Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Can't help thinking of "Little Becket" :)

Today is one of my 'pining' times, since I wish that I were in Canterbury (as I often have been on the 29th of December.) Don't mind me - I'm going to have to include the canticle which mentions "cold and chill, bless the Lord" in my Offices at least till April, since winter is a time when I would be very much inclined to hibernate.

With its being Thomas Becket's feast day, I cannot help but remember a Franciscan friar who was a friend of mine (he died in 1993). He alternated between being exceedingly shy (he once admitted to me that, were there reincarnation, he'd return as a hedge-hog, so he could crawl into a hole and hide) and inclined to the flamboyant. (Indeed, sometimes the two were an amusing combination. I well remember one parish social where Tom was too shy to raise his eyes, but, head bowed, grasped a microphone and sang all 168 verses of "Come back to Erin, Mavaurneen.") He was the size of a jockey, and the only priest I've known who stood on a stool in the pulpit so his head could be visible. Somehow, he reminded me of James Cagney - only shorter, less graceful, and, of course, with a charming brogue rather than the rough tones of New York.

Tom was a choleric man, dramatic in speech and gesture, and inclined to think of himself as Thomas Becket (surprising, I suppose, since those from Kerry generally are not inclined to things English in any sense... I imagine that pre-Reformation images are acceptable to some extent.) When he believed (accurately or not) that those in his congregation were against him, it was inevitable that his next sermon, whatever the gospel text for the day, would include shades of Unam Sanctam and 'lay control,' of how Thomas Becket was executed for not permitting lay control even from a monarch (yes, that's a stretch, but Tom's images tended to the pot-pourri), and a stern repetition of the ominous words, "Will...no one... rid me... of this meddling priest."

Brilliant though he was, Tom could have a thought which made little sense except in his own mind, and suddenly address this as if the hearer knew exactly what he meant. He was avidly Roman Catholic (in the militant version developed to perfection in southern Ireland), and not terribly tolerant of my enjoyment of Anglican scholarship, much less my conviction that it would be a miracle indeed were the ICEL to ever match Cranmer's prose. Tom would use various and vivid metaphors, derived from everything from scripture to history to US baseball.

It was a morning in the early 1990s, and Tom, with a wrath of all the gods, suddenly, without preamble, burst out with, "There are limits! I cannot believe what he has done!" I expressed a bit of puzzlement. Tom continued, "I know a pope can dispense himself from anything he likes, but there are limits!" (Dispense himself?... Well, let's not get diverted here...)

Searching my mind for whatever John Paul could have dispensed himself from which would be particularly abhorrent to a Kerryman, I asked, "Are you referring to the pope's meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury?"

Little Becket naturally bristled at his title's being usurped, and stormed, "There is no Archbishop of Canterbury! There is only a Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster! That character in Canterbury is not a bishop! He is not a priest! (Crescendo) I suppose you think that Anthony Quinn was the pope!"

Becket suddenly was replaced by Pius V, and, in what I assume was a reference to Canterbury and the ordination of women (a very controversial topic at the time), Tom ominously declared: "There is but one holy, catholic, and apostolic church! And there are no Bo Peeps in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church!"

Pius then was superseded by, of all people, I assume Babe Ruth, as Tom began swinging a huge bat (fortunately imaginary). "In our Holy Mother Church, it's ONE strike, you're out! And it does not matter that you are a much better Christian, than I am! One strike, you're out! And you may not, under pain of mortal sin, answer me with saying you have never denied anything! " (I may be no authority on baseball, but know enough to be glad that I refrained from commenting that I intend to "walk," which shouldn't be difficult, considering I have more balls than many a bishop I could mention.)

I, of course, needed to summon every speck of my previous theatrical experience not to laugh aloud at this commentary, the more since it was delivered with such righteous thunder. However, I made a 'fatal error.' Tom, waiting for some humble response (though he should have known me better than to expect just that), finally said outright, "Well! Is it not true that there is ONE holy, catholic, and apostolic church?"

I answered, "Have I ever denied that?"

May Tom rest in peace and rise in glory... even if heaven is quite crowded with all of those Anglican saints. :)

Friday, 25 December 2009

Reflections from papas sublime to common

A blessed and happy Christmas (...that is, from now till Candlemas) to all of my readers (I'm assuming there are a few left.) :-) How very much I should like to be profound today! I attended a marvellous Eucharist today, and also viewed a few which were broadcast, and, as usual, just 'do this in remembrance of me' kept me in awe to think we've been doing just that (whatever messes we've got into otherwise) for two thousand years. My mind turned to deification, glory, even (being Franciscan, where the Incarnation is 'he became-a so small' and 'he became-a so dead') to the poverty of the humble little Saviour (yet another Mediterranean peasant who grew up to be anti-Establishment and controversial - see the loose associations that are in my mind today?)

Yes, loose associations are there, I'm afraid. I'm a romantic at heart, and, though I did receive a few nice presents this year (indeed, I just have emerged from a bath laced with salts and aromatherapy oils, followed by a self-massage, for which I used gift items), I still am vaguely disappointed that Father Christmas did not appear. Nor did my fantasy that a favourite friend (who is in perpetual motion - last I heard he was in Bavaria, but he might be on Mars next) would miraculously materialise on my doorstep so we could have a lengthy pub talk for Christmas as we did in times past.

So, in the ultimate loose association, I shall mention that I have two of my 'papas' on my mind at the moment - Papa Sam, of course, and Papa Benedict. I'll give the latter the respect he is due as patriarch of the West (not just of a dizzy family), and explain a thought I had which I'm sure was far from the essence of what this brilliant theologian had to say in his homily for Midnight Mass. Papa Benedict mentioned, in speaking of those who inwardly, instinctively long for the divine, but do not embrace awareness and response, that they are 'tone deaf.'

I found that to be excellent on two counts. As my regulars know, I consider the divine to be within our worship's grasp, but to be essentially unknowable - very beyond our limited grasp. (Don't be discouraged - it makes for a very interesting journey, where love burns white hot and has nowhere to go except becoming more intense - once we respond in love to one level of awareness, we recognise our inadequacy and burn for the second. Burning is on my mind today, not only because we celibates do tend to 'burn' a bit now and then, but because I feel, to borrow my dad's expression, that I 'have a book of matches in my stomach', since I ate too much yesterday and two other times within the past week.) Given the nature of the person, I often think of a similarity there is between music (indeed, all of the arts) and our limited way of expressing ideas and feelings about God. Except for the occasional musicologist who is a technician, and can write of augmented sixth chords for 100 pages without being able to enjoy the best of concerts, who could describe music? It must be experienced - and even then, and regardless of how many years we've devoted to its study or how great our passion, it is beyond description. I realise the analogy is faulty, of course, for it is mankind who composes and performs music! But let us just say that, though I can write endlessly about the spiritual life and theology (surprise!), and rarely 'feel' anything at prayer, I would no more think I could describe the divine than I would hazard to tell someone about Verdi or Beethoven if they'd never heard the works of either performed.

On a level more practical than sublime, though Papa Benedict is not a singer, he comes of the only nation of which I know where congregational singing during the liturgy is quite robust and outstanding (whether Lutheran or Catholic... and Catholic music which is well performed overall, not only in miracle spots such as Westminster Cathedral, is rarer than heroic sanctity.) The liturgical reforms at Maria Laach gave promise of a liturgical renaissance... a promise in which I firmly believed once upon a time, though I think the parousia is more likely to come in my lifetime than fulfilment of that hope. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that he looks pained during some of the choral parts of the papal Masses - yes, Catholic music overall is so dreadful that even the Sistine Choir is terrible, and doesn't seem to even have mastered the Missa de Angelis which I've been known to spoon feed to choirs in out of the way Franciscan churches. No wonder Papa Benedict would think of an analogy to being tone deaf... (Actually, in Italy, though congregational singing in the land of opera is just as awful as it is elsewhere, I'll grant that it's enthusiastic and good and loud. Painful, but passionate...)

Now, how on earth am I to move from brilliant and sophisticated Benedict to Papa Sam? Easy! With the Depression having further limited even my always limited resources (Franciscans are supposed to think that's kind of cool... but, unlike Francesco, I neither had a rich papa nor got into trouble related to excessive resources, so I'll admit it's not exactly a joy ride however much it makes one grateful for everything one has...oh, wait a minute... that's praise and thanksgiving... no, Elizabeth, no more Eucharistic rambling...), I haven't had a chance for even the occasional finger-full of brandy (I favour Grand Marnier, Drambuie and the like... as long as all one can hope to have on one's shelf is cheap Merlot, one may as well as pine for the best) recently. I also have not had too many plates of rich foods which I love. In the past week, I over-indulged (at least by my standards) on both on the two opportunities I had to do so. I therefore know what Sam meant when he'd say, vividly if not with sophistication, "I gotta football in my stomach..."

But the most vivid related memory is the unsympathetic line Sam uttered if one had any illness which was self-inflicted, such as a hangover, sunburn, or an upset stomach. Even if one was sick, shivering, and the like, he'd call out, "Die! Die! I don't feel sorry for you! You have to learn to respect (liquor, the sun, whatever.)"

