Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Evangelists at the bus stop

This has been quite a varied week of thoughts for me. Without going into undue detail, as it happens I've been studying various areas (related to worship - surprise!) which have elements of dualism. That will be the eternal struggle for believers - facing the incomprehensible evil in this world. As I've said in the past, though I'm what Dawkins would call a "dyed in the wool faith head," there are days when I'd find deism very restful - or see the appeal in Gnosticism because it provides an explanation (not quite so weird for its day as one might expect) for evil where Christianity leaves only a question mark.

I have a great respect for all religious and philosophical traditions. I am not extensively acquainted with faiths other than Christianity and Judaism (in fact, I don't know terribly much about Islam - but I'm light in my knowledge of any traditions other than those of children of Abraham.) Yet, however much I disagree with many points, there is a treasure of mysticism and wisdom that deserves a look. I sometimes remind the 'would be mystics' who email me (...usually fascinated to hear that mysticism has any relation to Christianity... no wonder I never held a professorship, and ended up teaching, of all things, computing...) that, in every tradition, mysticism was understood as requiring great discipline, a high regard for and immersion in scriptures and the wisdom of those who 'went before,' and guidance from some variety of learned elder. It requires a degree of self forgetfulness - awareness of the limitations of vision - which would hardly appeal to those looking for odd phenomena.

Having established that I understand the appeal of dualism, I shall recount an unexpected encounter which I had on Sunday. (I was half asleep at the time, I might add. Though there is no reason that I have to be up before the cock crows - except perhaps in order that I recall Peter and remember never to be smug - I tend to be awake very early. This is a hindrance because my mind doesn't kick in until late afternoon.) I was waiting for a bus, and two young, impeccably well-mannered, smartly dressed men were approaching those of us as at the stop. (I may not be an old frump - but, considering that others in their age group there all seemed to be using filthy language as they chatted on mobile phones, and a few were sharing very intimate details of how they had - or, possibly, wished they had - spent Saturday night that the courtesy of these guys was unutterably appealing.)

In a nutshell - these guys were evangelicals (of the variety who believe that the 'end is near' because of unprecedented wickedness in the world, and that Satan rules the universe), and were after getting me to "accept Christ," with whom I've had a more than passing acquaintance, lest I end up in hell. They provided me with a convenient pamphlet... and I'm pleased I didn't say, "well, repentance and amendment in five minutes... heavenly crown pre-shrunk ... another miracle, praise the Lord!" I'm also pleased that I didn't give them a capsule course in my seeing Gnostic elements in their approach.

Nonetheless, with good manners equal to theirs (I'm actually not at all argumentative - I only like 'arguments' in the academic sense), I mentioned that their stance that Satan rules the world is rank dualism. When one of them reminded me of Jesus' reference to the 'prince of this world,' I couldn't help responding that Jesus is King of Kings. Fortunately (for them and me, I think), I boarded the bus around then, leaving them only with what probably was the first reference to deification to which they'd been exposed.

I'm not about to explore such areas as demonology - it frightens me half to death. (Yes - I know that God is supreme, and that even if one were possessed the demons could not touch their will... but I prefer not to dwell on any thoughts of evil spirits.) Still, I think (and indeed mentioned to these young evangelists - they need to cut their teeth on the likes of me before they proceed to the atheists I assume they have some mission to try to convert...) that most of the wickedness in this world is not of demonic origin. History (by which I'm including the headlines on any day) strikingly illustrates that humanity (though basically good) has incredibly wicked actions to show - and these are not actions of evil spirits. We can do it all too well on our own. I think that what most perverts us is a desire for power - and deceit.

What I do not understand is why anyone would think that wickedness is anything new - or that some golden age existed just a short time ago. (It seems to me that, from the beginning of recorded history, there was an idea that a much more wonderful time existed in one's youth, and that it ceased around the time one hit thirty.) Indeed, technology makes slaughter possible on a much larger scale than in the past - I may enjoy reading certain Victorian history and religious works, but the "To become perfect is to have changed often" optimism of even Newman (who was speaking a half truth, since much change is not positive) certainly would be alien to those of us who lived to see, or were born after, Auschwitz and Hiroshima. But the inclinations to wickedness are on every page of history, and I really cannot see (particularly considering that there was no time when the majority of people were more than garden variety sinners) that we are any worse than we ever were.

The sincerity of these young men did impress me. (Perhaps, since I was wearing tie dye, fuchsia shorts, and large earrings - not to mention smoking a cigar - they thought I was some ageing New Ager and hadn't expected a Christian - though I might not be Christian by their definition.) That did not keep me from seeing their viewpoint as distorted. In fact, though I'm sure this was not their intention, they not only were giving Satan undue credit, but were casting the true God in a demonic light! Their god seemed to be a trickster - creator of all things, yet assigning his creation to a default location of eternal torment. They would say Christ died for our sins - yet one could not benefit from this without knowing a secret formula. Why, as well, did they think conversion was a quick, one-step procedure?

God casts no one into hell. If we want no part of Him, that is our doing (and I think very rare.) I'm speaking somewhat figuratively here. Conversion is constant - the more devout one is, the more likely that one has a pet sin or inclination in that direction which is all the more insidious for learning to masquerade as a virtue. But I am not speaking of any ultimate 'hell' - much of our indulged weakness (the sort of vengeance, rage, jealousy, deceit, and power displays which, before monotheism, those confused, as we are, by evil assigned as traits to the old gods) creates demons of its own.

There are many paths - I hope I do not sound superior, because, if these young men see their vocation as evangelisation, they well may be more faithful than I have been to my own. (I'll spare all of you my old essay on how union with God is in no way a matter of achievement... whenever I end up with tracts, I fall into highly old school and anthropomorphic language. I'm glad those kids didn't know that I am very glad to live in the age post-Dead Sea Scrolls, serious scripture scholarship, Essays and Reviews, ecumenism... there are a few positive things to say about 20th century religion...) ;) I'm very sorry that they cannot see that their version of god seems like a fiend - and that they are giving a devil supposed control of the universe. It may seem odd that I can deal with, indeed study with interest, the dualism of certain Eastern traditions - I shall even admit that, when I read Irenaeus, I kept getting confused because I couldn't always sort out what was Gnostic and wasn't. I suppose I'm far more troubled when a world ruled by the demonic is presented as being the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.

This post is sadder than I had intended, so I'll close on a note of humour. (This is a true story, as are all those on my site.) I learnt, very early in life, never to expect that even Atlas himself would have the strength to argue with Jehovah's Witnesses (and remember what I said earlier - the only form of argument I enjoy is academic.) That doesn't mean that I didn't 'cheat' a little, some years back, when one appeared at my door, and began showing me the first chapter of the gospel of John(my very favourite.) I went through the text from memory, in Latin, then Greek.

Yes, I know a huge amount of liturgical texts and psalms in Latin - but I'll admit that I by no means have the New Testament committed to memory (in any language, let alone Latin.) And those of you who have followed me through the saga of the exams for my divinity degree will recall that my Greek is poor. In fact, that particular passage is the only one in the entire bible which I knew from memory in Greek. My reciting these texts had no real value, of course. When I spoke with the fellows at the bus stop, I hoped I'd at least get them to think a bit, and reconsider their approach. Showing off in front of a Jehovah's Witness accomplishes nothing... except an inward giggle.

(I know nothing of the history of that sect... but I have this odd feeling that their numbers probably topped 140,000 by now... I wonder how they'd like to hear me speak of what Paul McPartlan, among many other distinguished scholars, wrote of the Apocalypse?)

Monday, 29 June 2009

Ah, where links can take one!

Be forewarned that this is one of my more disassociated posts. Still, by chance I saw material on two Internet sites today that, being connected to worship and sacrament, led me to a few loose associations.

First, I urge my readers, who share my conviction that healthy laughter at Her own expense is of huge value to our Holy Mother Church , to check out the video, under the heading of the General Convention, at the Edge of Enclosure site. I'm tempted to comment at length, but don't want to spoil its impact by doing so. Suffice it to say that, good friend of the Prayer Book that I am, it gave me the best laugh of the week.

On a more serious but highly puzzled note (...and, Lord, a few of you will hate this even more than the video...), I was surprised to read, in The Tablet, that Pope Benedict is urging priests to return to the pious ways of Saint John Vianney. His Holiness surprises me, because I believe he is one of the best theologians of the past century - and neither Jean-Marie Vianney nor Padre Pio is a theologian of any kind (in fact, the former would not be noted for academic ability.)

I find sacramental confession to be extremely valuable, though I'm not one for the 'express queue', since I prefer genuine guidance. (It is difficult to find - and, in case anyone hasn't noticed, I have needed quite a bit in my day.) I am sorry to see that availability and interest in this sacrament has declined, though, if the reason is that it was quite 'rote' in the past, it is no loss for those who had that approach. Yet, had I turned to Jean Vianney - who was the sort who excommunicated penitents over a long term for such 'evils' as dancing, and kept having them return until he'd give them absolution - I would have then turned in the other direction.

Benedict dedicated the coming year to the priesthood - and I am glad of this, because ordained ministry needs more esteem and understanding. (It is sad that the idea of the 'universal call to holiness,' which to my knowledge not only was always a part of Christian belief, and, in Judaism and other traditions, was an old idea when Rome was young, made it taboo to speak of ordained ministry and consecrated life, lest this be seen as 'denial' of the 'universal call' - or of the only vocation's being baptism.) Yet I must find out why such a great theologian held up those two priests, saints though they are, as models for the clergy.

Brief for once - I send all of you blessings for the feast of Peter and Paul.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Dan Brown's Angels and Demons

Last week, I met with some others from one of my alumni associations. (As it happened, the others' subjects were either law or economics - both fields for which our university has very esteemed programmes... though I still say my divinity degree is from the best college of theology and philosophy in the world, or at least the English-speaking part.) Someone there, hearing of my odd subject, asked what I thought of Angels and Demons (meaning the Dan Brown book, not the beings.) I could not comment, not having read it at the time, but I needed to relax a bit this week, so I gobbled it down on trains and buses. (It's rather long, but fast paced, and this did not take long.) It most definitely is a 'page turner.' I rarely read detective stories, but this has to amongst the best of bad novels.

Unlike my 'co members' on this blog, I know exactly nothing of science, and had never heard of anti-matter, so I cannot comment on scientific deficiencies in the text. (Actually, I don't know if there is any such thing as "anti matter," and I'm too lazy to even do a Google search.) I didn't see the text as anti-Catholic, much as many comments I've read make this seem common, because churches in the Catholic traditions (not only Roman) haven't been against advances in science since they made peace with that Darwin's theory upset all the preaching based on 'the fall.' (Much of what Augustine wrote is definitely worth a look, but, as far as 'the fall' is concerned, I'll applaud anyone, including Darwin, who inadvertently makes heroic theologians risk excommunication by re-visiting my dear friend Irenaeus. The Orthodox, who are not considered heretics at all by Rome, held ideas on the topic similar to his all along... but, for all Rome may esteem Orthodoxy, an RC theologian who spins on the same themes is in danger of censure. So, if the plot to Angels and Demons seems twisted and puzzling, remember what I just said about 'orthodoxy' and recall it makes as much sense as anything else you've heard today.) The passages in the Italian language showed grammar and usage as bad as mine - and, believe me, when one's family is from Teora, that is bad, regardless of opera studies later. I think the Latin, rare though it was, was even worse... but, since I always was rather poor at classical languages, I can only assume it was even worse than mine. The spots where a speaker is supposed to be profound range from laughable to clichéd. There is one RC priest (whom I'll mention without including spoilers... tempting though that is) who is totally wicked in the name of preserving the faith.

This, of course, did not keep me from loving most of the book. Unlike many readers, I found the last quarter of the book to be boring and irritating, but I was riveted by the text up to that point. I was so committed to total relaxation that I didn't even bother to check references, or even my internal memory bank, about the possible flaws in history or art depictions.

I think that the success of this book (other than its obviously being snapped up by everyone who enjoyed "The DaVinci Code," which had so many theological and historical flaws that I seriously thought Brown was deliberately inserting inside jokes) stems partly from that it included so many 'hot topics.' The conflict of science and religion (which actually troubles any variety of Catholic far less than it does fundamentalists - but they have no major buildings capable of being wiped out by anti-matter) was a strong theme. The Arab assassin (who was also sadistic in the clinical sense) certainly would strike many a chord, major and perhaps augmented, at least until the wars are over. Controversial topics that most Roman Catholic theologians (don't tell that I revealed this... but there are many things that matter greatly, and some of these are... anti matters...) really wish would disappear are referenced (a pope who 'commits fornication in the heart,' but remains 'chaste,' yet satisfies his nun pal in a new version of the courtly love tradition by having a child by in vitro fertilisation made me laugh aloud.) The theme, which I still think was an inside joke, of ultra conservatives of the young generation thinking orthodox souls of my generation or the one before mine are way too liberal (... I'm just old enough to remember when Josef Ratzinger was a 'dangerous' German liberal... though he was saying then exactly what he is saying now...) would have made me laugh had I not seen too much evidence of what 'conservative' can mean today.

Yet there were two themes which were secondary, and still very powerful for their very truth. People do love miracles - and, sadly, people of conviction, religious or otherwise, can unite very quickly over a conflict with an enemy, real or perceived. I think it is very true, as Brown underlines, that certain individuals (obviously not myself among them... but others much holier, such as Francis of Assisi, would have been more cautious) fear that being very rational (in this book, specifically in relation to science) could make people lose the awe that inspires worship. Dan Brown's scientist - priest (which I can mention since it is explained early on) proves 'creation from nothing' - somehow, with its being about thirty-five years since I first heard Teilhard's words about how the nothing had to have longing to exist, lest the Creator be arbitrary, I suppose nothing would surprise me any longer. Still - even if everything in the cosmos could be proved, I doubt even the most ardent believer (in fact, especially members of that set) would think anyone was capable of understanding the divine.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

"Place me within your open heart, oft broken.."

The link in the title to this post is to an article in the Catholic Encyclopaedia, 1917, which gives a fine summary of the devotion to the Sacred Heart and its history.

Tonight is the vigil of the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus - a long-standing Roman Catholic devotion, and one which has greater favour in Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox circles in recent years. I borrowed the title from a prayer which a priest friend of mine (who, I must add, was a tough little spitfire) particularly loved. He had spent much time promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart, one of the reasons being that he worked with criminals in prisons, and so wanted the gift, promised in the revelations to Margaret Mary, of 'touching the most hardened hearts.'

The Sacred Heart is one devotion that has the capability for enormous depth of contemplation - huge expressions of love for God and neighbour (how many mothers, for example, "made the First Friday devotions" hoping for the good of their children) - and production of some of the very worst poetry, art (if I may dignify that with the term), and weird meditations in Christian history. I love the essence - the Incarnation, Christ's enormous suffering as a result of his fully assuming human nature and suffering consequences of his vocation, and all the other 'good stuff' you may ponder in the article to which I linked. Whatever theological flaws it may have, Brother Bonaventure certainly inspired many with his words about Christ and the spouse, the Church, who sprung forth from the water and blood that poured from his pierced heart. (Even the great Franciscan theologians are allowed to lapse into odd symbolism! I am pausing for a moment, so that those of you who are expert in exegesis may wince. Selah.)

I'll admit that there are aspects of the Sacred Heart's depictions (and let us not even think of the grotesque version in The Last Temptation of Christ) which make me shudder. In texts about his revelations to Margaret Mary, Jesus sounds like a childish whinge bag, whining that he isn't getting enough attention - as if he were dependent on our love, where the reverse is true! Pictures of bleeding hearts and swords are about the depths of bad taste in religious art.

Yet I wonder if, on a level of the 'heart,' one of the reasons this devotion so endured, and was enormously popular, was that it has ways of speaking to us 'wherever we are.' The priest I mentioned in the first paragraph, whose love for the prisoners was unquestionable, also could identify with the thought of even Jesus being 'heart broken.' (Need I say that no one, including Jesus Himself, invariably touched the most hardened hearts? - and those who make the effort will have many a scar.) The common practise of consecrating one's home and family to the Sacred Heart seems to involve a deep wish for there to be love and devotion shared - and most of us would admit that family, too often, is a place where there is much discord, competition, envy, misjudgement, violence (even if only emotional.) Though (as the article explains - I'm not being cerebral, just this once) there are far greater dimensions to the meaning of this devotion (and it has nothing to do with honouring a body part!), the image of Jesus' heart pierced on the cross powerfully brings to mind how fully he assumed our humanity. (Excuse the lapse into popular cinema, but I'm dealing with the 'popular' in general today. Anyone who shuddered at seeing Susan Hayward in "I Want To Live," at scenes where the condemned woman waits as the gas chamber is prepared, or at "Dead Man Walking" as the lethal injection takes effect, might become ill at Mel Gibson's Passion of Christ - as I did. Thinking just of the images in "I Want to Live" or "Dead Man Walking"... add on seeing if even these wicked murderers had a lance thrust into their hearts...)

As my 'regulars' well know, I am one of those who sees the divine as beyond our knowledge - we only catch a glimpse, and that is quite enough for us to see the limitations of our vision. (Note that I intend no slur on those who see things differently - I often envy them.) One of the hardest parts of responding to divine love, I believe, is that, the more we wish to respond in love to God, the more we realise that we really do not know Him at all - he seems totally remote. Perhaps images such as the Sacred Heart, which focus on boundless love in a very vivid depiction, make the divine seem far more tender and near.

For one from a Franciscan tradition, it is odd, I suppose, that I'm not much into meditating on the poor man and his family, and I cannot relate to Jesus as an infant at all (save on Christmas.) I'm pure "Johannine Logos" all the way. Yet, important though it is to recall the gap between our understanding and the divine - and how this indeed can be essential to keep us from idolatry in identifying with God so much that we create him in our own image! - I think a bit of sentimental, homely devotion can be very helpful.

Here's the beginning of my priest friend's favourite hymn (...and it's even odder that I'd reference this one, since this isn't Palestrina or Tallis quality...):
To Jesus' heart all burning, with fervent love for men,
My heart with fondest yearning shall raise the joyful strain.
While ages course along, blessed be, with loudest song,
The Sacred Heart of Jesus, by every heart and tongue.

Friday, 12 June 2009

A most uncharacteristic link!

In a moment, I shall explain why I am presenting a link to the Positive Atheism site, though some of you may continue begging me to stop. :)

As a prelude, this is one of those weeks when I feel as if I have passed through the looking glass. Recently, and entirely by chance, I have witnessed a stranger, who happened to be conversing with some people outside a Catholic church I visited, speaking of how, in some Arab nations, those who steal have a hand amputated. I've no notion of whether this is true - yet, appalling though that would be, my ranking on the appalled scale was much higher by this man's applauding such efforts as great deterrents to sin. I usually am not quite so stupid as to respond to such people, but I was caught off guard, and expressed my surprise. He reminded me that Jesus said to pluck out one's eye if it gives offence... My own impression, considering the arguments into which Jesus entered with those trying to trap him (or possibly just enjoying tossing about theological ideas with unusual vigour), is that He was underlining that it's much better one just look at something else. I'm glad to report that I refrained from further comments, because I'd been thinking of how some of the greatest saints, who freely spoke of themselves as penitents (Francis and Augustine come to mind), could have been hampered by being too literal. We'd never have Augustine's writings - he'd have been rendered incapable of writing following the unfortunate incident with the pears. (Good taste prevents my speculating of what other body parts he may have been deprived later.)

There is much in the Office these past few weeks about the different charisms we have as members of the Body of Christ. I suppose I'm most fortunate that mine is strictly that of 'teacher.' If someone already is interested in a point of dogma, church history, doctrine, kerygma, whatever, I'll respond to their questions. But I have no vocation to seek to convert atheists, or indeed anyone else - and most of the devout whom I know, including hundreds of clergy, would hold the same position as do I. Heaven knows my own efforts at responding to the universal vocation of metanoia are quite exhausting enough.

I included the link to Positive Atheism (which is intended specifically for atheists - so please do not write to try to 'save' them, since I'm bored enough by the occasional fundamentalist who tries to save me) because many of the quotations they include are worth some consideration by theists. (Not all of their quotations are from atheists - and there is undue attention to US separation of church and state, which I would think another matter entirely.) I am, to borrow Dawkins' term, a "dyed in the wool faith head," in case you have not noticed - though I shall concede that there are days I'd find deism very restful. One dear friend of mine is an atheist, and when, coincidentally, both of us were going through extremely difficult periods in our lives, I was telling him that it just might be easier to believe there is 'no one out there,' than to think there is an all-powerful, all-loving Deity, who acts within creation, but who either rejects one or doesn't give a damn.

Those of us who are devout often can fall into platitudes, clichés, 'cop outs' such as "it's what the bible says" or "it's what the church teaches." We tend to fear saying "I don't know." We know, just from a glance at headlines on any day, that there are many things in this world to fear - and still want to shrug this off with 'anything that happens God wills or permits.'

I personally am a hopeless idealist and romantic, so I perhaps know, even more than most, how very important it is to think! Not everyone quoted on the Positive Atheism site is an atheist, and there is undo inclusion of quotations from Americans who are writing of separation of church and state. Yet there are quotations which can give the devout Christian pause to think - and often even to think "I not only understand what the writer is saying - I often have thought the same thing." I would consider it worthwhile, as well, for Christians to read the 'de-conversion' accounts. It could remind many of us of the hypocrisy, cruelty, stupidity, and intolerance which we are capable of propagating. (I nearly cried when a woman with a digestive disorder, for which even repeated surgery can offer no full cure, wrote of how she was considered to be faking or sinful - her vomiting taken for defiance.)

One favourite "let's get started thinking" quotation of mine, which is not included in the Positive Atheism site, is from Bertrand Russell. "The world in which we live can be understood as a result of muddle and accident; but if it is the outcome of deliberate purpose, the purpose must have been that of a fiend." Obviously, I believe in a creator, and one active in His creation - how could I accept the Incarnation and resurrection if I did not? Yet it would do us well to consider Russell's observation, before we are in pastoral (or even friendship) situations where we are quick to respond with such tiresome and (unintentionally) cruel clichés as "but it's not what you want, it is what God wants that matters." Much in this world indeed is muddle and accident! Even those who argue most strongly for omnipotence believe in God's being beyond our understanding - or see Him as the author of all things in the sense of being Creator (and holding all in existence), not as directing every action on the planet.

I had the good fortune, unlike my medieval and renaissance friends, to live in an unheralded period of their being saintly popes, so what I quote here is not to be taken as a slur on the brilliant Benedict XVI. Still, assuming many of my readers have a higher than average church involvement, can we not identify, at least the tiniest bit, with 'What is wrong with priests and popes is that instead of being apostles and saints, they are nothing but empirics who say "I know" instead of "I am learning," and pray for credulity and inertia as wise men pray for scepticism and activity.' (Bernard Shaw, The Doctor's Dilemma) Of course, one of Shaw's other comments, that "All great truths begin as blasphemies" is both illustrated in much history, theist or otherwise, and one a Christian can see with irony - Jesus was condemned on that charge, and the Babylonian Talmud refers to him as one who 'practised sorcery.'

Quotations from atheists (or sceptics of any kind) can be valuable to the Christian in teaching him a little humility or compassion - we do tend to be highly smug! I think it may even lead us to prayer if we can admit, "Heavenly Father, I feel so much like Bertrand Russell today..." (In everything except religious matters - don't I wish!)

Pray, my friends - but think. Many Christians who have not lost all faith have wanted nothing more to do with Church because of the ugly points of view to which they are exposed. (I still wonder how I cling to the Church after having worked for her for 29 years...)

In my experience, those who are convinced that everyone who didn't go through some process (known only to them... how Gnostic..) of being 'saved' is bound for hell are not from Catholic traditions. Nonetheless, for all the brilliant minds there have been in Catholic tradition, there is a regrettable remnant who fear that exposure to ideas other than those in, let us say, the elementary catechism will damage faith. (In fact, there is a sub-set worse still - the catechism is not enough, because there are all sorts of 'family values' addenda which are more often Puritan than Catholic.) I'm inclined to doubt that anyone who can endure reading my posts is in either category, but, just in case anyone fears the link will place faith in danger, I believe one must have a very weak faith indeed (in anything, not only religion) if one could be damaged merely by knowing others believe differently from oneself.

I can't resist ending with a reference from playwright Samuel Beckett: "Enough of acting the infant who has been told so often how he was found under a cabbage that in the end he remembers the exact spot in the garden and the kind of life he led there before joining the family circle."

Thursday, 11 June 2009

I wish I could be profound on this feast...

Of all days, I should love to be able to offer profound reflections on the Feast of Corpus Christi, which is a great favourite of mine. Unfortunately, this isn't one of the days when I'm especially quick witted. Perhaps part of the difficulty is that I do not lack ideas on the subject - rather, I have too many to organise coherently. Before my own brief, disjointed reflection on the day, I should like to offer my readers a bit of solid food for thought and prayer.

We indeed are most fortunate today in that two of the greatest theologians of the 20th-21st centuries are Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury. Of course, I doubt that anyone, anywhere, could top what Thomas wrote for this feast, and highly recommend the prayers for reflection.

Today has been sort of a mini-retreat (even if I'm not able to focus well, and am so restless that either the prayer of quiet or ecstasy are unlikely possibilities. :) I did spend some time at the Eucharist, and saying the Office before the monstrance, this morning. I read passages from ++Rowan's book, "Resurrection," which deal with the Eucharist - each page would take about three weeks to fully appreciate. I then listened to the Vatican broadcast of the special Mass and procession. I crooned the Latin chants (resisting the desire to sing full voice, since someone in my building works nights and would have been asleep), repeated the Italian prayers, kept pulling myself back from the usual distraction (why, in a nation with the richness of musical heritage that Italy has, are not only the Sistine choir but any featured choirs for papal Masses so utterly dreadful?) When I cannot think well, or pray with attention, I do my best to 'go through the motions.'

I very much am one to encourage Eucharistic devotions, and love processions, incense, Exposition, and Benediction. Yet I offer special thanks that, where such devotions existed for centuries, today those of us who walk in procession or kneel before the monstrance have the privilege, rare till the 20th century, of receiving communion daily (or weekly.) To my knowledge, this never was prohibited - but it equally was not common practise. It is unfortunate that, for centuries (medieval, but especially counter-reformation), the Eucharist was the focus of devotion outside of the liturgy, but seldom the Bread of Life for the faithful.

I may be saddened by many recent developments in the Church - not in official treatment of worship, but in what is seen in many parishes. (I'm an idealist who thought liturgical reform, in my 1970s fervour, would mean marvellous common worship and music in parishes - and this though I knew most of it was pretty dreadful in the first place.) I've written on that topic in the past, and undoubtedly I shall again, but there are some changes for which I'm deeply grateful - and not only for the revision in Offices and lectionaries. Roman Catholic worship always had the Eucharist as central, but it was only in the 20th century that people were inclined to frequently receive communion, and that evening Masses made it possible for more of us to attend daily. In the Church of England, Communion is usually the main Sunday service today - and the sacrament also is received frequently. There is much to praise here - even if I think the worst liturgical innovation was singing hymns on the way to communion and receiving standing. (Bugnini and friends envisioned a glorious procession quite far from the reality.)

When Pope Benedict was conducting Benediction, and reciting the Divine Praises, I thought of two funny stories from the past. The first occurred in Italy. An elderly lady, seated near me and praying quite loudly, must not have been paying sufficient attention to the responses, because she was saying, for example, "benedetto e mio santo nome..." Of course, I've met Christians who praised themselves to the hilt, but this one was doing it unaware, even in 'her angels and her saints.'

Fr Martin, an elderly Benedictine, was to a point of being quite senile. He was so confused that he could no longer offer Mass publicly or hear confessions, and spent most of his time just puttering about. It was his anniversary, and two other monks thought that, if they stood one on each side of him, Fr Martin could manage Benediction. He did quite well through most of the ceremony, but, when it was time for the Divine Praises, he got that look he always had when he'd suddenly passed into another dimension, and began to sing "Sweet Violets."

In a move from tradition, I shall move from the ridiculous to the sublime for a moment. Earlier in this post, I mentioned Archbishop Rowan Williams' "Resurrection," a treasure of a book I cannot recommend too highly. His writings on the Eucharist, brief though they are by comparison with the total text of the book, are brilliant - and too extensive in scope for isolating a few lines as excerpts. However, since I often refer to wishing for a life that is 'sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,' I hope quoting this section in isolation does not deprive it of impact.

