Sunday, 29 March 2009

Lental Reflection

Once you've resolved upon your Lenten penances, there are two ways you can go through Lent.

The first is to try to keep those penances and stumble once or twice along the way. The disadvantage of this is it demonstrates quite clearly your weakness and attachment to the things you have striven to renounce and thus how far you still fall short of the law of freedom and love of Christ. On the other hand, this is also an advantage because, even if I now know how faintly the love of God burns in my heart and how grossly addicted I am to corruptible things or, worse, to the objects of my vices, the fact that, having made a firm intention and then having broken it, this is brought home to me is a great cause of humiliation and thus an incentive to humility. And, furthermore, to dependence on God's grace rather than my own efforts.

The second is more dangerous. I may resolve upon certain penances and remain firm in them for the entirety of Lent. On one hand, this does show that I have at least the rudiments of spiritual discipline. It may or may not show that my love of earthly things is not inordinate or excessive. It may or may not show that I am beginning to learn what it is to seek hard after the Lord and to seek after things to the extent that they lead me to Him. But on the other hand, there are perilous dangers here. It is very easy for me to focus on the penances as ends rather than means, so that they become an exercise in spiritual or mental discipline for its own sake, not as a training course in becoming and loving like Christ, as avenues leading onto the Via Dolorosa. It is likewise easy for me- terrifyingly easy- to ascribe the results of my penances to my own efforts. To be glad that certain unhelpful or sinful habits have been broken and to subconsciously congratulate myself on having overcome them, rather than acknowledging that His grace alone has been sufficient to do it, and if my efforts have achieved anything it has been only to clear the way to allow that grace room to work, not so much doing something as ceasing to do something.

These dangers are almost like reflexes. We fall into them without even realising, then catch ourselves, horrified at our own thoughts. One expects that the further one goes in the spiritual life, the easier and safer it will get. In fact, the opposite is the truth. The highest are able to fall the farthest. The great saints are the ones in the greatest danger at any particular moment. Or perhaps it is only they that perceive the danger, and we who are not so far along are in precisely as much danger but our vision is too clouded to perceive it.

In either case, as I myself plug along and Lent begins its final ascent before the great Abyss of Good Friday and Holy Saturday and the great Pinnacle of Easter Sunday, I find one or two things which I, at any rate, find helpful in face of these dangers.

1) Coming face to face with the saints is always a worthwhile reality check. Dante has a beautiful passage in the Purgatorio when he gazes into the face of Beatrice and sees reflected in her eyes the face of Christ. There is a profound truth in that. The saints are precisely those who, in this life, followed Christ most earnestly and stubbornly, and who were thus more completely transformed into His image before they died (of course, the life they enjoy now is that of full sanctification, but it is hidden in Christ and we cannot see it yet). In seeing them, we catch a glimpse of the road ahead, where we are supposed to be going. We also realise how far there is yet to go.

There are times in our lives when we have successfully battled against particular besetting sins and vices. We think with a certain legitimate joy, "Oh, I can't really think of anything I need to confess this week." And we entertain the thought that we are coming along alright in our spiritual walk.

When such moods come upon me, I find a powerful antidote (although one I confess I do not always take) in reading a passage or two from Augustine's Confessions or a letter of my patron, Ignatius of Antioch. These serve as a kind of map, reminding me that things that look close may actually be very far away indeed. And above all, to remind me that this journey is one of relationship, not personal accomplishment or fulfillment. To read Ignatius' heart-wrenching cry as he is transported ever closer to the place of his martyrdom that he still knows and loves Christ too little, sobers me every time I read it, and invariably compels me to pray.

Which brings me to the most important thing of all.

2) Prayer. The whole purpose of penance is that we might diminish our love of earthly things so as to increase our love of Almighty God. To wrench our affections from that which perishes so to give them to Him Who is eternal. Our inclination is to focus on the negative, to reflect on what we are refraining from or, worse, to look forward to the day after Easter when we can take thes things back up. Every time our thoughts look like this, the whole good of Lent is lost. Like the Law, it has only served to demonstrate where our true affections lie, but it has not changed them. Penance, difficult as it is, is only a negative thing, not giving virtue but rather uncovering vice. When I give something up and spend days and weeks longing for it, I have only shown how addicted and attached to that particular thing I am. Something more is needed.

That thing is to use the penance as an opportunity to turn my eyes to that to which my affections should be attached. For a husband who loves his work more than his wife, it is not sufficient for him to take two weeks off if he sits around home wishing he was at work. He must spend time with his wife, talk to her, learn what it is to love her. We have the same object in Lent. We must spend time with Jesus, talk to Him, and learn what it is to love Him. That is the object, and without that our penances are less than worthless (may even be positively dangerous). Prayer therefore is of the utmost importance.

For my own part, I am striving for an even balance between personal prayer and liturgical prayer. In the former, I am (or try to be) ruthlessly honest, and speak what is on my heart. In the latter, I learn to mold my heart to my words, to learn how and for what I should be praying, like a person learning a foreign language by imitating the pronunciation and expressions of their teacher, or an apprentice watchmaker or metalsmith, learning by imitating. In the one I express what love there is in me now. In the other, I begin to perceive what that love looks like fully grown, and try to put my whole person in sync with that. In the one I pray what I mean. In the other, I learn to mean what I pray. Both are necessary in my relationship with Christ.

That is the key, however. All of Lent (and indeed every season of the Church year) is a walk with a Person. Regular prayer is vital to keeping Him before my eyes (for I am always before His) and keeping that relationship alive, and for learning the intimacy with Him in which alone is my salvation and ultimate happiness.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Textual Criticism

Have to post this from Lolsaints. Brilliant!

Annunciation Meditation

There is a profound passage in Ireneaus' Adversus Haereses where he speaks of how Christ passed through the spectrum of human maturation so that He might have something in common with men of any age. So he was once a baby and can identify with babyhood. He was a child, and can therefore identify with childhood. He was a teenager, a young adult, a grown man. He can identify with all of these then.

On this great feast of the Annunciation, and given the society in which we live, it is fitting to turn our thoughts to one of the stages of human growth that Irenaeus does not mention. Traditionally, today has been regarded as the day when the Incarnation took place. In many ways, it is a more significant commemoration (and really deserves to be a bigger feast) than Christmas. Christmas was a major step in the long road that would lead to the cross and the empty tomb. But the beginning of that process is today. From now until Christmas there is an extended period of nine months. During those nine months of circa 4BC, an extraordinary scientific and theological fact was present in the world. We do well to meditate on its significance somewhat.
What was that fact? Put plainly and without adornment, it is this. There was a time when God was an embryo, a fetus, a pre-born. God was these things. GOD. The Uncaused Cause. The Infinite Personality. The Summum Bonum. The Creator. The Almighty. He Who thundered on Sinai. He was a translucent, unseeing, pink figure floating in amniotic fluid. And before that, He was a microscopic mass of genetically distinct, constantly multiplying cells. Let that sink in for a moment.
God has been these things. By being them, He has hallowed them. Every human life in the womb, though unbaptised and though possessing only the barest rudiments of human personality or consciousness (if that), nevertheless has something in common with the Being behind the universe.
How can that not give us pause as we contemplate it? How can that not scandalise us as we look around?

Further Thoughts on Watchmen

I have now read the graphic novel, and found few differences apart from the cosmetic. The nihilistic heart of the story exists in both media. So I stand by what I wrote before.

Only two things to add to it.

One- a comment I read, posted to the review of the film at Christianity Today, which I thought summed up the proper Christian approach to the film more or less perfectly: "If you do decide to watch it, let it make the cross more necessary for you." Can't really put it better than that.

Two- a worthwhile juxtaposition which occurred to me the other day in this connection:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes.- Juvenal
Who watches the watchmen?

Nissi Dominus custodierit civitatem, frustra vigilat qui custodit eam.- Psalm 127:1
Unless the Lord watch the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Sermon Length

I have been thinking lately about the state of the average churchgoing Catholic's knowledge of their faith.

In this connection I have been pondering the status of the Sunday homily. As I have mentioned on this blog before, I believe that most Catholics actually know their Bibles as well as your average Evangelical; they just don't know how it all fits together. They have no context. So they can identify a verse if they hear it, but they would very rarely know where it comes from or how it relates to the rest of Scripture. Now, of course, there are a few excellent courses and books available (I would, of course, like there to be many excellent books and courses, but this is the present state of affairs, alas) but for your average garden-variety Catholic, the sole source of catechesis and Scriptural teaching comes from the Sunday homily.

I've attended a few churches in my five years in the Church; at present, I am a lector at St Benedict's Broadway, Sydney. In all that time, I have, I think, only ever heard a homily of more than ten minutes from two churches, those being the EF use at Lewisham and the Maronite church at Mt Druitt (I must, however, except one dear old priest I know whose homilies are a delight but who does tend to ramble- I don't think that counts). Not an exhaustive cross-section, but still representative I suspect.

Why is it our homilies are so short? Even the good priests I know don't unpack all three readings, explicate them, draw them together, show why the Church has put these particular readings together AND apply them to our lives too. There is often good application. There is very rarely much exegesis. There is almost never any kind of broader context given to the OT readings. I would be surprised if many Catholics could tell one prophet from another.

As a Baptist, the Sunday sermon always had three points and usually went for about 20 minutes. When I was in China, the sermon went for an hour. I understand from the history of the Reformation why the sermon became the main attraction in Protestant services so that it came to dwarf everything else. Thats easy enough to grasp. But on the Catholic side, what are the precedents? Have our homilies always been this meagre?

Today I attempted an experiment to find out. A not particularly systematic or scientific one, but an experiment nonetheless. I picked out a homily from Aelfric in the tenth century, a homily from St John Chrysostom in the fifth and Augustine in the fourth (or possibly also the fifth- I didn't check), and timed each of them. The results were diverse. St John Chrysostom was the shortest at 25 minutes. Then came Aelfric at 35 minutes. Augustine came to one hour ten minutes (!) and, extraordinarily, apologised at the end of it because he wanted to say more but had too little time (!?).

So I'm curious. At what point did the mini-sermon become the standard? And, more to the point, is there anything that can be done to reverse the trend and make the standard homily longer? Business people go to conferences that run for whole days. University students sit through lectures of fifty minutes. So why in heaven's name are we satisfied with homilies of less than ten minutes? Why do we instinctively feel that the congregation can't handle longer than that?

