Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Oh, stop being so damned 'holy'!

I'd not intended to write an irritable post - but, with Duns Scotus on my mind (as I'll briefly explain in a moment), let's just say I'm valuing and displaying every element of my individuality - who I really am. If any of you have been 'followers' of mine, it will come as no shock that I believe caring for and 'giving' to others is extremely important. What exasperates me is not an attitude of 'I shall share what I have,' but one of 'I'm not good enough to have anything - and, if I give it away, it's for that reason.'

I know the favoured term is 'recession,' but let's be honest - we are in a full-fledged Depression, and have been for some years. This is not a 'paper recession,' where 'hard times' mean that people are making less than what they had hoped on investments. It is the real thing - struggle, desperation, fear, for many destitution. One lady whom I know, Barbara, regularly speaks of how she cannot even afford a pair of shoes or clothing for the past three years, and I find this totally believable. Yet, if anyone mentions abstract concepts about ostentation, winning a lottery and the like, Barbara has to jump in with 'if I won a million, I'd give it to charity - Oh, I know everyone says that (everyone? I wouldn't!), but I think I really would." (I'm using her only as an example - I have known many of this breed throughout my life.) I'm amazed that Calvinism - the idea of our depravity, of desire, even for what is not remotely sinful, as evil; the sense that God blesses his own with prosperity but frugality is an idol - has infected even someone who is Jewish. Tragic, indeed.

If poverty is a virtue, it is in its connection to gratitude (not least for creation and divine providence, define that as you will) and charity (by which I mean true love, not playing Lady Bountiful to people whilst treating one's employees like dead weight.) I certainly understand frugality, and I'll say cryptically that I had two times in my life when I was indigent and dependent on others totally for a time. Resigning oneself to a need for frugality is purely pragmatic. It is quite another matter when one, for example, will 'do for others' but cannot bear for anyone, even one's closest friends, to ever do anything for oneself. Knowing one, for example, cannot afford to buy shoes at the moment is just dealing with a situation - it's a far cry from feeling that, were one to be fortunate in getting past hardship, one is not good enough to be grateful for this, but must turn it over to 'charity', probably lest some bogeyman punish one for admitting one is good enough to enjoy the goods of creation.

It is as if only two extremes existed - utter greed, with no concern for others, or self imposed frugality because one is unworthy of everything. I've seen people who grew up in great poverty still enjoy whatever they had - even if it was watching a sunset and playing a card game with neighbours! I applaud this! Creation is good - we are created in God's image - others are a gift, not to be viewed as some potential source of wrong.

Earlier this week, I had intended to write a blog essay about Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry I enjoy, and his interest in the Franciscan philosopher John Duns Scotus. I still intend to do so, but could not seem to get my scholarly side in gear this week. One could write a dissertation on either figure - and still only scratch the surface.

I'll leave my comments, for the moment, about a single point. Hopkins, as his poetry shows, was a man of many conflicts. I can certainly understand how he could struggle with a Jesuit idea of heroism and self-abnegation (indeed, an ideal in which one should always seek not only to do good but 'what is most perfect'), by contrast with a Scotist stress on 'this-ness' in the individual as glorifying God. It is interesting that Duns Scotus' stress on the will and individuality (as opposed to deductive reasoning - however gifted he was in that!), with which I concur, is hard to fully value when the Western Church, for centuries, has tended to base asceticism on atonement for sin, deprivation and the like. When asceticism is viewed, rather, as a removal of distractions, and we hope to get past the false self (to achieve the potential for which we were created... pardon this Scotist for, as usual, borrowing from Thomas Aquinas) rather than annihilate our true identity, both virtue and art (both Hopkins' passions) can flower.

I suppose that all 'arty' ascetics can fear that their creative gifts can become distractions in themselves. I wonder if passion frightens us because it is strongly present in many sinful tendencies - and don't think for a moment that I mean only sexual passion. I am intensely sensual, and do not fear this in the least - it has many elements of joy and gratitude. I thrive on art, music, literature, aromatherapy scents, well-seasoned food, wine and espresso, self-expression in clothing. Yet I've read all too many works on the supposed spiritual life to know that, were I 'holy' ( all know I am not...), I should at least pretend that even a work of art is a distraction.

Heaven knows that Ignatius of Loyola did not abandon his military side in later years, and, however long before Gerard's time, had... rather a military mission in England. The Spiritual Exercises and related, discursive meditation can be helpful for many, but never were suited to me - and I dare say the 'desolation' prescribed within portions of these would be a far greater burden to Gerard, whose brilliance and literary gifts I envy (there - now you know what those of us who aren't inclined to promiscuity struggle with... and it's far more insidious and, I've heard, much less fun...), but whose scrupulosity (a problem with which I've never had to deal) would mean fear and conflict far beyond the norm.

Certainly, everyone on earth, particularly those who are devout and/or have high ideals, struggles with frustration, darkness and the like. Yet, since it's so much a part of me that to bring it to mind would be rather like exploring why I breathe, I tend to forget that not everyone (including those far more advanced in virtue than I) has the struggle with philosophical concepts, such as I can see in Hopkins. They are not matters of achievement. The frustration, in this specific sense, is not about a lack of wealth, recognition, and so forth. It is a conflict between hopes of being that which God intended, and seeing shortcomings to the point of doubting even one's own integrity.

Aside from his literary genius and insight, I admire that Hopkins 'spilled' the scope of struggle. (I'll mention illustrations of this in his poetry when I get around to the essay I mentioned.) He'll rejoice in the resurrection, but also set forth his anger, frustration, sense of futility.

For centuries, and even in our own day, spiritual exercises too often were based on 'I am worthless.' The 'first step' often was a meditation on death - I suppose to call one to conversion. It's a far cry from the hazelnut of Julian of Norwich - which I see as a reflection on a divine glory so great we can only catch a glimpse. This is "I am wicked - I must repent - I am worthy of nothing but hell." This would seem to imply that the Creator designated that as default location...

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Consciousness of blinders (and resulting blunders)

My regulars (assuming such exist) will be aware that one of my pursuits is reviewing books, pre-publication, for Amazon. Handing One Another Along by Robert Coles surely was one of the most thought-provoking books I've reviewed recently. I'll not reproduce my reflections here (those interested can see the review at the Amazon site), but I was spurred, by some of Dr Coles' highly accurate observations, to reflect on how we often do not realise the extent to which we 'fail to hear' those around us because of pre-conceived ideas. These often are so much a part of us that we do not even see their 'editing and censoring' qualities when we truly are trying to understand others' expressions and viewpoints.

Dr Coles book is based on moral understanding through reflecting on others' stories. Much of what is contained in the book is either references to others' writings or to interviews in relation to his own research, for example, societal and historical aspects of such eras as that of the US civil rights movement. A humanist I can well understand, but, since he is also a psychiatrist, he has complications beyond what most of us would face (though he admits this with rare humility, a trait I have not noticed as being the hallmark of those in the medical profession.) Coles mentions how, when he saw civil rights demonstrators in dangerous situations, straight off he was assuming they were 'in denial.' When they explained how incidents in their youth spurred their later action, he assumed that they were speaking anecdotally to refuse to face the current reality. (I know nothing of the social sciences, of course - and I've no regret for that.)

Further, in referring to literature, he makes the very apt point that great writers, when they are writing non-fiction where their usual genres are novels, often fall into a mistake. For all the strong truth of theme, characterisation, and the like which are the hallmark of any good fiction, one used to creating characters, therefore knowing them as one can never know another, can illustrate motives, or describe a facial expression and the underlying experiences or emotions it expresses. Observing another 'in person,' and assuming one knows what is behind his expression, may be far off the mark.

I, of course, would be utterly hopeless in realms closer than the philosophical or literary. :) I have studied (and sometimes witnessed!) a huge scope of human strengths and weaknesses, but remain a total innocent about the world. I'd undoubtedly have Jack the Ripper in to tea were he to convince me he was on verge of conversion. I can be witty or even bawdy, irreverent, cynical, and the lot - but, deep down, I think most of the world is seeking some sort of mystical union with the divine, 24/7.

Yet one of the frustrations in my own life is that, though I'm a private sort and not likely to tell my life story to anyone offhand, it is next to impossible to explain one's own situation if another already is inclined to 'box' people based on what is conventional. (If I recognise convention, I'm apt to scoff at this.) Whatever my weaknesses, I am not deficient in verbal or written expression, but I've had many a situation of explaining matters in detail and having a totally different version created from what I supposedly said (and never would!)

We cut off others the moment we think they have to fit stereotypes. Worse, we can assume (as I would at times - though fortunately I am not in circulation much, and do not have the discernment to ever seek to guide anyone!) that others see things as we do. Last but by no means least, in the religious realm, we can hear 'agendas' so many times that we aren't even conscious of them any longer.

Here's a silly example. I well remember when two friends of mine, both young, unmarried women, attended a social group at their church, intended for single people in their age group. They naturally were hoping this could be an opportunity to meet some nice guys, and I'm sure they were not alone in this goal. Little did they know that, in their diocese at that time, there was all sorts of talk about 'neglecting those in single life,' and recognising it as a 'calling.' At the first meeting, the religious Sister who greeted the group went on about 'single life as vocation,' assuming they felt left out because of the current emphasis on family. (She probably heard this at a 'workshop.') I'm comforted that someone out there is even dumber than I am, because the last thing on the attendees minds, I'm sure, was pursuing 'single life as vocation.'

