Thursday, 30 April 2009

Thoughts on the Sexual Revolution

Not mine. Somebody else's.

John C. Wright put up a brilliant little piece the other day which is both insightful and apt, and in which we learn, among other things, that there is a correlation between theft and ice cream sales.

I do actually like rock and roll music, so reacted somewhat to his comments on that subject, but he's right about the dancing at least. I remember having seen a waltz done well once. Very few can do it well these days- most just manage to make some semblance of it at weddings and such- and it is difficult to find a woman and a man who can both dance it well who find themselves at the same function together, much less a woman and a man who can dance it well and are also in love. It was some time ago that I did manage to see a couple who could both waltz superbly and were also in love. I recall being struck by the beauty of it; the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of co-ordinated movement, the juxtaposition of two utterly unlike figures tracing a seemingly effortless tandemness across the floor, and the look in their eyes as they looked into each other's faces, their feet in perfect sync all the while. Wright is right. The kind of dance you can find in any nightclub in Sydney on a Saturday night may be fun, but it doesn't compare.

On a similarly personal note, I was particularly struck by these lines:

Let none think I am complaining of the depravity of my surrounding culture because I behold a paragon of virtue in the looking glass. I am complaining because I myself am a vomiting drunkard of the wine of vice, and friendly people keep offering me free drinks while I am trying to quit, and they keep telling me that I am sober enough to drive and pushing the car keys into my hand.

I hear you, brother.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Sound of Silence

A nice quote from this book by Fr. Dwight Longenecker, about monastic silence. It probably applies best to the Carthusians, who are the monks of silence par excellence, but is actually concerning a portion of St Benedict's Rule which treats of how monks should talk.

The spiritual person is silent because at heart he wants to spend time with God, and to do that he must withdraw from human conversation. He does not keep silent because he dislikes other humans, but because small talk is small.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

The Bologosphere Grows

It seems to be catching. Another Bolas has made her presence felt online. Those who are interested may read the ongoing thoughts, troubles and assorted reflections on life, God and whatnot of my sister-in-law here.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Blogging Bro

I don't actually know how many, if any, actually read this blog. Its generally better for me spiritually not to check hits (if there were few I would be tempted to get depressed; if many, I would be tempted towards vanity- so better just to remain ignorant).

Those who do, however, may or may not be interested to learn that my spiritually zealous and recently married brother has entered the blogosphere. Seeing as there are now two Bolas's blogging, I hereby dub our collective contributions to the online community "The Bologosphere"! Let those who tremble at bad puns quake all the more and hide their faces in fear (or maybe embarrassment)!

It is early days for his blog yet (and he is at a certain disadvantage, being on Wordpress and all) but I am keen to read what he has to say as time goes on. Maybe some of you might be too. Those who are can find him here.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Feast of St George

Happy Feast of St George!

Today is a particularly good day to pray for England. There is much darkness that hangs over her. There are also spots of light. I am certainly hoping the new Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols will prove to be one of these. You can also find others in places like this and this.

St George, though you never set foot there, England in days past called you her patron and asked for your prayers. In this day when so many in that land have forgotten the Saviour for whom you gave your life, pray for them. Pray also for courage for those in leadership in the Church, and for those called to bear witness in the public square, that they may be rewarded with fortitude by the Holy Spirit as you were at the hour of your martyrdom. Pray that a soldier's spirit may be in those called to defend the truth against much opposition, an attitude that forgets itself and does not count the cost. Unite your voice with ours to intercede for England and her people, for whom Christ died, to the Father through Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Cool Lutheran Stuff

I have come to appreciate in the last six months the dynamism of Lutheranism, not least due to this magnificent commentary on Leviticus which I have mentioned before. The marriage of solid biblical scholarship and exegesis with a sacramental sensibility corrects the two big blindspots that exist in our time among the rank and file of the Catholic Church on the one hand and of Protestant Evangelicalism on the other (N.B. I did say the rank and file- this is not a blanket statement by any means). It makes it all the more tragic that Luther felt the need to turn his reformation into a revolution, setting up his own authority in opposition to that of the Church of God. What all that energy and zeal, that towering intellect, could have achieved if wedded to the virtue of obedience and directed to the support and edification of the servants of God and not to opposing them!

But I digress..

What I meant to draw attention to was a couple of excellent posts at Pastor Wheedon's blog. First, there is an able and biblical defense of Christian liturgy. A breath of fresh air. I like biblical explanations of the liturgy (I appreciate historical explanations as well, being an incurable amateur historian, but these often seem rather arbitrary- we do this because somebody else did this a while ago and somebody did something similar before them, etc.- whereas taking it back to Scripture gives a surer foundation and makes the whole thing come alive in a quite unique way to boot). It makes ample sense, given that the liturgy is absolutely saturated in Scripture (in fact, at St Benedict's, we're in the process of saturating it even more by cutting back on hymns and restoring the Psalms the Church recommends be sung at the Introit and during Communion each week). So why not go to Scripture to justify it? Defending biblically a thoroughly biblical approach to worship is utterly appropriate and contrasts the liturgy starkly with its alternative (not to mention answering those who either favour or reject it for aesthetic reasons or those who, ironically, think of it as mere dead ritual and an obstacle between the individual and true worship). It makes a lot more sense than the reinvention of the wheel that obtains at many churches, where the structure of the service is revised and recast anew from week to week and year to year, and where Scripture occupies a minor place, all but crowded out by endless songs (not Psalms) and the interpretations of the preacher (which may be good or bad but remain in either case interpretations and not the Word itself). Pastor Wheedon's post is, as I say, a breath of fresh air.

