Tuesday, 22 September 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Literary types - and strange bedfellows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 7 September 2009

Self forgetfulness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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