grace and joy - yet those who are on verge of it, or who are still pained by recognition of their sinfulness, could be very shaken. Those who have conflicts with their parent or sibling can find those thoughts intruding. A resentful 'elder brother' could be wary of who among the 'returnees' might not be good company for their kids. A 'prodigal' (or anyone who is in difficult financial conditions) could be shaken by the penniless state that can reduce one to feeding pigs - and may even be lost in thinking that, fatted calf banquet or not, the son in the tale is still broke!

'Back to church' efforts can be laudable, but also have their own problems. Sometimes such efforts are seemingly enthusiastic, yet the newcomers may be disillusioned to find that the only thing they are certain to be given are pledge cards and collection envelopes. The most enthusiastic 'greeters' often head volunteer committees, and will suddenly lose interest in those whom they seemed to find fascinating once the newcomer signs up. Those who would welcome spiritual guidance may find this is not on offer. Others, who may not have had any particular interest in churchgoing (or whose efforts in that direction were not encouraging), may be assumed to be 'alienated,' and pestered by those who assume they know the reason for the alienation (whether the assumptions bear the slightest relation to the truth or not.) If someone had a relatively wild life (at least by the general standards of the congregation), people may at first be moved by their honesty, then avoid them because they don't want the children to think that the past behaviour is acceptable. (Augustine or Francis of Assisi would not be welcomed, for example, in settings where staid lives focused on obedience to parents were the ideal. Matthew may have been outcast in the first century, but I imagine anyone industrious enough to have made a profit on collecting taxes might have a better chance for praise than Il Poverello - who cost his father a fortune I doubt the most prodigal of sons could match.)

I would imagine that one using the parable of the prodigal son would need to tread softly. All of us, however devout, have had reason for major repentance in some fashion - and this is a great grace. Still, those unfamiliar with this constant call to conversion could be uncomfortable if they heard a sermon from which they inferred, however excessively, that they were dredges who had to be converted merely because they had not been ones for parish membership. (Yes, that is a bit 'much' - but no more so than priests hating this parable because they are first-borns!)

Tom Wright, in his excellent "Jesus and the Victory of God," provides much insight, not only into this parable itself but into the larger framework of Jesus' message of the kingdom. The parable is part of a theme of exile and restoration - "What God had done for (Israel) in the Exodus - always the crucial backdrop for Jewish expectation - he would at last do again, even more gloriously. Yahweh would finally become king, and would do for Israel, in covenant love, what the prophets had foretold. Exile and restoration: this is the central drama that Israel believed herself to be acting out. ... But this is a highly subversive retelling. The real return from exile, including the real resurrection from the dead, is taking place, in an extremely paradoxical fashion, in Jesus' own ministry."

Wright goes on to explain that, in the parable of the prodigal son, what both sons did was unspeakable. Asking for an inheritance was tantamount to telling a father one wished he was dead, and to return was huge humiliation for the family. Having a public quarrel, as the other son did, shames the father as well, "and in turn suggests that he wished the father dead so that he could at last enjoy his share of the property; but again the father is astonishingly, unbelievably gentle."

The parable, as Wright notes, "creates a whole new world. Those who object to what Jesus is doing (cannot see that the resurrection and return from exile are happening." The entire parable concerns a complete call to reconciliation.

My brief summary cannot do justice to Tom Wright's excellent explanation, but, as usual, I had an associated thought. Those of you who follow this blog would know that, in the extensive study of the Old Testament (and its worship and theology) which I undertook over the past few years, I was privileged to have much new insight into the Hebrew scriptures. The exile indeed had been a time of loss and confusion for Israel. Yet the redactions which were post-exilic (of which I've written in previous posts) show how very much revelation had been realised through this painful experience and its aftermath. As a few simple examples - monotheism is developed. Redactions of Genesis show an awareness that we are in God's image - indeed, icons of the transcendent God. Yahweh is not territorial, but, even when defeat made the 'old gods' of Canaan, Babylon, or Persia seem the victors, Yahweh remained the God of all creation, working even when we cannot see his glory. Israel cherished the worship at the temple, but had further learnt that common worship can endure when there is no temple or sacrifices - and that would be exceedingly useful knowledge when the second temple was destroyed in 70 AD (not to mention to this day.)