So, how can I be profound today when I have not one but two papas making me think of two sensitive areas - being tone deaf and "die! I don't feel sorry for you"? I therefore will just close with a common Italian expression (literally true, especially at Christmas when we kiss everyone in sight, but also with a figurative charm), "ti abbraccio con tanto affetto." Yes, my friends, I embrace you with great affection. May this Christmas season mark a fresh coming of the Incarnate Saviour into our lives.

Gift greater than Himself God doth not know. Gift greater than His God no man can see.

NB - If anyone has missed my classic post, 'The great-a God, he became-a so small' , it's one of my funniest recollections - give it a look. :)

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Comfort ye, my people

Blessings to all of my readers for the season of Advent. (Anyone who thinks that most of December constitutes "Christmas" will receive forty years in Purgatory - and don't think I'm not connected. Granted - I send my Christmas cards and decorate in early December, but that is more to be reminded of the light of the world and the Incarnation.) It is such a glorious time - and probably one which fades in consciousness, because, even if Lent is grudgingly kept as a time of penance for Easter people (no, I haven't been sampling the wassail bowl yet - in my youth, we couldn't think of penance because we were an Easter people, and couldn't think too much of the resurrection because Jesus would have had to be dead first), Advent is a bit of an embarrassment.

Someone I know (a dedicated church-goer, I must add) was telling me that she knew the difference between Lent and Advent. Lent is when we give things up, Advent when we try to do something good. Get me another gin... (For the record, fasting is useless unless one also knows how to feast. But that's another topic for another post.)

Israel knew it from ancient times - the early church Fathers preached on the topic - but we've forgotten that our faith looks both backwards and forwards. (Anyone who sees the ultimate end as judgement and condemnation will receive 100 years in purgatory.) I have been privileged to study Old Testament theology in some depth, with insight from brilliant scholars, both Jewish and Christian, and there is a lesson we can learn from ancient Israel. We really have nothing we can offer except worship - and a vocation of being icons of the transcendent God. Yet those of us who are Christian need to take care, in reading the Old Testament, that we do not think only of the unique immanence in Jesus.

I could undoubtedly write a book on Isaiah, or at least quote a hundred far better minds than mine who already did so. What I record here is a mere sampling. I'm referring here specifically to "Deutero-Isaiah" - the 'third book,' comprising the 40th through 55th chapters. Israel had returned from the Babylonian exile, and was confronted with conflicting demands of Babylonian culture. Jerusalem had far less splendour than the great empires of the time! Perhaps this can remind of Yahweh's transcendence and utter mystery. He chose a nation, but without splendour such as that of empires - it is a call, for each of us, for the old notions to die. It is first in Deutero-Isaiah that one sees constant themes of redeeming love; suffering that is vicarious rather than punishing; and striking monotheism.

Christians can easily forget, since Judaism developed in wisdom enormously post-exile (long before Jesus and the apostles), that Yahweh's precedence over any other god was long established for Israel, but monotheism a much later development. Yahweh surely was proving to be a most puzzling God, and the people of Israel, surrounded by cosmological myths of Babylon (which perhaps spurred an interest in creation), were faced with paradox. Yahweh's transcendence and immanence are strong in Isaiah. Israel was to share in a glory they could only grasp from afar, yet were its icon to all nations. They are called as a nation - despite never having been more than a small nation state, and now are returning to a crushed Jerusalem.

Crushed by the Babylonian exile, and still under Persian dominion (though Cyrus was one to announce commissions from the gods of whomever he was addressing at the moment), it indeed must have appeared that the gods of Babylon or Persia 'had the edge' - and that Yahweh called his own to a sort of glory which has no element of earthly wealth and power. Isaiah, unlike some other prophets, is expressing no hope for a restored monarchy, other than that of God Himself. Israel's faith, as with that seen in much later Christian thought, is largely orthopraxy and hope - one is striving for a share in glory, but can barely grasp the concept, and it seems fulfilment is always in the future (and glimpses of it never understood at the time.)

Here is a God who is transcendent, yet suffers with his people. One wonders if, during the time in Babylon, Israelites had generally felt they could worship Yahweh on other gods' territory. Yahweh is lord of all nations and of history, working even through pagans such as Cyrus or Pharaoh. One could receive the impression, in creation myths of other cultures, whatever their relationship to Genesis in genre, that creation is an accident, and mankind here to be the servant of the gods - where, 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 strikingly in Isaiah, suffering is not a punishment for sin, and indeed may be vicarious. It occurs to me that the bond between Israel and Yahweh has an intimacy where (in the immanent) they seem nearly identical. Varies scholars differ on the identity of the Suffering Servant: a prophet, Israel, or God Himself - and the interpretation can vary from line to line!

Klaus Koch, in The Prophets focuses on the eschatological, with this occurring within history. Israel, in its history, is servant of God, "in the light of an ultimate, divine purpose - which has not attained its goal but gives promise of a future." Atonement means liberation from spheres of human misdeeds and consequent disaster - it is not appeasement (as was typical in tales of the old gods.) The attack on idols is a precedent. It is not only a concept of Yahweh as pure, transcendent spirit - God's spirit is manifested visibly in the world. What is rejected is a God at the disposal of humans - artefacts being dependent on their makers.

I'm on verge of writing that book I promised I wouldn't - so let me just leave you with a few points to ponder from George Angus Knight's Servant Theology. Knight terms the 'servant chapters' of Isaiah (40-55) as "the answer to the why for Jeremiah or Habakkuk." The chapters are a poem about God's relationship to his servant Israel, in whom he has determined to glorify himself. "(Isaiah's) great contribution to our biblical faith is insistence that the living Word of the living God began to be united with the very flesh of God's son Israel." Word and divine action are conjoined at every great moment in Israel's story - 'Comfort ye' interposes angelic beings between the word of God and the word of the prophet. Despite the tragedy of captivity, God's purpose for the universe is his word of comfort to his covenant people.

Knight's thought continues: Despite the tragedy of captivity, God's purpose for the universe is his word of comfort to his covenant people. Divine righteousness deals with sin and evil, saving us out of negation into God's joyous way of life. "Both Cyrus and Israel are used by God to establish his rule of saving love." God is actively creative, saving love - goodness is not static.

I promise to write a humorous entry very soon, but, as long as I've gone this far, I'll mention a few more of Knight's excellent thoughts:
  • "The glory of the Lord shall be revealed." Contrast to much of the past, when none could see God and live.
  • "So wholly other is Yahweh, so positive when (our) thoughts and life are merely negative, that, if man essays to conceive of God in any form at all, (there is eventual) blasphemy." The negative cannot conceive of the positive - one is left only with an idol of gold. (Elizabeth adds: the more one cherishes one's faith and worship, perhaps the more one fears or even feels that there is no God. Actually, as I was fortunate to be reminded today, it actually is that there are no gods! The 'gods' who need appeasement, placating, and the like are the old ones - who are highly powerful versions of ourselves at our worst.)
  • We cannot know God as he is in himself - but he allows us to behold his glory, however much it is beyond our understanding.
  • The Lord of Hosts reminds us that this is a sacramental universe - a unified cosmos (heaven and earth.) God's hosts can be angels and Israel
  • Pain Israel refused to bear (they had broken the covenant; refused to be the sacrificial beast in 43:24) was concomitant with being the Servant of God to the world. Therefore, God Himself ultimately is the Servant. (44:28 - Cyrus is an historical instrument of cosmic purpose, unaware.)

When I use such works for lectio, or even when I utter words of the liturgy (as I do many times - daily), I'm struck with awe, and concurrently with the idea that I don't understand it at all. Maybe I'm getting the idea...

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Jeremiah was a Bullfrog (revisited)

This is a slightly edited 're-run' - but I'm including this post because, coincidentally, during the past month I've heard from a few people I knew in youth. World War II and baby boom babies - this one's for you (us.) :)

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... (Believe it or not, when one has devoted decades to a Church-centred life, one could sing that lyric with particular gusto.)

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...)

Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end - we'd sing and dance forever and a day... Oh, my friends, we're older but no wiser, for in our hearts the dreams are still the same. Actually, I wish that were true universally - it still is for yours truly.

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.

How about "I don't care too much for money - money can't buy me love?" (Actually, when I was in my twenties that well might have been heard at a 'youth liturgy.' Little did I know the kids who were non-conformists to the most drastic degree had trust funds...)

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!

From Godspell, not the hymnal: Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways... See you later, I'm going to the front of the the-A-tre... Sigh! One old acquaintance reminded me of when I performed that, though I hadn't thought of it in years. :)

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

Friday, 30 October 2009

The Depression special

I mean Depression with a capital D, though I know 'recession' is the favoured term. When one is paying for tomatoes what could have bought a steak three years ago, there's something wrong somewhere. (I suddenly had a vivid memory of when my dad would bring home a bushel of 'beautiful peaches - just cut off them rotten spots...' - and we'd 'cut off them rotten spots' and have pits...)

One dear friend of mine holds a degree in economics - but later, and thankfully because it ended up meaning a much higher quality of life if a lower income, ended up a comedy writer. This is a day for loose associations (I'm trying to fight off hyperventilating because I just found out that, though the economists insist the cost of living has gone down, an unexpected, recurring, added expense means my net income will be lower in January than it is now... and I already am exceedingly occupied with various versions of cutting off 'them' rotten spots.) When it comes to 'economics,' one indeed must laugh - or one will cry constantly and ultimately be carted off to Bedlam's modern day equivalent.

