Thursday, 28 January 2010

Blessings for the feast of Thomas Aquinas

There's little profound today, my friends - but I need to get to the blog periodically, just to keep fit. :) I'm embarrassed (though not sorry) to admit that I nearly laughed aloud during the brief sermon at today's Eucharist. The homilist (a priest for whom I have very high regard, by the way) is a highly intelligent and learned man (... how I envy that doctorate from Oxford...), but I have a strong sense that he is keenly aware that he is very handsome, and has a bit of the peacock in him. Though Fr X is of my own generation, he makes many references as if he were just sooooo ancient, and many more to being 'fat'. This leaves a sour taste in my mouth, I shall admit. Since X is far from being a nonagenarian (and those in my family who are would be insulted were that taken to mean that they had declined), and many who genuinely have weight problems would envy his size, I am inclined to sense an ego game - 'let me say how fat I am so you can tell me you envy how I look.' It vaguely reminds me of how, in the hearing of people who are lucky to have a potato on their plates, uppity women would go on about how it was just so difficult to find good staff or a place to store the yacht these days.

Today, in the course of a sermon which highlighted a few things about my old friend Thomas, Fr X got on his "repentant but hoping to be forgiven" look and said, "Thomas Aquinas was... a sweet man... and, as it comforts me to remember... had a weight problem." (From what contemporaries said of Thomas, back in the days when being fat did not mean mental problems, self hatred, a subconscious desire to be unattractive, or the 'suicidal' tendency to destroy one's health, and the like, Fr X could have fit into Thomas's back pocket.)

The blend of Thomas and the best of the Eastern theologians, which is the approach I ultimately embraced, can be wonderful - at its best, it produces Karl Rahner. The trouble that I have seen in Anglo-Saxon countries (and let me include the country which produced the nuns and priests of my childhood, who spoke English brilliantly but would have smacked me had I ever called them Anglo-Anything) is that blending Thomas with Calvin is an effect akin to that of combining diesel fuel and fertiliser a la Oklahoma City... and it's probably obvious which of the two I consider to be the fertiliser. Calvin is all depravity, our weakness, deprivation, a disgusting idea that wealth is a sign of virtue and poverty an indication of wickedness. What I
love best in Thomas is his utterly positive view of creation (an endless process), and of our human nature. Even in treating of the greatest human wickedness, Thomas saw us as good but failing to reach the potential for which we were created.

I went through a period (probably around the time when I wasn't even out of my teens yet but had a school assignment to go through 99 questions from the Summa) when I'll admit my attitudes towards Thomas were negative - or, rather, not his arguments in themselves but how they were used. Many of Thomas's most brilliant philosophical arguments, if they are taken out of the context of the philosophical and turned into pastoral clich├ęs, can be disastrous. Where Thomas may have been defending omniscience (showing it does not conflict with free will), omnipotence, and the like, the clergy, who were also steeped in Aquinas but forgot what they learnt where and why, would come out with horrid statements (let us say, to someone whose little child just died) such as "God's priorities are not our priorities," possibly even adding something (not from the Summa!) such as "God may have taken him so he didn't fall into mortal sin and be damned later..." Of course, the limitations of our vision, and puzzling over "God's priorities," were old struggles by the time of Job, let alone Thomas, but when anyone uses that particular form of ammunition against the devil (i.e., glory in your misfortune, because God did it for your own good in the hereafter), I'd like to kick him square in the arsenal.