Liturgical development should exist in continuity with the past, and clearly the length of homilies generally presented now hasn't featured much in the past (or, at any rate, in the first millenium) if my very unscientific results are anything to go by. So what can be done? This is a question I will continue to ponder. For it is certainly clear that, if the homily is all that the average Catholic's faith is fed on, a snack is not sufficient. Our churches need to start serving meals.

I watched Watchmen

It is a strange thing when you come away from some piece of art and decide that you like it, but that you really shouldn't.

This is how I feel about Watchmen, which I went and saw yesterday. Its not the first time I've felt it either. Exactly the same thing happened when I saw Kill Bill. That was a film that had no redeeming qualities at all, was filled with violence and cussing, whose protagonist and villains were all equally ruthless, and yet...and yet....I loved every minute of it and will still put it on of an evening if I need something to lift my mood. Can I justify this to anybody who might demand an explanation? Not really.

I have no idea if Watchmen would similarly stand up to repeat viewings for me. Only one way to find out, I suppose.

The good things first. I enjoyed Rorschach. He was psychotic and violent, but he had principles. His reaction to the guy who killed the girl, and the fact that I was meant to sympathise with that reaction, told me that there was still some objective sense of moral justice lying under the surface of the film, even if it crossed the line into vengeance by a smidgen. I was glad the film didn't try to make the murderer sympathetic. Arguably, though, this was subverted later on with Ozymandias, whose evil was meant to seem sympathetic (or at least morally ambiguous)- but there Rorschach saw through it and declared it for what it was, which I liked. The whole film noir thing was very enjoyable (I love film noir!). The opening credits sequence was brilliant; such richness of multi-layered imagery! I had to concentrate to catch every significant detail and probably didn't succed. That was well done, very stylish. And, of course, you have to love a film whose soundtrack can include Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel alongside Wagner and Mozart (although I do wish one of these days someone would mine the Ring Cycle for something other than Ride of the Valkyries)!

On the other hand, there are many reasons to dislike Watchmen. Violence on that level was unnecessary. I remember having to look away in the chainsaw scene in Scarface. There is a chainsaw scene here as well, from which I didn't have to look away though it was no less graphic. That bothers me not a little. Besides which, is it really easier to saw the guy's arms off than simply untie him? Surely the knot wasn't that difficult?

The sex was also way over the top and unnecessary. And, I have since been told, completely off-screen in the graphic novel. Of course, there are love scenes and then there are love scenes. There were three of them here, though, and the third one in particular did not fall into either of the above two categories (On the other hand, Dr Manhatten's nudity didn't bother me in the slightest- he didn't look all that different from Michelangelo's David anatomy-wise and it didn't draw attention to itself except, ironically, when he was wearing those horrid black undies; for the record, ladies, black and fleuro-blue clash!).

These things, however, are petty complaints next to the real one, which is the nihilism and subversion of the hero archetype. John C. Wright has a very good review in which he discusses this aspect at some length.

Now, I must say, there have been films whose overall theme or point left me utterly cold. I despised The Bucket List because of its cavalier and hedonistic approach to death. I despised Seven Pounds because of its glorification of suicide. But the nihilism and postmodern subversion here didn't repel me utterly. If I were to analyse why I feel that way, I think it might look something like this:

Nihilism, cynicism, subversion, deconstruction; these are medicine, not food. Medicine is a worthwhile thing to take in small doses. To subvert the hero motif and subvert it so completely is a wake-up call which shouts loudly to the audience that no man can be trusted (and, unlike in some other movies- yes, I'm looking at you, V for Vendetta- here there was no political partisanship). Calling to mind the things going on in America's recent history, 'no man can be trusted' is probably a necessary message to hear. To receive a small dose of nihilism may be a worthwhile thing to do when earthly things appear too solid; all the things we instinctively try to hold on to are after all made and maintained ex nihilo.

The problem comes when all of that becomes the staple of a steady diet. Because, of course, man and all he counts worthwhile are not the only cards on the table. There is also the guy who made the table and invented the game in the first place. And it turns out he's been playing along with us for some time now and has some cards of his own.

If an audience is at the point where they have begun to see the futility of the categories that formerly made sense of their world, maybe the time is ripe for some new categories. Where deconstruction has become attractive- well, maybe the thing being deconstructed was worth tearing down. But rather than leaving a bare, gaping hole in the ground, those with building experience should set about constructing something else, something better able to stand.

I see, therefore, a film with this sort of message as an opportunity and a wake-up call. At a time when both financial and mental certainties seem shaky and their solidity is being questioned, it is a good time to point to that which really is solid. That's the opportunity.

The wake-up call is that we had better know and believe that ourselves. Our culture has a low tolerance level for hypocrisy and salespitches. God is the only truly solid thing in the universe, but if we want to convince people that that is so, we had better live like it is. Which, of course, is a big part of why we are doing Lent.
A Christian culture can certainly make nihilistic art. King Lear depresses me every time. But even in King Lear, there is the beacon of love and goodness that is Cordelia. And the entire play turns on those two words of utter and sublime grace and mercy spoken by her to her mad and pathetic father, "No cause."
Watchmen needs a Cordelia. Rorschach is the closest it has, but he doesn't make it, because he has justice (which is, it must be said, no small thing in our culture- credit where its due) but not mercy nor love. Absent a Cordelia, it is up to us, the audience, to accept what is offered and supply what is lacking.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Beowulf- The Comic!

Dymocks is not ordinarily my bookshop of choice, but yesterday I found myself browsing there (on the lookout for something specific which, not altogether unsurprisingly, I did not find) and happened upon a graphic novel treatment of Beowulf.

Now, as may be gathered from the title of this blog, I am something of a fan of Beowulf and, one might even say, a purist. This derives from my being a fan of a) literature b) epic literature c) poetry d) epic poetry e) Anglo-Saxon (the language; aka Old English) f) Anglo-Saxon epic poetry (and yes, Beowulf is not the only example: the Battle of Maldon still gives me goosebumps!) g) England h) pre-Reformation England (when England was Catholic and Catholicism could be English) i) Anglo-Saxon epic poetry from pre-Reformation England.

It also derives in no small part from the fact that, in my Honours year of undergrad, I and the others in my class successfully translated the entirety of Beowulf individually over the course of the year. For the record, there have been few happier moments in my life than when I would, each Saturday, put the soundtrack to The Two Towers on repeat play and sit down to read and translate the next 200-or-so lines of Beowulf.

So you might say I have a vested interest. For the above reasons, I refuse to watch the travesty perpetrated by Robert Zemeckis in recent days.

The graphic novel treatment I happened upon, however, was on the whole good. I know because I read it standing there in the bookshop. Unlike Robert Zemeckis, it respected its source material. It was clearly intended for younger readers, but it had integrity. It told the story straightforwardly and without deviation. That is something worthy of respect. I was particularly gratified to find that, despite the necessary shortening of the story and especially of the language (being a visual medium and having to chop out much) there were still one or two examples of those wonderfully poetic metaphor-nouns which are so characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry. 'Whale-road' was one the author used, which is a literal translation of hron-rade, meaning the sea. The visuals were nice, a bit angular for my taste, but captured the tone quite satisfactorily.

The only real fault I found was all the fuss this version made about wyrd. Wyrd is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning fate, doom, destiny. That kind of thing. It is certainly present in the poem (used as a kind of impersonal noun for God, like the Chinese refer to Heaven or we might refer to Providence), but in the graphic novel treatment it seemed designed to take the place of God. Which is odd because God, spoken of personally as well as impersonally, appears quite a bit in the poem. Not as a character, mind, but He is mentioned quite often. I found this significant. Wyrd constantly, God, Drihten, Al-Walda, Wealdend, wuldres Wealdend, wihtig Wealdend hardly at all (the Anglo-Saxons had a lot of words for God). Though I will admit God was at least implied in it, as the author included (surprisingly, I thought) the part where the poem talks about Grendel's descent from Cain. Still, to avoid all references to God and multiply mentions of what would be construed as a non-specific and impersonal force seems curious and telling.

On the whole, however, given other treatments I've seen of this monument of Old English literature and all the things they got wrong, I have to say I was slightly impressed by this one. Of course, if you want to read Beowulf, you should read it in the original (Wrenn and Bolton are the edition I have). And if you can't read it in the original, you should get a good translation (or even better, read the original and translation side by side, as you can do at Beowulf on Steorarume). But if you can't do any of those things, this will at least give you a taste of what you're missing out on. A thoroughly good primer (especially for children or teenagers) of one of the classics.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Further Thoughts on Paradiso

That post was getting a little long so I thought I'd break it up.

4. At one point in the Eighth Sphere, Dante loses his sight as he is questioned by St John on the nature of love (this has symbolic significance in regards to the content of his questioning). When he regains it, he is met by Adam. There is something slightly surreal about the concept of meeting the ancestor of us all. Of talking with the First Man; the Father of the Race. One wonders what it would be like. On the other hand, I considered that it would not be implausible that one would meet him in great bitterness and anger. After all, all the suffering and misfortune, all the ruined lives of the ages, are without exception his fault. All of it can be laid at his door and he would be without excuse. It occurred to me that that wonderful Holy Saturday sermon (found in the Office of Readings for that day) from that anonymous preacher from the first centuries is quite revolutionary if one pays attention. We are rightly gripped by indignation and a thirst for justice when confronted by some truly wicked member of society, a murderer or serial rapist or con artist. How much more indignant and furious would one be faced with the one man responsible for every evil act ever committed by human beings? And yet, for that man, who if he came before us we would demand his imprisonment for the rest of his days at the very least, the preacher pictures being visited by Christ in Hell, bearing the marks of evil and torture and death and ready with mercy to take him into blessedness. The Sacrifice of Christ truly does undo the knot of Adam's sin. A facile phrase until we grasp its full significance. There- there!- is mercy beyond the mind of man. There is forgiveness and grace utterly undeserved and offered freely and without resentment or expectation of repayment. Grace truly is gratuitous and we seldom fully grasp it.

On a slightly different note, I had to chuckle when Dante asked Adam about the nature of the language he spoke before the Fall. It is something I have often wondered, being a great student of language both academically and practically, and it is exactly what I would have asked our first father if I had found myself in Dante's position.

5. In the Ninth Sphere, Beatrice takes a slight tangent and, in a quite pertinent diatribe, proceeds to lament those who try to explain away things in the Scriptures. The example she gives is of those who claim the darkening of the sky at the crucifixion must have been a local eclipse of the moon, rather than anything supernaturally ordained- "such preachers lie!- For that light hid itself, and men in India as well as Spain shared this eclipse the same time as the Jew....So the poor sheep, who know no better, come from pasture fed on air." It reminded me very much of many liberal preachers and theologians I have heard. Pertinent words indeed, especially after the last forty years of absent or even anti-catechesis. Beatrice sums up with this memorable phrase, "Christ did not say to His first company: 'Go forth and preach garbage unto the world!' but gave them, rather, truth to build upon."

6.There is a beautiful affection in Dante's last words to Beatrice in the Empyrean as she takes her place amongst the souls of the blessed who gaze night and day on the glory of God and are constantly bathed in His love. He thanks her humbly for fetching him from his aimless meanderings and wanderings and organising his whole tour of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven so he might once more learn to seek after Christ in this life. There is admiration, humility and deep brotherly affection and love in his final address to her. Touchingly, she turns and smiles upon him one last time before turning her eyes back to the brilliance streaming from above. Now St Bernard must show him the last step of his journey- the direct vision and worship of God Almighty.

7. As an ex-Protestant, and not yet wholly unencumbered by the innate Protestant fear of Mary, I still recoil at times from the more florid Marian prayers and hymns. When one examines it reasonably, however, one cannot deny that what lies in the Protestant heart is fear. Despite the words of Scripture- "All generations shall call me blessed."- I rarely gave her, Whose flesh God took, a second thought, much less contemplated the glory and grace that God bestowed on her, above all creatures, in that her very DNA was taken on by God Himself, so she would have discerned her own features in the face of the Incarnate Word. I do not even remember her ever being mentioned in Mother's Day sermons. This is a negative and phobic response, borne more out of fear (not wholly unjustified) of idolatry. Yet it is fear, and to recognise it as such is simply to be honest and to name things for what they are. Here in the Paradiso, one sees neither too much nor too little honour being accorded the Mother of God Incarnate, but Marian piety in its proper measure. She stands at the head of the saintly assembly of both Old and New Testaments, gazing intently upon God and leading all of saved mankind to do the same. St Bernard instructs Dante to look to Mary for his example and help in the final step of true worship, and one cannot think she does not finally honour this request. For she, who enjoyed a closer relationship than any other to Jesus Christ, will always do what she always has done, and point all those who turn to her to her Divine Son, teaching those who ask her to love Him better. All of this is beautifully expressed in St Bernard's instructions to Dante, "Now look at that face which resembles Christ the most, for only in its radiance will you be made ready to look at Christ."

8. One of the things I am most grateful for from my Evangelical background is the great emphasis on the grace of God and a great sensitivity to anything that might impinge upon it, that might introduce the subtly putrid scent of merit or of earning anything. Being brought up in that milieu, one also imbibes the myth that such was unknown before the Reformation and that the Middle Ages were full of people despereately trying to get the smallest toehold on the Divine Mercy through charity, pilgrimages, crusades and who knows what else. It is nice to receive another reminder that it was not so; that the medievals (not to mention the Catholic Church consistently through the ages) were as concerned to emphasise the necessity of grace and the impossibility of earning salvation as I was as a Protestant Evangelical.

This, then, is the second page that Luther could take from Dante: the true nature and necessity of grace. Again in the Empyrean, Dante is acutely aware that only through grace is anything here possible, and he prays desperately for an increase of it so his vision might be strong enough to look upon God directly at last. Like Luther, he realises the central and vital necessity of grace and its true gratuitousness. However, it is worth noting that from this truth, he does not make Luther's mistakes. So, while he talks for several stanzas about the predestination of the Elect and how each of those in Paradise enjoy God's love and glory and bliss to the extent that God has predestined for that individual (in a completely arbitrary and gratuitous fashion), he does not cross the line and say that God has similarly arbitrarily and gratuitously predestined other individuals for Hell. Thus, Dante holds firmly with the one hand the doctrine of free grace but does not, with the other hand, let go of the doctrine of free will, as Luther and Calvin did. Interestingly, Dante cites the same passage from Romans 9 that Calvin twisted so spectacularly and tragically 200 years later. He avoids the Reformer's errors and summarises- "Thus, through no merit of their own good works are they ranked differently; the difference is only in God's gift of original grace."

In coming to the end of it, there can be no denial that the Divine Comedy is a work of extraordinary faith, a masterpiece of poetry, and I can hardly doubt, the fruit of countless days, months and years of intense prayer. My overall attitude, having reached the end, is one of thanksgiving and gratitude; gratitude to Dante for penning it and thanksgiving to God for what it speaks of and for the grace that has flowed to me as I have read it and it has moved me to prayer and meditation, and fopr the grace that will continue to flow as I continue to pray and ponder and meditate on it in days to come.