We cannot help seeing things from a particular perspective - it's much a part of our individual natures. Let's just be sure we are aware of this. Assuming "I know how you feel," or that "all women think this way, and I know how you feel just because we are of the same gender," or that whatever we heard at the latest 'workshop' (or whatever the 21st century counterpart of that venerable institution exists at the moment) is everyone's first priority, can cut off far more communication than it facilitates.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The entire world can read this

The difficulty with maintaining a blog for years is that one feels one is repeating oneself, and wonders whether one has anything worthwhile to say. (Perhaps I should have used the first person pronoun rather than the neutral 'one' - because it occurs to me that, not only on blogs but on Facebook and other networking sites, a large number of people not only have no qualms about such repetition but greatly over-estimate the level of general interest in such details as whether one went shopping today or is eating a toasted ham and cheese.) This is not likely to be one of my better posts, but, just in case anyone actually reads this blog, and wondered if I'd made a vow of silence, I can assure my readers that this is not the case (much as it may be a relief to some people in this world if I had.)

I was an Internet designer in its early days, and love the capabilities this technology gives me for research, keeping up with my friends all over the globe, amusing interchanges, and participation in a forum now and then. However, it still amazes me, now that the Internet is long past its infancy, the extent to which people share personal matters on-line. I have, for example, seen Facebook 'walls' with what I would consider quite intimate details of one's life (not to mention language that makes me, one far from prudish and who loves the temperate use of Anglo Saxon vernacular of all kinds, blush and occasionally get bug-eyed.) It further amazes me when anyone is angry or feels violated when something is 'shared,' if it is a matter he posted on his own site in the first place! Of course, I have seen evidence that it can be easy to forget what is a 'message,' and what is posted on another's 'wall' for all and sundry to read.

Normally, I enjoy being humorous on this blog, but I'm going to be quite serious for a moment. As far as I'm concerned, if someone wants to post everything from what he had for lunch to what happened (or he wishes had happened) in a social setting, at worst this entails bad taste or self-absorption. (The self absorption I used to see on 'personal home pages' was stupid enough, but it normally did not have a daily update.) I may not find either trait appealing, but neither do I see them as dangerous. There is a far more troubling matter on my mind today.

I am not suggesting this is universal, nor that it is a trait reserved to the young - but I have a long memory, and know, sadly, that, especially with young people, cruelty, exclusion, mockery, having one's own friends turn on one, someone's being targeted as a scapegoat (often for no reason at all), is far from being new. Most of us either suffered as a result in our youth, or saw others in the situation. I shall also add that, though I could not fathom why, then or now, there are actions one may consider hilarious at that age which one would shudder to have had a part in even six months later.

Those who came to adulthood well before the Internet must all have painful memories, perhaps scars to this day, in those categories. Yet we were fortunate because, if someone mocked us or was cruel, and though it might mean that the stereotype everyone believed (which becomes permanent once it is uttered) meant we'd never have a chance for the truth to be seen by a person or group of people, only a limited number knew of this. Today, the sort of spite that would have been limited could be broadcast to the entire world within an hour.

I'm much too innocent to know if there were many people who were voyeurs - though even I am not so stupid as to know that pornography is an old matter, and that there are people, whether in speech or photographs, who flaunted their own sexual behaviour. I have no understanding of this, but, if it is someone's own choice (and the other party involved is equally willing), the consequences are his alone. It chills me that the tiny 'web cam' devices seem to be licence, in some circles, for photographing others. If this existed in my younger days, at least one had the interval for film developing, during which one might come to one's senses. Today, someone may record another's actions, without his even being aware, and have no qualms about posting this for international viewing.

I could go on about various moral implications, but I'll restrict what I write today to one matter. There is something seriously lacking, in so much as a concept of human dignity (at the barest level), when having technology available means that others are treated as if they were at one's service for what is horrid and cruel 'entertainment.'

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Those self indulgent hedonists!

From the beginning, the movement had a special appeal to the young... Some observers took a tolerant view, seeing it as a harmless outlet for youthful high spirits; others argued that all could learn from its adherents' high-mindedness and seriousness, that they were recalling the nation to its own ideals; some said that the movement offered spiritual meaning and purpose in a crass and materialistic society. But these voices were drowned out by the chorus of condemnation. Many more saw the movement as an expression of hedonism and self-indulgence, an unfortunate sign of the times, a symptom of the nation's moral decay. On the fringe, a few even argued that the movement's leaders were agents of an alien ideology, covertly serving a foreign power and seeking to subvert the nation's constitution.

No, my friends, this quotation does not refer to pirate radio, Woodstock, a social democrat organisation, or even (bear with me, since I spent so much time with the medieval) the excesses amongst some of the teenage vagabonds who were first to band with Francis of Assisi. It is an apt, if hilarious with our hindsight, observation from John Shelton Reed's Glorious Battle, and refers to the Oxford Movement.

It surely is no secret, to anyone who follows this blog (..if, indeed, any reader does so...), that I have great respect for the Oxford Movement fathers, and cherish their legacy. Just this past week, I was preparing a scholarly treatment of the movement - one of the many items in my file of "classes I'll give should the opportunity arrive," though I know it is doubtful that shall ever be the case. I'm not being scholarly here - just playful.

Country parson Keble indeed had a concern for the poor and was at least trying to develop a social conscience, even if a genuine working class kid like myself wonders whether he (or others of the era) had any notion of 'the nitty gritty' - I recoil at the taste of calves' foot jelly. Pusey would have made me look like a hedonist. I think he wore a figurative hair-shirt at least - and, were I his wife or daughter, I believe I'd have wondered if I were the hair shirt and run off to a commune in India. I don't doubt I'd have enjoyed a pint with John Henry Newman, the only theologian of the bunch (and, at least among the English-speaking, probably the only writer of the era who deserves to be called a theologian at all.) The mental picture of this crop and their followers as encouraging "hedonism and self-indulgence" strains even the imagination of an artistic sort.

Different though they were, the Fathers of the Oxford Movement had essential ideas (and this beyond their stress on sacrament and liturgy, and on apostolic succession when it didn't involve dealing with, much less obeying, individual bishops) with which I heartily agree. The Victorian optimism, which seemed to assume that all change was progressive and positive, seems ludicrous to those of us born after two World Wars, but their stress on sanctification, not only 'salvation,' is one I greatly value. I love the emphasis on the patristic era, though (being a life-long Catholic in my theology and Mediterranean into the bargain) I regret that they had to combine this with ideas of 'the fall' and atonement which took what is worst in (the often magnificent) Augustine (who, after all, was defending omnipotence against Gnosticism, and had ghosts of the Manichean era at his side) and added in influences of Calvin (and even Luther's angst ). I cannot agree more strongly with Newman that to cut the faithful from the study of doctrine and require implicit faith (to which I add, whether in the fashion of an obedient, dutiful English Victorian or according to the 'faith excludes curiosity' version in the documents of Trent) would "in the educated, terminate in indifference, in the poorer, in superstition."

I may consider Pusey to be a bit over the top in his attitudes towards asceticism - a marvellous concept unless it's infected by the idea of atoning for sin, curse of the west and never eliminated even for those who love the patristic (especially if they've never heard of the Orthodox.) (I'll confess here that I find Pusey to be utterly unreadable, and am not even sure he knew what he wanted to express.) Yet how can I, a Romantic at heart, not love one who saw the Eucharist as how to celebrate and underline "Christian communitarian oneness in the midst of a divisive society"? On one level, this is and always was true - but I am inclined to agree with (IIRC) Owen Chadwick, who saw the Oxford Fathers' religion as 'of the heart and not the head,' where what mattered was what should make us holy (not necessarily what practically anyone else would consider to be true.)

I love Newman, and not only because of his brilliance in theology, because (though I certainly do not have his knowledge or intelligence!) we have a few of the same weaknesses. He was too trusting, assumed integrity on the part of others, and never realised when he was a pawn. He had impeccable intellectual abilities and dreadful judgement - I'll save it for another day (maybe tomorrow...), but his Second Spring sermon, which managed to blatantly insult those who'd remained Catholic since the Tudor era, the High Church Anglicans, and indeed his partners in the Oxford Movement in one fell swoop (not to mention frightening away reserved RCs and Anglo-Catholics with the optimism that everyone was travelling Rome-ward on an Ultramontane magic carpet), is probably the best illustration. (Memories of the days of Pius V could not have been pleasant in the time of his namesake who would soon be infallible. Of course, Napoleon's annexing the papal states and sending Pius IX into exile gives me a certain sympathy for the latter's losing any liberal convictions, and Rome was nothing like the temporal power it was in the time of the Tudors, but I dare-say that some of the Oxford Movement's Catholic assertions would have been better received had the papacy not been somewhat flamboyant in display at the time.)

It is a paradox that the Tractarians often pursued the best of Roman Catholic/Orthodox tradition in their patristic emphasis (and the excellent underlying idea of creation and personhood rooted in the Trinity), yet adopted some of the very worst of Counter-Reformation or medieval practise. Appeals to the patristic era became strained, because, during that era, orthodoxy had been based on beliefs related to Christology and the Trinity. The real presence is a common references even during the time of the martyr Justin - yet the overly literal stress on transubstantiation, the tendency for 'take and eat' not to be heeded where 'take and adore without eating' turned RC churches into reliquaries, or the legalism of the post-Tridentine times would have been unknown in the early centuries. The medieval illustrations of Purgatory did not exist in the patristic times (I much prefer the idea of growth in holiness between our death and the last judgement to Dante), but some of Pusey's love for RC devotional books could seem highly superstitious.