I read today that the 'cost of living' has not increased this year, or that it was less (by something such as one tenth of a percentage.) I wonder where the economist who cooked up that gem buys his tomatoes... and I say that as one who had very little success trying to grow her own, where Sam could have raised a bumper crop on three feet square of concrete. Still, however one may manipulate statistics, does that mean things are better when prices (and this for simple items) are still through the roof? Yet those hoping for things to improve a bit won't be receiving any 'cost of living' increases... more expenses (whatever the economists want to say), no relief even on the tiny scale of having a tiny bit more in the envelope.

According to 'economics,' the 'economy is good' when just about everyone is broke. Banks are king - foreclosures don't matter in the sense of meaning people are in the street, because debts are wonderful since everyone has to borrow money. The 'economy is bad' when people are surviving. Personally, though no one will admit this (because, deep down, we all fear being indigent, and need to believe we are superior and it cannot happen to us), I think every one of us is afraid. Don't let the wealthy (or solidly middle class) fool you if you are lower class! Sometimes (such as today, when I was ashamed to pray because I know former rich kid Francis didn't mind sleeping in the street with lice using him as a lodging house), after I sing a few choruses of "Richard Cory" and bemoan how being working class meant that even a scholarship girl with degrees she could go through like a deck of cards was greeted with "You don't type?! What could you do - be a waitress?", I comfort myself with the knowledge that many of the upper class have a net worth lower than... well, Francesco's. Their lives are complicated. If they need a car or home, they 'cannot afford one' - because they have to have the home or car in keeping with their status. Many are in debt beyond what my income was, in total, in the course of my entire life. If they do need emergency money, they have to take out loans, at high interest, to borrow their own money, because everything is in retirement accounts (even if they are not yet 30.)

It's no use trying to discuss this - a sympathetic ear is unavailable, because most of us are broke, all of us are hurting, and God forbid anyone should admit this. Headlines can announce that some major, prestigious company let 40,000 people go this season, yet everyone not only is in shock to meet anyone who is unemployed but thinks (or pretends) that all sorts of jobs are available - and that one who is 'hard up' could make double what he makes elsewhere. Poorer relatives cannot expect help from the middle class ones (as they could in my parents' time), not only because the poor one cannot risk the gossip and scorn, but because those less impoverished cannot admit how tight things actually are for them... and they still have huge payments on that Mercedes Benz and the second mortgage to pay...

I wish I could pour out the fear - don't most of us? But I'd not only be whacked for not being rich (everyone who was never married is assumed to be wealthy, by the way), but beaten with that old rod of "why did you work at this or that, when you could have made such a fortune with (the company that sacked 40,000 people this year)?" (Worse - my family have long forgotten my diploma collection, and assume that I learnt to type, since I wasn't a waitress...)

It strikes me, at times, that one of the first questions I'll have for Jesus when I meet him is how a worldly wise, Galilean peasant could have made such an odd statement as that about the "lilies of the field." (Of course, some of you who are overly pedantic - even more so than I - might come out with "You aren't going to meet anyone in heaven..." With apologies to Fulton J. Sheen, my response will then be, "Then you ask Him!") Jesus, after all, was in an occupied territory. The gospels give even those unfamiliar with the period a flavour of exiled, despised lepers - widows' mites - the Son of Man with no place to rest his head. I'm torn in two directions, as are most hybrids (peasants with theology degrees.) My mother took problems of any kind to the Infant of Prague, Mary, or her paisan Gerardo. How I wish I had that kind of trust! Still, those of my generation were in two categories. The rich kids' parents (though in no danger of begging for a place on the housing list any time soon) had somewhat less than what their parents had. The children of the poor had parents who were all too conscious of how much more the kids had than they'd known (even if it was an indoor toilet and a tub), and never let us forget how 'spoilt' we were. Last but by no means least, the nuns from Cork 'laid guilt trips' on us working class kids about who was starving in China (partly because they thrived on guilt - also to fill the mission boxes), though, as I would learn in adulthood, many of them came from backgrounds that were far from poor.

People (whether extended families or friends) tended to be closer in my youth than they are now - more conscious of others - more considerate of others' needs - more likely to help in a crisis in any way they could (even though everyone was broke - though at least that could be admitted.) I know that, for example, my family has survived far worse than I've endured - but I can't help but remember that they had each other. I come from a family where (until recently, when some rudimentary version of the yuppie virus became epidemic) people generally were major "givers." They would have done anything for one another, and often 'did for others' in ways that I could not match. I'm sure I'm not the only one who is doubly afraid because she is far more alone than her parents, aunts, and uncles were. (The rare Italian family member who never marries not only isn't 'alone' in the way that I am, but indeed had siblings looking out for her.... better luck today trying the Infant of Prague...)

How can I beg Jesus to answer that 'lilies of the field' prayer, when I know that a huge percentage of the world's population are living in conditions similar to... well, I suppose peasant, first century Palestine? Yet I can mutter to Jesus, "You had that right" when, in the same gospel, He reminds us that anxiety achieves nothing, and that sufficient to the day is the trouble thereof.

Maybe a glass of that cheap wine will ease my stomach cramps a bit... and I, already expert at turning sueded rayon into something akin to silk, will find a nice disguise and fancy name to call the egg dish I make tonight... which I hope differs a bit from that of last night...

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Crossing the Tiber (or Thames) en masse?

I understand that one large bit of Vatican news at the moment is the establishment of 'personal ordinariates' for groups within the Anglican Communion who wish to become part of the Roman Catholic Church. The Apostolic Constitution on this subject remains under preparation, but here is an English edition of the Vatican's comments to date.

I know this is a cliché (and remember I know none of the people involved - I may know some 'super spike' Anglicans, but no one who is looking to break with the Church of England), but I certainly hope (and this based on experience with some RC 'traditionalists' as well) that those moving towards Rome are seeking to go towards what they value, not away from what they see as deficient.

I often wonder what dilemmas there were for John Henry Newman - evangelical turned very Catholic, defender of the Catholic elements of the C of E to an unprecedented degree - then going from being the most ardent defender of Anglican Catholicism to effectively denying that (for example) the Real Presence in the Eucharist and the priesthood were upon which he'd insisted were 'all off' concepts since Anglican sacraments are invalid! Newman would be a great RC theologian later, but, in his early RC years, his work was nothing to match the quality of when he was C of E - he was a pawn for Wiseman and Manning, and made drastic mistakes. Had Newman not struggled with genuine conviction, he may have ended up with total disillusionment - heaven knows he didn't find a laudable crew of saints in the RC hierarchy in many cases. I'm wondering if very Catholic Anglicans today genuinely believe that they've never attended a 'real' Eucharist - or that their priests are just laymen in fancy dress. As well, if groups have set themselves apart from their bishops, in order to ally with others and be in opposition to their sister church, I'm wondering if they are prepared to deal with the strict Roman Catholic ecclesiology. These are only questions - as I have said, I know many Anglo Catholics, and a number of former Anglicans who were received into the RC Church (and vice versa), but have no personal knowledge of any Anglican groups who are looking to move Rome-ward en masse.

I also see a danger, in any spiritual life, if we are too fixed on any particular issue (the more when it is not doctrine - I could well see departing from a Unitarian church if one sees the Trinity as an essential Christian belief, though I doubt one doing so would feel the need to bring the entire congregation along). If we see ourselves as superior because we agree or disagree with 'this or that,' and then are ready to walk out in outrage, this can be dangerous to our self knowledge, so critical in spirituality, but also lead to enormous disillusionment. The letter specifically mentions problems with teachings on sexual morality - not doctrine at all, nor sacramental theology, nor apostolic succession. I'm sure it varies enormously amongst those seeking to cross the Tiber (in the Rome-ward direction), but I sincerely hope that those wishing to do so are not just seeing themselves as fleeing Blue Meanies who believe in women's ordination, think a gay man can be a bishop (...they'll meet a few), or don't think the world will come to an end if there are gay unions.

Once they fly the Anglican coop, they cannot receive communion at a local Anglican Eucharist. If there is no 'hybrid' church of their own rite, they'll be considered to belong to (and obligated to attend) the local RC parish (this determined by post code - even if it is an intellectual and aesthetic wasteland.) They'll have to effectively deny the validity of their own ordination (if clergy), the sacraments of which they've partaken all of their lives... and yet affirm the utter authority of Rome and local bishops. I'm wondering how they will adjust to this, when they have not seemed to have a concept of ecclesiastical obedience to bishops in the recent past.

Things have changed a lot since Newman's day... then, Anglicans who went over to Rome were not considered positively by Anglo-Catholics, because it meant leaving the C of E in the hands of ultra-Protestants.

I believe Pope Benedict and the Archbishop of Canterbury to be among the greatest theologians alive. Benedict's sheer brilliance leaves me hang-jawed on many an occasion. Still, I wonder if someone with his sophistication (I remember him both as a 'dangerous German liberal' once upon a time, and as rising to the job when he was the current version of what used to be called Grand Inquisitor) would perhaps give certain groups credit for more intelligence than they have. Heaven knows the massive RC church (something like a sixth of the world's population) has enough disputes within Herself without inheriting others... Only time will tell if this is prophetic or yet another mess.

