Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Perhaps 'purify' is a better image than 'purgative'

Yesterday was the RC observance of the feast of the Benedictine Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century, of blessed memory.) Here is a quote which I found very appealing: "Lord my God, you gave me life and restored it when I lost it. Tell my soul that so longs for you what else you are besides what it has already understood, so that it may see you clearly... apart from what it has seen already, it sees nothing but darkness. Of course, it does not really seek darkness, because there is no darkness in you, but it sees that it can see no further because of the darkness in itself. Surely, Lord, inaccessible light is your dwelling place, for no one apart from yourself can enter into it and fully comprehend you. If I fail to see this light, it is simply because it is too bright for me. Still, it is by this light that I do see all that I can, even as weak eyes, unable to look straight at the sun, see all that they can by the sun's light.... O God, let me know and love you so that I may find my joy in you; and if I cannot do so fully in this life, let me at least make some progress every day, until at last that knowledge, love, and joy come to me in their plenitude. While I am here on earth, let me learn to know you better, so that in heaven I may know you fully; let my love for you grow deeper here, so that there I may love you fully. On earth, then, I shall have great joy in hope, and in heaven complete joy in the fulfilment of my hope."

Coincidentally, and this the very week after I aired my irritation about "Divine Mercy" (see previous post - I don't mean divine mercy), I stumbled upon an old RC prayer book yesterday. Heavens, did it bring back memories - and I don't mean only those which move me to tears, of which admittedly there were more than a few. A number of devotions begged 'give me my purgatory here on earth' (because apparently there was good authority that the punishments God inflicts after we are dead are worse still than what we have here... and, though there is suffering in all lives, I am shuddering at the thought of the hell on earth many have... and trembling the more at the horrid idea that God sends them.)

In volume four of my books on the spiritual life (which do not exist - it's a little literary licence, more a joke), I "began" with a great truth: In successfully draining the swamp, one must accept the inevitable point of being up to one's arse in alligators. Those of us who don't, for example, spend evenings with those such as Anselm (...slight pause for some of my more irritable readers to say 'get a life!,' since they may not realise that this is precisely what some of us are seeking), may picture 'sin' as being either heinous crimes or something worthy of News of the World - fortunately, most of the world's population have never had any inclination to the former, and would view the latter with either a mere sigh or envy. Yet anyone who pursues the spiritual life, in whatever form (since we follow God as precisely what is real for the individual), inevitably will have some times of major conversion. In fact, all too often those of us who are very devout are in deep water now and then, because, until we feel that nip from the alligators, our self deception convinces us that our worst traits are virtues.

(Cheer up - though one shall always have those exasperating traits, they aren't only forgiven but sometimes are the flip side of what will become one's strengths.)

Classically, the 'three stages' of growth in prayer had the 'purgative' as the first. Considering that the alligators above filled my quota of earthiness for one day, I'm not about to draw any vivid pictures of what might come to mind with the word 'purgative'... though honestly forces me to admit that whatever images came are all too true an analogy for what it is like to grow past the ... ah, inward deception. Pleasant it isn't. It does not matter that God has forgiven us, and that we do not need to placate him or appease anger (since he had none in the first place). We have spiritual damage from our major errors, and the time of recovery is blessed, joyous - but painful.

However, I really loathe that 'purgatory on earth' business - it was mentioned in many prayers in my youth, and indeed some private revelation or another, I cannot recall which, gave the reassuring promise that one would have purgatory here. (Yes, I know about Augustine's punishment as remedy, but he had odd ways of defending the concept of omnipotence. Deep down, Augustine was a bigger idealist than I am - always pining for paradise, though his illustration of what specific control that would have involved makes my alligators seem rather tame.) It presents an image of a God of punishment, fear, appeasement.

Anselm, in the quotation above, shows a far brighter image. If anyone still promotes 'purgatory on earth', may I recommend one substitute the word 'purification,' which, after all, is what purgatory is in the first place.

Purify me on this earth, so that I'm stripped of my blindness, which keeps me from loving God and neighbour. Purify me, so such virtues as I have become a source of joy and love for myself and those with whom I deal. Develop this as you wish - but is it not a better image than a God who sends suffering?

Jesus' own suffering is a powerful and important image for us, because it underlines how fully one who is God accepted the fullness of being human. He remained steadfast in his vocation as prophet, healer, and one who offered a message of reconciliation to outcasts - and, when this led to conflicts with the Establishment, in the ultimate irony of creation the Son of God and Second Person of the Trinity would be condemned to death for blasphemy. (In case this wasn't obvious, I think that I first fell in love with Him because he wasn't tender to the Establishment...) In the course of his Passion, and throughout his ministry to a lesser extent, Jesus experienced the full scope of human pain. But it was humans who rejected and punished Jesus of Nazareth. The triumph, not the horror, was the Father's will - the resurrection that miracle which it took divine power to bring about, since we mortals sadly can handle betrayal, abandonment of a friend, torture, death, and the like very well on our own. It wasn't that God the Father looked down from heaven on his Son and pushed a button, "Yo! Judas! Caiaphas! Pilate! I've got an execution for you to handle this week..."

