Saturday, 28 February 2009

If you are the Son of God...

The link in the title is to a previous post of mine entitled Peasant, Nuisance, Nobody - a description which, uncharacteristically, I borrowed from John Dominic Crossan, because he did have a point. That these terms apply equally well to me as to our Saviour is purely coincidental.

I'm afraid I am rather irritable at the moment (more so than as always), because I cannot shake a flu I've been fighting for the past few weeks. It was one of those strains which brought chills, shivers, aches, and then, just as that seemed to be improving, catarrh which is making me almost (though not quite) glad that I am not singing anywhere at the moment. One of the worst parts is stumbling weak and weary - I find that, halfway through anything, my head is bobbing. Fortunately, I did get to the Ash Wednesday liturgy, which was glorious. It's almost worth being a sinner to hear that Allegri Miserere. (I did laugh when someone who came in asked an usher where one goes 'just to get ashed,' and laughed the louder later when a friend more versed in slang told me that those who 'get ashed' usually do so at a pub.) I made the most of the day, happily stumbling on some very cheap, canned escargots which were quite delightful paired with garlic butter, mushrooms, and spinach. Still, I am rather sad because, if the weather tomorrow is anything to match the weatherman's predictions, I probably will not be able to chance going out to the Eucharist - I'm not about to have a relapse of any earlier stages of this flu.

Before I begin the next section, I shall mention, for the benefit of my more sensitive readers (some of whom are fine with saying "Blessed be Jesus Christ, True God and True Man" at Benediction, but who become uneasy when Jesus is mentioned as a man... and here I mean 'as fully human,' since I'm too damned tired to argue with those who dislike 'sexist language'), that there is not the least question in my mind that Jesus is divine, Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, the Lord of the Universe and the Redeemer of the world - and I'm not suggesting there was any time during his short earthly life that this was not true. (I also am too tired now to explain the difference between my saying 'timeless' where some of you may prefer 'everlasting' ... take your pick.) Yet I do believe that, in fully assuming humanity, Jesus accepted the same limitations as would be in your life or mine. I believe, with many orthodox scholars today, that Jesus of Nazareth indeed grew in knowledge of his own identity and his unique relationship to the Father - even if I like imagery of cherry trees bowing down at his command when he was still in the womb.

I believe that this Sunday's gospel deals with Jesus' temptations in the desert. All of us have heard that passage (and sermons on the topic) many times - and it can take a moment to step outside the bounds which familiarity can bring and see how Jesus was facing his full identity and mission at this point. As most of us constantly experience (though, sadly, we sin where He did not), he was tempted to idolatry, despair, a sense of futility, fear of his prophetic vocation, a wish for and display of power.

If I may be permitted to indulge my playful, literary side for a moment, I always do smile a bit at Jesus' having been shown the kingdoms of this world. Yes, I know my history, and am not suggesting that the Almighty accomplished this by reaching down and pushing a button (...hardly an option considering he created us with free will..), but it never ceases to amaze me that, within a very short time after the death and resurrection of this 'peasant, nuisance nobody,' vast, powerful kingdoms and empires would have an astonishing number of Christians. Greek Fathers would be applying philosophy to the great theology of Israel (which, of course, was never a major world power, let alone an empire.) Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, Gaul - incredible. I can very easily picture Satan taunting Jesus with, "You can't seriously expect that Egyptians will ever go for any of that business about your being equal to your Father? Who is going to ponder that Trinity business - the Greeks!? And wouldn't it be laughable to imagine that your message is ever going to have any effect in Rome?" Much as these nations would remain largely pagan for quite some time, they equally were Christian strongholds within a few centuries or less - a blink in the eye of history.

I've been blessed with a most insightful spiritual director, and am fairly confident that he would not mind my sharing a few ideas he has taught me (again, and again, and again... one of these days, I just might get it...) Jesus' own lifetime mission was to Israel, but his apostles would carry his message to those who often had worshipped the old gods. The evil one and the old gods have only the existence we create for them - they are born of the envy, frustration, fear and rage which we generate by our fascination with things others seem to have which we do not perceive ourselves as having. Idolatry is grandiose ingratitude - denial that we have enough, or that God loves us.

My director also introduced me to the brilliant works of James Alison, who reminds us that Jesus became the scapegoat to undo the power of scapegoating as the religious mechanism it was in the old religions - and to expose the power of powerlessness on the Cross.

I may get back to this once I stop needing to huddle under blankets as these shivers recur... but I'll leave you with a little thought. Jesus' temptations were to a form of idolatry. It's fortunate he left us with that sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving - because we all learn, every day, that those two elements are our only defence against creating 'old gods' of our own.

Monday, 9 February 2009

That Monkey's Paw keeps scratching me!

