Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Can't blame the Babylonians any more

Just today, I was working on a meditation, as I periodically do for a prayer network. I noticed that the readings for that Sunday included Psalm 133 - which begins with "Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!," a sentiment which clearly is liturgical rather than based on experience of this at any time or place in history - and Isaiah 56, one reference of which was "temple as a house of prayer for all nations."

I may have mentioned previously that, during the past two years, I devoted quite a bit of study to Isaiah (mostly "Deutero-Isaiah," comprising chapters 40-55, which are most famous for the Servant Songs.) It is a marvellous book, in its entirety, and I found it all the more fascinating because I had to separate myself from two millennia of Christian interpretations and "place myself" in times of post-exilic redaction. It struck me how very confusing the times of captivity must have been on many levels. Surely, there were those Israelites who wondered if perhaps Yahweh just did not have the clout of Ba'al or Marduk. As well, the pining for a glory of the Davidic monarchy (small nation state... but absence does make the heart grow fonder and the victories more vivid), for the destroyed temple and its rites, etc., would have made the thought of returning to Jerusalem a vision of glory. (In the minds of theologians, of course. Your average Israelite undoubtedly was wondering what the fate would be, considering that the elite were transported and those troublesome lower class people had some hold on the land... but I digress.)

It is true in all history, of course, but the power of "Us vs. Them" is always potent. I am sure that those who were pining for the glory of the Lord revealed in His people Israel saw the Babylonians as the ruling power which prevented the free exercise of Israel's vocation. (Persians, Canaanite pagans, Roman empire... everyone queue to the right - one cross each... Forgive me. My affection for Monty Python made that last, admittedly tasteless, part inevitable.) By chapter 56 of Isaiah, when we've moved from Deutero to Trito Isaiah, the Israelites are back in Palestine. Their leaders are a complete bust - everyone is falling into sin ( if anyone really thinks that has not been the case since Adam was young...) - the temple worship is not what it is meant to be, though the building (nothing to match remembered glory of Solomon) has been reconstructed.

Everything was as it had been and always would be. It must have been quite a problem, not to be able to blame "them" any more. Remember that tired but apt old saying, "We have met the enemies, and they are us"?

"For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,
Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel..."

By the time of Isaiah, Yahweh was proving to be a most puzzling God. The people of Israel, who had been surrounded by cosmological myths of the Babylonians which stirred an interest in creation, were faced with paradox. Yahweh's transcendence and immanence (with Israel sharing in a glory they could only grasp from afar, though their creation tales show they were called to be its icon) are strong in all of Isaiah.

Yahweh, unlike the other, territorial gods, is lord of all nations and history,
working even through pagans such as Cyrus or Pharaoh. In creation myths of other
cultures, whatever their relationship to Genesis in genre, creation is an accident,
and people here to be the gods' servants. For Israel, the nation makes present, and
this to the edification of other nations, the transcendent God. Israel suffered consequences for her own infidelity, yet, and this being both innovative and
striking in Isaiah, suffering is not a punishment for sin, and indeed may be
vicarious. (The commentators love to debate whether the Suffering Servant was God Himself, Jeremiah, Israel, Deutero-Isaiah himself... but I wish a few Christians would remember that the idea of all pain as punishment died out centuries before Jesus walked the earth.)

Well, by Isaiah 56 the captivity in Babylon and the Persian conquest were in the past, and Israel is centred in Palestine. As the remainder of Isaiah will show, the absence of pagan domination hardly meant that Israel was a shining star! Israel was back in Palestine, and had not found either the splendour of Solomon's day (undoubtedly much improved in legend - though sources would differ on whether the Davidic line were mirrors of virtue or ruthless politicos) or the holiness which collective memory of long-gone days of a holiness which stopped the sun and moon in the sky. "Trito-Isaiah" bemoans the leadership in the temple, and seems to hope that the Gentiles may be a goad for better behaviour on the part of the Hebrews. Indeed, one can picture a sigh as devout Jews read psalm 133, "Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!" They would have seen this no more than would have Jesus of Nazareth, who the New Testament shows us, 5 centuries later, as reading from Isaiah in the synagogue (even if with some daring in applying prophecies to himself), yet using the very term "house of prayer" to denounces its being still a "den of thieves."

It indeed would strike us, most the very Gentiles who can be stricken with awe that
the divine calling was not exclusive but indeed was extended to all nations (aside - far more are wondering if being in church is a good example for kids or will score them points with potential customers...), that falling short of vocation, having leaders who may be of a degree of virtue somewhat lacking in degree to that of Jesus of Nazareth, and a manner of relation with one another which hardly could be described as living together in unity is all too familiar.

And so it always shall be. God shows a moving and constant tendency to be highly fond of weak, vacillating, sinful people - just as we are.

This is not to say that we should not strive for virtue. Indeed, Israel stressed the
sanctification of all of life. But, in Isaiah strongly as elsewhere, it is plain
that all that binds Israel/The Church to God is freely given, divine love for us.

The call to cosmic redemption, clear in our deification through Christ but long
pre-dating His time on earth, remains to be resolved. As we wait, and though the
perfection on earth will never come, what we have is our response in worship. Let us
see the universe, and every area of our lives, as well as our churches, as the
'house of prayer' in which a God who controls all of creation calls us to praise and

And, for the love of God, let's not indulge in the 'us vs. them' business among ourselves, except in pub conversations and with a laugh! The trouble with 'us vs. them' is that 'we' are not only right but highly superior...

Saturday, 26 July 2008

The peasant Jesus of Matthew

My readers are asked to bear with me, since I realise that this site is beginning to look like a massive advertisement for Amazon products. Those such as myself who concentrated on scholarly and artistic pursuits, and who delved into things Franciscan all of their lives (with a result not unlike that which I imagine Francesco encountered when he passed out Papa's priceless silks to beggars... one hint, and I don't mean the beggars fell to the ground in adoration of Francesco's Christlike qualities, ) can find that economic recessions - such as the one currently rampant, but which economists deny - leave little left for textbook purchases. My little Amazon commissions help to fill my shelves a bit and keep my mind stimulated, in the process keeping me from, let us say, writing dissertations on Beethoven's use of the augmented sixth chord in Suchandsuch symphony, which deep down we all know Beethoven undoubtedly did not have in mind.

For one such as myself, in whom the theological and aesthetic are inseparable, it probably is not strange that well presented theatre, books, and cinema based on scriptures, church history and the like are appealing. Pasolini's presentation of Jesus, based on the Gospel of Matthew, is generally accepted (by film historians) as the masterpiece of the sword and sandal epics. (Pasolini's beliefs or lack of same, or his politics, are issues that I'm not about to explore here.)

There are things that educated people, especially those with a background in the arts, just are not supposed to admit - but conventional I am not. Between us, I found Pasolini's film boring - not only because it was very stark but because, with the dialogue based entirely on the gospel of Matthew, there was no 'fleshing out' of the characters. I much prefer Franco Zeffirelli's brilliant Jesus of Nazareth, though that one would be criticised for having extra scriptural material.

(As long as this is 'true confessions time,' I'll add that I love Monty Python's Life of Brian - which did not spoof the gospels but was a superb treatment of the nonsense in many popular scriptural epics, Zeffirelli and Pasolini's work not being among them.)

The Jesus in Pasolini's film is rough, blunt, crude, and apparently the type to brook no nonsense. He seems easily irritated (as indeed I think I would be, with how much everyone pestered him and how even his disciples just didn't 'get' anything he taught.) It would be easy for the devout to dislike this characterisation, and I'll admit that the dignified, ascetic, brilliant, collected Jesus in Zeffirelli's version is more to my liking (even if it seems surreal that his intense blue eyes never blink.) Of course, I also dislike much of what passed for 'religious art' (and I don't mean Michelangelo) through the years (centuries...) I hate when Jesus looks like a bearded lady.

I periodically contribute meditations for a prayer network, structured around readings set for a particular Sunday Eucharist. It is a valuable exercise for me (and I hope beneficial to the readers), which involves perhaps twenty pages of notes on exegesis, another twenty of reflection following lectio divina, then a day's worth of editing to condense all of this into about 300 words and hope that a central point comes through. I cannot help but notice, when I go through the readings for any Sunday, that (though my own specialisation was in liturgy, so I love the new lectionary overall), the scripture scholars, however much they bore me with their M and Q source preoccupation, were quite correct in that the 'themes' in the readings as a whole have no exegetical connection. One of the reasons I so need to do extensive exegesis before I begin is to avoid becoming fanciful, or going off on tangents such as Augustine's treatment of the good Samaritan, in which he saw symbolism in everything from the wounds to the inn to the coins.

At it happens (and though I indeed may focus on Isaiah rather than Matthew in my meditation), the gospel for the particular Sunday is my least favourite - Matthew 15:21-28. It's the one where the Canaanite woman begs Jesus to cure her daughter, who is tormented by a demon. The disciples want her sent away, and Jesus, who has none of the aristocratic demeanour with which Zeffirelli would present his character (nor any of the Logos distinction I so love in John), comments that the children's food can't be thrown to the dogs.

All right... I know it ends with Jesus' commending the woman's faith. And I indeed am aware of recent scholarly work which contrasts the Church at Jerusalem (which Jesus' family headed for at least a generation, and was aimed at Jewish Christians) and the Gentile mission of the hot-headed Paul (who could deal with the consistent James better than with that other hot-head Peter.) I know something of Matthew's intended audience... But that line about the dogs, and further the beginning in which Jesus refuses to even answer the woman beseeching him to help her daughter, gets my back up.

I shall concede that, though Pasolini does not show us a polished upper class Jesus of Nazareth (King of Kings, but no aristocrat), his presentation matches the gospel of Matthew extremely well. If one watched the film with the scriptures in front of one (with no distractions from the Missa Luba), one would have to admit that the Jesus in the Pasolini film resembles the version in Matthew aptly.

So, to end this disjointed little post with a little hint of self knowledge, I think there just might be a reason I prefer John to Matthew and Zeffirelli to Pasolini. :) Matthew and Pasolini show us a Jesus of Nazareth who is a... blunt, irritable, wise but brief, compassionate but brooking no nonsense... Mediterranean peasant. Grinning I shall add - deep down, I think that I myself don't care to wear that shoe even though it does fit very well!

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Mary Magdalene

In honour of this great saint, who is a favourite of mine, I have (at least for the moment) added a slide show in the sidebar. I did so with reluctance (the truth is that the Amazon sales through my site have been poor recently, and I really could use some funds towards my textbooks), because so much of what is currently written and produced on the ever-popular topic of Mary Magdalene is so very far off the mark. Considering that tradition dates to the time of, at the very least, Gregory VII, I suppose I should not be surprised.

I do love legends, of course, but probably no Christian in history had the negative press which Mary Magdalene had - largely because Pope Gregory, in a most imaginative sermon, confused her with several other scripture characters (Mary of Bethany, the woman of sin who anointed Jesus), and she passed into history as the 'repentant prostitute,' though the scriptures say nothing of the kind. (As an aside, I remember once hearing an historian explain that, in first century Palestine, fully a third of Jewish women bore the names of either Mary or Salome. I wasn't surprised - when I was in school, it seemed that a third of the girls in my class were Mary or Kathleen - even the tally of Elizabeths, Annes and Margarets could not come close, even if a Linda here and there broke the monotony. Yet the confusion of Marys in the New Testament, however inevitable, was excessively creative.)