I'll undoubtedly comment on the Apostolic Constitution once it is published. I don't really know what a personal ordinariate is - but I'm sure I'll find out soon enough.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Stilton, blessings, teenagers, and Ezekiel... a mixed pottage...

Yes, I'm even more disassociated this week than usual. :) Weather beginning to turn cold is never my best time. My 'regulars' know my jokes (however true!) about goblins from the past, but, since I had some (very pleasant) visitors a week or so ago who happen to practise Faerie Wicca, I'm wondering what they brought in with them. (You undoubtedly are wondering why a Mediterranean is concerned about the wee folk... so am I, since I normally confine my superstitions to such things as the mal occhio . But the influences from Cork never die..) My front doorbell never did work, and the strictly 'no frills' doorbell in the rear normally makes only a 'ping.' Since the friends of the elves visited, the doorbell still 'pings' if anyone actually presses it, but at any time, without warning and when there is no human there, said doorbell is going off with a resounding chorus of the Westminster chimes. (These goblins undoubtedly are not only Irish but Catholic - giving off in disapproval of my kinship with Canterbury.)

As it happens, I (gladly) heard from two people whom I knew when I was a teenager during the past few weeks. This naturally stimulated my "no, those are not the best years of anyone's life... in fact, they are times when one tends to be close to certifiable..." memories. Ah, yes, those 'carefree' days! (Irony tag on - but subtract the generalisation and admit it's the truth.) The young are non conformists as far as parents' ways go, but loathe any deviation from the local trends - and you heard this from someone who came to maturity in a time when not wearing knee socks (which I thought then, and think now, are horrible - and would make the best of legs look bad) was sufficient reason for the raised eyebrows, giggling, 'advice' and criticism characteristic of the age. One's 'best friends' are laughing at one's jokes on Tuesday, indulging in the raised eyebrows fest with others on Thursday. We are angry with someone - usually out of the blue - for any reason or no reason (often because, for example, she's going out with the guy we hope will notice us... and who, being the 'boy one likes' becomes tagged with the 'boyfriend' label even if he's never asked one out, but who we think is 'ours' because we think of him 24/7 and talk about him about 33% of that time.) I mention this only because I've had decades to notice that some adults never grow out of this stage...

Of course, at that age I would never have admitted the lengths to which I would go to get slices of smoked salmon and Stilton, as I did on Sunday morning. I attended a church at which the liturgy is utterly superb, but, with its being a day to recruit pledges for the coming year, the guilt trip mode was highly irritating. I somehow remembered not only my own childhood but a delicious line from Maeve Binchy's "Echoes." Children in a village (who are lucky to have a decent change of clothing) are 'guilted' into donating Christmas toys for the poor, and one perceptive and happily tactless child says, "But we are the poor!" Still, since the fund raising campaign involved a 'coffee hour' with all sorts of cakes (which I don't eat), fresh fruit, first quality cheeses, and smoked salmon, I endured it all just so I could eat better than I have in months.

(Why didn't I title this entry "Blog of a Nobody Revisited"? I just felt I should list something having been 'away' for a month.)

I've been attending a series of presentations on Ezekiel - focussed mainly on a commentary which is so glum that it bores me. I have never studied that book in great depth (nor am I so inclined), but I think Ezekiel goes from sounding as if he were high on drugs to being an illustrator of the worst of human nature (and attributing traits mankind has at our worst to God.) I had a few thoughts at the presentations during these past few weeks - but, though obviously theological discussions are nothing new to me, I don't want to fall into the trap (which I can sense in a few who attend) of just loving the sound of my own voice. That's never my intention, but it's always a potential problem because, deep down, I'd rather be lecturing than observing.

In my own Old Testament studies (which did not include any focus on Ezekiel), I found it quite enriching to study the Jewish commentaries. I also was amazed at how much of Exodus (just as one example) is really about worship and covenant. Studying Genesis in depth was fascinating, the more because the Jewish scholars have no concept of 'the fall' such as developed in Christianity. It always is an effort, I believe, for a Christian to avoid the flavour of 2,000 years of Christian interpretation, which can slant views. Jews focus on God as transcendent - and, at least in some of the scholarship I've seen, see us (created in His image) as icons in a way - the way in which the transcendent God can be immanent.

The treatment a week earlier was dismal. It focused on God's commanding evil, such as sacrifice of the first-born, in order to instil horror at the actions later and lead Israelites to repentance. Much in Ezekiel, even if there is some excellent poetry, seems more about Zeus or Odin than Yahweh - the 'old gods' are projections of our own violence and jealousy, blown out of proportion into humans at their worst with boundless power. I couldn't help but wonder (and I've no idea if this is so) whether prophets of Ezekiel's time were writing more of mankind (the more considering that, if we make God immanent, at our worst that's a gloomy picture...) than of the nature of God, which is beyond our comprehension. Christianity is unique in that, even without consciously thinking of 'mankind is in God's image and therefore the icon,' we had the ultimate demonstration of this in Christ! There certainly is nothing of wickedness, vengeance, or violence in the message of Jesus of Nazareth. As well, in the New Testament, unlike many books of the Old, there is no indication that God is 'making Romans the conquerors,' where, earlier, there were many senses in which the Persians, Babylonians, or Egyptians were (however unknowingly) God's instruments.

I was wondering, again in relation to Ezekiel, if the talk of destruction (and mention of Babylon) had another meaning than was discussed in class. I know that, when paganism was the norm, many gods were territorial - those living around the Israelites would have had that viewpoint. If Babylon conquered, it indeed could seem that they had the more powerful gods. I think it is possible (though I do not know) that Ezekiel's speaking of destruction and Babylon can have another dimension - Yahweh isn't territorial, but is lord of creation - so, even if it seems a Babylonian god had the upper hand, Yahweh remains at work - somehow, He uses even the conquerors for His purposes.

But I'm not interested enough to go to the library's Jewish division and study this...

Last of all, I wanted to share a lovely blessing I heard yesterday:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

And the Blessing of God, the Eternal Majesty, the Incarnate Word, and the Abiding Spirit, be upon you and all you love and pray for, this day and for evermore.

And now to bed...

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

No, Jane - the baker didn't make God...

Considering this post has nothing to do with the Tudor era (and that I'm not enamoured of Mary nor without sympathy for Jane), it may seem odd that I open with a cheeky remark that the brilliant but imprudent Jane Grey made regarding Eucharistic exposition at Mary's court. One cannot fault Jane for learning nor for integrity, even if one is far from Protestant in theology. Yet, even allowing for the influences in her life and the history of the time, Jane's remark can call to mind a problem that endures throughout church history. Even when doctrine 'says otherwise,' extremes in popular practise can give messages which can repel even those (assuredly of a different mindset than Jane's!) who could find particular ways of worship and devotion highly enriching otherwise. Jumping about a bit in Tudor history, I believe that (even if Newman was a bit far fetched centuries later in giving quite so Catholic an interpretation as he did of the 39 Articles)those who strongly held to the Real Presence may have understood the Host's not being intended for processions - if only because, long before and even into the early years of my own lifetime, too often the Sacrament was worshipped from afar but rarely received.

I occasionally lurk on a theology forum in which I once participated, and noticed a reference to Father Richard McBrien's seeing Eucharistic adoration as a sign of a lack of catechesis and of faulty theology. I am no authority on his work, but suddenly remembered a reference in Thomas Day's Why Catholics Can't Sing which had sparked one of my less pleasant recollections of the 1970s (when I was a snobbish, insufferable know-it-all, a quite typical condition for those of us whose passion was liturgy and music. That does not mean I still do not weep over what most liturgy ended up becoming in practise. It seemed a time of great promise for recovering the richness of theological emphases in worship.) Day mentions a study from Notre Dame (with which Fr McBrien had a connection, if I recall correctly) which focussed on the congregation's "celebrating itself." Were this in a full context of the anamnesis in the Eucharist (a new word in all of our vocabularies then, but one too often ignored for 'relevance' or 'unity'), indeed we could have celebrated our creation, deification, praise and thanksgiving - remembering the totality of Christ's Incarnation. Sadly, where previously the Eucharist (not in text, for the most part, but in practise) had emphasised Jesus' Passion alone (and our sinfulness and need for forgiveness), to exclusion of the resurrection, ascension, glorification of humanity and the like, too many of us (admittedly, not including myself) so feared that admission of sinfulness at all, or even of that Jesus could not have been resurrected without being dead first, turned the celebration into nothing beyond a fellowship meal.

With my own charism being that of teaching (adults only, please... otherwise neither student nor teacher will ever recover...), I indeed think that many misunderstandings could be eliminated, false impressions of Christian teachings avoided, and (especially for those of us who are intellectual by nature) prayer life greatly enriched by knowledge. Still, in the 1970s in particular (though this trend, in some form, is present throughout church history, and undoubtedly shall be until the parousia), whether those of us who loved the liturgy were seeking to recapture a sense of glory (I can't think of another way to express this, though it's an inadequate description), or to turn it into a combination of pub lunch and self esteem seminar (see - I'm still a cheeky little bitch under it all...), there was one major supposition that often blinded us to the larger scope. We tended to assume that anyone who disagreed with us just didn't have our knowledge.