Quotation: "..The Christian Eucharist provides a central interpretative model for (where the effective significance of material things is changed.) Our food and drink is given into the hands of Jesus so that we become his guests and receive our life from him. The elements are shifted from one context of meaning to another, from being our possession to being gifts given and received back (...the moment of relinquishing what is ours is crucial in the Eucharistic process.) But this transaction does not occur exclusively in the Eucharist - and indeed its 'occurrence' in the Eucharist in isolation from its occurrence in the Christian community's life is...a gross offence against the true significance of the sacrament. It occurs whenever we make the essential transition from seeing the material world as possession to seeing it as gift: as God's gift to us, and as, potentially, a gift to be given and received between human beings.

...The Eucharist, and every 'eucharistic' activity in which the meaning of the material world is transformed from possession to gift, is a sign not only of restoration and peace...but of the ultimate Lordship in which this..is grounded. This is the sense in which the Eucharist is a sign of the end of all things, the consummation of Christ's Kingship; here is a part of the material world wholly and unequivocally given over to the significant being of Christ, embodying his culminating gift on the cross.. The Eucharist demonstrates that material reality can become charged with Jesus' life, and so proclaims hope for the whole world of matter...The matter of the Eucharist, carrying the presence of the Risen Jesus, can only be a sign of life, of triumph over the death of exclusion and isolation.. " - His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury

I may think and write of mainly liturgical prayer, but it occurs to me that the passage above also places the role of petition and intercession into focus. It can be argued (...and many philosophers and theologians, theist or not, are so engaged...) that intercessory prayer is unnecessary - whether because the Creator knows our needs or does not need our reminders to act in the world, and so on till ages unending. Yet prayers in petition acknowledge that all of the material things (ourselves included) are not "possession, but gift." Perhaps our merely asking acknowledges them as such.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

I killed my sister (temporarily) with a misplaced modifier!

For all my love of language(s), and my conviction that I'd consider murdering the Queen's English to be a capital offence did I not think death penalties to be barbaric, I shall admit that the occasion I referenced in the title to this post was quite extreme. My younger sister and I both were alumnae of the same college, and receive their newsletter, a section of which lists the names of former students and their family members who have died. When my father died in 1997, I dropped a note to the alumnae office, listing his name, then 'father of Elizabeth Melillo and Theresa Gibson,' with our graduation years. Now, technically I suppose that this was correct enough - it hadn't occurred to me that I had to write "of" more than once. Sadly, in the next newsletter I found that both Sam and Theresa were listed among the dead...

A more unfortunate situation happened when I received some correspondence, related to history, from a Polish man who was familiar with my Internet site. In one email, he had mentioned certain aspects of the 20th century history of East Europe - an area in which I am not particularly knowledgeable. I'd found his information interesting, and, in my response, had begun one sentence with "I understand that Stalin..." Though the correspondent's English was fluent, he mistook my meaning of "It is my understanding that..." for "understanding" Stalin in a sense of sympathetic insight (for Stalin, not the people of Poland!)

Indeed, the use of words can be wonderful and problematic. (Though even my worst blunders will never match those of, for example, George W Bush, whose choice of words was unmatched when, in seeking to enlist support from moderate Arab nations, he announced a crusade. Or of the great Pope John Paul II, who, in explaining that Jesus did not bestow priesthood on his own mother, made it seem women should not be allowed at the Eucharist were the rhetoric taken to its logical conclusion. I'm glad I never was a public figure - I'd flip if my blunders were in world-wide headlines.) Yet, today, I wonder how many people even own a dictionary - and shake my head at how some seem to be misinterpreting 'on purpose'!

Just this week, I saw an Internet site (for a major newspaper) which had a story about someone who took having been told "there could be consequences" as a death threat. (The newspaper has a comments section, and reading this was vaguely entertaining, more because those who were the funniest clearly did not intend humour in the least.) Now, haven't we all known, throughout life, that many actions, whether good or bad, have 'consequences'(synonym "results")? Since technological advances of which I've heard recently, astonishing though many are, to date include no mention of Internet communication from the after-life, presumably all contributors on the thread were alive - and all have faced consequences of one sort or another. To leap to the assumption that this means 'death' clearly is excessive.

Of course, I have long been irritated by that the perfectly respectable term "issues" now is assumed to mean "problems." I have faced the anger of someone I knew who thought my reference to diversity (of thought) was racist. (I shouldn't feel too badly, I suppose - recalling a media report, some years ago, about someone who assumed racism when a public figure used the term "niggardly.")

I think all of my readers get the picture now. It is not one of my prolix periods, the more because I already posted on the blog this week. But, naturally, I have one final comment - which is troubling me because I so love contemplating the Trinity.

I can well understand that 'inclusive' language has been a trend recently, and in many cases agree. (It took me a long time to resign myself to that, if one does not want to say "he or she" in every sentence, one must use the quasi-singular. I still wince slightly at writing "Everyone put on their coat...", because I imagine one person becoming a crowd, or at least a duo.) Still, it irks me when documents, which use the form "he" (a standard until very recently!), are followed by (sic.) I am irritated the more when anyone insists that quoting "peace on earth to men of good will" (and so forth..) would lead females to think salvation is extended only to the male of the species. Oh, indeed there are those with louder mouths than mine (and who often want only to cause trouble) who will insist they thought this - but, overall, such an assumption is an insult to the intelligence of every woman in the congregation!

Though I am not one to see it on every corner, sexism indeed does anger me. (Racism infuriates me as well. I am sorry that 'diversity,' a marvellous word, has been twisted into some negative racial term.) Heaven knows, in my decades in management, I often was infuriated by how enduring it is - and those who speak of 'sexism in the Church' (...I'm a medievalist, and can write about that some time on request...) are naive if they think that it is exclusive to the Church (or that there are not other varieties which are far worse.) I don't want to get on a tangent on that subject for the moment. I am just going on record that even I, a far from timorous creature with a strong Bo-Peep tendency, who supports a healthy, Christian feminism, cannot stand the distorted, apologetic, sometimes silly twisting of the words of the liturgy. I see it as an insult to women rather than as affirming.