I still haven't a clue as to how these gentlemen and their associates could be viewed as self-indulgent or hedonists.

Perhaps some of you can see that, though I'm only playing here and hardly scratching the surface, my failure to prepare the class that will never be given is not a lack of information - but wondering how to condense enough material to fill a library. Yet I must leave you with a delicious quotation which Anthony Archer provides in "The Two Catholic Churches," and it will come as no surprise that my agreement is entirely with my old friend Newman. (I dislike Father Faber just as much as I do most Victorian hymns.)

"In his rather luxuriant work on the Blessed Sacrament, Faber had described a helpless and captive God, experiencing a mournful solitude in the little dungeon of the tabernacle. This was the Jesus whose fondness for silence was known, because nothing more silent than the sacrament could be thought of; it was the God who was carried about and broken into three pieces by priests who washed the sacred vessels and napkins as Joseph must have washed the clothes of Christ.

All this was set against a background of speculation that Christ had given Mary the Sacrament at the Last Supper, and that it had remained in her, uncorrupted, so that He could be in her during his Passion... And it evoked the desire to 'put our little crown of puny love on the long hair which covers His beautiful head.'

Newman remarked that he knew of no book that would so readily turn him into an infidel."

Monday, 19 July 2010

Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and truly lacking in social graces

Yesterday's gospel was about Martha and Mary - probably the topic on which I've heard some of the best and worst sermons. I was restless on Sunday, and attended the early Eucharist, and, since the homilist was a new priest whom I do not know at all, I certainly hope he intended his references to be witty, because I was laughing quite a bit (in recognition of his points, not disdain.) I'm a bit weary for exegesis at the moment, but, though my sympathies are primarily with Mary (being a disciple does tend to give one the unfair tag of 'lazy'), I've 'done a Martha' many times. Yet it had never really occurred to me, as the homilist emphasised, that this is one of several gospel passages in which Jesus is extremely rude.

I'm smiling - remembering Pasolini's film about the Gospel of Matthew, which many critics hail as a masterpiece, but which viewers sometimes found offensive because Jesus seems very blunt and crude... at least until they realise the text and action are taken entirely from Matthew's gospel itself.

John Dominic Crossan is no favourite of mine, to be sure, and I disagree with nearly all of his presentation of doctrine. (I have to admit I rather enjoy him - he reminds me of a sly rogue, and he has a brilliant mind - but consult his works for superb details about first century Palestine, full stop.) Yet I must admit that he was spot on, in discussing Jesus' trial and death, in commenting that this Galilean was a 'peasant, nuisance nobody.' (I can identify with this... takes one to know one, I suppose...though I always wash my hands, and only would help myself to others' corn in the most desperate of circumstances.) By worldly standards, that is quite true.

I'm thinking of the stories we heard in school - and even of the 'scriptural epic' films, which Monty Python later would spoof so brilliantly. One would have received the impression that Jesus walked the earth surrounded by people who resembled the pictures on soppy greeting cards, the lot of them in awe of his every word. (I've said it before, but it merits repetition. We seemed to think that holiness would leave everyone loving the holy, yet forgot that perfectly natural circumstances were the cause of Jesus' crucifixion. I suppose we thought that he'd only gone to the cross because God willed this.) I'm the more impressed, today, that the Church ever began - and know (and this with full acknowledgement of Jesus' divinity!) it only could have been because of the resurrection and Holy Spirit.

There were many miracle workers, itinerant preachers, and undoubtedly quite remarkable, devout Jews in first century Palestine. Jesus was distinguished mainly for applying words about God to himself. His followers were few enough, and he was not a man of great learning (though indeed of brilliance) or achievement. Perhaps he was a good carpenter, but it appears he spent his adult life, or at least the time of his ministry, dependent on the good will of others.

Raymond E. Brown, in his work on New Testament Christology, commented, again aptly, that most of us accept only as much of Jesus' humanity as we wish. Somehow, we seem to think we are insulting his divinity if we admit just how very human he was. I sometimes can all but feel the sense of futility he must have endured at times. ( Howard Marshall notes how Luke’s narrative of the Last Supper is “impregnated with apostasy, self-seeking, denial, and betrayal – attendance does not transport the disciples to Paradise or lift them out of trial and temptation. The grim narrative heightens Jesus’ self-giving, and the promise that, through his death, salvation and the heavenly banquet are offered to weak, fickle disciples.” And what followed that night is not anything upon which I'm sure the apostles later cared to dwell.)

On another note, I was just telling a friend today that I'm caught up in what might be termed "Martha tasks" (as well as such bizarre diversions as 'liking' things on Facebook in the wee hours, or dozing over Lifetime films, if only to remember that no one has a more complicated life than those in the latter). The Jesus who was 'too real' for his rudeness to be accepted by those in our congregation (who may not know that I think 'politeness' can cloak distance, and does not necessarily mean virtue...) was speaking to me, because, since I'm in one of my tense periods, I can't deal with what is totally real! I stumble through my prayers, cannot study or write essays, cannot find inspiration, write disjointed and dreadful blog entries if any at all. I can't even read the great literature I love, or listen to the high-brow music that is my passion. I'm sure this is common: what is troubling us can't be shaken at times, and we can lose ourselves in silliness because what is too genuine leaves us in a muddle. And this though we were created to be as real as it gets!

So bear with this diversion, if you will. Jesus of Nazareth indeed was lower class in his ways (in fact, I'm sure my mother wasn't the only one who thought him cheeky even by the standards of our class, especially with reference to a particular incident that occurred when he was 12.) But I'll take his ways over those of the 'polite.' He was always willing to heal and forgive (in fact, Martha and Mary, in particular, would see a most striking example of that - under circumstances where some would have shrunk anticipating the stench.) He never lacked compassion, or sent away those in pain with 'you're feeling sorry for yourself!' I would imagine, were he in church today, that he wouldn't raise his eyebrows if someone were choking, thinking they had no manners and should leave because they were spoiling the music. He might not be appalled that babies cry and spit up (and might even know that, at that age, they can do little else), even though it's far better form to have children who are hatched, fully formed, at the age to be sent away to school. He would even deal with that adults sometimes cry, or call out in pain, or utter the equivalent of "Son of David, heal me!" even when the hearer is so tired he'd like to take off on a boat over the Sea of Galilee, and respond to their pain rather than calling for a security guard or reproaching them for unseemly behaviour.

No inspiration today, my friends - but take heart, if you are in a muddle as well, that you're not alone. Now, off for me to compose an answer to someone who wanted to share the enormous grace she believes she received in the 'gifts of tears and tremors.' Aside from that, if my soggy memory serves me, most writers on that topic were speaking of repentance (a gift, indeed, but I doubt that is the sort of gift to which she was referring), I'm trying to find a delicate way to say that I've heard other things can cause tears and tremors... and I don't want to be rude.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

"Take what you like and leave the rest" - especially if it's medieval

Needless to say, as one who maintains an Internet site about medieval topics, I tend to forget how confusing approaches of that era (and many others... including our own) can appear to those unfamiliar with the approaches and terminology. Cliché though it is, I not only find "take what you like and leave the rest" to be an especially wise approach in theology and philosophy. (I'm so used to doing so that I don't even realise how much I 'edit' when I'm studying.) I'm sorry that, in my own adult years, the idea of 'adapting to the times' so often meant nonsense, so what I'm about to say is not in the category of "make sure not to offend anyone, thereby sacrificing integrity." I've found it essential to always recall what a theologian or philosopher was either refuting or defending.

I have been participating in a discussion/reading group, where the current selection is Thomas Aquinas' Conferences on the Apostles' Creed. I love at least one idea in each chapter (and scrap the rest), but the anti-Semitism, emphasis on considering damnation, and so forth make me cringe. Then again, it seems to me there are at least three 'faces' of Aquinas. There is the mystic that I love, who wrote such glorious (and forever after misinterpreted) passages as those for Corpus Christi. There is the philosopher, about whom I've written extensively in the past. (One must always recall how much hands are tied by having to be careful not to even appear to forget or contradict doctrine or even devotion.) This particular work shows Thomas the homilist - and that is a confusing task for any day. Until well into the modern era, the purpose of sermons was seen as to call the hearers to repentance from sin. It's not that I think that is such a bad idea (...I not only think it's no accident that liturgical texts include a spot for daily contrition, but believe the most charitable action often can be when one has the insight and courage to 'do a Nathan' on us), but that it slants a great deal.

Last week's chapter was on 'He descended into hell.' I loved two elements of this exposition: that "no matter how anyone may be in affliction, he should not despair nor lose trust in the assistance of God," since "nothing can be so dire as being in hell." Of course, this is not the standard hell... it is the vestibule for patriarchs and such who couldn't be admitted to Paradise until the resurrection since the gate was locked at the fall of Adam. Considering that concepts of heaven, hell, and purgatory which had arisen by Thomas' time would have been a total puzzle in first century Palestine, let alone in the days of Abraham, and that concepts of the after-life were vague and, at least amongst Pharisees, centred on the ultimate resurrection, I'm still wondering how the apostles would have composed a creed which treated of descent into hell. The idea of Sheol dates back further, of course - we all remember the OT passage where someone indiscreetly summoned Samuel to appear - but none of the rabbis then or earlier patriarchs had read Augustine on 'the fall,' and presumably neither knew they were locked out nor knew a distant Incarnate Lord had the keys.

Paul of Tarsus, in a way, had it easy. His writings that had to do with our being redeemed in Christ don't condemn those other than the Christians, because he wasn't thinking of them in the first place - his words encouraged and inspired the fledgling Church, who, as heretics themselves, weren't likely to be distracted by the duties of the Inquisition and such. Poor Thomas! He had to make sure there was no doubt about all redemption coming through Christ (perfectly true, of course - but what about those unbaptised?) - and the cheeky 1970s feminist in me was tempted to say "if those not baptised were saved by circumcision, did God let Abraham out but not Sarah?"

The second part I liked immensely was about Christ as an example of love. I may not be big on the medieval concept of purgatory, but our being all one Church, with love enduring through all stages of our life in Christ, is one immensely appealing overall.

Coming from an entirely Catholic background theologically, and since Thomas is about as positive about creation and humanity as any western theologian, I had not realised that some of those in attendance would be quite uncomfortable with Thomas' throwing in our need to be afraid of hell (to avoid presumption), or the suggestion that we frequently descend into hell in thought, since consideration of death can keep us from mortal sin. I, of course, am an over-educated lover of the mystical but not a priest, superior, or anyone else in authority (thanks be to God...) I loathe any emphasis on hell! Thomas would set forth elsewhere that one should act in love for God, not out of fear of punishment, but sermons had to bring forth the pragmatism of the priest. It never occurs to me that, though acting out of fear (whether of divine punishment, social disapproval, criminal penalties) is far from practising virtue or growing in love, if (this is going to sound so pre-Vatican II pulpit, but it expresses the idea well) the only thing that can separate people from sanctifying grace is mortal sin, one tries to keep the flock from it in any way he can.

Lord knows I wish I had 1% of the saintliness that Thomas possessed, but (though I'm far better at studying mystic and ascetic theology than living it) I must laugh at myself that I tend to dwell in outer space. It doesn't matter that I'm a garden variety sinner. (I tend to forget that those such as Thomas or Alphonsus, who wrote wisely of casuistry, intended this for the clergy when they were in the role of confessor, not penitent. I'm in no way scrupulous, yet it takes me an hour or so to prepare for my periodic sacramental confessions. Five minutes to call to mind the messes I've got into since the last penitential season... then 50 of Thomistic mental gymnastics to convince myself I didn't act with reflection and consent.. then thirty seconds to finally admit that I did...) I really and truly think that everyone is focussed on virtue! (This has led to some dangerous situations in the past. I'm lucky I'm half behind the grille, considering that, were Jack the Ripper to speak of divine mercy and his own trust in this, I would never see that he had no conscience, but instead think "what faith this man must have, to so trust in divine mercy after all those murders!," then invite him in to join me for Vespers and a cigar.)

When it comes to my personal spirituality (hodge podge though it is), I actually favour the patristic writings most of all. I'm much more into deification than 'the fall' (I love Augustine in many ways, but not on that!). That does not mean that I'm unaware that scoundrels or the average but basically innocent existed in that supposed hey-dey of Christian thought (when most Christians were surrounded by pagans.) Those who were putting off baptism to get in plenty of sin before that one shot at total forgiveness were in huge numbers. Debates about whether forgiveness was possible after baptism, or whether only the holy could be considered still part of the Church, are less brutal to our eyes when we remember that the penitents were bishops who sacrificed to pagan gods, or solitaries who were escaping military service or taxes but selling pardons in the false names of those martyred.

Thomas may have used this chapter to refer to Jesus' defeating Satan on his own turf (even though, long before Thomas' day, the Evil One presided over a far more horrifying, and unquestionably permanent, kingdom than the patriarchs' waiting room... and even Thomas won't let the unbaptised babies have free passage to paradise, lest, I suppose, anyone doubt Christ as Redeemer or the importance of baptism, especially with non-Christian invaders not too far off and the need for an objective standard of who was Christian), but Thomas, however young, would have been far too wise to think we could blame Satan for all that much. We do most of it well enough on our own. I shudder at how 'evil does not exist' is a constant pastoral disaster, but love how Thomas thought that we were good, and that even evil is a failure to achieve potential, not depravity as in the minds of a few theologians I could think of from a later time.

Lord have mercy... it just struck me, and this for the first time in my life! I think everyone is trying to practise virtue - and that fear of hell doesn't grasp love - and that we are missing... our potential when we sin! Pastoral disaster or not, it is just this minute that I realised that it looks as if I essentially think evil is the absence of good! I'd best go get a nap.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Great fun to 'do a David and Goliath'

I had a quite ambitious idea a few days ago, about writing of William of Ockham and his opposition to the scholastic theologians - indeed, a good mental workout for one who is happy that the warm breezes have thawed her brain. I am declining to do so because proper form for such a presentation is a massive amount of work, which I would devote to a lecture, paper, or dissertation, but not to a blog which I doubt anyone reads. Still, I smiled to recall what a Franciscan friar used to tell me (and accurately - and this was many years before I had eight years of Jesuit education) : "You always sound like a Franciscan arguing with a Domiinican."

I can sympathise with William of Ockham, though his political prudence must have been even worse than my own if he denied the temporal authority of the papacy in view of that Christ reigns in heaven. I can well understand his seeing philosophy as not dealing with the 'real world,' not only because (as I've addressed elsewhere) brilliant philosophical arguments, taken in anything beyond the limited sense in which they were formulated, lead to pastoral disasters, but because so much that is 'logically possible' is impossible, and it all tends to be counter-intuitive outside of philosophy books. (Bear with me. I'm writing this on a library computer with a faulty keyboard and cursor.)

Much in scholastic theology could be puzzling, if not chilling! God is whatever it happens to mean to be fully God, though all we can determine is what God is not. Evil seems to be denied, because it doesn't exist and only appears as such because God's priorities are not ours. God has power over us but no responsibility, and one would shudder to think of what seems to be good to God since it wouldn't meet the lowest human standards of love and morality. (I am hugely exagerrating, of course - but just try taking a single sscholastic argument out of context.)

William probably created the worst havoc of his century with nominalism (which somehow had the secondary effect of messing up worship and having canon law impose legalism just to assure uniformity and doctrine.) William based everyything, whether in regard to us or to God, on the will. God could have saved us without the cross - He could have produced another universe and just might after the last judgement - there is none of the working backwards from effect to cause of the scholastics. (In all fairness to William, he only said that God could have done things differently, not that he did.) Yet, in a nutshell, his affective approach, with an emphasis on will common amongst Franciscans, can leave one with the weird impression that we never can know what is real, or that the will can respond to what the mind hasn't even grasped as a good in the first place.

(You are probably wondering why I became Franciscan in the first place. I have no idea.)

Yesterday, I heard a comment about a young theologian who created a stir by a writing that questioned the 100% Catholic status of Hans urs von Balthasar. I'm jealous - that must have been great fun. I'm too shy, and still infected by the Franciscan worm of inferiority, to do it in person, but I just love the exercise of refuting theologians for whom I have the greatest respect (as I do for Hans if not exactly for William.) It isn't that I have any illusions of having a fraction of their brilliance or learning, but that 'doing a David and Goliath' is so enriching. It means gathering the wisdom from varied areas, finally getting insight, exploring the history and traditions, exploring what one truly believes - and then setting forth an argument that is as much a song of praise as an Alleluia that a Franciscan just might still have a brain and show it in public. (Many Franciscans were and are brilliant, but Bonaventure and Anthony were only being brilliant under obedience, when the need arose as they were washing dishes or pulling the weeds. The down side of this, of course, isn't just the'worm' thing again, but that those who...don't sound like they are arguing with Dominicans can base everything on inspiration at the dish pan.)

Saturday, 26 June 2010

...But the Lord kept sending me prophecies!...

No, I can assure you that the heading to this post does not refer to yours truly! In my case (and I'm not suggesting this approach is universal, though it is one I highly recommend), I have long been safe and secure in the banality of orthopraxy. Orthopraxy has held Judaism (and Christianity later) close to the Trinity for many millennia... and, if any one of my readers has inclinations towards becoming prophets (which I somehow am inclined to doubt), a look at the Hebrew Scriptures and the situations in which prophets found themselves should inspire caution.

Oh, I'll grant that, thirty-odd years ago, I was involved in some liturgical versions of "I Get High with a Little Help from my Friends" in which we could fall into being prophetic as all get out. For most of us, the caring, support, desire for union with the divine and such indeed was loving and sincere, but we had no concepts of discernment, wisdom, humility and other such trivia. It may seem odd that, around 1978 (after 5 years working in worship office and on various liturgical commissions), when I was writing my MA thesis on liturgical music, I still had my days of sitting on the floor singing Blowin' in the Wind and sharing kisses and the Eucharist with the others - and that even I was not immune to having some clip from scripture and vague insight popping into my head and proclaiming it with the mandatory, "My People!" God have mercy on us, what inflated little Gnostics we all were... Yet I think at least a few of you will understand why I am a stickler for the liturgy (including the Offices, of course), and why I find orthopraxy so comforting. Why we thought we could improve on the scriptures, or that God Himself needed us for some original mouthpiece, or why we so casually called on divine power (despite the loving desire to see healing), is beyond my description, but I couldn't have been alone in not realising I had an inflated view of my own holiness - and what, deep down, was a desire for magical power.

The heading for this post actually is a favourite line of two self-proclaimed prophets of my acquaintance. I must 'introduce' you to Helen first, because I could use a laugh today and sharing this little story (which happened long after the neo-Gnostic stage) will give me at least five. I used to play the organ on Tuesday evenings in a shrine, where there was a service comprised of the Eucharist, Exposition of the Sacrament (during which most in attendance recited the rosary), then Benediction - thankfully, just a little silence was there to be enjoyed during the exposition. Helen was a rather imposing sort who received periodic inspirations from the Holy Spirit, which led her to compose poetry. (Somehow, I feel using both terms is an insult to both the Third Person of the Trinity and true poetry, but I'll leave that for later.) Helen was not one to hide her light under a bushel, and would have a printer prepare copies of the poetry as light to the less inspired in her company. She would stand in the chapel during the time of silence, explain how the inspiration came to her, then recite the passage from Apocrypha Helena.

From the 'kids, don't try this at home' department: I shall caution anyone who might stumble on this blog without a sense of irony that Helen's example should not be taken to inspire one to further glory. To my knowledge, such behaviour would never be tolerated unless the 'prophet' had donated the building, which Helen indeed had. My cynical side is tempted to comment that, for a donation totalling seven or eight figures, one might get away with erecting an altar to Ba'al.

Those who applaud the demise of choir lofts never needed to stifle one's hysterical laughter behind the organ anywhere in which the following passage was part of the prophecy. (Helen's inspiration had come when she visited a bedridden, dying woman and was reminded of the suffering Christ. That strikes me as quite a good inspiration indeed - had she only left it at that...)

"I am your suffering Jesus, on my pillow, in my home,
Won't someone come and visit me or call me on the phone?"

I am also reminded of a religious Sister whom I knew from our having attended the same class in the History of Judaism, during which she was quick to interrupt the rabbi with questions about, perhaps, the political climate in El Salvador. She lived in a large convent, where Sisters were engaged in varied ministries, and their custom was to recite the Office of Readings together during the evening Eucharist. (The Office of Readings was freshly minted at the time, and was - is - a gem. It would be a little difficult to improve on the diverse, often highly powerful writings included. In case you are unfamiliar with this Office, besides the psalms it includes one reading from the scriptures, another from sources such as patristic writings, noted theologians, documents of ecumenical councils, and the like.) Apparently, in that house, each of the Sisters took a turn at leading the Office of Readings for a week - and, if she did not want to use those in the Liturgy of the Hours (...which probably took about ten thousand liturgical scholars thirty years to compile..), she could choose any combination of scriptural and 'second' readings.

Needless to say, this in itself could present a few problems, especially if that week's leader had an agenda (which nearly all of us had at the time. Judging from my Internet journeys, I'll take the ones we had over some which are popular now...) But Marilyn stood alone! She resisted the bid for conformity, and, rather than using any scriptural or patristic text at all, improvised because "The Lord kept sending her prophecies."

Perhaps one does not become the stickler I am about worship (if nothing else), or so sensitive about how little pursuits such as healing services, exorcisms, and the like (don't ask me why such matters as exorcism have become popular in the Internet age), require great respect for the authority Christ gave to his Church, unless one's cheeks have burnt at how very much we have the capability for exaggerating our own importance...

Note that I am not suggesting there is not extensive precedent for odd attitudes towards power and what one does in Christ's name. Here's a totally coincidental reading from the lectionary for tomorrow (Luke Chapter 9):

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, (Jesus) set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Come to me, my melancholy baby :)

I've been keeping company with strange bedfellows once again this week. I've no idea why, since warmer weather tends to thaw my brain a bit, and the combination of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and Corpus Christi certainly inspires awe and exhilaration, but somehow I've had a touch of melancholy. For reasons which even I cannot explain fully (...just as I cannot tell you why I mistook my friend Doris's medallion of a "D" for a Latin numeral instead of her initial), I've been alternately dosing myself with Monty Python Sings (a CD that will make me laugh almost as much as underground copies of the medieval Feast of Fools - which isn't for mixed company if everyone understands Latin) and 17th century English (metaphysical) poets.

Sidetracking but for a reason: in my own case, melancholy is a distraction, a burden to be borne for as little time as possible - I endure it now and then, but never with enjoyment. By contrast, I've known a number of people throughout my life, many of whom were the 'life of the party' and enormously witty by nature, who seemed to need a healthy helping of misery just to keep fit. I'm thinking of when I was travelling to a new location, and my old friend Richard (a living leprechaun, and one whose motto could be 'leave them laughing') was happily telling me of his own experiences there. This was the early 1990s, when airline flights were far more fun that in these days when the crew wishes everyone would just sleep and no one was working on laptops. In the midst of going on about the fun of the flight itself, Richard suddenly got his "gnome grieves" expression and reminded me, "You know, at least one person on that flight will be going to claim a body."

Quite. Since loose associations are my speciality, I somehow am reminded of how only one as concurrently rational and imaginative as C. S. Lewis could fall through wardrobes into Narnia, speak with a detachment I find chilling (at least until Joy died) about the 'problem of suffering,' and think evil spirits caused natural disasters.

When I'm trying to get past a melancholy period, after liberal doses of my rock music collection and Monty Python, I often immerse myself in English literature, and so I did this week. I spent this afternoon with John Donne, for example - obviously, there were drastic differences in our early life experiences, but I think we could be kindred spirits when we meet in heaven - much of his poetry is delightful (including, if not especially, that which would pre-date what might be termed his conversion... I suppose some of my readers would take issue with that term), and I have many a question for him. (To the pedantic sorts who would shake their heads and say "but you're not going to meet him in heaven!", I'll drag out an old Irish joke, which I learnt from the same people who laugh for an hour then remember that at least one person on a pleasant flight is en route to claiming a body and retort, "Then you ask him!") That did not keep me from also giving attention to George Herbert (and the poetic quotes which follow are from his writings.)

I have no idea why I have affection for Herbert's work (for all of its literary merit.) I think my attitude is something like that which I have for Wagner operas - they have moments which are brilliant and uplifting, wedged between much that is ponderous. I am moved to silence (not something that happens too frequently in most parts of my life...) at such words as these:

How wide is all this long pretence!
There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd:
Copie out onely that, and save expense...

Or perhaps:

My joy, my life, my crown!
My heart was meaning all the day,
Somewhat it fain would say;
And still it runneth muttering up and down,
With onely this, My joy, my life, my crown.

Whereas if th'heart be moved,
Although the verse be somewhat scant,
God doth suppplie the want,
As when th'heart sayes (sighing to be approved)
Oh, could I love! and stops: God writeth, Loved.

That does not keep me from groaning through nine-tenths of, for example, "The Church Porch," where a few marvellous lines are wedged between a dour, severe, though admittedly wise treatment of human weakness. (Well, all right... when one pages through the poems at length, and I'll even admit I have a pocket edition, there are lots of great moments.) Aldous Huxley made a good point in comparing Herbert to the variable English weather. (Contrary to legend, I might add, it is not perpetually raining in England - and probably doesn't rain any more than in most places. What distinguishes English weather is that it can change very suddenly - hence the eternal need for the umbrella, which one finds later one left on the Tube because it rained for ten minutes a few hours ago and hasn't since. One discovers this on exiting the Tube, walking 300 m, and finding it has begun to rain again, briefly but intensely, whilst one's umbrella is heading to the next stop.)

From Love I:
Immortall Love, author of this great frame,
Sprung from that beautie which can never fade;
...Wit fancies beautie, beautie raiseth wit;
The world is theirs, they two play out the fame,
Thou standing by; and through thy glorious name
Wrought our deliverance from th'infernall pit,
Who sings thy praise; only a skarf or glove
Doth warm our hands, and make them write of love.

Richard Baxter was undoubtedly correct regarding George Herbert's works, in saying that Herbert "speaks to a God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God." I believe that Herbert, however conflicted he was, always was faced with wanting to do God's will and struggling with what that might be. Commentator Helen Gardner provided a summary of the essence, I believe: "The conflicts of The Temple are conflicts of self-will. The pain of the frustration of hopes, in themselves laudable, of the loss of friends and continual ill health is given its full weight. The deepest pain is the pain of feeling useless, of having nothing to give where so much has been given; and this Herbert knows to be the real nerve-pain of egoism. He knows too what is its cure. If age and sickness take everything, the powers of the mind as well as those of the body and, most precious, the power to write poetry, Yet they have left me, Thou art still my God."

How should I praise Thee, Lord! how should my rymes
Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
My soul might ever feel!

Not only in the case of George Herbert, of course, but as a general weakness within the Western Church for many centuries, I believe we do tend to place undue emphasis on 'fallen nature,' penance as atonement rather than removal of distractions to intimacy, the cross to the point where one would think the resurrection and our deification never quite happened. Still, one whose commitment was as sincere as Herbert's probably dealt with a struggle those of our more 'enlightened' age can wish to ignore. (Let's face it - we're embarrassed to admit that we even have a concept of personal sin, as if that showed bad self esteem, or fear facing the pain and guilt or even mentioning it because it might keep us from looking modern and welcoming.) All of us, if we have a shred of honesty not cancelled by seeking to be inoffensive to the trendy, know that our sinfulness indeed does block intimacy. I'm not referring to punishment, hell, a lack of divine forgiveness (and our asking for this is for our sake, not because He is offended). The fact remains that, even when our sins do not lead to grave (or any) natural consequences, the repentant sinner has to face the spiritual consequences - the pain, weakness, and struggles which are the aftermath. It's only then that we can embrace Truth. Those whose lives are as centred on God as were Herbert's cannot help but pine for the intimacy our weakness blocks. (Yes, I am aware that George Herbert lived with constant illness, and died at age 39.)

From Love II:
Immortal Heat, O let thy greater flame
Attract the lesser to it: let those fires,
Which shall consume the world, first make it tame;
And kindle in our hearts such true desires,
As may consume our lusts, and make thee way,
Then shall our hearts pant thee; then shall our brain
All her invention on thine Altar lay,
And there in hymnes send back thy fire again:
Our eies shall see thee, which before saw dust;
Dust blown by wit, till they both were blinde:
Thou shalt recover all thy goods in kinde,
Who wert disseized by usurping lust:
All knees shall bow to thee; all wits shall rise,
And praise him who did make and mend our eies.

All right... by now you can understand why even I have the pocket edition of Herbert... Even if he writes about asking God to spare the rod and wrath...

Perhaps the melancholy in which some indulge is there as a balance to make the joy more intense. It is difficult for me to imagine this, since, though I sing a chorus of "Hello, darkness, my old friend" (and then ten choruses of "Richard Cory" to get me through worries about my poverty...) now and then, melancholy is something from which I far prefer diversion. Still, I see an overlay of fear. Calvin and Jansen would infect Christian thinking with this to a degree that has yet to fade, but it long pre-dates their lifetime - focus on our being 'fallen,' as if our existence is somehow depraved, and our desires, even if they are far from sinful, just have to be tainted. (By contrast, even if the arguments he was commissioned to craft have a bit too much of 'atonement for sin' flavour, Thomas Aquinas focussed on all of creation as good, and saw us, even at our worst, as failing to fulfil potential.) Slipping in words of happiness (or, in Herbert's case, awe and devotion) between the woes is superstitious - as if we might be caught laughing and have another cross to bear, or might have pains to endure because we aren't regretting our weakness quite enough.

I've studied the Middle Ages extensively (and also can remember when it seemed the whole of popular Roman Catholic doctrine and practise was confined to offering things up for the poor souls), so I make many a joke about Purgatory... and indeed excesses on that topic would have made those post-Reformation shudder at the very term. I'm sorry the underlying treasure was lost - a positive view that admits to our weakness, our constant need for growth, God's endless creative activity. Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), dangerous German liberal though he was thought to be in my youth, did not fear the topic - and, though George Herbert of all people wouldn't have used the word, I think I'll close with some references from Benedict's "Eschatology."

Benedict compares Christ's descending into Sheol to "the dark night." "Hope can take it on, only if one shares in the suffering of Hell's night by the side of One who came to transform our night by His suffering."

Moving on to Purgatory: Benedict notes that the anchoring of a person in the Church is not disrupted by death. We still bear each others' burdens. "We make our way through the judging fire of Christ's intimate presence in the companionable embrace of the family of the Church." Christ Himself is the judging fire, which transforms us and conforms us to his own glorified body.

He continues to describe humanity as a recipient of divine mercy - yet notes our continuous need for transformation. Fire (that is, Christ Himself, not some agonising, destructive torture) burns away the dross and reforms us to be vessels of eternal joy. "This insight would contradict the doctrine of grace only if penance were the antithesis of grace and not its form, the gift of a gracious possibility." Constant readiness for reform marks the forgiven sinner. The being of mankind is not a closed monad. It is related to others as love or hate, and, in these ways, has its colonies within them.

Heaven, according to Ratzinger, is Christologically determined. Christ, as God, is human, and makes space for human existence in the existence of God himself. It is the definitive completeness of human existence which comes through the perfect love towards which faith tends.

By now (if, indeed, anyone is still there), this hodgepodge must be utterly confusing. Where am I going with this? Well, bear with me - the days when I need both Monty Python and John Donne mean many struggles of my own. But I can see a common thread of deficiency in much thinking of Christians, including noted and sincere poets such as Herbert. We must not forget eschatology - nor ecclesiology. We need to face our pain to get our own lives in line with the gospels, yet even the 'next life' is one where we are a Church. I'm too lazy to look it up this minute, but I think Julian of Norwich would write that, whatever burdens we have, they are never too heavy for the Church.

(Wryness tag on... just a little.) Even when the melancholy saps my quickness, I'm a hopeless Romantic but hardly a fool - and my knowledge of history isn't all that deficient. I may giggle at Monty Python's song about poor King Charles, but would have thought it quite bad taste to play that selection in Herbert's time. Even I (in my earliest school days) was afraid of Oliver Cromwell - until I discovered that, yes, he was as dead as Julius Caesar - and I'm hardly turning a blind eye to what Donne or Herbert observed. I have an enormous fondness for the Caroline Divines, and know all too well what they were trying to piece together. Yet the 16-17th centuries illustrated trends that were not only related to the specific historical circumstances. (I know what some of the recusant faced, indeed - but those who'd like to place the entire blame on pragmatic Gloriana have to admit that both Pius V and the Jesuits had their parts in the backlash... Let's not be idealistic about how 'our being the Church' cancels what a crop of shites we all can be. What matters is that, in total, we're Christ's Church.)

There was and is a lack of emphasis on eschatology and ecclesiology - and, if the Church of England was forced into an uncomfortable "how do we keep worshippers from Rome or Geneva?" (sometimes being most excessive in that strategy...) , Rome erred (understandably, considering the Church was being torn to shreds) at Trent, for all the abuses that were corrected, at turning 'ecclesiology' into jurisdiction and authority, full stop. All camps shelved eschatology (without forgetting the 'four last things,' with presumably hell as the default destination) and continued a prevalent trend towards focussing, even in discussions of the Eucharist (and this was true even of the continental Reformers), on our need for forgiveness. Trent, for example, denied Communion to young children not because they could not understand, but because they did not yet have use of reason and will and didn't need forgiveness. So much for anamnesis of a rather larger Incarnation...

I just talked about our need to ask forgiveness - and, at the Offices and the Eucharist, it seems to me I do that about twice a day, so I am by no means minimising its importance (or that of facing the pain), only of its being the sole and primary idea. I'm sorry that, in the Church of England, whatever emphases the Caroline Divines considered, it would be the 20th century before Communion was generally a main Sunday service or sacramental confession was acceptable - and that, in the Roman Catholic Church, only the decree on frequent communion in the 20th century rescued the Host from being primarily an object of devotion, not reception. Yet we still need to recover such ideas regarding eschatology as were emphasised in the early Church - and to formulate ideas of ecclesiology that are based neither on "we are a Church - we're family, anything goes as long as you show up and bring your collection envelopes" or "obey - because I said so" or a lack of integrity that masquerades as tolerance.

There, I said it and I'm glad - and I know full well that, had I lived in the times of persecution, I would have so enraged both sides that I'd have been executed twice.

...Off I go... anyone who can include such glorious quotes in a post and still feel a bit unwell needs yet another dose of Monty Python... Blessings for Corpus Christi, my friends (...and may the very mention of that feast underline Christology, eschatology, and ecclesiology...) ;-)

Teach me thy love to know;
That this new light, which now I see,
May both the work and workman show;
Then by a sunne-beam I will climbe to thee.

Friday, 28 May 2010

The poet speaks

I have never had the slightest flair for writing poetry, yet I was recalling this week that I once won a poetry contest during my young adult years. I still recall the poem - and am not about to share it here because it is just too weird. At that time, it was possible to win a poetry contest even if one was not stoned at the moment (though at least half of contestants undoubtedly were), provided it sounded as if one was. The utterly incomprehensible was taken for profound... and I'm not going to be diverted by whether that was key to my later apophatic leanings.

It therefore is my act of humility today to provide my readers with little bits of original 'poetry.' (What follows may give the impression that I am a cheeky little bitch. I shall respond to this with the exact words I would use were I ever charged before the Inquisition: "Have I ever denied this?") I wrote a blog entry in March (entitled Firstborn here) in which I freely admitted how those who are lifelong 'churchy' types tend to be self-righteous crumbs, rather like the Prodigal Son's elder brother, in time, so, if I seem to take shots at the young here, know it is only because my own generation saddens me. Who thought the super-cool baby boomers would end up arch-conservative, miserable sorts who think a scintillating conversation consists of discussing one's triglycerides or target heart rate?

I suppose I'm also weary because I received an email from another student who skimmed my Internet site and wanted the accelerated, do-it-yourself kit for becoming a mystic. She'd just read the Dark Night of John of the Cross, and remembers when "she went through all of that - a long time ago." Interesting. My guess would be that someone who has been an abbot for fifty years probably has yet to meet someone who has been through the dark night. It must have been a combination of this correspondence and my interior woe that I'm losing command of my foreign languages, but I had a bizarre dream that night, that I was addressing a group of young people and calling out, "Que pasa?," to which they all heartily replied, "Nada!"

Now that conservative politics are quite popular, the young who are very devout sometimes could try the patience of Job with their smugness. (I was ten times more impossible at that age - and I dare say a hundred times that now - but the most tiresome part of such dialogues, which are almost always with total strangers, is that I often agree with them - on the essence, if not always the accidental.) Here is the beginning of a poem for a young woman who presented me with a copy of the Divine Mercy novena and 'stations of the cross for the unborn,' and who apparently thinks her cause for canonisation is assured because she's never had an abortion. (This is in brief - my penance was to hear her for half an hour... supposedly in a chapel set aside for silent prayer...)