Yet today one is again diverted from the most important points about Mary Magdalene herself. She was a disciple of Jesus and, above all, the first witness to the resurrection! That seems to me to be quite enough privilege for any life, yet the powerful grace in this is overshadowed by all sorts of speculation about blood lines, whether she was Jesus' wife, if she was a bishop (...bishop? Sorry, guys, all of the disciples during Jesus' lifetime were Jews... so were those in Acts. It took a combination of post-resurrection insight and the Holy Spirit working through Jesus' Church for the lot of us to accept the inevitability of bishops.) For some reason, I'm vaguely reminded of how Pope John Paul II (among others) used a superb turn of rhetoric, intended to show the Christian regard for the female, where he'd speak of how Jesus had not conferred priesthood on his own mother (at the Last Supper.) John Paul knew full well that there is no anamnesis of what had not yet happened - and that it was only in the Spirit's guidance of the church that the Christian Eucharist and priestly ordination arose - the Last Supper was not an ordination ceremony nor Holy Communion. (I'm not going to dwell on how, were John Paul's statement taken for explanation rather than rhetoric, one could draw a logical conclusion that women should not be permitted at the Eucharist.) Yet does it not seem odd that, in using Mary (the mother of Jesus) as the 'one not ordained,' we can forget that this might divert us from remembering that she was the tabernacle itself - that she was the divine instrument for bringing his Body and Blood into the world in the first place?

Sorry... there is scriptural precedent for Elizabeths getting a bit overwhelmed and prophetic when they encounter the Marys.

When one such as Mary Magdalene is unjustly remembered as a prostitute, there still can be a certain beauty in the homiletics. The idea of the repentant becoming great saints is something we had all best remember - we all are the former, and, it is hoped, aspire to the latter. It is speculation that can irritate me overall. First off, it can be smug - along the lines of "What Suchandsuch could have accomplished were she only living in the 21st century...!" (I suppose Magdalene could have sent everyone a photograph of the man she mistook for the gardener on her mobile phone, or, at the very least, uploaded a digital image to,, or Then, perhaps the Twelve would not have been so disinclined to believe her message.)

I'll admit that I patronise every cheap, second-hand bookstore I can find. Last summer, on what beastly hot day, I indulged in a copy of the Da Vinci Code (which I obtained, in well worn condition, for a few pennies.) I never was one much for detective stories, and the historian in me kept puzzling at some of the references, even if I found myself wondering what exactly was going on with Opus Dei. Yet it is a gripping novel, very nice for an afternoon on the train. I doubt its author could have imagined it would not only become a 'fifth gospel,' but would lead to having entire sections of booksellers' shelves devoted to 'commentaries.'

Let's step back a moment, if our concern is devotion rather than detective novels. Mary was the first apostle (by which I mean not one of The Twelve, but in the sense in which Paul of Tarsus used the term - witness to the Risen Lord - and to the Twelve.) She also was present at the crucifixion, and clearly was very involved in Jesus ministry (and possibly a source of his support.)

It's rather sad that the first apostle is lost in not only over a millennium of being thought a woman of the streets, but that her identity is totally lost today (because at least a repentant sinner transformed by grace is the identity of every saint) as she becomes the neglected mother of Jesus' illustrious and unknown family (nobility or royalty, I understand - indeed a feat for a carpenter from Galilee... too bad the genuine image of the true King of Kings is lost in the shuffle.) Or one can reduce her to a tragic figure because she had no hopes of being a bishop...

I wouldn't wish being a bishop on anyone, let alone a friend - and since Mary Magdalene is an old and dear heavenly friend of mine, I think her esteem in recorded experience is quite notable in and of itself...

Quoting here from the Revised English Bible, Mark 16: (Words of the angel) "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised, he is not here...But go and say to the disciples and to Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you... And they delivered all these instructions briefly to Peter and his companions. Afterwards, Jesus himself sent out by them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable message of eternal salvation."

Better ending than any of the Grail genealogies or DaVinci code commentaries, is it not? Not to mention that, considering how the Twelve behaved on the night of the Last Supper and day of the crucifixion (no accident that Jesus' first words were those of forgiveness), those women who clustered by the cross are models of courage and fidelity.

Friday, 18 July 2008

"I just haven't been punished enough!"

For the benefit of those who may be reading this entry without any previous exposure to my blog, I'd best establish that the title of this post in no way refers to myself! It came from a biography which I read of the Servant of God Fulton John Sheen. At 83, following times of physical illness and some painful outcomes to decisions he made as archbishop of Rochester NY, he would say, "I have had a great deal of suffering... but I never received the punishment I deserved. God has been easy with me. He has never laid on my burdens equal to my faith."

This hardly is original with our heavenly friend Fulton, of course. Overall, the idea of divine punishments (though I'll get to Augustine in a moment) is not integral to theology or worship, but it was all too embedded in devotion. As one who studied the Middle Ages in some depth, I noticed that, though Christians in general were not likely to consider themselves headed for hell (which, other than fallen angels, seemed to have a population consisting mainly of heretics, sorcerers, and infidels), the spectacle of a purgatory (on the lines of Dante's Inferno - again, not doctrine, but popular) turned God into a most devious jailer. Doctrinally, purgatory means only some purification after one dies - and I don't see this as a negative concept in the least, since God's creative power is eternal, and our constant growth in intimacy with the divine hardly would cease at death. But sermons and writings (possibly based on warning others about the seven deadly sins) indeed could present a vivid image of a God who let the punishment fit the crime in a most extreme fashion.

When I recall some of the teachings I heard in youth (not from family - my parents had a most healthy attitude towards God, and never would have believed they did anything worthy of punishment in any case), the image of creation was beyond dismal. If one combined various ideas, all popular in devotion at the time, it was easy to see why anyone would quickly run in another direction from this vindictive Judge. His anger at human disobedience was such that he not only turned an intended paradise into the painful, wicked world we know, but just unbolting the gates of heaven (without lessening any of the evils on earth) required that He push a button that caused the wicked to subject His Son to the worst of deaths. To become holy, one had to be sent increasingly horrid sufferings, all special delivery from the divine hand. (The wicked may end up in hell - but God's friends had major hell here. Not the pain that indeed can come from holy efforts or natural evils, but a carefully scripted series of agonies, apparently critical to developing goodness.) As well, if one did grow closer to God - and consequently have all the more suffering from His hand - one also had to deal with that Satan, seeking to destroy this good (and ideally get one to commit suicide and land in his own domain), had a free hand in sending all sorts of evils. Even in our own day, C. S. Lewis and Alvin Plantiga, who are far from mental midgets, speculated that such natural disasters as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions may be the work of fallen angels.

Considering the amount of time that Franciscans devote to meditation on the Passion (in fact, our Order's largest fault has been to make it often seem that Jesus, the poor man, basically had an Incarnation consisting only in being born and dying), I doubt anyone will think I'm denying the cruel sufferings of Jesus of Nazareth! However, as such modern, orthodox scholars as Tom Wright and Raymond Brown explore superbly, the horror of the crucifixion came about quite naturally. (It was not a divine trick.) It was a tragic outgrowth of Jesus' vocation to proclaim the kingdom. Meditation on the Passion is excellent and powerful, because it reminds us of how fully human Jesus was. (Before any of my more conservative readers begin to boil the oil in which to immerse me, may I remind them of the passage from the Eucharist, "By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity." It is the deification which is key, not "if there are no Romans around with scourges, I'd best construct a few of my own.")

Augustine was a combination of brilliant and excessive (not to mention prolific) which probably had more impact on Western Christian thought than any other (with the possible exception of Thomas Aquinas.) His idea that punishment remedied wickedness makes my skin crawl at times. Yet Augustine, living in a time (and having experienced as a Manichean) where dualism, an idea of a second, wicked god who was author of creation, was underlying the good of creation and defending divine omnipotence. He never knew when to stop with the explanations, of course - few brilliant philosophers ever do! Yet the neatness of his explanation, acceptable in a philosophical argument which shows that a divine creator is not incompatible with there being evil in this world, can be a pastoral disaster.

Then again (and don't ask me why), even a search of Yahoo groups (related to any topic) can show that there are many people who want to be punished and abused. (No, I have not visited S&M forums - I am speaking of what is childish and pathetic.) I like to cook, and once visited a forum about recipes, never dreaming that the world of pop psychology and the like would have intruded on that space. Participants were not just interested in cooking, but in 'health issues,' nutritionists solving the ills of the world in ways Jesus of Nazareth could only envy from afar, and in cautioning other readers that such items as basil and vinegar are 'poison.' (Artificial sweeteners, I 'learnt,' cause 'brain death.') I did manage to resist the strong temptation to post a response beginning, "This is Elizabeth, talking to you from the grave...", because irony is too blessed a commodity to be wasted.

Some of those on the forum, indulging in symbolic self flagellation in response to the 'obesity epidemic,' posted details of 'grave sins' such as having exceeded ADA portion sizes or having a chocolate as if they had, perhaps, given the enemy the details of the D-day invasion. One irritating bitch on this forum, who jumped down anyone's throat on any provocation (saying she wanted to imitate some "Dr Phil," who must be a major bastard), whipped those who made such 'confessions.' The 'penance' she imposed involved everything down to analysing what inward self hatred would make someone have a bit of tuna salad that was not part of their 'food plan.' Later posts would show the 'gratitude' of those who liked (to quote one of them) that "Suellen gives us what we need - a good kick up the backside!"

Though my guess would be that those courting the favour of this Suellen are rather bent, it's not uncommon, in the religious realm but also in others, for people to want to be punished. I doubt they are thinking of Augustine at the time. They are being exceedingly childish, thinking that what they need to keep them in line is fear of retaliation from some real or imagined authority figure.

With my usual talent for loose associations, I'm thinking of how those such as Martin Luther struggled with angst over the 'perfection' of their contrition. Thomas Aquinas was setting forth concepts about love and response of the will - perfect contrition (that is, conversion based on perfect love) recognises God as the utmost good and source of our happiness. (Perfect happiness would be that which is eternal, perfect, and unchanging - therefore found only in God.) "Imperfect contrition" did not mean a failing grade and being pushed into hell. Since the 'imperfect' sort was that based on a fear of punishment, it does not grasp the perfection of God and desire for union with Him which would mean real love.

People can speak all they wish of Catholic guilt (though there is an odd variety based on Calvinist infiltration, where one feels guilty when one does no wrong but didn't do what was most perfect. I'll get to that on another occasion, probably when I've had a few Irish whiskeys.) Yet it is telling that Thomas Aquinas saw that which is based on punishment as imperfect - yet so much distorted spirituality was focussed on punishment as the means to holiness.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Rather confusing, is it not?

The link in the title is to Signs on the Way, a bible study booklet from the Lambeth Conference centred on the gospel of John (my favourite.) I had the oddest thought when I was reading the reflection on the miracle at Cana. Indeed, wondering about (for example) the disciples' reaction to the miracle can make for a fine (and highly speculative...but that can be fun...) discussion. Yet I must not be in good form. My immediate thought was that those crashing the wedding party to see the Master may well have been the reason the hosts ran out of wine in the first place.

I suppose I'm a bit weary after the exams (though they were completed in May), and still have little quickness left. Yet other odd thoughts (well, odd for me) are entering my mind on matters religious.

This past week, I attended a lecture related to Thomas Aquinas and love of God and neighbour. In case this was not obvious, Thomas and I are old friends - eight years of my education were provided by Dominicans, and my post-graduate theology and philosophy meant another 8 years with Jesuits. The presentation was in a parish setting, and I dare say that many there had little previous experience with things Thomistic. I realised (as if this were news... but I'm so used to Thomas that it does not always appear vividly) how totally confusing his points must seem to those unaware of the overall thought.

One man in attendance, responding to the idea of God loves us - etc., etc. - we love through God - suddenly asked "what about excommunication?" Well, with Thomas's stress on a definition of love as willing the best for the other, it seemed to me that, since excommunication is designed to call notorious sinners to repentance (...not that it necessarily is that way in practise... I know enough history to be aware of how bishops often delighted in excommunicating one another..), it could make fine sense that excommunication fits the definition of love. In fact, it also could remind the one excommunicated that actions have consequences - and that there are deep spiritual consequences to some actions even when one has avoided extreme natural ones.

Actually, Thomas' definition of love is one which makes 'love of neighbour,' as applied to everyone, very clear. Most of us (whether we are saying t'amo or ti voglio bene - in Italian, the first relates to love with a romantic element, the latter to love - filial, for friends, etc. - without the same... notice how the literal meaning is so close to Thomas' usage) refer to people whose company we enjoy, whom we cherish, and so forth. I would not have cared to have Jack the Ripper for a pub companion, nor would I have warm fuzzy feelings towards him, but I could still 'love' him by wishing the best for him - the best being his repentance and salvation.

It then occurred to me that (other than the lecturer, who probably has the entire Summa memorised and even understands it), I probably was the only one there who would think in this fashion. And I'd be the first to admit that I don't understand a quarter of what I've read of the Summa. It's brilliant, indeed. The philosophical arguments, if one favours Aristotle, are perfect. Maybe the confusion can stem from that they are a bit too perfect. In a particular scheme, they seem to set many mysteries out neatly (and make it plain that Christianity was not philosophically beneath what the 13th century Arabs or Greeks had to chew on.)

Another part of the lecture briefly dealt with God's loving Himself in his creation. I've heard that one at length in the past, and, in context, it can glorify our deification through Christ and our share in the love of the Trinity. The problem is that, if one has no familiarity with the entire picture, God's loving himself in 'me,' and, on the slim chance that 'I' become holy, loves me all the more because I'm becoming more like him and he loves himself so much (in fact, I gather he only loves himself... which is fine because all of creation stems from him and has the stuff of holiness in it...), those who spend more time on the blasted self help aisle than in the theological library can be left with a vague image of a God who is the Supreme Narcissist.

By sheer coincidence, later on the same day I walked past an area where some Buddhists were having some sort of festival. I am not all that knowledgeable about Buddhism, though I did study some Buddhist and Hindu writings as part of my philosophical studies. I had yet another odd thought. Since scholasticism was the RC approach in the 20th century, I wonder what it was like for the missionaries in China or India - and this without considering political problems? How did one use a catechism based on scholasticism and Aristotle with those whose previous exposure would have been to varieties of Buddhist or Hindu thought, to which they bear no resemblance?

Would you believe that, at this very moment, it still is unthinkable to me that, in all likelihood, 99% of worshippers anywhere are not likely to be thinking about any of this at all? ;)

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

A word on design (warning: disjointed)

I've always had an interest in various forms of design. I love decorating (if I'd had the money, my home would be an eclectic blend of antiques, mediaeval and renaissance themes combined with peace signs from the 1960s - the homes I love best are those which express individuality.) I've been a calligrapher and Internet designer, the latter in the 'primeval' days of the Web, when beautiful sites were valued. My passion for all of the arts must be apparent. Yet, not only in the artistic but even the technical spheres (and also in the liturgy - you knew I'd get to that, did you not?), I often am amused at how trends, or design by those with a narrow if expert focus, can produce puzzling results.

Some years ago, I had a good friend, Richard, who was extremely gifted in anything related to home renovation. His abilities were vast - for example, I well remember when I gave him the present of a museum poster (Impressionist painting), and he not only designed a marvellous custom frame but somehow reproduced brush stroke effects, turning it into what looked like an oil painting. He personally remodelled a small, somewhat worn house from the 1850s with excellent results.

Richard's kitchen had a wonderful design. Since he installed the appliances and built the cabinets and shelving himself, it not only was attractive and made surprising use of space, but had a trait few kitchens have. Richard happened to be a very gifted cook - the sort who could enter that kitchen and emerge, in 20 minutes, with a full meal which a restaurant chef would envy. Being a rare combination of technically gifted and expert cook, the kitchen was designed to make anything one would need for various types of preparation at hand. I've seen some models for kitchens which are impressive on paper, or even which look stunning at first glance, but they seldom, if ever, are crafted for maximum ease and speed in meal preparation. Often, quite the contrary is true.

I'll give a brief space to how software programmes often can be puzzling! I was one of many who thought, logically at first glance, that changing margins in Microsoft Word would be a 'format' command - not 'print.' I worked in computing for a time, and I found that the best technicians often could not explain anything at all. Yet it would be logical, I suppose, for some who are technicians to place commands in spots which would hardly be the first to occur to people who actually use such software.

I have no background in architecture (though I think most buildings of recent construction are ghastly - no character, beauty, or charm). Still, one would think that architects, at the very least, have some experience of actually living somewhere. I could see, when space permits, having a bathroom separate from a lavatory - but, if having the tub in a separate space is a great idea, wouldn't it have struck the architect that the hand basin's being in another room would not delight those in the loo? (As an aside, I personally think the current fashion of having everything in neutral, dreary colours, and decorating that is dreary and intended to show nothing of the person, is miserable - but I know it's a hot trend.)

I remember, as a child and young adult, when many flats (and these in far from posh neighbourhoods) had very useful elements. The first example that comes to mind were the pantries often attached to good-sized kitchens. Highly useful, indeed - yet they'd probably be eliminated as 'old fashioned' were there remodelling. (This, of course, does not illustrate a purely new trend - lots of odd ideas were expressive of some status symbol or another even long before anyone alive today was born. I'll go to my death wondering how people, a century ago, painted over gorgeous woods with rich grains, just to show they were wealthy enough to afford the coloured paint which was new to the market then.)