Exile and return seldom would seem glorious for those who had been outside the pale, as it were, in the first place! But they are reminders, not only of God's eternal love and fidelity, but of how the life and worship of the community, not the word of the scriptures alone, are instruments of divine revelation. Worship often is all that unites us (both the Old and New Testaments do not give a rosy picture of warmth and consensus within Israel / the Church.) The history of both Israel and the early Christian centuries show how awareness of the depths of revelation (for example, Yahweh as the only God, or the Trinity) spring forth from worship.

It is all about call and response (and often 'return from exile') in the end. Whichever 'son' we happen to be at the moment, it is the Father's love which binds us to him - which can chase after us before we even are close enough to approach (and sometimes when we aren't even aware we want to be welcomed home, even if we are delighted that this happened when we have a bit of hindsight.)

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Et vitam venturi saeculi

My Latin always had major flaws, so I'll ask those with better facility to be kind if my heading is faulty. :)

Recently, I attended Mass at a nearby church which I periodically visit. A very intense young priest mentioned that Pope Benedict had issued a new encyclical about eschatology. (I could not locate this on-line - perhaps it is still in preparation.) I could understand the sentiments expressed in the brief sermon - the celebrant was disappointed because he'd hoped the encyclical would refer to how things would be in heaven.

I can sympathise. Not that I have any idea of what heaven would be like - and I'm not about to speculate about the parousia or our resurrection, even though I constantly refer to cosmic redemption. (I am wondering how Pope Benedict might be expected to be able to describe the next life... but let's leave that for the moment.) I can recognise the truth in the pope's viewpoint, having been privileged to have read both his brilliant work, Eschatology, and having such quotes on hand as this one:

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

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

For the record, all of this fits in neatly with my form of spirituality, which is based on the Incarnation, a dynamic Creator, our deification and so forth. That doesn't mean I really understand - or that I don't pine for a world without the suffering and sadness of this one - or that I even have the slightest notion of what Jesus meant (or his hearers' may have thought) when he said the kingdom of God was present.

I have no answers for my readers - only questions. :) As much as we may pine for union with God, I think we all know that it is a constant quest in which every slight awareness of divine majesty leaves us all the more aware of the limitations of our own vision. Still, considering the bleakness this earth often holds, I think many of us would feel a wee bit dishonest denying that we hope for an afterlife which is total joy. Hands up, everyone who aches for intimacy with the divine, yet still would admit (even with a blush) that we hope such a quest will mean a time when we are unhampered by the pains of this earth.

Not that the pope is in any way denying this! But he is affirming a great truth - that the kingdom of heaven is not 'out there,' and that One who would face the horrors of crucifixion proclaimed that it was at hand.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Wondering if Gennaro's blood liquefied

No, I haven't even done the usual Google search to check. I'm confident that the blood of Januarius liquefied on schedule.

This may seem totally disjointed, but bear with me - it will come together in the course of the post, I'm sure. :) Particularly in my younger days, I greatly enjoyed the writings of C. S. Lewis. He and I have little in common, but I found it fascinating, since I'm a lifelong believer (...even if I sometimes wonder 'are You really there?,' I still believe I just received his Body and Blood), that one who went from atheist to avid Christian was also a highly complex character. (That is a characteristic we indeed do share.) "Jack" Lewis was such an odd combination - one who could fall into Narnia, be inclined to rationalism next, struggle to reduce suffering to an intellectual abstraction then write his most tortured (and bluntly honest) work when he finally, fully allowed himself to love another and lose her. There is much struggle with light and dark in all of his works. For example, it makes me shudder to think that Jack believed that natural disasters could be the work of the demons (seems a bit dualistic to me), but I believe that, for one who is concurrently so romantic and so rational, those who deal with Narnia never forget the White Witch, as it were.