Though I'm reflecting on overall considerations, not specifically on Father McBrien's statements, he certainly has a point in that Eucharistic adoration should not be separated from the Eucharist. (Slipping once more into cheeky mode - from where did the consecrated Host come in the first place? With trading stamps?) His reference to the 12th century strikes me in two ways. Though I'll save reflections on the writings of (for example) Bernard of Clairvaux for another day, there were various, magnificent treatments of Christian mysticism in that century which continue to be worth a look. Nonetheless, I must concede (even if I wish we ever could match the quality of some medieval religious music... blushing as I say that, because it too often was sung to pray for the priest as he offered Mass rather than based on liturgical texts per se) that, for all that the church was enriched by the Gregorian reforms, overall the Middle Ages were a time of superb devotion but deficiencies in liturgical practise that would make the post-Mediator Dei - cum-Gregory Dix crowd cringe.

For centuries afterwards, and all the more during and after the Counter-Reformation, Eucharistic adoration (which I heartily endorse, I must add) led to the tabernacle's becoming a reliquary. I love to pray in the presence of the Sacrament, and value Benediction, Corpus Christi processions, and the like. Yet devotion to the Sacrament (all the more when it was intensified as a slap in the face to the Reformers who either denied the Real Presence, defined it differently than did Rome, or disagreed with its being used for devotion outside of the Communion service) often led to partaking of Communion as practically seen as a bit greedy.

Certainly, the manner in which one will find one's prayer (and common worship) enriched varies greatly. Dropping my own 1970s "I don't mean those who aren't churchgoers are not possibly holier than I!" mode, from the earliest days Christians needed the breaking of bread and prayers mentioned in Acts - indeed, our recognition of the Trinity (as one example) and Christ's divine nature was expressed in common worship before it was formally defined - and I believe that common worship is essential in Christian life, and that Eucharistic adoration is not such a necessity. Yet I see where, for many of us (and perhaps far more who are not yet familiar with the practise), some form of Eucharistic adoration not only can be a wonderful practise but indicates more 'education' than lack of same.

In the spiritual life, let us admit that there 'is education and education.' (Thomas Aquinas is not considered any mental midget, yet his writings for Corpus Christi are magnificent.) Unusual though this is, it is possible for someone to have vast knowledge of theological writings and history without even being a believer! The great theologians were people of prayer - and, for all of their knowledge, and however such learning may have enriched their prayer and sanctity, the more they learnt, the more they realised that the divine is so far beyond our comprehension that the glimpse one catches makes one yearn all the more for the greater Love. Many great mystics (and lots of people in the pew, in any era, who may never have read a sentence of a theological work) have astonishing insight, and can express theological concepts with piercing strength, because the action of prayer has opened them to grace - they know their Beloved even if they have no extensive knowledge of doctrinal expositions. There are those who are illiterate, yet dedicated to prayer, who live the Sermon on the Mount with greater fervour than those of us who can turn out fine exegesis.

Education in the doctrine of the Eucharist, and how adoration is inseparable from the Mass, indeed is a project worth undertaking. :) If adoration becomes magical, or is undertaken with a gloomy sense of making reparation for sin (...usually the sins one never committed oneself...), or to appease the wrath of a God who needs no placating, indeed it can become distorted. That does not mean that, even if one is not consciously thinking of, let us say, anamnesis or the Incarnation, the mere fact of resting in the presence of God (...no, there isn't anyone of whom I've known who thinks that Christ's presence in the Eucharist means he is absent otherwise...), of offering the prayer with a consciousness of His physical presence, of effectively admitting to mystery and the divine immanence and transcendence implicitly, gives us the important sense of how little we can know but how much we can live in our love for Christ and His Church (by which I mean the lot of us, not hierarchy - though even they can be lovable now and then.)

I hesitate to write this only because those merely skimming through (a temptation when one rambles, as I do) can misinterpret my meaning, but I intend it with the deepest reverence. (For the record, the pyx or ciborium are fine with me... but the monstrance is the best example.) It is a magnificent paradox that the monstrance reminds us of the glory (beyond anything we can imagine) of the King of Kings (and divine transcendence), physical presence (a good reminder of the Incarnation, indeed), and the remarkable simplicity in that one is kneeling, bowing, genuflecting, or prostrate before... a piece of bread. I do not intend any slur here! The magnificence of the divine we can adore whilst realising, ever more, that the reality cannot be grasped totally - that (...old prayers about Jesus' being lonely in the tabernacle notwithstanding...) God does not need anything from us, and that the Eucharistic offering of oneself (praise and thanksgiving) is what we are honoured to have in our lives - and that divinity expresses itself in such simplicity! Two thousand years of Christianity ('do this in remembrance of me' gives me chills every time I hear the words), despite all of our disputes and doubts, were built on bread, water, and wine (and, of course, remembrance.)

I daresay that one may 'learn' more in a quiet hour before the Sacrament than in a theological library... even if I spend far more hours in the latter.

May the heart of Jesus, in the Most Blessed Sacrament, be praised, adored, and loved with grateful affection, at every moment, in all the tabernacles of the world, even unto the end of time. And may we never cease to "feed on Him in our hearts with praise and thanksgiving."

And, believe it or not, just this once - if this post makes me seem that I lack education, intelligence, or catechesis, I really don't care a fig. ;)

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Literary types - and strange bedfellows

Two favourites of mine are remembered on liturgical calendars tomorrow. On the Franciscan schedule, one would find the feast of the Stigmata of Saint Francis - where the Church of England commemorates Hildegard of Bingen. I often consider adding essays to my Internet site (which deals with mediaeval topics, mostly religious, some literary), and I've thought about writing of Hildegard (and many others.) Yet it strikes me that there may be several reasons why I have added so few. First, I have no notion of whether anyone is finding my essays useful in the first place. As well, since my essays are not, per se>, scholarly treatments, but are more introductions to overall approaches to spirituality, the 'preparation' was beyond what one might think. I certainly am not a stranger to Hildegard's life and work, for example, but Julian, Francis, et al, I studied in great depth over many years. I came, in time, to feel I 'knew' them in a way that one cannot achieve from study alone.

Of course, much defies description. I am exceedingly wary of unusual phenomena such as stigmata. Yet it is beyond me to provide a logical explanation for why, having studied Francis' writings and those of his contemporaries for over thirty years, somehow it doesn't even seem strange to me that Francis bore the wounds of Christ.

I may get to Hildegard one of these days - she's a fascinating lady. Yet I'm smiling because, different though the two characters are who share the same feast day, they do have some common ground (and this even apart from being 'characters' in every sense.) They were poles apart in their approaches (beyond, of course, being inflamed with passion and love), but both were poets and musicians. I therefore will be excused for loose associations in my light-hearted musing on those of us who are literary and arty types, saintly or not.

Not everyone educated in the arts and humanities qualifies as 'literary' or 'arty' by my definition. I've known people who have extensive knowledge of those fields in a purely technical manner - musicologists who could expound on Beethoven's use of the augmented sixth chord but never enjoy a concert, or those who could analyse every couplet in Chaucer but not understand a one of the pilgrims to Canterbury. I'm referring to those of us who are romantic (even if we'd hate to admit this), creative, and have more vision than we know how to handle.

I have no gift for writing fiction or poetry, but I have a passion for literature, theatre, and the like that has always been a part of my life. My own talent and background was for music, but I am not lacking in my love for the other arts and do have some knowledge of these. Francis, for example, may have had no formal training (and I have to admit that Hildegard was the better poet), but his expansive, extreme, passionate modes of expression were so a part of him that they infiltrated all of his writings and recorded speech. Images of chivalry, knights and ladies, and the like were nothing unusual in his day, but he was using them, as naturally as breathing, to seek to set forth the inexpressible when he spoke of the divine or of virtue.

Of course, the very literary have to beware of a dark side. Those who can envision angelic choirs also will see the dragons. :) I've known people who love detective stories (not a genre I personally favour) who either see everything as an investigation or fear that someone walking for the bus is a stalker. A few women I've known who were mad about romance novels not only never broke free of the idea that, whenever they entered a room, someone was saying "who is that striking woman...?", but thought every man they met was ready to force himself on them. (Please note - if you are new to my blog and unfamiliar with my style, my 'wryness tag' is on throughout.)

I think all of us who've always loved books and art fall into envisioning everything (down to a casual conversation we had this morning) as if it were a passage from a book. We recall everything with descriptions, 'novel-like' dialogue, deep meanings that may not exist. Of course, since this is so a part of our nature that we aren't aware of it in the first place, we are equally blind to that, where novelists (who express great truth but created their characters...) know each character's motivation, circumstances, inward thoughts, and so forth, we rarely if ever know any of these things. Our embellishments can confuse us.