Just a few years ago, I had the courage to tackle the exam paper about Thomas (and others) on 'divine simplicity' - one of the most complicated and confusing topics I've ever encountered. (I managed well, somehow - though I don't understand 'divine simplicity' very much, and I really don't think anyone else does either, much as they might not admit this. I'll spare my readers any exposition. But it's always confusing in Thomas that he says what God is not and nothing more - not to be taken for "God is not this and is therefore that.") I suppose I've mellowed with age. But, in my younger days, before I'd learnt to take philosophical arguments for what they are and nothing more, much of Thomas irritated me (at least as it was used in preaching and pastoral settings.) It seemed as if we shouldn't have any hope for anything except heaven - or that God was all powerful but wouldn't grant healing except to prove Jesus' divinity, get saints canonised, or forgive us. (The only healing that was supposed to matter was that of the soul.) I got so sick of preaching about that 'evil is the absence of good' (a fine concept - but not out of context) that I wanted to blurt out "some comfort that was to people being herded into Auschwitz!" I also was turned off by a weird idea that God wasn't what any human would consider loving or even moral (I can't think of a father who'd treat his children, let alone his 'first-born,' the way that "God's priorities" established) - and a weirder picture of this vague metaphysical completeness. God wasn't loving, caring, etc.., in a fashion a single one of his creatures could comprehend, but was perfect in the sense of being fully whatever it meant to be God.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, though I've never won a race I sometimes do reach a finish line. (Of course, in the spiritual life there is no finish line - I'm just having some fun, so don't take this literally.) But it definitely is a tortoise and hare situation, and it took me about forty years to develop into a blend of the East and Thomas. It wasn't until recently that I saw that I'd been highly Thomistic all along.

My favourite Thomas Aquinas story (and don't miss the pun on 'burn') is about when he first became a friar. Italian people, then as now, dwell on fertility and don't want celibate sons, so, as the story goes, Thomas's family sent a sexy, naked woman in to seduce him. God was quite a showman still in the 13th century, so he sheltered Thomas from harm when Thomas jumped into the flames of a nearby fireplace to escape her. Thomas's immortal line then was that he'd rather burn now than later.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Miep, may the angels lead you into Paradise

Miep Gies official site

'More than twenty thousand Dutch people helped to hide Jews and others in need of hiding during those years. I willingly did what I could to help. My husband did as well. It was not enough.

There is nothing special about me. I have never wanted special attention. I was only willing to do what was asked of me and what seemed necessary at the time.'


I cannot recall when I first read The Diary of Anne Frank - I was young, but old enough to have a chilling acquaintance with the details of the Holocaust. Decades later, I would say that, even for those of us who were remote from the events (I was not yet born during the War), anyone who, for example, read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which I had, can testify that there are images so horrid that they cannot be forgotten till the end of one's days.

Nor should they, I might add. I have a fairly extensive background in history, and no illusions that there ever has been a time when horror couldn't be written on every page. Yet, somehow, when one is reading ancient history, or even about those being drawn and quartered in the modern era, one can have the aftermath of the infection of the Victorian era - the sense that mankind has evolved, has gone beyond the violence. (Any day's news broadcast can tell us otherwise - but it took Auschwitz and Hiroshima to shake the silly Victorian optimism from its pillar, and don't most of us tend to think that 'barbarian' horror is from a day long gone?) The blessings of technology had a dark side - in our own day, the thirst for blood could be quenched on far greater numbers than in the past.

When centenarian Miep Gies died this week, as always I remembered how astonishing I found her love, courage, and dedication to be. I cannot imagine ever having the courage to shield the Franks at risk of what horrors the Nazis could have inflicted on one caught doing so. Not too long ago, I saw a televised interview with Miep (and others who had known the Frank family.) When she spoke, casually and with hopelessness and frustration, by no means heroism, predominant, of how, after the Franks arrest, she'd gone to Gestapo headquarters to see if she could do anything to have them released, I was amazed. (Granted - faced with the plight of the Jews during the period, I would have had no qualms about, perhaps, seeing them outfitted with cassocks, or baptising them with a pitcher in my basin so I could swear they were Christians - rendering unto Caesar did not matter to me - but I cannot imagine getting within a mile of the dreaded Gestapo, the more were I already known to be in big trouble.)