I, too, am quite an odd combination, though the Franciscan jester in me balances out the Dominican-bred Thomist and the surprisingly Benedictine 'banality of orthopraxy' type I've become in my later years. (The orthopraxy is my salvation in the end - I'm still the artist, highly intense, very romantic under the cynicism.) Naturally, I also have the weird 'trinity' of identities in being a passionate, cynical, anarchical, superstitious, renaissance Mediterranean, tempered with English style and flavoured strongly with the 'light and dark' such as C. S. Lewis possessed, which was much a characteristic of the Irish nuns responsible for my early religious education.

My admiration for John Henry Newman is no secret, and I've been asked, now and then, why he never was canonised. I cannot say for certain, of course, though I do wish his version of 'liberal Catholicism' (and, for those unfamiliar with what that meant in 19th century England, please look up references before assuming I mean any lack of orthodoxy!) were more generally known and accepted. He, too, was an odd mix - brilliant in his Catholic theology (well, when he got past the convertitis stage) - never quite able to grow totally free of the dark side of his evangelical youth. I think part of my affection for Newman, as well, is on a plane more human than sublime. His scholarly abilities were the sort I wish that I possessed, but, like myself, he was inclined to have poor judgement and to act rashly because he trusted the integrity of all around him (and Manning and Wiseman were not exactly models.)

But I am surprised that even John Paul II, who all but began a Canonisation of the Month Club, never raised Newman to the altars. Perhaps it is because Newman (who, not being a martyr, would need miracles to his credit for beatification) was English. In his own Ultramontane time, when English bishops who loved the pomp and pageantry, even sentimentality, of Italy, had no real grasp of that Italians were not at all into king, country, or Church in the way they wished to promote, miracles were happening all over the place. Apparitions, some miserable, others wonderful, were at a high point in France, and stigmata was not just a memory of Francis of Assisi. Italy didn't just have tales of liquefying blood, but of saints who flew through the air or bi located, souls from purgatory (to which there was an entrance in Sicily) left hand prints in a Roman building, hosts bled when treated sacrilegiously. England is more low key, of course. France might have a beheaded king and much anti clericalism - Italy changed governments every six weeks and had lots of anti clericals, not to mention many devout souls who were far more into Saint Anthony (or a favourite local saint - it helps to be connected) than church attendance or sacraments. France and Italy were Catholic for too long not to have a healthy way of laughing at one's self built in. (Both had hosted popes, real and false - and that keeps away any adulation beyond what is due.) England had to be low key, lest the Calvinist element swallow the Catholic whole.

Most people who loved, and still love, John Henry Newman (probably the only 19th century English theologian worthy of the name) are not likely to pray for miracles. I myself much prefer Newman's intellectual, low key approach overall. Of course, I have another complication. I'm so intense that seeking miracles (were that anything to which I'm inclined) would be likely to divert me rather than to be helpful.

Yet I shall confess that I envy the sort of trusting, open, childlike faith my mother (and many others) demonstrated. I have a great affection for rather odd devotions, such as my mother's to the Infant of Prague (I still have her statue of him, and actually say the prayers now and then.) I wish I could 'become as a little child' (and I say that with esteem) and turn to God with such simple intercessory prayers, which assume a loving Father (and many heavenly friends) who is happy to hear a child's needs.

Intercession (other than as set forth in the prayer book) is difficult for me. I'm always a little afraid of, perhaps, getting whacked for wanting more than what is on my plate. :) My mother could bring her heavenly friends any need. I find myself getting a bit nervous when I do so. "Yes, Lord, I am asking you for help - but that doesn't mean I don't know that people in Haiti, or stricken with Hurricane Ike, or in Darfur or Afghanistan are not far worse off - and, no, I don't think I'm better than they are - yes, I'm grateful for what you've given me..."