This is rather a silly entry, I know - crude versions of purgatory are not in vogue in any camp, to my knowledge. Yet many of us first were introduced to Christianity as little children and, providential though that was, we were still at a stage of development where most of what we did was focussed on pleasing those in authority, or avoiding punishment (how could a tiny child understand virtue?), or not getting caught. Forgive me the lack of political correctness, but little children, who have no understanding of danger and the like, probably don't jump into the lake because they know they'll be smacked. We wouldn't get very far in our maturity, in any area of life, if fear of punishment in some way was our motivation (though some Internet groups I've visited show me that, indeed, many adults are 'motivated' only by fear of abuse.) Why must we not only ignore God's call to maturity, but turn him into a punishing Father?

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Looked for the Master - got his office junior...

Christ is Risen!

Since I like to attend a daily Eucharist, and therefore will take it where I can, I sometimes attend a small church (which shall remain nameless, since there are many fine comments I can make – but others not quite so laudatory), which has multiple celebrations each weekday. At that church this morning, I heard one of those sermons that would be utterly hilarious were it not so unfortunate on other levels, and to which I’ll refer in a moment.

To begin, and this to my amazement and disappointment, two very large pictures, one of “The Divine Mercy,” the other of its recipient Sister Faustina (who appeared to be holding our Saviour in her hand), were in the sanctuary, nearly obscuring the view of the altar. Granted – the altar had enough lilies to rate an exhibit at the Chelsea flower show, but I dislike anything obstructing one’s emphasis on the resurrection. It always did seem to me, as well, that having a feast to commemorate a private revelation about ‘divine mercy,’ the Sunday following Holy Week and Easter, is rather like taking a solid gold cross and gilding it with the paint kids used to use on their ballet shoes for recitals.

It is not that I disapprove of private devotions – not in the least, even if we apophatic sorts are not likely to be able to indulge in them wholeheartedly (and I say that with some regret, envying my mother’s childlike trust as she chatted with the Infant of Prague or Saint Anthony.) Yet I am much more one for deification than (the usual views of) atonement, and I see purgatory as life and growth extending beyond this earth – an intimacy with God, burning with white-hot love, which ever increases – knowledge ever growing and never complete because the fullness of the divine nature is glorious beyond our comprehension. One must admit, as well, that even the most rock-ribbed versions of atonement still concede that, if death was the punishment for sin, Christ Himself paid the penalty. I see God as continually extending his creative, totally loving power – not forcing our love in return, since love requires freedom, but hardly as a judge who has to be begged for pardons.

I have a feeling that, in recounting details of this sermon (which are just as they were spoken, not including any of my personal irony), my readers will understand why I sighed even more than I did when I saw the pictures of a private revelation drawing more attention than the risen Christ.

Here are the highlights: Sister Faustina is Christ’s secretary (yes, that’s exactly what the aged priest said), second in rank only to the Blessed Mother who normally is a source of revelation. (I would have said that Mary most definitely and gloriously received a revelation or two, which became much clearer in light of the resurrection… her being source of revelation is a bit off… she was tabernacle of the most High but hardly spokesman..) Faustina (a native of Poland) received the revelation (and propagated the word about the novena, from Good Friday to Low Sunday, which gives one a chance to never spend time in purgatory), but originally Rome would not give approval to the devotion. Then, lo and behold, God, who always works out his purposes, had John Paul II elected, and this Polish native approved the divine mercy novena. (With so many of my studies centring on the medieval and renaissance periods, I never was one to assume that God hand picks popes, even the exemplary John Paul. The Almighty certainly went to a huge amount of trouble to select one from Poland entirely for approval of a divine mercy devotion... and John Paul certainly deserves to be remembered for more than that...) So, we have one of two chances each year (the other wasn’t specified) to have no time in purgatory! He also recommended that, if one had not begun the novena on Good Friday as is usual (…why do I doubt that any recent pope would have wanted novenas, rather than a few other pursuits of worship which come to mind, to be on anyone’s mind during the Triduum?), one could still get in the required prayers by saying them nine times between now and next Sunday.

This sermon, incidentally, also mentioned that Catholics alone see Jesus with his 'heart outside,' courtesy of Margaret Mary's revelation, where all other Christians have his heart hidden. (Last week, I was thinking of its being pierced with a lance... but let's not get too literal remembering undying love.) Get me another gin...

My friends, I attended some wonderful services this past week, and had all sorts of lofty ideas about the resurrection. I suppose my mentioning the worst sermon of the lot is a combination of my inherent snobbery and a sigh. It seems to me that there is a line in the liturgy somewhere not only about the felix culpa, but about how God created human nature and still more wonderfully restored it – and I’m also thinking of words about how Jesus took on our nature that it might be glorified. Is Easter week, of all times (if, indeed, any time is appropriate – though I’ll give you one free serve during All Souls’ week), a time to be begging our way out of a future purgatory (which undoubtedly resembles something Dante Alighieri cooked up, perhaps minus the political overtones)?

John Paul II was a great pope, though I daresay that his encyclical on Divine Mercy, which the preacher mentioned this morning, had a bit more to it than endorsement of a novena. However, if anyone wants some really marvellous reading for the Easter season (or any other time), I’d heartily recommend Pope Benedict’s “Eschatology.” I’m tempted to add that, unlike the hokey cokey, eschatology is what it’s all about…