Inevitably, considering the nature of the person, this post shall return for a moment to matters liturgical. I've had the privilege of reading modern works by great liturgical scholars. In doing so, I can see the richness of the 'sign and symbol' concepts, and equally recognise (with Bugnini's memoirs being a prime example) how very far the effects liturgical commissions envisioned are from the boring, trivial, childish, or even artificial reality in many parishes. I also can see, and this only with hindsight since, though it was 'under my nose' at the time, there were so many trends of which one heard at 'workshops' that it was easy to forget what was real, how frequently instructions which were perfectly suited (at least in theory!)to liturgical celebrations were taken out of context and stretched into norms for other areas.

Perhaps part of the problem was that, even if a parish/diocese/cathedral etc., had the good fortune to have a liturgical scholar at hand, he probably was a priest. The liturgical renewal coincided with trends towards 'the age of the laity' (not that married people ever denied their vocation or did not contribute to the church, but the clergy and religious feared both.) Embarrassment then over the 'male only' priesthood meant twists on the liturgy to bring about an effect of 'those poor women - just look at them giving communion and not being able to offer the Mass.' (I see no theological reason women cannot be ordained - nor did Paul VI - but I dislike 'stunts' of any kind.) Too often, those who were in charge of matters liturgical in parishes (and whose sole background in liturgy well might be highly slanted 'workshops, 'where those presenting were very convincing and sincere but either knew little or withheld 85% of what they did know to focus on an agenda) had been teachers of small children, and, knowingly or not, aimed everything at a child's level, hoping to bring in families.

There certainly are churches (Westminster Cathedral being the best example of which I know) which have huge appeal and attendance, even on weekdays, and have brilliant liturgy and music. I know, of course, that most places would not have budget and staff to meet such quality - but it does seem to me that a point would be well taken in that parishes do not need to be turned into intellectual and aesthetic wastelands for people to 'relate' to the offerings. Ironically, those whom I've known who want to turn church buildings into what resembles a public waiting room (...and I don't mean anticipation of the parousia), and to lower all liturgy to the level of an infant, often are the very same who will dismiss any complaint by parishioners about the poor quality with that the parishioners haven't had a 'sufficient educative process.'

Granted - I find some newly remodelled flats, with their neutral colours and blandness, to be very dreary and not at all homelike, where those who favour such trends might think my style to be 'old fashioned.' The colours I find vibrant they might think tacky. The same is true in every sphere. But, to be permitted to complete my loose association, people (of all levels of class or education) generally are not stupid or at a loss to grasp the aesthetic and transcendent. Many churches could use a bit more reasoned design.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Sad reign of the Father of Lies

It amazes me, when I look over listings of films from recent decades, that there apparently is great fascination with the diabolical. Exorcisms, Satanic cults, and other topics along those lines seem to have 'inspired' great interest. Well, those are not areas I would ever care to pursue, and I am not about to so much as speculate about areas such as demonic possession. The evil in this world is quite puzzle enough for one day.

Yet, all too often, it strikes me that the Father of Lies is alive and well, and very much at work. I certainly believe creation is basically good, but I see two highly dangerous tendencies, to which human nature is all too prone, which can wreak destruction on either a large or small scale. The classic picture of Satan has elements which don't need diabolical influence to reign in some hearts: deceit, and a perverse desire for power.

This is a 'light' example (just as a prelude), merely to illustrate an element of many people's natures which eluded me until, believe it or not, I was middle aged. (I possess many a weakness, indeed - but deceit is not my style and never was. As is true of many honest sorts, I tend to believe others tell the truth. And one wonders why I'm cautious about the philosophical principle of credulity today...) Sad but true - people often are all too ready to believe the worst about anyone else, whatever the source of the 'dirt,' and even if there is no truth in it at all. Of course, those skilled at deceit always be sure there is just enough element of truth for the lies to be believable.

When I first began maintaining my Internet site, I had a guest book - it was common equipment for most sites at the time. I enjoyed reading comments now and then, but eliminated the guest book quickly enough because it became too much of a bother to have to monitor and edit it daily. (This was in the infancy of the Internet, when nut cases did not sit at computers all night and spin tales, message boards did not yet exist, and mailing lists were composed mostly of people interested in topics, not in 'trolls' who took pleasure in causing trouble.) There was someone who repeatedly posted in my guest book that she was my daughter, and she'd go on with details of the tragic life she'd had since I'd abandoned her as a baby. I'm not suggesting she was wicked - she well may have been crazy, and I don't doubt that mine was one of many Internet spots where she told her bizarre story.

It is a ludicrous post, of course. I've never had children at all. Yet I neither wished to appear to be a writer on religious topics who'd been cruel and irresponsible to a 'daughter' (how could a reader know I'd never had one?), nor, much worse, have people who did know me assume this was the truth.

In my more naive days, I would have thought that anyone who knew me, and read such an accusation, would know it could not possibly be true. But think about it! Lots of people love to hear the worst of others - and, once they hear an accusation (be it of crime, defects of character, supposed craziness, a bad nature, whatever), not only will assume that they now know what Suchandsuch is really like, but will 'remember' various 'proofs' to substantiate the false claim. As an aside, it still puzzles me, and probably always will, that those who love spreading vicious lies (the really expert do it in a fashion that seems caring, troubled, or sad) often are very popular.

Often, it is small scale. Family members' lies about others (or even false suppositions) will be accepted as pure truth - especially if the speaker is older, or a parent of, the one being smeared. Those who smear their closest friends will be believed because it will be assumed that they know the person of whom they speak to an extent the hearer does not. But, as I mentioned in a previous post, When Did Privacy Become a Crime?, the mere fact of reserve can be taken as an undoubted way of shielding scandal or criminal behaviour!