There's also an excellent poem from John Updike there.

And I can't help but mention also this whimsical post, where it is observed that our Lord, unlike many of us (mea culpa), set an example by making His bed after the resurrection.

Definitely worth a look.


Kiran Newman has written a wonderful poem which is essentially a long and profound meditation on the Easter Triduum. It is set in the early days of the Jerusalem Church (before the Apostles and believers were first persecuted and spread out from Jerusalem to Antioch and so on) at Mass on the Lord's Day. One of the participants, as he worships, recalls all the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. I won't give away who the narrator is supposed to be- it isn't revealed until the end of the poem, and a profound surprise it is. It is a marvellous piece of work- the kind that inspires one to pray and/or pull out one's Bible and read (and let's not forget that with lectio divina, you can do both at once!).

Kiran tells me the poem will only be posted on his blog for a short while, as he may want to publish it in the future and doesn't want to spread it too far abroad online for copyright reasons. So check ye it out while ye may!

UPDATE: Sorry, got the title wrong the first time (mixed it up with a different poem of Kiran's). All fixed now.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Death Like Water

Here's a quote I stumbled on here, which expresses well the general direction and content of my prayers and reflection the past couple of weeks- emerging from the desert of Lent and coming down from the high of Easter Sunday- and challenges me further still. It's originally from Archbishop Fulton Sheen's "Life of Christ".

"But He will not allow us to pick and choose His words, discarding the hard ones, and accepting the ones that please our fancy. We need a Christ Who will restore moral indignation, Who will make us hate evil with a passionate intensity, and love goodness to a point where we can drink death like water."

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Complementary Lessons from the Friar and the Cenobite

One of the fruits of Lent and Easter for me this year was a lot of thinking about the various kinds of monasticism and how they embody the Christian life.

One thing I noticed is how seemingly diametrically opposed modes of living both completely fulfill the Gospel counsels. This, I suppose, is not beyond the pale and should not surprise me after five years in the Catholic Church, which, by virtue of its catholicity, has a habit of marrying disparate and opposite things on a regular basis. Nonetheless, it is counter-intuitive. Even, somtimes, to the saints, as it turns out.

Here is the case where I noticed it most directly:

Benedict, in his Rule, says a lot about stability. This, of course, is one of the vows Benedictines make, and in its most pure form it means the person who takes the vow will spend the rest of his life at the monastery. The vow binds him to this plot of land. For the rest of his life, he will see the sun rise over those hills and set below that field. From this day to the day he takes his final breath, that horizon will not change. Many people may visit the monastery; he will be there every time. Stability means binding oneself to a particular set of people too- the community of monks or nuns at the monastery. In this way, the monastery becomes like a ship- you're all stuck with each other for the length of the journey. If one person annoys you, you have to deal with it somehow because you can't just go somewhere else and leave them behind or meet new people.

Why would a person do this to themselves, vow to take on this kind of life? Surely this is how we treat criminals who need rehabilitating! Well, quite apart from the fact that we are criminals and we do need rehabilitating, Benedict tells us the rationale behind this vow. One can only ever meet God in the present moment in this present place. You will not find Him on the other side of the world, in some holy place or in the presence of some holy person if you have not found him here, now, with these people. If we travel to other places, if we seek to meet new people, out of a desire for novelty or because we think we will find happiness there or with them, Benedict tells us, we haven't learnt the first thing about the Christian life. If we do it in order to escape where we are or someone in our life, we may even be in spiritual danger. The mind of Christ is foreign to such a desire to escape.

Benedict spoke scathingly of monks and hermits who wandered about, preying upon people's charity or moving from one monastery to another, never satisfied with where they were, bored, always on the lookout for something new. He calls them gyrovagues and says, "[They] are never stable their whole lives, but wanderers through diverse regions, receiving hospitality in the monastic cells of others for three or four days at a time. Always roving and never settling, they follow their own wills, enslaved by the attractions of gluttony."

Ours is a culture bouyed up by stimuli, diversions and distractions. The majority of people's lives are made bearable by these things, by the next magazine issue, the new movie, this week's exciting episode. Robbed of these things, we must face ourselves (a scary prospect) and we must face God. Our surroundings and the people we must contend with day after day only make the vision of both more stark. And yet here is freedom, freedom from chasing after things (and therefore in many ways, from the tyrrany of time), freedom to love persons (really love, which transcends liking and disliking), freedom to stand naked before God with clear vision- of Him, revealed in Jesus Christ, and of myself, a sinner.

Here, clearly, is a sure avenue to the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. And one cannot help but agree with Benedict about the futility of gyrovagues, of boredom, of wandering and not settling. And yet....and yet....

Exhibit 2. The friar and the pilgrim.

When I was a pilgrim on my way to Canterbury, I had a different but no less Christian experience of life with Christ. As I journeyed, I received a palpable sense of the transience of things. An undeniable sensation of things flowing away, passing by, never remaining stationary, always changing; not just the scenery or the places I was passing through, but all things. All things are flowing away from us, and if we try to grip them, they slip through our fingers. As a pilgrim, I always had to keep moving. I could stop to look at a beuatiful view, but only for five minutes, then I had to keep going. I would never see that view again. I might meet kind and charitable people, fascinating personalities with stories to tell. I would stay with them a night, two at most. Then I had to be on my way. I would never see them again. I might happen upon a market or a bookstore and see some must-have volume or trinket, something I would love to have on my shelf. But I couldn't take it- there was no room in my backpack. