Tuesday, 29 December 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I answered, "Have I ever denied that?"

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

Friday, 25 December 2009

Reflections from papas sublime to common

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Comfort ye, my people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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