My readers must be forewarned that this post will be nothing approaching inspirational. I'm just laughing at myself a bit - perhaps to show solidarity with others who have similar conflicts (though they might be less prone to admit this.)

As my 'regulars' know, I have great admiration for those with trusting, childlike faith. I've often mentioned how my mother turned to the Infant of Prague (from whom she received the most amazing results), Saint Gerard (ditto), and Saint Anthony (despite that she scolded him regularly if he did not come through on time.) For Chip, the heavenly friends were a supportive extended family. Much as one would on earth, one would go to whomever was the best connected for needs in a particular area. (That the Infant of Prague was Jesus, therefore Logos, Second Person of the Trinity, and so forth wasn't always on her mind. For some reason, this aspect of Him was more accessible - perhaps because he was an adorable little child here, not a cheeky kid of twelve in the temple who let his parents worry, nor a radical preacher whose mother always had to fear his fate, nor a tortured Christus.)

I may as well admit this - intercessory prayer (or that of petition, since I'm so pedantic that I cannot refrain from noting the difference) rather frightens me. Part of it, of course, is the 'guilt trip' attitude that we leftover 1960s liberals cannot quite shake. (May I never 'shake' the ideals - but the 'here I am praying for this or that when someone is starving in Bangladesh' guilt, the more because I picture the radical Jesus smacking me, is one of which I'd gladly be rid.) The other part is that I am hopelessly superstitious, as I revealed a few years back in my post about the Evil Eye.

Considering how petitions are a constant part of the liturgy, and how many great saints devoted much time to intercessory prayer, I am at a loss to describe why asking for anything gives me the uneasy fear that I'm 'casting a spell' - and that it shall backfire. Though it has been years since I read this story, I remember enough of "The Monkey's Paw" to see that such dark thoughts as that tale expressed cloud my petitions. That story begins with a family in need asking for money - and getting it through their son's violent (accidental) death. It ends with their wishing on the magical paw that their son return to them... and his returning in quite a horrid condition, to say the least.

Some years ago, one of my cousins (whose name happens to be Theresa) sent me a novena to Saint Thérèse. It was of the 'say it for five hours on five days' variety - for those with darkness of thought such as mine (which oddly often is another side of those of us most prone to wit and laughter!), I suppose the 'five times five times five' seemed vaguely like a spell. (Why this never worried me when my mother said the novena to the Infant nine times, once each hour, remains unknown.) Well, there was a very important petition that I had at the time, and indeed I said that novena, just as it was published, and much as that goes against my usual grain. On the fifth day, I had something happen which was perhaps the most painful experience of my life up to that time. (I'm not alone - someone else I knew found that, on the fifth day, her child, for whom she had been praying, died. I don't mean the novena caused it, of course, but let's just say that I doubt either one of us would repeat the process.)

I'll admit that, just this morning, a dear friend of mine (easily the loveliest lady on earth) sent me a 'make a wish, say this prayer, then forward it to twelve others.' I'll equally admit, and this most painfully for someone who has studied so much logic, that I did so. But you can imagine my distress making that wish! Do I wish for some unexpected money, with cash so tight? (I remembered the monkey's paw and decided against that one... I have no family members left and no one's death will put money in my pocket, as in that gruesome story, but Lord only knows what horrors might arise...) I am utterly frustrated by the plateau in my weight loss, which is upsetting me to no end, but dare I wish for weight loss, when that could mean either a famine, greater poverty, or cancer? No, best not try that one. I finally wished to be free of a most distracting 'principal defect' of mine. I'm already fearful of what horrid thing might happen to make that come about... I hope I don't end up comatose or something...

I hope none of you are taking this too literally! But, for all that I remember a line from somewhere about how a Father doesn't give one a snake when one asks for a fish, how the goblins from childhood can haunt us! The email I received said to 'watch what happens on the fourth day' - oh, heavens, it is Friday... the 13th...

The oddest part is that the prayer I was sent is perfectly charming - so much so that I'll share it here.

May today bring you peace within. May you trust that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith in yourself and others. May you use the gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content with yourself just the way you are. Let this knowledge settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.

I'm not about to speculate about knowledge settling into my bones... the more because I'm not only superstitious but arthritic, and inclined to the poetic while thinking certain means of expression are a bit clumsy. Yet I definitely would adopt 'sing, dance, pray, and love' as a motto were I inclined to such things (and even though no one would ever care to see me dance... though they might not mind, even now, hearing me sing...)

Blast all those stories I heard in my childhood, supposed to be inspirational! Every gift one had was sacrificed - and then one thanked God, in most syrupy terms, for humility. Parents came to huge conversion, if not sanctity, when a child was murdered. "I got nothing that I asked for, yet everything I hoped for..." prayers were popular.