Perhaps, when God is such a showman in Italy at times, it is because people needed the dramatic - or even that, with their being open to odd manifestations, working in that way was a special gift. I'm cautious about liquefying blood, bleeding Hosts, houses from Palestine which angels transport to Loretto for safe keeping, and the lot. I love the devotion that goes into veneration of relics of, for example, Mary's veil or the true Cross - even if I wouldn't have to swear to their actually being these. (I myself hugged my reliquary and relic of the True Cross to me all evening, one night last week when I was fearful.) I carry an Agnus Dei in my tote bag. I sometimes sprinkle my flat with holy water, and I once remembered my Aunt Mary's action of placing pictures of the Madonna in the window during a bad storm... and did the same.

"No, Lord, I didn't meant to be magical... I don't think I'm special... I know there are people dying in the streets of Bangladesh... but is there some way you can help me, since my bathroom ceiling fell in, and the woman above me, who could win a Best of Bitches trophy in a dog show, was in no way cooperative about getting access for the plumber... yes, I know this is nothing like the devastation in some areas, but there is a recession, and I need nourishing food... the ceiling must be fixed before it gets cold, and the cat got so frightened ever since it fell in the very room where she has her litter pan that she shrieks at the sound of water and uses my kitchen for a latrine..."

Notice the conflict. :) The Irish nuns, who more or less had us kids thinking the stake and the block may still be round the corner (in fact, I think some of them wished it were, since martyrdom was the only sure way to heaven), were superb teachers, but left me with the old goblin of a God who wanted sacrifice and suffering, and guilt trips about everything we had. I want to act with the simplicity of my Italian family, but I'm so passionate about theology, and getting more apophatic by the minute, that I am more likely to find Cranmer's approach (in liturgy, not strategy!!) to be better sustenance.

Rome was not exactly a land of promise for Newman, and I doubt C. S. Lewis thought about the Mediterranean much. Yet I somehow feel both of them would understand. :)

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Rarest of virtues?

It strikes me, again and again, how very much perspectives vary. I recall, perhaps 12 years ago, when a religious Sister whom I knew, and who was very involved with working with young adults, asked me what I saw as the biggest deficiency in local churches. My response (integrity) left her looking as if she'd bitten into a lemon. She told me she'd expected an answer about a lack of groups.

Groups? All I know is that, just as the slogan "To Jesus Through Mary" was overworked during my childhood, a priest friend who commented that the new catch phrase should be "To Jesus Through Meetings" was spot on. One of the saddest outcomes of the "age of the laity" emphasis often was that the clergy made themselves totally unavailable.

Now on to what I consider to be the rarest of virtues - compassion. I suppose most of the devout would see charity as the most important virtue, and this is correct, but genuine charity requires a compassion which few possess. Perhaps that is because, in one way or another, most of us were taught that compassion was deadly!

I know this may seem a silly example, and it comes from a source which is not religious, but I've mentioned here and there that I often relax a bit with Maeve Binchy novels. Maeve's works may win no awards for plot, but, at her best, she is excellent at depicting human relationships (including misunderstandings, failures in communication and the like) of all kinds. In one of her books, a young bride, whose husband would be considered an overall 'catch,' actually has a very troubled marriage. She struggles with this for many months, then finally tries to confide in her mother. Her mother calls her a selfish, lazy slut... a horrid misunderstanding, but one I'm sure we've all seen in many lives. "Feeling sorry for yourself" (the definition of which extends to any sharing of pain, fear, confusion, or unhappiness, however deep) apparently is the ultimate crime.