I've included a link at the beginning of this post, so that those who wish to learn more of Miep can do so. She was a remarkable woman - but possessed a trait more rare than courage in having true humility (by which I mean truth, not abasement. Certainly no namby-pamby type who would fit the sickening images our early catechism books gave of the 'humble' would go to Gestapo headquarters - and I hope none of my Jewish friends are offended by my thinking of how Jesus, unlike his apostles, didn't run from Pontius Pilate. Had I needed to endure the terror Miep must have experienced the day when the Nazis stormed the 'secret annexe,' I probably would have dropped dead in an instant - her telling the main officer she recognised his accent since she also was Viennese shows me someone who could 'keep her cool' to a degree I can only admire from afar.) Miep knew she attracted notice because of Anne's writings, but insisted that many in the Netherlands did far more than she to attempt to shelter their Jewish friends.

Whenever I next read of history (other than culture - my speciality - where 0the wars make me cringe), I must always remember that, though the blood-thirsty will 'get the press,' there are thousands of good, dedicated people out there who, however powerless situations may cause them to be, are doing 'what seems necessary.' I'm just leaving my readers with the thought (even if, like myself, they content themselves with headlines on Yahoo, and cannot even bear to read news reports daily lest they become ill from the exposure to violence) that there is enormous goodness in this world.The goodness, of course, may not have power to stop the evil, but I believe it is far more a part of our human nature (as those created in the divine image) than the horrid details would have us remember.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Christmas, Epiphany - essence and accidental

Happy New Year, my friends. (Isn't it amazing that it is 2010 - considering that 2000 used to seem so far away?) In case any of you are newcomers, I suppose I must establish that one of my biggest emphases, in any discussion of the faith, is distinguishing the essence and the accidental. It seems we too often miss the former for concentrating on the latter.

Christmas (which I still see as extending till Candlemas - there's way too much Ordinary time out there) probably is the worst season for the centuries-old tradition of focussing on the accidental. That is not a purely Franciscan ailment, though our dear friars probably were responsible for it's being epidemic. (Admittedly, the poor family at Nazareth had greater charm before the Counter-Reformation, when the little tales that could be warm, quaint, or, most importantly, help the hearers identify with Jesus and family, suddenly became hammers for heretics... not that many Franciscans had not long been noted heretics, in nearly as great numbers as they became saints, but the Reformation turned everyone into a soldier.) Granted - at this time of year, I'll take discussion of nearly anything over the bloody bores who made 'resolutions' and have no topic of conversation except Weight Watchers, the gym, or cholesterol (and who are so into trying to convert others that they'd make Martin Luther and Pope Leo look like pub pals.) But it does sadden me that too many sermons and reflections, to this day, ignore images that are exceedingly powerful. Awe inspiring truths are lost in the trivial.

Luke's gospel leaves us with a magnificent truth in the infancy narratives. In Elizabeth, priest Zechariah, Simeon, Anna, we see Israel come to acknowledge Jesus' unique identity (even if the fullness of this was only recognised in light of the resurrection.) Then, Jesus himself, coming into maturity, refers to 'my father's house,' declaring on his own that he is the Son of God. I would imagine these truths could be the topic of twenty sermons, if not a library.

Granted - we cannot help but identify with the basic human situations. Any parent would shudder at the thought of a cheeky adolescent letting Mary and Joseph worry themselves sick while he confounded the doctors in the Temple. (You probably guessed that I'm jealous... I'd have loved to do that, at 12 or now, given the opportunity. Of course, other untoward actions related to the Temple later would have consequences I'd rather not encounter.) Yet, having pored over or heard sermons about the temple incident endlessly, I have to say that I'm rather tired of dwelling on Mary's psychological reactions - or, in this trendy time, Jesus' 'age appropriate behaviour' or his mother's 'parenting.' ("Christian children all should be - kind obedient, good as he..." I love Once in Royal David's City, but always have to stifle a giggle under my handkerchief at that line.) Now that I think of it, though I certainly have read commentaries which stress Jesus' proclaiming his divine Sonship, I doubt I've ever heard a sermon on the topic.