Where I got the bizarre idea that prayers were something like spells is beyond me! But the 'thy will be done' (much less 'not as I will' in Gethsemane - though here I'm referring to the obligatory 'but thy will be done' with which one had to end all prayers, not to the Paternoster) always had an undertone of 'don't be offended if I asked something out of accord with Your will... and, after all, when does anyone speak of God's will to mean anything good or happy?'

No one in my family feared God, as far as I know. But they never mentioned anything good (health, what little we could call wealth, good looks, whatever) without making the sign against the evil eye. It wasn't that God would snatch the good away - for peasants, it certainly isn't God who causes poverty, illness, or anything else with which one must deal (even if those indirectly responsible might have had church ties... they were not unknown to own the lands tenant farmers worked.) It was the envy of others one must fear.

Perhaps this pathetic post will reassure others that those of us who have a passion for theology are no less prone to spiritual paranoia than anyone else who grew in faith but has a part of himself which never grew up. That's most of us...

Thursday, 5 February 2009

On how to be a pompous windbag

Caught your attention, did I not? Sorry - if anyone really wishes to be such, I'm afraid I cannot give much instruction. But I read a delicious item today which had me laughing aloud. I had received an email about a book discussion, for which the text was Envy by Joseph Epstein. It seemed vaguely familiar, and I looked it up on Amazon. On that site, it is possible for people to construct 'Listmania' collections of books on any topic. I laughed at a Listmania list which appeared on the page, entitled "Be a pompous windbag: how to pose as an intellectual."

I indeed have a strong intellectual side (and would imagine that, if anyone visits this blog more than once, they also have the affliction), and it tends to mean that one is so analytical that one cannot see the obvious. I know I could use a good dose of Ockham's razor on many occasions, because I am so caught up in looking for profound and hidden reasons for everything that I'll not see that much in this world is all too simple. I'm in outer space without realising it in the least. As a simple example, when a friend of mine, Doris, was wearing a necklace with charms commemorating various occasions in her children's lives, when I saw one charm was a capital D, I asked "500 what? What does the D stand for?" It would not enter my mind that, rather than being a Roman numeral, it stood for "Doris."

Still, if I ever accomplished anything, it was definitely a 'tortoise and hare' situation. I'm capable of insight, but it takes me much time to absorb and express the concepts. I never was an outstanding student - the best I could hope for was 'you're well read.' (That is close cousin to being called 'attractive,' which, for anyone under forty, means 'you are certainly not pretty.')

I'm too shy to be a windbag, and I don't know that it is possible to be pompous when one comes from pure peasant stock. My mother's family, artisans (hatters and shoemakers, not painters of the Sistine chapel) with some taste for aspiring to the 'refined' (in Teora, being something akin to nobility meant owning two chickens), may have given me a small inclination towards the regal. But my dad's crowd were honest, totally pragmatic, very earthy creatures who would have seen me as purely ornamental in my interests. They were pure terra firma - and I'm sure I'll be forgiven for the worst pun of my life in adding 'the more firma the less terra.'

It's about 35 years since my university days began. Most of our professors were very intellectual but very few were pompous. I don't recall most of the students even aspiring to seem intellectual - no pomposity epidemic there. But I'm smiling remembering the few who probably see themselves, with hindsight today, as having been at least minor bags of wind.

Many people at that college were studying education - and some were embracing theories which made it seem that all teaching and 'parenting' prior to around 1973 was all wrong, and now suddenly replaced by innovative perfection. (I'm by no means suggesting that, in this or any category, this was true of most students. I'm speaking only of those who applied for the windbag award.) They definitely over-rated the huge importance they thought they would have in forming the children they taught. Windbags of the day saw revolutionary strides in such approaches as teaching children to read with a contrived phonetic alphabet, which would give them unprecedented confidence and 'self esteem.' (The result, when such methods actually were tried in schools, was that kids had to learn to read twice - first in the make believe alphabet and then in English - and that they'd never, ever learn to spell.)

The general windbags all seemed to be quoting from Siddhartha, or from the dreadful but highly 'revolutionary' Your Erroneous Zones. The theory behind the latter was that guilt and worry were 'useless emotions' of which one must be free - it struck no one at the time that those who are completely free of guilt and worry are sociopaths. There also was the bullying 'assertiveness training,' which boiled down to "I'll get what I want at any cost - I'll treat everyone in a bullying fashion - and, if I throw you off a cliff, you chose to feel broken." The peace and love generation indeed did tend to see it as huge progress to become utter bastards.

Those interested in theology all seemed to be quoting Teilhard de Chardin. (I indeed loved theology, but was too afraid of looking stupid to admit, then, that I didn't understand Teilhard in the least. I still don't.) It was an era I found exciting because of my passion for liturgy (this was a time of what I really thought would be wonderful liturgical reform... I must have been drinking perfume...) The windbags who complained most about liturgy were sad that the Church had 'sacramentalised, not evangelised.' Tortoise that I am, I was slow to fully grasp that those who see worship and sacraments as opposed to spreading the gospel are not precisely those who should be involved in liturgy...