Yet what inflames me most (and, sadly, not with the fire of the Spirit) is when the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be mentioned, lest this be found sexist. (I've mellowed, my friends. You should have heard me thirty years ago, when I saw it as the epitome of pomposity when every religious group around seemed to be adopting "unity in diversity" as their slogan, when Karl Rahner had used that term to refer to the Trinity itself. When I still saw myself as a militant, embodied Michael the Archangel, I may have raised my sword... Though I will bring out the sword one last time and decapitate any fool who turns what the great Rahner said into racism for referring to 'diversity'... what a shame, considering he survived the Holocaust..)

The Trinity is a concept which utterly captures me. (I'll save my exegesis and redaction comments for another day - but anyone with the least interest can read through the New Testament, or any writing of the Fathers or great theologians, or any page of Christian liturgy dated earlier than 2000, and note the magnificence of any reference to Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.) Perhaps I cherish this most, in my own prayer life, because it is something we never can understand, and can express in praise - God is so beyond our understanding, yet the doxology is perfect in worship. We are acknowledging a God of Love and one who is 'relational' for eternity - even if He is unknowable because of the limitations of our understanding.

Some of the substitutions for references to "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" are not worth noting, but I do not even care for "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier," for all that I love all three divine images. Indeed, God creates, redeems, and sanctifies - but this refers only to His relation to us. Father, son, spirit - these remind us that the Persons of the Trinity 'relate to' and love each other. (They obviously do not create, redeem, or sanctify the other Persons! Nor is creation, redemption, or sanctification of the cosmos the exclusive function of one Person.)

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit...

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Nick O'Demus and perpetual students

I heard a very fine sermon today, related to the gospel where Nicodemus (the educated, upper class Pharisee who could hardly be seen as an intimate of a Galilean peasant carpenter) learns he is not far from the kingdom of heaven. I smiled at one of the worst jokes I've heard in weeks. The homilist mentioned that an elderly, Irish Catholic lady, his neighbour as a child, was inclined to tell him many religious tales intending to have him pass them along to his parents. (Though this priest did not mention this, I knew intuitively that Mrs Dougherty would have wanted to influence this nice boy and hopefully have his parents, who were among those referred to as 'them' - Anglican, which is not quite as bad as Cromwell's lot - return to the throne of Peter*. As a small child, before I knew who Oliver Cromwell was - and Lord knows he was a scary enough character - I thought that Cromwell was some sort of demon or bogeyman who would snatch me away during the night. Oddly enough, the Irish Catholics who left me with this fear of "Cromwell," which didn't die out until I found out he was a human being and had been dead for centuries, never did mention that he didn't like Anglicans any more than he did RCs.) Mrs Dougherty told the boy-o that Nick O'Demus was the most prominent and important Irishman in the gospels.

And here I thought that, in Jesus' time, Ireland was still ruled by faerie kings - who wouldn't disappear until the Christian missionaries made some sort of deal with the Druids, around the time Patrick kicked out the snakes. :)

Today, in the midst of what actually was a deep and moving sermon (I wish I could quote lines from memory, but I was a bit sleepy, since I walked miles yesterday to go to a Saint Anthony feast... not realising yesterday was not the 13th of June until I heard a radio mention the D-Day commemoration...), I had an utter fit of laughter. The homilist, who is the retired headmaster of a prominent public school, now is doing some teaching for graduate students in divinity. He mentioned, with hilarious accuracy (which, perhaps, only a perpetual graduate student such as myself could fully appreciate), the sort of dialogue that takes place in lectures, tutorials, or seminars (take your pick) with students and professors. They fall into two major categories. The first (which, in my experience, is far more common) is when the student has to show off his knowledge (for example, were it the gospel for today, he'd go off on all sorts of revisionist exegesis and treatment of obscure Greek terms), and the professor responds in the same fashion, the result being that no one really learns anything. The second (...one in which I found myself on all too many occasions, truth to tell) is when someone has the courage to ask the 'stupid' question - the answer to which actually can be very helpful and enlightening. No one wants to ask, of course, lest one appear dim-witted. Nicodemus has the courage to ask the 'dumb' questions!

For all my love of humour, I rarely laugh aloud, but it is fortunate that I was sitting in the back, behind a pillar - and not only because not everyone at the church may have appreciated that a woman of mature years was wearing a tie-dye top and shorts for services. No - I didn't laugh aloud about Nick O'Demus, since I've heard that 'corny' Irish humour for so many years that I'm immune. (Something made me recall such tired lines as those about Martin Luther having a 'diet of worms,' or "she was only the stableman's daughter, but all the horsemen knew her" - say that last one quickly.) But the treatment of the 'showing off in graduate school' was so vivid that I was falling over with laughter - unusual for me, but... well, just not done. I don't know if this was coincidence, or whether my cracking up gave him the courage, but a gentleman seated near me was also caught in uncontrollable laughter - and, by some quirky chance, when the preacher finished that little tale, we both applauded!

It is fortunate that I have no children - and not only because Lord knows what sort of eccentricity I might have reproduced. (I am a perpetual student, and rather a good one if one does not mind it's always being a 'tortoise and hare' race. The trouble is that I'm not one to accomplish anything else, though my display of diplomas and certificates [I had written 'diplomae,' but the spell checker didn't like that one] is a triumph of avant garde interior decorating.) Were I a mother, the combination of my thinking it was the 13th yesterday, and forgetting it wasn't the 14th today despite recalling the D-day broadcast and having the blister from the endless walking to feasts that don't exist this week, and howling at a highly dignified service, and applauding during a sermon in a low-key upper class church, I probably would be en route to 'assisted living' by now.

