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.