Certainly, Francis' romance with Lady Poverty (which actually is a very moving writing) can make one forget that he was desperately ill, blind, covered with lice, troubled with insomnia and fear, and ultimately, towards the end of his brief life, finally able to admit that the extreme physical austerity he imposed on himself contributed to his illness and death. Few of us will have Francis' intensity - but equally few of us will find it helpful to adopt his 'heroism.' (Francis really did think he could convert the sultan with 'the fragrant words of My Lord'... kids, don't try this at home...) If we're washing off the homeless and hope we are showing them the love of Christ (we can't know if we are or not - it may not even be in their minds), we mustn't then think ourselves failures when we admit we are worn to a frazzle - or are just as gullible as Francis (who passed out priceless silks to beggars) and are the last ones who can help the element who are 'con men' - whatever.

Being 'a worm' worked for Francis - I doubt it is to be generally recommended, because, for many of us, this romantic notion leads not to holiness but to discouragement. His version of humility didn't overlook that humility is truth - but was flavoured by a highly extreme image of his own weakness and sinfulness. Nor does heroism suit most of us. (In my era, we took a highly important part of Christian commitment - wanting social justice, for example - but distorted it by thinking we not only could produce a 'heaven on earth' but that we needed to do whatever the current version of 'taking the discipline' is because we were responsible for the world and couldn't admit to our limitations.) Admitting one's limitations is not 'giving up' - it's probably the first taste one has of healthy, genuine humility.

Of course, what 'novels' one spins in one's head will greatly differ according to one's goals, temperament, and so forth. Beware if one has high ideals - and I, the cynic (burnt idealist), know this all too well. Perhaps I developed such an affection for literature of the Middle Ages later because, for all that it can have huge elements of romance, it equally shows a great deal of the genuine human condition. That cannot be said for some later literature, especially that aimed at the young and at women later. Victorian romance is far more dangerous than the earthy (and Catholic - therefore not glorifying our natures or family 'values' unduly) versions from the mediaeval period. Self-sacrifice as being angelic - tuberculosis patients being fascinating because the optimism characteristic of that horrid disease made them appealing waifs who never complained despite horrid suffering - children as the souls of innocence (well, I never believed that one - but lots of people still do) - poverty (especially that of the lady bountiful who deprives herself on principle) as a way to perfection - don't we all remember such images?

When I was a teenager, I recall a much older lady whom I knew, who lived in a romance novel. (Most of her memories were of having been such a raving beauty that she had only to walk down a street to have some famous man try to pick her up - though she did underline that she never went with any of them. Her timing was a bit off - I knew that, at the time of our story, some of these famous fellows would have been about 8 years old, though I had the good taste not to say so.) I'm rather reserved and very innocent, but I also have a Mediterranean comfortableness with the human condition, and, though I never was anything approaching immodest, I was quite pleased with my womanly figure, which I gather the other lady thought was odd, since I think I was supposed to be making every effort to hide having the shape God gave women. I well remember her saying, with an inflection and unearthly facial expression that was undoubtedly supposed to be wise and charming (though it was condescending and could have given the impression she'd been sniffing glue), "You're a ... bud. A new... beautiful little bud..." Now, I this 'bud' had no intention of sacrificing maiden flower (nor, I sigh to admit, was there anyone interested in relieving me of same... I'd have at least liked the romantic gesture of saying no), but, at that dramatic chestnut of hers, there was an incident unique in the annals of my life. For a brief moment, I wanted to bonk the entire neighbourhood!

As we spin the mental novels, we romantics (especially the religious ones) can envision that every authority figure who treats people like dirt has their best interests at heart - whether they are spurring us to virtue, achievement, or motivation. (The truth is that most of them are shits.) We can turn everything into a major epic, in which we 'star' - and become vulnerable or self absorbed in the process. I may not be able to define, let alone live, the essential self-forgetfulness to which I recently referred in my post regarding Simone Weil, but I can admit that it is not achieved by falling in love... and my entire spiritual life has been a love affair with God! (Yes, it worked for Teresa of Avila, but she was far more of a realist and of a highly flirtatious nature.) I mean nothing prurient by that statement! I'm speaking of being caught up in romantic images, which may have its charm but ultimately is a problem because God is beyond us and casting him in the role of a beau limits our vision all the more.

I'm reading over this post, and it's so disassociated that it occurs to me that I dislike the content... but I'll publish it anyhow, just to keep fit...

Monday, 7 September 2009

Self forgetfulness?

I have only begun this post with a 'question' because, though I most certainly can recognise the self forgetfulness in the mystics of whom I often write, I would be hard put to genuinely define what this entails. I'm tempted to say that they reach a point of 'just do it!' - where there lives become a total Eucharist (praise and thanksgiving). I hesitate because our concepts today make classic concepts in the spiritual life easy to misunderstand.

Self forgetfulness does not at all mean self hatred (more about that in a moment), for all the excess certain saints, Francis in particular, devoted to atonement for sin. (The great ones know what is most important, but remain as fragile and confused as the rest of us - divinity is always beyond the human grasp. Francis' tendency to self hatred would never disappear, but a careful look at his life shows that the praise and joy were central.) Nor does it mean denial of one's unique identity - the mystics and other holy ones were about as real as it gets. Struggling for a way to capture the idea, I have a sense that, for those greatly focussed on the divine and union with God, have no considerations of 'achievement.'

Isn't that true of all genuine love? Certainly, one may have a human whom one loves and wish to please, delight, care for him or her - but love comes as naturally as breathing. With others whom we truly love, we would hardly be weighing what merits we could gain, or punishing ourselves for falling short, or comparing how we love one with another. We would not be artificial. Sacrifice (frugality to save for the benefit of one's children, caring for an ill spouse, and so forth) would be part of one's life, but not anything one sought to increase (for its own sake), or to use to impress another, or to be a bargaining process of 'buying love.' We see this every day, yet it is very difficult for us to imagine it in relation to God, probably because, where human intimacy (of any kind - not only romantic), flawed though it can be at times, involves communication, mutual affection and warmth, and so forth, God not only is remote and beyond us but becomes all the more the mystery for one who catches a glimpse of the glory - and realises how far beyond our grasp this is.

Some time ago, I mentioned how enlightening (and tragic) I had found Richard Burton's Holy Tears, Holy Blood, which explored dimensions of a 'culture of vicarious suffering' which was common in France in the century following the Revolution. Though Simone Weil certainly is a very tragic and extreme case, I think there is much to be said for a passage related to her which is contained in this work. It refers to Simone's anorexia and its connection with seeking self-perfection, but the overall concepts extend much further. (Emphases are in the original) :

"Anorexia is, crudely put, an assertion of identity and autonomy; self-deprivation becomes a deluded force of self-empowerment, though the quest for total control over body, self, and world is always, by definition, frustrated.

Of the women considered here, Simone Weil's anorexia most clearly falls into this pattern. By denying herself food (and sleep, warmth, and basic human comforts), she sought to impose mental and spiritual control over what, in due course, she came to define as the domain of weight (la pesanteur) - of the self, of society, of the world - which she opposed systematically to the domain of grace. She rationalised this abortive quest for total self-control - abortive, because the more she sought to dominate herself, the less, in reality, was she 'in control' of herself - through a series of political, social, and spiritual identifications...

The paradox of her situation, as her philosophical mentor, Gustave Thibon, pointed out, was that she was never 'detached from her detachment.' She wanted to control her self-abandonment to God, to create her own self-decreation, to will the relinquishment of her will and her self. Grace, said Georges Bernanos's curé de campagne, consists not in hating oneself, but in forgetting oneself, (which Simone could never achieve) because of the intensity of her own rejection of self; her self-willed effort to transcend the domain of weight had the perverse effect of imprisoning her within (its scope.)"

Certainly, most of us are not going to be imprisoned in tragic, highly extreme circumstances such as those of Simone - but intense examples, no differently than those harmless and trivial as I sometimes use, can place matters into focus. I doubt that any of us, devout or not, have not seen those who are at their wit's end to be impressive. Others never grow beyond wishing to please - authority figures of any kind (and, if one is devout, which one greater than God?!) are to be feared, placated, and tempted for favour.

Self-hatred accomplishes nothing. Yet I have noticed, in forums where there is a religious flavour, that there is a 'cult of self hatred,' mainly based on achieving wealth or 'control' over weight or health (think of it - lots of people are making a fortune controlling customers with fear of failure, humiliation, competition), where self hatred is glorified because supposedly we'll be 'motivated' either by guilt or some bizarre idea (I've heard this more than once!) that self hatred is positive - some subconscious sense that one is harming one's 'health.'

I was in capital purchasing for long enough to know advertising tricks when I see them! Manipulation of that sort inflames me. Yet I mention this (not only because churches often fill collection plates with 'guilt) because the mystics were beyond 'weighing' their value. They could not have had their genuinely detached love had they not already realised the dignity of their own being, bestowed by the Creator, assumed by the Logos. They were not weighing 'merits' or fearing judgement. Their ascetic practises were ways to remove distractions, not to punish themselves.

It is a very imperfect analogy, but those who feel truly loved by another delight in one they do for the beloved. Obviously, there is nothing the omnipotent God 'needs' from us, yet I think that it is only when we feel that we are unlovable that we're trying to win the favour of God (whether we see him as parent, judge, teacher - whatever). The mystics had reached a point where the love of God (and for neighbour) was so integral to their very being that they stopped weighing merits and demerits.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

How I do hate contests!