Of course, in the religious realm, that extended to a taboo on speaking of any pain - because that meant not "accepting God's will." I recall sickening biographies or hagiography which made saints (or any religious figures, however obscure) seem to be unfeeling sorts who (as one extreme example) couldn't have felt sad even seeing a son slaughtered (or crucified) because this would involve not rejoicing in "God's will." (As I've treated elsewhere, one of my few points of agreement with Bertrand Russell would be in that he commented that, if everything on earth has a purpose, it would be the purpose of a fiend.)

There are few people in whom one can confide - and most of us learn that this can lead to betrayal, distortion, smug comments about "God's will," or the endless "you're feeling sorry for yourself!" Pain could not be shared - and, if it was, it only led to abuse, or disparagement at the least. Though I do not know the exact source of an attitude which grew in the later 20th century, probably some form of psychobabble, kindness to those in pain was unthinkable, because (supposedly) if "I" am loving to anyone who is troubled, he'll persist in the pain in order to manipulate "me" for sympathy.

You realise, I am sure, that I've witnessed these things many times - and would file the attitudes under "balderdash" (since I'm too polite to use words which might have greater impact but fall beyond the bounds of propriety.) Still, I wonder if the reason we mortals sometimes fall into mocking another's misfortune is because we are afraid. Listen to some of the talk at any funeral - even for someone who is 94. He didn't exercise enough - didn't eat right - would never have had cancer were he a vegetarian - whatever. Deep down, we all know we are going to die - but we would like to believe it is in our power to live to be 110 (and this as an extended early middle age) if we only do the 'right' things.

Everyone has suffering in this life, to be sure, but, though I in no way think evil is "God's will," much suffering can have a valuable element if it leads to greater compassion. Too often, it does nothing of the kind. We need to knock others' misfortune, because we fear having the same thing happen to us - and, more often than not, deep down, we know perfectly well that it can.

I'm embarrassed to admit this, though I doubt it is unusual for those with lifelong religious devotion, but, in my younger days, there were problems others had which would have made me avoid them - indeed, I may have judged them to be 'a sham' if they professed to be religious while having such problems. (I'm not about to elaborate, but I'm not referring to those guilty of heinous crimes!) Today, without denying the tragic nature of some such problems, or in any way minimising virtue or sin in any of us, I can well understand - even if the problems are not the same as my own.

That is why I sometimes am stupid enough to confide in others (and I'm a very private person.) I'm saying that with exaggeration, of course - obviously, I have people in whom I can confide with a helpful result, and they in me. But those who have genuine compassion are rare - their own pains, faults, mistakes, and so forth only make them disparage others the more.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

A few thoughts about Hildegard of Bingen

I shall caution my readers that this is not one of my well planned, 'take six hours to consider, then write as if it were impromptu', entries. I noticed my 'blogging' was getting a bit rusty, and thought an entry might help to keep me in shape. :)

One of the collections on my library shelves which I greatly value is "The Wisdom Of..." series. These pocket sized books, which contain selections from great saints of every era, are perfect to tuck into my bag, and today, when I was making the brief 'retreat day' I try to do weekly, I happened to select Hildegard of Bingen. I had not even realised that today was her feast day until I attended the midday Eucharist and heard it mentioned.

Hildegard was a fascinating, versatile (and, I understand, quite volatile) mystic of the 11th century. (I must write an essay on her for the site one of these days... I suppose that, with all the work I just completed for my finals, I'm having a period of not wanting to do all the research for the footnotes as yet.) I'm not positive that Hildegard would meet all requirements for 'heroic sanctity,' but, as the brief article to which I've linked in the title will show for those unfamiliar with her, she certainly was not any decorative medieval flower. (As an aside - if you are interested in herbal medicine and the like, as I am, Hildegard's book on the subject is not likely to be helpful. It describes only various animals and plants and their humours... among them the gryphon and unicorn. This was not an era of stressing empirical evidence, and was indeed one where zoology was studied in libraries, but I've no doubt Hildegard would have defended her qualifications as physician much as she did her visions.)