At this point power failed high fantasy but, like a wheel in perfect balance turning, I felt my will and my desire impelled by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Reflections on Paradiso

The glory of the One Who moves all things penetrates all the universe, reflecting in one part more and in another less. I have been in His brightest shining heaven and seen such things as no man , once returned from there, has wit or skill to tell about.

Well, I did it. I finally finished the Divine Comedy. I started when I was nine years old (or a month before Advent last year, depending on your perspective) and have finally finished the thing.

And behold, there was great rejoicing!

So, reflections. Or initial reactions, at any rate.

I must be frank and confess that Paradiso didn't grab me nearly as much as Purgatorio. Out of the three parts, Purgatorio remains my favourite and the one that moved and affected me the most. There is probably a good reason for this. Purgatorio is predominantly pre-occupied with the process of redemption and sanctification, and with the joyous prospect of being freed from sin, not simply forensically but really. That resonates with me because thats where I'm at. Paradiso, on the other hand, leaves that all behind and tries to penetrate and describe the bliss and joy and love and ecstasy of the Beautific Vision.

Dante is a poet and, I will readily say, having now read his great masterpiece, among the greatest who have ever lived (if I could ever attain to even a third of his talent in this life, I would never ask God for anything again). But he is therefore all the more ready to admit that what he is seeking to describe is ineffable, and therefore beyond even the greatest poet's talent. As Lewis points out in his introduction to the Screwtape Letters, the perspective of a devil is easy but the perspective of an unfallen angel is beyond the capacity of fallen man. Dante admits this limitation on several occasions throughout the Paradiso, but nonetheless attempts valiantly to do his best to describe the indescribable. This requires, at the very least, the vision and knowledge of a mystic, and fortunately Dante is one.

This may be part of the reason I could not fully enter into the Paradiso. Apart from its subject matter being utterly alien to my experience, the sad fact (made sadder because I too am a poet) is that I am not a mystic. I once tried reading St Catherine of Siena's Dialogue- I couldn't get past the first page. When I was reconciled with the Catholic Church five years ago, I was given a copy of St Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises- I never made it through that either. The closest I've gotten to the heights of the contemplative vocation is St Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life, and that is a title far more didactic and practical than those above. I consider this to be a grave deficiency in my temperament.

Nonetheless, it would be utterly untrue to say I found the Paradiso inaccessible. There were many touches and many little episodes that touched me in various ways, and which I found moving or affecting. The poetry soars to great heights, a fact I can appreciate even if I find it difficult to climb after it. So, some highlights.

1. The delightful episode where Dante enters the Fourth Sphere and meets the theologians, and St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure (the brightest lights of the second generation Dominicans and Franciscans, respectively) tell the story of the founders of each other's orders. It is touching as a sign of fraternal love where on earth there is a certain rivalry between the two (present to this day, though generally friendly now), and also as a great testament to God's love incarnated in people's lives, where the good fortune of a brother moves one to genuine and unselfconscious joy and delight. It is a thing one rarely sees on earth, where good fortune in one usually brings about a veiled disappointment in the other, save amongst particularly holy people (who are rare). It must be very common amongst the souls of the sanctified departed.

2. The surprising episode where Dante meets, in the Sphere dedicated to crusaders and those who have died defending the Faith, his great-great-grandfather. Dante, purged of all vanity and pride, delights in the honour of his noble ancestry even so, and carries on a very lengthy conversation with his forebear. For me, this part tickled the imagination. It is a great thing to be able to hear stories and wisdom from one's grandparents because for most of us that is as far back as we can take a personal connection to our family's past. But imagine being able to converse with ancestors further back. The ones one has only seen in one's family tree, who are only names. What one might learn from them. What would they think of how their family history had proceeded after their departure from it? Would they be proud of me? Of my parents? Would there be rebukes or laments to be said? And would I be proud of them? Dante is fortified and strengthened in his faith upon learning of the faith and deeds of his ancestor. His great-great-grandfather then predicts Dante's exile but encourages him to stand fast and not be discouraged. These are poignant words, for Dante had been in exile some time as he wrote the Comedy, and in spite of all his hopes and his great love of Florence, in spite of all its corruption and the way it had treated him, he loved it dearly until the end.

"You shall be forced to leave behind those things you love most dearly, and this is the first arrow your exile shall shoot. And you will know how salty is the taste of others' bread how hard the road that takes you down and up the stairs of others' homes. ....all ungrateful, all completely mad and vicious, they shall turn on you, will be to your honour to have become a party alone."

3. Luther should have taken a page out of Dante's book. Two pages, in fact. I will say more about the second in a moment. In the Comedy, and in the Paradiso above all, one can find side by side the most magnificent odes to the Church, the most extraordinary fidelity and devotion to the See of Rome, and the most scathing and enraged condemnations of the present successor of Peter. Dante knew well (what Luther did not) how to distinguish the man and the office he held. And from his great respect for office of Steward of the Kingdom, he rains denunciation after denunciation upon Clement VIII and his predecessors. One cannot mistake Dante's rage at them. He lived in a time when, not only did the Pope own a substantial portion of Italy (the well-intentioned gift of King Pepin in the eighth century, which Satan subsequently got maximum mileage out of) but was also waging an ongoing war with the Ghibbeline faction, aligned with the Emperor, so that good Christians of Italy had to maintain religious respect and fidelity to the Pope as sucessor of Peter while at the same time fighting and dying in wars against him as a feudal ruler on the opposong side in a territorial war. Worse, the Pope would use religious measures such as excommunication and interdict as political tools to intimidate. And every Pope of this period was hopelessly corrupt, wallowing in luxury and amassing wealth like a big-company CEO. This was and is a great scandal to the Christian faith and Dante spared no wrath in denouncing it in the most angry terms, on several occasions.