Moving from the 'small scale' to the very serious, I am sure Satan is laughing aloud at the aftermath of the paedophile scandals in Boston some years ago. (No - I am not a paedophile, nor was I ever a victim of one - and I don't know a soul in Boston and have never even been there.) In reading of the incidents, I certainly was chilled by such sheer wickedness as that of Geoghan - a predator who targeted the young children of single mothers primarily. I was also very pained to see that, despite his having repeated incidents reported, there was no move to remove him from being in the company of children. But there is another, more subtle, work of the Liar from the Beginning, which has a wider scale and, overall, a destructive effect on far more people. First, if a priest who is completely innocent were to be accused of paedophilia, he would be assumed to be guilty even if there were not a trace of evidence. (The moment the accusation hit the media, I'm sure many people would remember, perhaps, that he once said hello to their kids in front of church...) If he were to be completely cleared in an investigation, it would be assumed that he was guilty and the church was 'covering up.' As well, priests in general are cut off from the work with others (not only children, though I knew many a kid to have great benefit from association with the clergy) which once had a large role in bringing the gospel message to others in a tangible fashion. There is a popular assumption that every priest is either a paedophile or shielded one.

Anyone who is expecting me to defend the likes of Geoghan, or to minimise the grave actions of those who actually did shield him or others like him, must be drinking perfume. Yet I can see elements which could have made bishops or superiors who were in good faith make honest mistakes which today can look like conspiracies.

When I read of the case in Boston and some others, it struck me that, even in the fields of psychiatry and criminal justice, in depth knowledge of paedophilia is very recent. Some paedophiles, priests or otherwise, who were returned to jobs in which they would deal with children had been pronounced 'cured.' True paedophiles (and sex criminals of all kinds) are often deceitful, charming, and capable of manipulating anyone - often including prison psychiatrists, parole boards and the like. Those who were in the priesthood (though they'd have only been a tiny percentage) would have had the violent criminal's ability to be a chameleon - sensing what mattered to others, and meeting the description. In a climate which so emphasised obedience and conformity, I've no doubt that they seemed models of both.

Sex criminals, contrary to notions which I still am amazed to hear, are not, for example, overwhelmed by a young girl's beauty or giving in to pressure coming from celibacy. (They normally are far from celibate. They've had sexual experience on every part of the spectrum, and often with more than one person at a time!) It is far from a weakness springing from attraction - it is an attack - a perverse need for power that those with no conscience will express in a fashion which involves degradation, terror, manipulation and so forth.

I've grown weary of the chestnut that Roman priests would not be paedophiles (...the number who are apparently is grossly overestimated) if they only could marry. Marriage is no cure for the situation - it only gives paedophiles kids of their own to torment, and wives to degrade with the weapon of that insufficient variety of acts is what makes the wives to blame for the crimes.

If bishops were clearly aware of crimes of this type, particularly multiple incidents, it is horrifying if they continued to keep the perpetrator in service. Yet I wonder if that often was the case. A singular, minor incident (were that all that was known) could be misinterpreted. Sadly, the still prevalent idea that this is a lapse in chastity rather than a violent crime could distort perspective (and this bearing in mind, as I mentioned earlier, that those in criminal justice and psychiatry did not understand the situation in any fullness until very recently.)

Most lapses in chastity are the result of human weakness. One could have had an affair with a woman (or man) and still be a good priest. It certainly is possible (and common) for people in any state of life to repent of fornication or adultery. The sin would need to be dealt with, of course, and I'm not denying the spiritual damage which would require much healing, or the other consequences which could arise. But such sins as fornication do not indicate perverse needs for power, violence and the like - nor does an incident of such an occurrence mean a continuing tendency. It is abuse of a normal inclination, not indication of the nature of a psychopath. Certainly, a priest who fell into fornication could have painful remorse as part of such repentance. The sex criminal will fake it brilliantly, but, where the idealistic and innocent could see his going on pleasantly as showing a great faith in divine mercy, the sad truth is that he has no conscience (or true remorse) at all.

Anyone, in any state of life, could have compassion on one who, for example, committed fornication and repented. Unfortunately, the violence of the paedophile could be mistaken for a lapse in chastity - perhaps because one supposed that little boys were more available or something along those lines.

Lies could keep violent criminals in business. They also can make perfectly good and innocent people suspect. (I believe Francis of Assisi was quite correct in placing destroying someone's reputation on a par with murder.) No wonder Satan always was called Father of Lies.

The sad part is that humanity does not at all need any preternatural beings to propagate lies - or to justify motives to themselves. Many of us can do that very well on our own.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Fiction based on fact - and fiction based on fiction

Have you ever found that, though you have extensive knowledge of either an historical period or a great literary work, you've seen so many dramatic interpretations of both that you sometimes have to pause a moment to remember the actual event or original book or play? My love for history and literature is certainly beyond the norm, yet this has happened to me many times. :)

There are certain films that I never miss (for example, I'll scrape together pennies for weeks if there is anything new starring Judi Dench or Imelda Staunton, or if a film focusses on the mediaeval or renaissance period.) Of course, the "Judi or Imelda" films, not all of which have brilliant plots, always are worthwhile, if only because the acting is superb. The 'fiction based on fact' genre is the one that can confuse even those of us who have studied the periods for decades.

Recently, I had occasion to see both "The Other Bolelyn Girl" (in which Mary Boylen seems a candidate for canonisation; her sister a wicked nut case who probably was guilty of all the false accusations for which she was executed; and Henry VIII has black hair and eyes which make one have to remind oneself that it's Henry at all) and "Elizabeth: The Golden Age." Were I a film critic, I'd have ample reasons to pan both of them, appealing though the scenery and costumes could be. But, using the latter as an example, it took me a little while to remember what was fact and what extreme embellishment. Elizabeth, looking remarkably well for a woman well into her fifties (and in an era when that was old age), must have had a considerable lag in receiving information if she was thought to be setting her cap for Ivan the Terrible - considering for how long he'd been dead at the time. ( there's a creative image... a marriage between Gloriana and Ivan the Terrible would have been quite an alliance indeed...)