When I was working towards my Bachelor of Arts degree (which I was awarded during the 1970s), I attended a relatively small college staffed largely by brilliant Dominicans. One 'blessing and curse' (blessing as a student - curse for a few years afterwards, because none of us could keep our mouths shut for ten minutes) was that, with such small classes and so many discussions, at least some of our professors gave us daily grades for participation. Now, I am not one who is uncomfortable with asking questions or contributing to discussions (...even if, deep down, I'd rather be delivering the lectures...), but the problem with that setting was that one had to find a reason to say something - even if, consequently, one was more or less saying nothing.

I remember, many years later, reading a book written by a religious Sister. I was unfamiliar with her congregation, but her descriptions led me to believe that they were intellectual sorts and 'classy' (a neat enough way of describing the Dominican Sisters I was privileged to have provide eight years of my own education.) She was saying that, among other little rules for getting along in this world which the unusually wise Sisters told their novices, two were "don't think you always have to say something brilliant," and "don't think you always must be witty." Excellent, though I naturally keep hoping I'll do both. I'd amend that to include "remember it's all right to say nothing at all" (unless, of course, one is receiving a daily grade for participation...)

Last week, I happened to attend a lecture which was part of a series on Joseph Butler. (I like the lecturer - but not his topic. Yes, I know that, not so long ago, every Anglican clergyman had a copy of Butler on his shelves, probably next to the works of Hooker which are a far better read. Butler bores me to death, but I wouldn't have been likely to admit that in public any more than I'd confess to that I didn't understand a word of Teilhard de Chardin thirty years ago and still do not - though at least Teilhard, who my co-contributors might understand since they are of scientific bent, can't be called boring.) The lecture that week was about 'love of God and neighbour,' which certainly can be a most intriguing topic, the more because it's boundless. Unfortunately (and I'm blushing... this is almost like admitting that I don't like Jane Austen, which her devotees would think meant I was too stupid to catch her wit, or that I thought Citizen Kane was the most boring film I've ever seen), I really disliked Butler's means of expression. He seemed to have been (and indeed may have been) addressing a crop of deists or churchgoing agnostics who OD'd on the Enlightenment. Not that this doesn't have potential for being an interesting exercise, but it came across as too 'careful.' For some bizarre reason, I remembered when I saw the totally forgettable musical "1776." John Adams comments, during debates about the declaration, "It's a revolution, damn it! We're going to have to offend somebody!"

I rarely contribute to discussions at 'adult education,' not only because there are people there who have far more fondness for hearing their own voices than I do (yes, such do exist), but because I don't want to fall into the 'showing off' mode. (Actually, at this point in my life that is not likely. The advantage of being a student for a hundred years is that one realises, first, that one sadly has forgotten more than one knows, and, second, that one has only scratched the surface of knowledge of anything.) Yet I did make a careful, highly respectful comment last week. It seemed to me that Butler was skirting around the matter of "virtue," and treating the term "benevolence" in quite a different manner from my old friend Thomas Aquinas. Virtue seemed to be a vague commitment to the good of society (...that the upper class sorts he was addressing might define how to attain such good in a somewhat different manner than would I, and probably hadn't thought about Francis of Assisi any time soon, is purely coincidental). Though God was mentioned, in rather an off-hand manner, my impression was that Butler (who, unlike Francis, Jesus of Nazareth, or even John Adams in a non-religious sense, clearly had no interest in being militant - this wasn't a man who was in any danger of stigmata, crucifixion, or being hanged for treason if the militia didn't whip the British army) was presenting a sort of philosophical argument. We all tend to the good of society - it is rational for some of us who do to allow for that there may be a God behind this.

When I had the courage (being in the second category mentioned above - not wanting to look dim-witted) to mention this, a gentleman seated near me, whom I've heard lecture on English literature in the past (I only trained to be a professor - he actually had the chance to be one), said outright, "Where is God in this?" I then had the courage to say, "Thank you!" I had been thinking that exactly, but didn't want to seem stupid (which I'm not - it takes time for things to sink in, but they sprout well once they go to seed) or cheeky (especially when that is perfectly true.)

Well, I must be careful on one matter - it is best not to applaud out of season. :) But it's not quite so silly as last week, when I uncharacteristically attended the early service (which had few worshippers.) Since I sometimes attend weekday services at a small parish, with sparse attendance and mainly a baby boomer population, if we aren't sitting near each other the instruction to share a sign of peace often leads to our flashing the 1960s peace sign (which we tend to give a somewhat different meaning than Churchill probably intended when he made a like gesture). I was sleepy last Sunday as well, and, forgetting where I was, flashed the peace sign at all and sundry.

Flashing the old peace sign and fits of the giggles probably are very good for the soul... but I suppose that, deep down, I remember some of the 'decorum' the nuns from Cork taught me in my earliest days. Retaining composure was presented as a commandment. I haven't thought of this in at least forty years but, since we made confession monthly in preparation for First Friday (a nice break from the act of contrition we made daily in case we dropped death or, better still, had Cromwell send us to the gallows - preferably because we kept his pack from toppling the tabernacle), and I wasn't one to lie, steal, eat meat on Friday or miss Sunday Mass, my usual self-accusation was "I laughed in church." Today, I would end that same sentence with, "thank God!"

*Footnote: During my childhood, classrooms often had 'intentions' posted on the walls. One was for the return of the heretics to the throne of Peter. Mrs Dougherty was not far from the kingdom of heaven.

The link in the title to this post is to Brush Up on Butler, an academic site about Joseph Butler whom I referenced in this post. It is a service of All Butler, All the Time . Even if Butler has not been a favourite of mine, any friend of John Henry Newman's is a friend of mine - and how could I resist a site which states that: 'The members of the Bishop Butler Society are all sentient beings, living or dead, who have or who would like to have an association with Butler' ?