It used to be that wars were waged with swords, but now one fights withholding here and there the Bread our Father's love denies to none. And you who write only to nullify, remember that Peter and Paul, who died to save the vineyard you despoil, still live.

Even Peter himself, when Dante meets him in the Eighth Sphere, has harsh words to say: "The Bride of Christ was not nourished on blood that came from me, from Linus, from Cletus, only that she be wooed for love of gold; it was for love of this delightful Life that Sixtus, Pius, Calixtus and Urban, after their tears of torment, spilled their blood. Never did we intend for Christendom to be divided, some to take their stand on this side or on that of our successors, not that the keys which were consigned to me become the emblem for a battleflag warring against the baptized of the land, not that my head become the seal to stamp those lying privileges bought and sold. I burn with rage and shame to think of it!From here we see down there in all your fields rapacious wolves who dress in shepherd's clothes. O power of God, why do You still hold back?...O sanctified beginning, to what foul ending are you doomed to sink! But that high Providence which saved for Rome the glory of the world through Scipio's hand, will once again, and soon, lend aid, I know."

Alas, that it was not as soon as all that. Not really until Paul III in the sixteenth century did the stewardship of the kingdom go to a man who understood what it required. And before that was the wretched stint in Avignon and the great shame of the Great Western Schism. One has to appreciate the great faith Dante had, and his clarity of vision, in separating in his mind the man from the office, and being able to condemn the one while maintaining utter devotion and submission to the other. That is not an easy thing to do. Mankind is far more likely to confuse the two. That was true in Luther's day, when so many (Luther in particular) condemned the very office of Peter's successor primarily because the man who held it was utterly unworthy of it. We in our own day are in danger of the same error, though in an opposite fashion, when we expect the Pope to be an excellent preacher, teacher and example simply because the last few Popes have been. If we place our faith in the man and not the office (which is what God instituted and promised to protect from teaching error), then when the man is unworthy, our faith in the office, and therefore in Christ's promise, will be shaken. We are fortunate that for the last century or so good men have been chosen to reign as God's Steward, men who have sought to follow Christ and to preach the Gospel in season and out. Some have been merely decent, some outstanding (I would place our present one in the latter category), none scandalous. That may not remain true forever.

Sunday, 8 March 2009


Following a conversation I had yesterday at my brother's wedding, I would like to point any readers I may or may not have to this small bit of coolness.

Anthony is a fellow who goes to the Anglican church two of my brothers attend and who I've gotten to know a little through that connection. He is an artist by nature and, late last year, hit upon the interesting idea of drawing a comic of what was happening in his life every hour over the course of days and months. I think originally it was meant to be for a limited period of time (a month or six weeks or something) but he has kept it up ever since. Hence the site name "Gr'og"- 'graphic log', not to be confused with any kind of alcoholic beverage composed of axle grease, propylene glycol, sulfuric acid and artificial sweeteners.

Its a thing at once quirky and cool (both characteristics that appeal to me) and occasionally even entertaining. So give this wind and kite a butcher's!

A Wedding Sonnet

On The Occasion of My Brother's Wedding

How can we embark with confidence on this course
When love in ruins is all we see around?
While radios bleat their faith in this great force,
We doubt their creed when it has run aground.

We know that people change, that men are fickle,
That 'irreconcilable differences' arise,
That sometimes relationships get in a pickle,
And yet we yearn for love sure as the skies.

Such love is found in one place, only one,
Where desire unites with agony and loss,
Where joy is sharper, deeper than mere fun,
And a Bridegroom loves a Bride from on a cross.

Beneath the loving eye and bloody face,
Now glorified, of Him Who such love chose,
Together we set out and steer by grace
Towards a port we know not- but He knows.

We trust in Him Who first that saying coined,
"You cannot pull apart what God has joined."

Friday, 6 March 2009

My Political Views

Following the example of Kiran, I took this political quiz. And it turns out I am a left moderate social authoritarian. Interesting. I guess I can live with that. Below (and above) are the results.

My Political Views
I am a left moderate social authoritarian
Left: 3.9, Authoritarian: 3.23

I'm not at all unpleased about where I've ended up. Being a fan of subsidiarity (although by no means a stickler) I think non-interventionist suits nicely, particularly with regard to foreign policy. I've always disliked colonialism and have never been a fan of Great Britain either, much preferring that England, Scotland and Wales should be separate and autonomous nations. Unlikely to happen anytime soon, but a worthy ideal. England is diminished by subjugating its neighbours.
Moreover, there have been few more destructive or stupid ideas in recent history than America's idiotic faith in democracy as a political panacea. One would have thought the democratically elected fascist governments of the 30's would have cured it of that ridiculous ideology, but it looks like it goes deeper than either experience or common sense.
But I digress.
It is, it must be said, gratifying and liberating to be a Catholic. For many reasons of course, not least being the reception of salvation through Jesus Christ, but a more minor perk is this- one becomes more difficult to pin down politically, and one is free to accept or reject any number of ideas rather than follow any one party or political stripe wholesale.
There is a certain childlike pleasure in confounding expectations.