I suppose just about everyone has seen Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments at one time or another. Setting aside that the presentation in Exodus is hardly intended as strict history in the first place, one still has to admit that the action in the scriptures moves from Moses' discovery in the rushes (pun intentional), to when Moses, clearly aware that he is Hebrew, kills the problematic Egyptian. In the film version, viewers would be left puzzled. It seems that neither Moses nor anyone else except his foster mother (who saw him as a gift of the Nile god, a premise everyone including Pharaoh apparently accepted without question) had an inkling of his Hebrew identity. Moses scored high on the scale of Pharaoh's esteem, outranking the heir, and seemed a shoo-in to become the next Pharaoh. Anyone would wonder why he decided to join the Hebrews for his share of the taskmaster's whip (etc.), when he soon would have been on the throne and been able to free the lot of them with a word.

I'm smiling - you'll remember that, recently, I posted about "I'd Do Anything." Since just about everyone has seen a version of Oliver!, and most have read Dickens' original at some time, it's interesting how very much exposure to the musical has coloured most people's image of the characters. The comments on the I'd Do Anything site make it plain that the image of Nancy as colourful, warm, motherly, and, except for her unfortunate end and reluctance to trap Oliver, one with rather a pleasant and vibrant existence ("'s a fine life") despite her love for the villain is embedded in memory because of the musical. (This is also true of most other characters, but I'll stay with Nancy for the moment.) I had to jog my memory of Oliver Twist to fully recall that Dickens' Nancy is a very tragic figure. There is no affectionate or fun time with Fagin's boys, and little interaction with them other than "here we go a-thieving." Bill gives her constant physical abuse, and, during a period of illness and very grave poverty which is not referenced in the play, Nancy is wearing away and in terror as she nurses him. She is driven to desperation, and, in the end, seriously considers Rose Maylie's appeal to reform and disappear to some distant English point or foreign land. (As an aside, since comments on the site I mentioned often refer to Nancy as a mother figure, even in the musical Nancy tells Fagin she's been thieving for him since she was half Oliver's age "and for twelve years since" - which would make her a teenager. I suppose that the original casting of Georgia Brown in the stage version and Shani Wallis in the film influenced the idea of Nancy as being thirty or so - hardly a time of one's dotage, but one at which one could have a son the age of Oliver.) There is no hint of the delightful tavern singer whose rapport with the boys makes Fagin's den seem rather fun, and, if "I'd Do Anything" indeed can apply, it is through control by a fiend such as Fagin, not an affectionate bond.

As usual, I need to insert a religious reference, just to live up to my own legend. :) Some of our current discouragement either with our own prayer lives or what we perceive as a crumbling Church has its root in our remembering things as other than what they ever were. (Though I must write about the differences between reality and fiction in films or books which feature religious characters one of these days.)

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Ah, from the mouths of babes...

Those hoping for a sentimental tract on the innocence and insight of children (and who, of course, have no previous acquaintance with my blog, in which case they'd already know such hopes would be dashed) will not find it here. Augustine was quite correct that, if children do not manage the degree of sinfulness of their elders, it is more from weakness of limb than purity of heart. That, as well, does not happen to be my topic for today. I'm thinking more of how it amazes me that many adults not only glorify childhood but are disappointed to find that children do not idealise their parents (teachers and other authority figures) - do not have the main goal in life of meeting with this esteemed company's approval (beware of those who do, who are budding sycophants) - and are not falling over with gratitude each moment at how very much their parents (et al) sacrifice for them. I sometimes have the impression that (some) parents and teachers, among others who assume such esteem, besides having amnesia about their own youth (to an extent that could only be cultivated deliberately), would rather like homage which should be reserved to God Himself. (God, of course, would be completely aware that most people don't spend much time thinking of or worshipping Him, either, and that He is more likely to enter their thoughts when they are in need of something. In that, we all are children.)

When I was in school (not the endless university years... here I mean from about age 5 through 14 or so), it tended to happen, every few years, that one of the teachers would get the idea for a school newspaper. (We did have one in secondary school, for which I was an editor - I still have scars on my integrity because, since it was based on 'school spirit' rather than truth or insight, I therefore could not publish any submissions that actually were worth anything. I'm not speaking of that 'newsletter,' but of small efforts in my earlier school years.) Somehow, the idea never took off. I think that one 'newspaper' (which was really hyped, with their even being a contest to determine a name) had a grand total of one actual issue, and the one with which I was involved later, when I was perhaps 13, had loads of preparation but no actual printing.

One of my assignments for the latter was the brainchild of our principal, Sister Christopher. She wanted me to approach older pupils and teachers who'd been at the school for several years, asking what, in all their years in the school, was their happiest memory.

I had a feeling that, for any chance of publication, I'd best approach the kids who were reasonably good students, and who didn't get into major trouble. (There was those from whom I could have had really colourful and varied responses, but contributions about getting a buzz on altar wine or necking in the janitorial closet I knew instinctively would be tossed.) Five boys, all within the safe zone, gave me exactly the same answer, though I'd asked them separately. They lived in the same neighbourhood, and periodically would go out for breakfast in the very early morning, then proceed to school together. To a man, their happiest memory was of when an emergency meant a school closing. They'd left too early to have been notified, and the janitor gave them the news on arrival - that unexpected holiday, which they naturally spent together, was pure bliss.

Their response, of course, did not surprise me then or now. (Adults would love an unexpected holiday no less - but would not be that likely to admit this was the case.) In fact, every pupil I interviewed had a favourite memory which involved fun things, not studies. A few mentioned teachers, but in the "it was so funny when..." context, not "oh, she was such an inspiration!" mode. What indeed did surprise me (then and now) is that Sister Christopher, who probably had been teaching for three decades, would have anticipated glowing testimonials to being forced into hard work or something of that sort. She should have known kids' minds better than that by then.