There must be interesting, enjoyable people left in this world - no self absorption, health obsessions and the like - the sort of whom I knew a few in my younger days, and still keep hoping to meet now. Yet, the more I observe, the more I realise that my relative solitude probably has more advantages than enhancing my prayer life. I walk anywhere that I can, but otherwise use public transit, and one overhears much (however unintentionally) on buses and trains, or on platforms. This, coupled with my extensive experience with volunteering, churches, and the like, leads me to believe that I'm actually not missing much - except aggravation. (Yes, the wryness tag is on in this post - but I doubt I'm far from the truth.)

Many women seem to never have evolved past, I assume, the days of Neanderthal man, when survival must have depended on being the one to attract the male and being dragged off by the hair. (Please note that I said 'many,' by no means 'all.' As well, though most of my truly close friends throughout my life have been men, I am not suggesting men are incapable of indulging in unhealthy, artificial competitions. I cannot comment on those because I cannot know what men discuss when only other men are present.) The competition extends to all areas. Any good word heard about another requires a 'put down' of some sort.

This past week, I was in the 'couldn't help but overhear' position, and heard the chattering of three teen-aged girls. (I'm sorry to say they weren't giggling, sharing pleasant anecdotes, or talking about boys.) Apparently they were discussing results of some sort of standardised test. One of the girls, who seemed quieter than the others, mentioned that she'd feared the outcome, but ended up getting a 97 percentile. Immediately, a second, who had a somewhat haughty tone, replied, "That's very nice... I was a 99." The third (who surely deserves applause for accomplishing what is impossible - there is no such thing as a '100 percentile' on such tests) had to throw in, "In my case, they had to give me a hundred because it was the first time ever that anyone had a completely perfect score." How charming. Perhaps she can spend the next week creating another cosmos, since this one is surely defective...

I assuredly am not disapproving of tests, exams, awards and the like - unless, of course, they are in the hands of teachers such as a few I had, who love to tear down the best students by giving them poor grades because the students who accomplished less 'must have worked harder.' (Talent, intelligence, and so forth indeed may be things to which one is naturally inclined, but since when is knowledge infused? Yet I myself have memories of poor grades, not because of lack of ability or effort, but because, for example, rehearsing an oral presentation until one knows it backwards and forwards will make some teachers assume that speaking without note cards means one made up the talk on the spot...) The contest I loathe is that, once one student mentioned a score, the others had to top her.

Such approaches have endless variations. I knew a (very) few wealthy people in my day - if Anne's house is more beautiful than Jane's, Jane has to apply for an award for being more frugal. If an artist has a painting chosen for the national gallery, those hearing of this will comment disparagingly about how 'it must be nice to have time to paint.' I'm sure you all get the picture. Lest anyone think me sexist, Cain and Abel did a good job of illustrating the point in Genesis.

For those with the traits I have described, any good in others has to be dismissed in a disparaging fashion - as if it were an insult to one's self.

I think I know what I'll do for lectio divina this weekend. I can re-read James Alison's brilliant treatment of original sin - as envy and scapegoating - and how envy is a form of idolatry.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The seven deadly virtues - and pitfalls of the vernacular

My readers must be cautioned that I am rather irritable lately. In another of my characteristic, loose associations, I am recalling how my father, Sam (who died in 1997 - his statistics would undoubtedly be worse yet now), said for years that "seven out of ten people walking around are nuts." In the later years of his life, he modified this statement to "twelve out of ten are nuts - it went up." If I may be forgiven by those more adept at mathematics, I have found that Sam was quite correct - both times.

I once had a reader of the blog comment that my posts are not 'personal' enough. As I stated in my last post, I am one much to enjoy the things of the world, and highly sensual in my way, so I may not meet any common definition of 'ascetic.' Yet I indeed embraced ascetic theology - which is based on keeping things in perspective and avoiding distractions to prayer or love of God and neighbour, not on hair shirts or the cilice immortalised in Dan Brown's novels. Since true asceticism has an element of self forgetfulness - which I am far from attaining, but admire from afar nonetheless - the topic of my blog is not the very ordinary 'me.' I use anecdotes from my own experience to illustrate points, but hardly think anyone wants to know every last detail of my days.

However, if some of you 'want personal,' I'll share a series of irritating coincidences from the past few weeks. They underline traits I've seen bud, then flower, then smell like a florist shop full of dead roses, within the past thirty years or so - and they got worse the more the Internet 'self help groups' and traffic on 'self help aisles' increased. Self absorption - and that to an extent which seems to underline a total lack of the transcendental or the awareness that others are on the planet - is rampant. For reasons I've never discovered, even if I observe the manifestations regularly, many people have become both nagging busybodies and totally defensive.

I'll not go into details about the few people I met by chance in recent weeks - but it makes me wonder if being a virtual solitary might not be a blessing in more ways than those I already recognised. To give only one example, when one lady asked me about a local restaurant, and I replied that I'd never been there (meaning I therefore had no idea of their quality and the like), she lapsed into a defence as if I'd condemned dining out, and assured me that she never eats out and always brought a packed lunch all the years she was employed. I've studied logic in many varieties, but still am trying to grasp why my never having been to a particular eating spot is a general condemnation of dining out (which I love, by the way.) With my having, as Sam would say, 'book learning but not the ways of the world,' I honestly but idiotically said that I dine out rarely only because I am of limited income. Wrong move! The next question was "then what did you pay for that perm?" (Huh?... Oh, yes. I keep forgetting, having had it from birth, that no one has naturally curly hair...)

That's only one of numerous examples - and I chose it because, being silly, it is harmless. But those with whom I had this pattern of defensive talk were getting me wound into a knot! I was not criticising them or anyone, but it seemed every word I said led to a defence.

Of course, much as I pine for a pulpit or lectern from which to lecture, this jarred memories of how the 'defence mode,' often one with elements of rage that puzzle me, can thwart the best efforts to speak of ascetic theology, church history, even liturgy. That's a huge area to treat, so I'll just use the virtues as an example today. (...groaning at how moral and ascetic theology offend some on principle, because it proves elitism in assuming that mankind is somehow superior to non-human animals... )

There's nothing new, of course, in that theological terms can be confusing for two major reasons. First, as is true in many fields, frequently a term which has a specific meaning in theological or philosophical use can have a drastically different sense in vernacular usage. Second, even those who should have known what the term really meant twisted the meaning! I well remember when a prominent (and verbose) parishioner complained when a brilliant preacher whom I know mentioned Jesus' humility. I would not have expected a protest - I had expected that Jesus might be assumed to be perfect in all virtues... But the outraged loud-mouth seemed to be confusing the true meaning of humility (truth... and, I must add, seeing ourselves as we are in the sight of God - which, considering the deification we have through Jesus' Incarnation, is rather glorified indeed) with self abasement or being worthy of horrid humiliation (...He indeed did have that in the crucifixion, but I'll save that for another time. It isn't the meaning of humility.)

I was telling a friend recently (in a conversation that had a larger context - it is not that I use social occasions to preach!) that I myself have always struggled with envy. (My 'regulars' will know how brilliant I thought James Alison's treatment of that topic to be.) I meant it in a different sense than my friend saw - she was in a professional group where women are encouraged to 'envy' of another sort, because wanting to achieve what others have can motivate them to accomplishment.

It seems to me that any virtue one mentions today could lead to someone's being enraged. I sadly remember the 'workshops,' articles, rallies, whatever, that spurred women to consider rage to be a virtue back in the 1970s - when belligerent 'assertiveness training' meant biting off someone's head to prove one could not be belittled. One who had dedicated her life to loving service was suddenly informed she had been an indentured servant. Missionaries in what now would be called the third world were horrid sorts who imposed an alien culture by bringing the message of Christ.

I know the meaning of anger, believe me! And I've bit my lip at sexism on many occasions (not because I fear talking, which I'm sure is obvious, but because I don't want to say things I'll later regret.) Yet injustice can poison us - as can hearing something which has an element of truth, perhaps, but is highly exaggerated. We can start to believe it is true if the presenter is persuasive enough.

Think of all of the names of the virtues... and I'll not even need to explain why these glorious gifts all would be considered offensive by someone or other today.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Silly blog entry - referencing a silly film

The link in the title of this post is to a previous blog entry about the film Doubt, in case anyone else here is a fan of Meryl Streep's. My comments on "Julie and Julia," where Meryl's portrayal of Julia Child is hilarious, are from a viewpoint that this is her true 'camp role.' Unlike some others, I saw "Doubt" as being very far from camp.

Be forewarned, my friends, that I have a genetic pre-disposition to odd reactions to the arts at times. I well remember when my nephew, Christopher, was a child, and had quite an extensive video library, parts of which he brought when visiting my mother (Chip.) Chip is surely the only person in history to see "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" as tragedy to make one shudder. She told me for months afterwards that the image of the little boy (the size of, perhaps, a pencil point) in cereal, calling out, "Dad! Don't eat me!" upset her terribly. (Christopher must have inherited a bit of that. As an infant, he burst into tears at the ridiculous parody, "On Top of Spaghetti, all covered with cheese, I lost my poor meatball, when somebody sneezed...," picturing that the little boy had nothing to eat.)