Pure as an angel,
And proud as a devil,
My virtue heroic and demeanour stoic,
I'd surely be canonised, or, in its stead,
A beata at least,
Except I'm not dead...

Another of this breed, who informed me that she is guided directly by the Holy Spirit and is in the "new religious life" as a third Order Carmelite (though the singularisation she displayed at one service made me quite certain Teresa of Avila would have kicked her from here to Mars), deserves a poem as well.

I pray at least four times a day
And quarrel in between.
And I attend Mass daily,
Though I mouth off at the scene.
I chant the Office (sometimes, it's quite dusty on the shelf),
And cherish absolution, so I give it to myself.

My 'regulars' know that I love to attend a daily Eucharist, and that, depending on where I am at midday (my favourite time for this), I'll take it where I can. One spot that is sometimes convenient has an entire crop of the sorts I mentioned earlier in this post. I have no idea of how this happened, but there are two very young priests (both of whom undoubtedly would be more comfortable around the time of the Reformation, when stakes were not rare and they might have been just SO glorified by being drawn and quartered) who must be transplants to the diocese, since they say the Tridentine Mass with impeccable rubrics and stone faces, though it was not normative long before they were born. One of them irritates me immensely - his image of a God who is ready to punish the horrid congregation with all sorts of wrath that would make Sodom and Gomorrah look like a mere warm-up would make anyone want to run in the other direction. He brags of having told a homeless man that God would not help him because he was divorced. His sermons are always about sex - even if it is some wonderful feast that deserves a mention. So this poem is for him - he's speaking in the first stanza, I in the second:

Wicked though this earth is,
True Salvation I'll reveal.
My sacrifice is boundless -
Never even copped a feel.
Other men, less noble, would find that they could not -
But I'm a glorious martyr - and just tie it in a knot.

Mouthpiece for the horror, ultimate pastoral mess,
Smug on one great 'virtue'... unaware of all the rest.
A shred of humble knowledge may lead him from the dark -
If he's contrite at 50, after bonking in a park...

As I was writing this, I checked email, and naturally found the usual junk, plus a few items soliciting donations, one of which had to do with a retirement fund for religious Sisters. So I'll close with not only a poem but the one and only song I've ever written - and it's all for ageing solitaries. It loses something without the musical accompaniment, but if you are good and make sure I have three tots of gin, I may sing it for you some day (tongue very firmly in cheek).

Here's a member of a new minority,
A Vatican II casualty,
Catechist, Gregorian musician, sacristan, servant of the clergy,
Alone, I was reduced first to begging,
Then "Franciscan worm" pot-pourri,
Oh, it's not an easy life for a lone ranger nun,
Who's going to take care of me?

The Hours of the Office lack their full effect,
Alone, I can't chant antiphonally,
And hearing my own self-accusations makes Chapter lack efficacy.
I'm my superior and director and, in that regard, I'm deprived educationally,
I can only teach myself what I already know -
Who's going to take care of me?

(Maybe I complain, but the facts remain,
I can't staff my own infirmary,
And there's no retirement fund for a lone ranger nun,
Who's going to take care of me?)

This tune is rather naughty - as this post was haughty,
And I'm no model of charity.
I'll probably be penanced to sing "Who's Sorry Now?" until the latter days of eternity,
Divine plans can seem murky to the proud and quirky,
When the path's been rough vocationally,
So I'll just mutter this prayer - and, for once, stop there,
Who's going to take care of me?

Now, having demonstrated the truth expressed at the outset (that I'm no poet at all), I wish the lot of you blessings for Trinity Sunday. Cheers. Pax et Bonum! Hi-yo, Silver! ;)

Saturday, 22 May 2010

For those wondering if scientists can pray

I believe my readers may share the awe I felt in listening to the talk on this web cast, by John Polkinghorne, entitled Can a Scientist Pray?. It deals specifically with prayers of petition, and gave me the impression that at least some scientists are capable of praying very well indeed.

As veterans of this blog know well, I have no understanding of science whatever, beyond wishing the atom had never been split (I say that with regret - my school average was perpetually ruined by my grades in that subject, almost as much as by mathematics.) I didn't have the slightest notion of what a 'quark' is, and my sole knowledge of chaos theory stemmed from that one of my train books... was... (oh, go ahead, Elizabeth - you've already admitted to liking Philippa Gregory, Maeve Binchy, and even Brendan O'Carroll and Nora Roberts' "Enchanted"...) "Jurassic Park." I may feel a sense of great awe seeing a museum exhibit of the DNA molecule ("molecule" probably is the wrong term, but I'm not concerned), but it's more along the lines of "Canticle of the Creatures" than anything technical. I indeed studied some of John Polkinghorne's writings as part of my philosophy of religion requirement a few years back, but it's far beyond me to understand his books. I was pleasantly surprised at how much easier it is to enjoy his clear, witty, and engaging manner of speaking.

I have still another act of humility for today. I always freely admitted to being totally hopeless with matters scientific, yet readers have probably caught on that I'm not exactly in the dark (beyond the great Nada and clouds of unknowing) with respect to prayer. I'm perfectly capable of writing at length on all sorts of topics in that regard, and on ascetic theology. That is why it is difficult to admit that I never really understood prayers of petition at all. (Occupational hazard - I can't help being apophatic, but that does present the dilemma of making anything one says about God make one sound like an agnostic.)

Quarks may be beyond my comprehension (though I've found myself singing "Stardust" a lot today...), but what I loved in the presentation to which I linked was the image it gave me of God as the endless Creator. I also shall spend much time pondering and praying about the idea of prayers of petition uniting our will to God's, and being the source of great power in the process.

I wish all of you many blessings for the glorious feast of Pentecost! (We who love the mystical actually love saying "I don't know" and "don't understand" - thinking of the Trinity and Holy Spirit specifically gives endless possibilities.) Of course, I'm naturally distracted at the moment, trying to decide if the "Pentecost red" for tomorrow's wardrobe (I'm a fright in pure red, but adore fuchsia...) should be my good dress and picture hat from Palm Sunday, or a casual print with fuchsia tights. (The latter may win if the weather is good and I want an airing.) Vanity of vanities... ;)

Saturday, 15 May 2010

On 'getting real'

One paradox with which the devout deal constantly (it is universal, but those not in the category of devout do not necessarily think of it much) is that, when we take a peek at our own weakness and sinfulness, we tend to say "but that's not like me!" Granted - sometimes this is quite true, since we all have moments of being puzzlingly inconsistent, or of indeed doing something very much out of character. Yet I cannot be alone in catching myself saying "that's not like me," even if the matter at hand is something I've (grudgingly, reluctantly, but eventually) admitted to just about every time I've expressed contrition during the past 40 years or so.

I remember once learning of a favourite prayer of Francis' - "Lord, who are you? Lord, who am I?" We'll certainly never know the former in total (in fact, the more we seek the answer, the less we realise we know - and that's rather glorious and awe inspiring.) Yet I think it's the answer to the second that we fear the more! We are far more fragile than we like to admit. I no longer have copies of his books on my shelves, but I'm fairly certain it was Thomas Merton who observed that God cannot be present with us in our fantasies because he can only be present in what is real - us.

Even in our moments of being troubled at our actions, I believe that it's actually true that 'that isn't like me,' however many hundreds of times we've had proof that we act in a certain fashion. There's another part of us that cries out for intimacy with our God - which longs to live the values fostered by such intimacy - and which wants to share this in love of neighbour.

I'm not about to distinguish the nonsense on the Internet forums with undue attention, but, since it is so widespread (and so many people see a 'vocation' to bully or be bullied...), I want to make a distinction between the grace there is in God's removing our self-deception and the 'you have to stop kidding yourself!' line in which on-line bullies so excel. (The latest, I understand, is that self-hatred - especially in relation to 'health' - is supposed to be healthy and to motivate one. Nonsense. Hatred of anyone destroys us, and hatred of ourselves leaves just a shell of fear and shame.) God calls us to be real! Our self-deception, which often leads us into sin but always keeps us from our potential, always needs to be shattered by love and grace. Think of it - whenever we've experienced conversion, after all the self deception, the Truth is enormously refreshing.

Someone asked me an odd question this week, and one which has no answer - so please allow for that I intend no literal exposition of any visions of the afterlife here! (If you really want a clue to the afterlife in such detail... well, try those 'death experience' books, if you can manage to detach yourself from the knowledge that all were penned by people who were alive when they did so.) I was asked what hell must be like, specifically in relation to a discussion of serial killers.

I cannot begin to explain heinous evil, and, lest I have nightmares tonight, I'm not going to dwell on the subject. I've never been one to focus on hell in any case, and, since my idea of evangelism is to focus on our dignity in God's image, and on intimacy with the Beloved, obviously I don't think 'hell' is a part of this. The after-life is beyond our description, however one may long for the greater intimacy which will grow for eternity - and I believe in cosmic redemption even if I cannot define that any more than give one details of heaven (beyond a vague, anthropomorphic residue to my thinking which makes me think that we musicians are distinguished in that we have to work in both lives...) ;)

Yet, awkward though this expression is, perhaps the very means by which we will continue to be called to this intimacy will be in grace stripping us of self deception, allowing us to be fully real. We all have experienced the painful but exhilarating, marvellous embrace of Truth, as I mentioned earlier in this post. I do not believe in a God of vengeance and punishment, but wonder if those who have fallen into heinous evil, gone beyond even having human delicacy and conscience, might find seeing the truth to be hell. (I further see divine power as unlimited in a fashion beyond our comprehension - there's always the chance for this revelation of Truth to lead to purification within us, however horrid our actions may have been.)