One sermon I did hear recently, about the show-off in the temple, spoke of how Jesus disappeared for three days - just as he did after his Passion. It was not poor as sermons go, but I'll admit that a part of me was bristling. Lord have mercy, can't Jesus ever be allowed to get off the cross?!

Trends swing 'left and right' - and I believe the current stress on family values (which often tries my patience) hasn't been so strong since the last Edward was on the throne. I'm thinking of trends, some brilliant theology, some just illustrations of being controversial or 'cool,' or super-Catholic, which were common at various periods of my life. Lots of those who probably never studied Genesis in depth used to love to make hearers uncomfortable by speculating about how Eve's children must have been fathered by her own sons. I love Raymond Brown, but those who only sampled his writings rather than exploring them in depth either would be up in arms because (for all his superb explanation of the meanings in the visit of the Magi) he did not think the kings appeared literally, or who have to ruin the story of, perhaps, the Visitation by showing how Mary and Elizabeth could not have been cousins.

Franciscans (among others - but it's always somehow more acceptable to laugh at one's own 'relatives') have centuries of arguing points that ignore the powerful essence. Believe me, none of you want to sift through endless sermons about how Mary managed to come through her delivery virgo intacta. It's unfortunate - because Mary's virginity is another awe-inspiring image - and not only in relation to her miraculous conception. (The other members of my blog are gifted in science, which I am not - scientific speculation about how Mary managed to conceive are best left to them, should they be interested.)

I believe that we need to recall two highly important elements in considering Mary's perpetual virginity - rather than harping on membranes. (I well remember yawning through a sermon about how Jesus came through his mother's body the way he did the closed doors after the resurrection... talk about putting the cart before the horse...) Initially, the concept of her virginity (throughout her life, not only in her conception) was based on her being the tabernacle for the Son of God. Especially sacred objects (a chalice, for example) are set aside for worship, not used for other purposes - which does not mean that marriage, child-bearing, or drinking beer from a cup other than a chalice are seen as wicked!

Another critical part of the concept, I believe, is that devotions and beliefs regarding Mary both relate to her Son's identity and have her representing the church. Though Judaism placed a high value on sexual morality, and indeed treatment of this as a part of avoiding idolatry long pre-date the oft maligned 'neurotic' Paul of Tarsus, there was no exaltation of permanent virginity in Judaism. There were philosophical traditions about moving towards celibacy. Religious beliefs fostered on creation as basically wicked saw reproduction as negative (this did not lead to chaste behaviour...) Greek philosophy saw our release from the physical as to be welcomed. Judaism, which had a singular view of the goodness of creation, greatly valued reproduction. Though the idea of our eventual resurrection was popular before Jesus walked the earth, there was no concept of 'heaven' as would develop in Christianity. It occurs to me (though I could be wrong) that it was only in the early Christian era, as Paul's letters illustrate, and after Jesus' resurrection had shown us there was far more to glorified human nature than what there is on earth, that chastity could be seen as a charism and blessing to the Church.

Given the eschatological element (and recalling that life-long celibacy could be recognised as a charism only in light of the resurrection, since, as far as I can see, until then children were not only a blessing but the way one tangibly lived on), Mary's perpetual virginity shows us the Church - holy, set apart, and waiting for cosmic redemption.

Lord have mercy, am I long-winded today... but I cannot let the Magi be neglected. Much as I identified with Jesus showing off in adolescence, I have sympathy for the Magi - I may not be big on obedience (I seldom think about it), but I still can see how they had the best of intentions yet, in the name of protocol and respect, let the wrong authority know where they were going...