Today, coincidentally, is also the feast of the Stigmata of Saint Francis. It struck me, since I periodically receive correspondence related to my Internet site in relation to mysticism, that many people were, and are, fascinated by unusual phenomena - indeed, the occasional "how do I become a mystic?" queries I receive seem to be aimed at a desire for visions, 'reading souls,' and so forth. Well, I cannot tell anyone how to become a mystic - nor could anyone. It is not a practised art - it is a vocation, and those who have it are hand picked, as it were. We are a Church - yes, even those of us who do not experience the odd gifts - and each of us are called, and serve, in our own fashion. Most of those, such as Teresa of Avila to mention one most famous, who did experience 'consolations' such as visions found them to be more distracting than otherwise, and they always were cautious about seeming revelations. My old friend Julian of Norwich, who indeed recalls a singular vision of Christ (there is no mention of such experiences recurring), did not relate this as if she had a video of the crucifixion to share, but purely to underline spiritual truths which not only the experience but years of dedication to prayer had revealed.

As I've said elsewhere, most who are dedicated to a life of prayer live in what I term 'the banality of orthopraxy.' Most would not have, and certainly would not desire, visions, levitation and the like. (I fortunately have experienced none of these things, and am quite certain that, were most of us to do so, we'd behave like half wits.) Hildegard, Francis, Catherine of Siena, and others, who had unusual experiences, probably would be ruined today - well, no, that wouldn't happen, for they all were too feisty, but let us just note that they'd probably be considered nut cases, and those less committed would end up with psychiatrists who would concentrate on making them doubt their own integrity. (None of the three I've mentioned would have cared a fig about what anyone else thought of them, thank heavens.)

Francis' stigmata, Caterina's being wed to Christ with a ring made from the foreskin removed in his circumcision, Hildegard's visions which today are thought to have come from migraines - all of these indeed may be manifestations of what was within them, rather than divinely bestowed. To choose one example, if Hildegard's visions (which she stormed heaven to publish) were from a physical condition, this would not matter in the least. What does matter is the divine grace and response - to put it crudely, what the result of religious devotion becomes. "By their fruits you shall know them."

Most devout Christians, myself included, have never witnessed miracles (for all that most of us, I would say, indeed have times when, with hindsight, we can see special periods of divine providence. The Master usually says "repent" in some fashion during these!) The great mystics often never experienced odd phenomena - they spent far more time with the liturgical prayer, or scrubbing floors, or engaging in counsel (the anchorhold was second only to the tavern in attracting the long-winded), or tilling soil than in exalted states.

Switching gears, only because this thought suddenly came to me, within the past month or so I had a problem (which I'll not detail here, but which was very nerve racking and involved financial strain), and several people whom I am privileged to know were of assistance to me in various ways. Not all of them are exactly devout - those who are know the 'banality of orthopraxy' as well as do I, and all but one are more generally concerned with rolling up their sleeves for the poor and outcast than with such things as mysticism. Yet I was reminded very much, through the love they showed, of Christ as being near. (Yes, indeed, I need that reminder often!)

Since my own life is centred on prayer, it does irritate me when prayer, rather than service, is treated as 'selfish' or somehow denying a call to 'social justice' (... though Lord knows I've been known to have commitments to the latter.) For those of us whose lives are focussed on prayer, charity is involved in embracing the entire church in reciting its liturgies - but love of neighbour is the natural outgrowth of dedication to praise. More often, active life in some form is more prevalent in a Christian life. Yet I am convinced that the test of whether we have love for God (even if we don't think of this much, or spend time in devotion) is in the love we show for others.

"When I was hungry, you gave me to eat..." I truly think that Christ is more clearly made present in our caring for others than in any mystic experience. (This is not to say that those who truly are mystics do not possess great love!) Prayer must not be centred on trying to achieve exalted states, visions and the like, or it can degenerate into self hypnosis or, worse, a desire for power that belongs more to the world of Gnosticism or New Age practises than to Christianity.