I become ill when I even think of heinous violence, and those who have been guilt of this certainly 'saw' it up close... Could their hell be to see it with no gloss, no wicked detachment? Could they, perhaps, see the real agony of the victims, and of everyone associated with them? Or of how such violence infects the world at large - how all of creation grieves and suffers? How God Himself descended to suffer with his creation?

Well, all right - I'm being a bit too ambitious here - but, if those who were close to being totally wicked here had to be completely stripped of self deception (which should be a glorious, joyous, if painful action of grace), and to fully face the totality of the effects of their actions, I wouldn't want to think of a worse hell than that.

Nor would I forget this could mean their redemption.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

You mean that wasn't a joke?

I must confess that, since I tend to laugh at myself and most of the world constantly, I frequently fall into a trap which had consequences ranging from 'tripping up' the other (sorry, that pun is unforgivable...) to nearly losing a (figurative) leg. I am not the sort who'd laugh at what another said or did in order to mock - and I'm usually rather good at sensing when someone did not mean to be funny and therefore saving my laughter for later (and sometimes for this blog.) I so love humour that I cannot count the times when I assumed someone had made a marvellous joke - when that was far from the case.

Note to anyone who just might find this blog in an Internet search: if you are featured below, do not be offended, because I happen to be enormously fond of the few friends I mention here. I'm enjoying the lot of you, not being disparaging.

My tendency to the wry and ironic has two 'side effects' for those who are not ones for either. Some of my best jokes lead to others thinking I'm distressed (though, believe me, were I truly distressed, I'd either disappear or, were I caught, leave one with no doubt! Then again, lots of people so love sad stories that they manufacture them nearly as often as I lapse into jester mode. Last week, I was saying an Office in a church, and someone, unknown to me, thought I was ill because I had my head down slightly - to read the psalms - and was moving my mouth a bit, because, though I never read aloud to myself otherwise, I learnt years ago to say prayers aloud even if in a tiny whisper - probably back when one had to say lots of prayers aloud to gain the indulgences. Head bowed - ahem! - someone assumed to be talking to herself out loud - which I only do at home - yes, that's good ammunition for the psycho-babble brigade.) I often forget, as well, that religious humour, which usually appeals in particular to those with huge faith, can be taken as irreverent (which it normally is, and by design) and offensive (never!) by those who are delicate or who came to the faith in full-blown 'late have I loved thee' mode.

I recently saw a dear friend of mine who happens to be an author, and we somehow were speaking of some reviews I write for Amazon. I had no idea she'd known the author of a book I'd reviewed, which was a rather inventive and modern 'take' on the Montagues and Capulets - and which had me nearly doubled over with laughter, because I truly thought it was a spoof on a par with "Shakespeare in Love." (My love for Shakespeare endures, though my memory is rusty - but even I knew that "Ethel the Pirate's Daughter" was a bit off the mark.) My friend, who is a very lovely, sweet sort, and has such empathy with other authors that she cannot bear any negative criticism of them (...obviously, traits which no one would ever see in me...), was very sad to hear this, and reminded me of the author's other works (of which I'd never heard.) Actually, I'd given the book a good rating - how was I to know that the author was troubled that I was one of various people who thought her novel was a string of inside jokes?

How well I remember, after easily twenty years, when I was scrubbing a parish kitchen floor (..."Francis, go and repair my church" ... believe me, everyone takes us up on that one...), and my friend Jane, for my edification and entertainment, was telling me of a 'shocking' incident she'd observed when she and Sadie attended some sort of healing service (conducted by Franciscans, so things mustn't have been all that spit and polish.) Jane was relatively young, but always had an air of someone who'd seen 100 years of suffering which she'd enjoyed immensely. Sadie was as holy as they get, and a bit fey - she saw an image of the Sacred Heart appear on the screen when she watched one Brook Shields film, and asked if it was a religious picture. Sadie was of a shy nature, and was immensely devoted to her husband, who leaned towards being insensitive and was excessively fond of his glass. Sadie and Jane actually had a number of characteristics in common, but one huge difference was that Sadie was inclined to kiss nearly everyone in greeting, where I doubt Jane's kids had ever even seen their mother kiss their father.

"Ah, Elizabeth, I couldn't believe what I was seeing! Sadie kissed this priest! (Scornful look) This little, short priest. Right on the lips! Now, who would even think of kissing a priest, but Sadie went and kissed him - little short man he was, didn't look like much, but she went and kissed him! (Pause) She mustn't be too happy at home."

Jane couldn't be understanding why that last line sent me into gales of laughter. (Well, had I said it, I would have most definitely intended to be funny!) "Ah, Elizabeth, you laugh at nothing! Sadie really kissed a priest! Right on the lips!"

The mental picture of the timid, extremely pious Sadie in the role of wicked woman was so hilarious that I wish I'd been there...

Of course, there are other times when I (often with others) have unintentionally troubled someone because we mistook a flub for a joke. I'm thinking of when I assisted with a retreat for girls aged thirteen or so, who were school-mates. The retreat was held at a building which was inhabited by a few nuns, who still wore the long habit, old-style veil and coif, and who all happened to be of well below average height. (That will figure later.) Retreats for teens, despite all the 'heavy stuff' and their weeping (partly resulting from adolescent emotionalism, partly hormones with no place to take them, and largely from seeing clichés as fresh insights - believe me, you don't want to be over-exposed to the petitions and offertory processions, the latter of which include bringing up lipsticks and school books...), need to have some fun time. The kids decided, during the 'drink soda and giggle' period, that they'd like to put on a little show, and asked permission to wear some of the nuns' summer habits, which they'd seen hanging in an adjacent store room.

The girls adjoined to their 'dressing room,' and dressed in the nuns' habits - without removing their own blue jeans, running shoes, and athletic socks. Since the nuns were so tiny, the normally floor-length habits reached to slightly below the girls' knees (with ample portions of jeans, socks, and running shoes visible...), the coifs looked like white Grim Reaper masks, headbands and veils were as off-balance as the worst of adolescent emotions, and the effect when they appeared 'on stage' was enough to give us misguided souls in the audience the mistaken impression that they'd worked out a comedy sketch.

But this gets worse... The girls began singing "The Sound of Music," horribly off-key, and one of them did (what we thought was) a 'take' on the descant which Liesl sings in the play so terribly that we naturally thought this combination of sights and sounds was the opening to something to top Monty Python. Yes, we roared. I defy nearly anyone to think this was not intended to be funny... but, if I thought we had to contend with weeping at the Eucharist, the amount that resulted from their reaction to our laughter would have been a challenge to Noah.

Then there is my cherished friend Madeline, who has been enormously considerate and generous to me. I'd be first to institute her canonisation proceedings for many reasons, but (and this is the best illustration of my dad's "you've got the book learning, but not the ways of the world" theory on record) I still forget that Madeline not only never catches jokes but never intentionally said anything funny in her life. Madeline and I have known each other for decades, and I know well that, whenever she sees anyone, her greeting invariably is, "You know who died?" (Actually, that is inaccurate - on the rare day when she can't find even a remotely familiar name in the obituaries, there may be such variations as a report of who has a terminal illness or was victim of a disaster. At least 75% of the time, I've never even heard of the deceased.)

Madeline, who sadly moved from her life-long neighbourhood a few years ago, was telling me that one old friend, who'd remained till recently, now had moved as well. "It's a shame I don't hear from Billy (note to readers - about the old neighbourhood) now. He'd tell me who's dead, who isn't..."

Would you believe that I actually thought Madeline was laughing at herself? ... I was mistaken... I hope I didn't wound the pride of one who's been so good to me.

I'll let you in on something else... Referring to my recent post on capitalism and Genesis (no, I haven't lapsed into senility or lost my principles - if you haven't read the post, see below), I shared the reflection with an acquaintance of mine, who is more reverent than I but not much less wry, and it turned out that he didn't see the humour very well. (...I knew we were 180 degrees around the circle politically, but still hardly thought that Genesis was a mandate for laissez faire... Then again, he was present when - again see a previous post - a snobbish soul expressed her disgusted fear that she'd be in the company of Neanderthal man at the resurrection and, unlike yours truly, didn't have to choke behind a handkerchief...)

The 'speaker' about capitalism in Genesis was quite chilly with me on Sunday - I'm not losing sleep over that one, but it did remind me that I wouldn't have teased him quite so much at the time had I not assumed he was 'doing it on purpose.' What surprised me was that my other acquaintance, with whom I disagree on much but whom I regard highly, didn't think he was doing it on purpose...

So, on cliché buster patrol - it isn't always correct to assume 'laugh and the world laughs with you.' I still will caution anyone (above the age of fourteen) - especially those who have an interest in church involvement and/or the Internet - if you must cry, be sure to do it alone! Crying in the company of church people is always a mistake. Cry on the Internet (or even be mistaken for crying when you are laughing...), and you'll hear from 5,000 amateur shrinks... and no one, not even myself, has enough energy to laugh at that many people in a day.