Ash Wednesday Meditation

Note: I wrote this on Ash Wednesday but it didn't occur to me to post it until now. I think its applicable for all of Lent though.

The Gospel for today was, as it always is today, the passage about not parading your works before men, not putting on a gaunt face when fasting and so on. It occured to me this depends very much on one's context. Our Lord, of course, was speaking to an audience for whom the externals of religion were badges of honour, things to be proud of.

In another context, however, this may be entirely reversed. In a hostile context, showing forth these sort of external signs of faith can be precisely the opposite. Far from being fuel for vanity, they become a source of humiliation, a persistent check on pride.

The trick is discerning which situation one happens to be in at any given moment. So you ought to pray where anyone can see you if you're Daniel in Babylon, but should go into your private room to pray if you find yourself in first-century Galilee.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

How Not to Argue for the Permanent Diaconate

I was reading the Anglican Diocese of Sydney magazine Southern Cross today and came upon an interview with Phillip Jensen on the permanent diaconate.

As he should, he goes back to Scripture to discover what a deacon is (and what a presbyter is, so as to discern the relationship between the two). Unfortunately, he doesn't come up with much.

"[The term diakonos] is applied to all kinds of people including Jesus, and the apostles and their colleagues. Only in two passages do English translations transliterate the word as deacon. Neither of these explains in any detail the nature of the ministry. The Anglican Ordinal has a more precise understanding of 'deacon'..." This more precise understanding Phillip Jensen then goes on to elucidate, both in theory and practice. Then he turns to presbyters. "The New Testament says more about presbyters. But again it talks about the quality of the person rather than the specific role of presbyter. It is a ministry of caring for the Church of God, and of being able to teach. That is, the presbyterate is a pastoral role rather than a sacramental one. It is not limited to the paid professional ministers but is the local eldership of the church." How exactly he knows this when, as he says, Scripture does not pinpoint the specific role of presbyter, he doesn't say.

There are a few things to be said about this.

Firstly, the jump from the raw data of Scripture to the Anglican Ordinal is stark. Is it not remotely possible that some information about the role of both deacon and presbyter might be mined from what we know of how these roles were exercised in the first centuries? There are such things as precedents. This possibility does not seem to occur to Dean Jensen.

Secondly, this approach is emblematic of a whole mindset that is afraid to read the Bible in context. Every Scripture passage has a context- the passages around it. But the Scripture itself has a context- the milieu into which it is written and the community from which it springs. Neither of these are unknowable quantities. In the interview, one would think that the Bible was a long-lost document that had been rediscovered after a thousand years, and that the role of Phillip Jensen and others was to somehow recreate the Church which it talks about, like historical societies who try to re-enact famous battles as accurately as possible (interestingly, Phillip Jensen himself mentions and defends himself against this charge later in the interview- I would argue his entire approach to Scripture assumes the charge's validity). Of course, there is no need to start from scratch. There are several communities who can point to an apostolic origin for themselves, and which have maintained a continuity with that heritage without rupture. This is not even exclusive to the Catholic Church- a quick survey between the the latter, the various Orthodox churches, the Copts and the Thomas Christians of India would yield a number of immediately apparent commonalities. We're not trying to penetrate the mystery of Greek fire here.

Thirdly, the most fundamental flaw in Dean Jensen's Scriptural approach is it makes the massive, unspoken and unwarranted assumption that the Bible is meant to be an encyclopaedia of Christianity. This is an assumption only too common among Protestants of all stripes. The Bible is treated as a theology manual. Anything not contained therein is by definition no part of Christianity. So, instead of being a vital element and witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Scripture becomes the sole source of that Gospel, something it was never intended to be (as witnessed by the problem of defining such basic roles as deacon and presbyter from it).

Of course, the reason why neither 'deacon' or 'presbyter' is given a cut-and-dry definition in Scripture is perfectly obvious. The Gospels were written to enunciate the events of the Gospel. The Epistles were written to clarify theology and solve problems in the churches. The role of deacons and presbyters was neither an explicit element of the former nor something under dispute like the latter. Christians didn't need to be told what a presbyter was and did- they could see that every Sunday. The presbyters didn't need to be told in writing what they were supposed to be and do- they were told in person by the Apostles who ordained them. Unless you are writing a complete encyclopaedia of Christian belief and practice, why write down something everybody knows anyway? Clearly, the Apostles didn't.

The irritating thing about all of this is that I actually agree with Phillip Jensen. The permanent diaconate is a valuable and (for many centuries now) vastly undervalued and underused role in the Christian heirarchy. There are perfectly good reasons for re-introducing it. Many have been both enunciated and implemented in the universal Church since Vatican II. Unfortunately, Phillip Jensen, due to his demand that the Bible be something its not, remains blissfully unaware of some of the strongest arguments in his favour.