The history windbags had read a revisionist volume and now knew that every historian for five centuries had been dead wrong. Music windbags had discovered that some obscure composer, long forgotten, had really written the works attributed to some famous one - and would miss no opportunity to work in a reference to "Smith's Moonlight Sonata."

Those who were very 'progressive' about religion wanted to get back to 'the beginnings.' Now, that is not such a bad idea in itself, but this seemed to entail not only huge (and often weird) speculation about 'the beginnings', if not downright disregard for the history, but to speak endlessly of progress while requiring that (if something happened 7 centuries ago) one ignore any developments in the particular area since.

Of course, progress was popular in other windbag varieties. I love John Henry Newman, and allow for his being as infected with 19th century optimism (which it took two wars to cure) as I am with 20th century cynicism. But I was bored to death with hearing "to become perfect is to have changed often," as if that canonised any change for the sake of change. Newman made an excellent point - but even then I was tempted to remind the others that Hitler and Stalin started out in baptismal innocence and changed often...

I must get back to the Amazon site, and see if I can thank the author of that Listmania collection for the best laugh I've had since the mercury dropped below freezing. Even with all these 1970s reminiscences, I'll refrain (now that we seem to be in some new Ice Age and salt is getting scarce...) from saying anything such as 'stay cool.'

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

A word on the topic of ethics

Neither ethics nor moral theology are areas which I have pursued in great depth, though there are elements which I find most interesting. Heaven knows they are incredibly difficult areas to pursue, and I do not envy moral theologians (or even confessors!) As well, and as I've mentioned in innumerable other posts about philosophical matters, there can be a huge gap between philosophical arguments and pastoral approaches.

I attended a talk yesterday, which was the beginning of a series on Christian ethics. The presenter is a Thomist - and Thomistic terminology can be highly confusing. A young man who asked a question at the end raised an interesting point - whether we have free will at all, or if all is predetermined. Where those of us grounded in Thomas Aquinas see free will as part of being created in God's image and likeness (Thomas was defending omnipotence and omniscience, and the horribly complex idea of simplicity, while seeking to emphasise that evil is not incompatible with a God who acts in creation), certain Christian thought (for example, Calvin) indeed makes it seem that all is predetermined. (I'll not even give room here to B. F. Skinner - I do not happen to be a rat in a maze.) That makes evil all the greater a problem! I'm sorry that question came right at the end - because the presenter had to answer quickly, mentioned that God makes me do what I do (I imagine in holding all things in existence) and his answer could be puzzling, because he didn't have time to mention that Thomas was trying to underline that all creation is good - Thomas sees evil as a lack of fulfilment of our potential, not as evil being created by God - and that God is responsible for creation in the sense that he holds it in being, not that he gave Eichmann a push at the concentration camps.

Coincidentally, I have been studying ethics in more depth recently. This particular set of notes comes from a book on ethics by Richard Gula, called "Reason Informed by Faith."

  • God is the fullness of being. His actions are good as flowing from the divine nature, which is love.

  • All other forms of goodness are derived from this - dependent on the prior goodness of God.

  • Responding to God is our moral obligation, because establishing anything other than God as the centre of value is idolatrous. There is a necessity of ongoing discernment to discover ways most responsive to God.

  • "Morality... means to make 'customary'... to ritualise, in the actions of our lives, the experiences we have of knowing and being loved by God. In this sense, the moral life is like worship. It is a response to an experience of God. The moral life has a different quality when an awareness of God is lost; moral actions become 'works' of moral rightness rather than grateful responses to the goodness of God; moral deliberation becomes a computer-like problem solving rather than prayerful discernment of what God enables or requires." God is Creator. We, as created in God's image, are stewards of creation. Divine beneficence calls forth our gratitude, the pivotal virtue of the moral life.

I found Gula's emphasis to be very good, because he stresses that God is love and perfectly self-giving, and that the Trinity shows that 'to be' is to be in relationship.

I think it can be very dangerous to think that God causes everything that happens, in any way. Thomas's defence, based on defending omnipotence, can be a pastoral disaster!

Of course, there are plenty of Catholics who give short shrift to Calvin, but would spend much time debating whether omniscience is incompatible with free will. I'll save that for another day - since the Franciscan William of Ockham opposes Thomas on that one, and I want to give William his due. (I can set forth both their positions. Making sense of them is another story...)

Perhaps I'm no authority on ethics, but I loved the quotation from Richard Gula - the only change I would make is eliminating 'like' and making the sentence read, "The moral life is worship."