Don't think for a moment that I don't enjoy not only the exotic images of Matthew's gospel, but the many legends and art works regarding the Magi. I even have a relic of the three kings in my collection (though I do not now recall how I came into this - probably from the same source as the piece of cloth from Mary's veil.) I've heard speculation of all sorts about the identity of the Magi (you'll remember that, in the gospel, we neither know their number nor hear that they are kings) - from their being Zoroastrian (that's rather cool - with that having been the first monotheistic faith, centuries earlier), to their being kings of Persia, Babylon, and Ethiopia. (I hope I never have to encounter this one, but I would imagine that some preacher who is desperately trying to be relevant is out there, either going on about how Persia still can make Christians shudder a bit, or recommending the congregation, if they have indoor plumbing or other massive luxuries, join in a chorus of "We Are the World.") It's hard for a double Capricorn (with all that dreamy side from the Pisces influence) to admit this, but I even get a thrill at the thought of their being astrologers. :) Considering that, well into the early centuries of Christianity, astrology was frightening - the planets had a huge, uncontrollable influence, and could even be seen as demonic - for a star to serve to drawn anyone to the newborn King is commendable.

The image of the Epiphany is utterly glorious in its essence, delightful though I find the accidental. Yahweh already (as we see in later Hebrew scriptures - those who are gluttons for punishment may scroll down to my recent entry about Isaiah) had toppled all idols - including himself. Israel could not understand a God who was totally out of accord with images of the surrounding gods - and who did not grant them power or wealth, but indeed seemed silent when they were over-run by other conquerors (Persia and Babylon on top of the list, of course) - empires bowing before ... all right, I have to let this part out, since I too have a bit of Franciscan sentimentality, this poor little baby... remind us that Yahweh, who remains a perpetual puzzle lest we make him into an idol, is Lord of creation. "A light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of your people, Israel.." Yes, those words are not in Matthew, nor attributed to the Magi, but they'll have me in tears at the Office and Eucharist tomorrow.

Yet what sermons will some be hearing? Someone who is offended that Raymond Brown denied the actual journey of the Magi (while splendidly setting forth its significance) will condemn Modernism (though such speakers probably could not even define Modernism...) Those who are still trying to be cool (...those I heard thirty years ago are usually a bit weary, but, even if I am one of few baby boomers who still wears tie-dye, I'll double the bet that such speakers are in their 50s or 60s) may take on the old "you can't be stupid enough to believe that," therefore cutting off all reflection to prove how smart they are and how stupid the hearers must be. They'll begin the gospel with "The good news in the tradition of Matthew," just to make sure everyone knows Matthew the apostle wasn't the scribe. They then will take Raymond Brown's name in vain and underline their own pomposity. (I prefer my own pomposity. At least it has a mystic bent.) Yet another undoubtedly will focus on the slaughter of the Innocents to speak of the evils of abortion. (I agree about the evil of abortion, of course, but I think it just might be a good idea to think of the Lord of Creation now and then...)

I just had a happy, warm memory. Some years ago, a little church of which I knew had a coffee hour after Vespers, during which they would show a film on a religious theme. They showed Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth" over the course of Advent and Christmas that year. (Yawn... and of course had to hear protests because Mary doesn't actually see an angel, where I would imagine the protesters have... and because Mary's being in labour denies her immaculate conception and virgin-during status... get me another gin...) Two older ladies were seated near me during the segment where Mary and Joseph are en route to Bethlehem. One said to the other, "I can just picture me, with my sciatica, on that donkey," to which the other replied, "She was a young girl - she wouldn't have sciatica." I find this charming - identifying with the Holy Family can make them seem very near.

I only mentioned that after-thought because I just can't help (having not only been educated by brilliant Dominicans but having obtained my divinity degree from a college which, until recently, was exclusively for Jesuit priests) sighing over how much better my sermons could be than many which I have heard. (I happily was spared excessive 'Franciscan worm' emphases by the fanciness of my education. I'm just eccentric, pompous, and pedantic, having had such good teachers.) Still, the sciatica line reminded me that probably far more people out there want to know about 'he became-a so small' than what I'd have to say.