You therefore will understand that I am the only creature on the planet who cried a bit during "Julie and Julia," as I shall explain in a moment. Normally, loving cinema as I do, my preference is for high quality dramas - and J & J is very far from that category. Now and then, I do enjoy seeing exceptional dramatic actors in the uncharacteristic, silly comedy role. Meryl Streep must be one of the greatest film actresses alive, and I had the impression she was having the time of her life with her over the top, bumbling, dotty depiction of Julia Child. Julie (the Amy Adams character - portrayed in the film in a more appealing manner than one would expect from what I read of the 'real blog') is someone I felt I'd like to shake by the shoulders (the ultimate whinge bag - self centred as many people, excepting myself and Fr Gregory of course, who compose blogs tend to be). It actually is a very funny film - light fare, for pure entertainment - nice for unwinding.

I actually know next to nothing of Julia Child, but, at least as she is portrayed here, I could identify with some of her traits even though our life circumstances are drastically different. Julia seemed one who totally enjoyed every pleasure which would come her way, relishing the wonderful food and wine, maintaining a wonderful flat with the delightful French décor which happens to be my favourite decorating scheme, and showing a refreshing joy (rarely shown on screen among those in middle age or beyond) in her late marriage - this couple obviously delight in each other's company, in the bed and anywhere else. I think it is a great blessing to enjoy whatever pleasures the earth has to offer, and I myself am utterly sensual. Modest though my own means are (and always were), I'm surrounded by music, incense and candles (no, not just those - I meant aromatherapy products), memorabilia from every era.

I love to cook, and French cuisine is a great favourite of mine. Whether this is the case I cannot be sure, but I've always wondered if part of the ingenuity that makes French cooking wonderful is that, since France was often racked by famine and war, they had a unique gift for maintaining quality, in whatever way possible, despite deprivation. Good French cooking may mean very little on the plate at times, but the seasoning and sauces cannot be topped. (Yes, I've spent my share of time in France, and am not suggesting this is always the case... I adore French cheeses, but know what can crawl out of some of them in more remote areas... ) I have many happy memories of my time in France.

My mother was a dreadful cook - she didn't know the meaning of 'seasoning,' preferred soggy pasta, and had the most unvarying of unvarying diets short of that of the Trappists. (She was tiny but had a huge appetite, and could finish an entire loaf of bread in a sitting, but had no flair for flavour. It's interesting that both my grandmothers, though they were illiterate, were inventive and very fine cooks.) When my parents were alive, it was no sense my preparing dishes for them - Chip just wanted her soggy pasta and bread, and Sam, probably used to everything being horribly bland, thought that adding anything to food, including herbs, was 'wasting.' Yet, as I demonstrated best when I cooked for the homeless (when what is on the table often depends on donations, and cannot be planned), but also work on daily in my own kitchen, things being scarce doesn't mean they cannot be delightful. I can turn anything on hand into a decent meal.

Now, you must wonder why I was crying during a humorous film with an engaging main character. It is because of the lack of the simple pleasures I love and long to share. It matters little that, when I am alone, I still can make a semi-gourmet meal from a minute steak and some tired looking fresh vegetables - and that I relish cheap wine and espresso. I want the other element - the fun, social aspect - the delectable, varied conversations - and that I do lack.

Some of the humour in "J & J" is built around references to butter. (I'd applaud anyone who, as Julia does here, could flip an omelette on national television, have it break apart, and be not at all flustered as she scoops the broken part from the stove top and tosses it back into the pan.) I have found that it is amazing how much a spoonful of butter can add to the flavour of any dish... but so much for that today. Even a spoonful in the entire recipe would mean that dinner guests, if one could find them, would not take a mouthful in their terror of cholesterol. It seems the only 'safe' things to offer people today is water and plain greens, with perhaps a forkful of pasta - and even that might lead to protests that the harvesting of the greens was unfair to migrant workers or something.

I wept because I take such joy in beauty - of every pleasure of sight, sound, taste and so forth - and savouring these things often (I'm not exaggerating) is an act of worship and gratitude for me. (That loud noise you just heard was the Calvinists leaving the room... I hope the Jansenists are following. And thrift is not a virtue - so there! I'm frugal because I must be. Rich kid Francesco found freedom in holy poverty, but still danced for joy.) I wish I could share such pleasures. My generation are so terrified of illness and death (even if they are in the best of health, and might live for another thirty years) that every sensual pleasure is gone. Not only because one fears becoming ill, but because one wants to avoid the comments of others around them!

Pass me the butter, the wine, and a nice piece of Brie, please... The best part of holy poverty is that, though one has little, one relishes everything one has.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Walking on the water

Bear with me, since I've been doing exegesis most of today, and am very tempted to share every element of this. Frankly, I refrain only because, 'tortoise' that I am, I have a thousand ideas and have yet to organise them. I was focussing today on the 6th chapter of the gospel of Mark. I heard a brilliant sermon on that passage yesterday (for example, though the Creator God and Trinity dominate my spirituality, it was the first time it occurred to me that the spirit of God across the waters in Genesis had its parallel in Jesus' walking on water.) Since I'm in one of my 'dull' spiritual periods, I thought I would latch on to providence and ponder the passage further.

Perhaps it is summer complaint of some sort, but I found myself slipping, as the old saying goes, from the sublime to the ridiculous. (That last word is inappropriate exaggeration, but I'll not strike the reference.) Occasionally, however well trained I was (so don't blame the Dominicans and Jesuits), I slip into the colourful, loose associations which are my Franciscan birthright. I'm going to ramble a bit about a totally homely idea that struck me.

In a trace of exegetical mode, I'll marvel that the apostles (whose 'hardness of heart' keeps them from the faith Jesus' seeks to inspire in them) saw all the wonders of chapter 6, then mistook the Master for a ghost. Aside from that I'm terrified of ghosts, I'll concede that I'd probably have gone into shock at seeing anyone walking on water, and, though we literary types are undoubtedly less durable than peasant working men, they wouldn't be inclined (as many of us are - momentarily, after which we usually realise it's a shadow or a tea sachet we didn't realise we dropped) to see ghosts, faeries, and so forth. I'm not at all surprised, let alone scandalised, at the apostles' bewilderment. (In fact, I'm afraid to open my eyes during the night sometimes, since a New Age upstairs neighbour told me, with fascination rather than terror, that she saw ghosts of those who once lived here. She can entertain whomever she wishes, but I hope none of them visit me.)

I know, of course, that the Christology which the passages set forth underlines "Who is Jesus?" Yet moving from seeing him as a great prophet and healer to witnessing nature miracles and the like must have been staggering for the apostles. "Just who are you?" must have been a perplexing question. I've noticed that, for many who are devout, moving from more familiar images to any deeper realisation can inspire fear as much as awe - I can only imagine if I began to catch on that a companion of mine had a divine nature. We cannot understand much of the divine in any case - but nothing would have prepared the apostles for the Incarnation (which certainly goes beyond images of the Messiah with which they might have had familiarity. Lord have mercy, as well all know, they had all the worse with which to deal shortly...)

Is it any surprise that, at all times of theophany, whether in the Old Testament, in the Annunciation, wherever, that a 'fear not' is standard? Fear and awe are a delicate balance. The sermon to which I referred yesterday included an exquisite reference to how the apostles "cannot tell nightmares from mystery."

The quickest glance at chapter 6 shows that the apostles had much of both awe and fear about them. They are commissioned to preach, heal, perform exorcisms - and indeed they do all of these things. (I'll preach any time - but not without preparation, and I dare say that fishermen and tax collectors, et al, might not have as much background, the more because the NIGTC was not published at the time. I think I'd pass out if I found that I'd laid hands on someone who recovered - and I wouldn't go within a light-year of anyone possessed by demons!) That in itself must have inspired both awe and fear. It hardly made their prospects better that John the Baptist was executed in the interim, or that their longed for rest period was interrupted by 5,000 men who needed to be fed (and were!)

I've seen many situations in my life when I truly believe divine providence was at work, but have never witnessed miracles. It must be utterly exhausting, and troubling because it is the unknown. I can't imagine how confused and overwhelmed one might be if the miracle happened at one's own hands. But 'nature miracles' such as the multiplication of bread and fish, or the walking on water, must have left the apostles puzzled and afraid. (I am inclined to think they actually had very strong faith, considering they accepted a commission of healing, preaching, and exorcism, successfully.)

It is an odd paradox. The divine always is mystery - and it frightens us (even as it inspires awe). Creation cannot be explained or understood. We always know how very little control we actually have of circumstances. Yet, whether in the first century or now, people will turn to the soothsayer, or medium, or (often charlatan) magicians, precisely out of fear. We long for some kind of power and control - and many do not fear approaching those in the occult arts for assistance, where we are frightened by awareness of the divine that is the source of our existence, Perfect Love, total Truth.

What is Love, Truth, Creation? What is 'hardness of heart', and how do we move beyond this? Can we even distinguish awe from fear, or what is unknown because it is beyond our understanding from an 'unknown' that inspires terror? Why did those who touch Jesus' hem receive healing, where we spend our lives in confusion wondering if the divine is indifferent? (Oh, yes... I know some of you care only that God's will be done... sorry, I failed that course.)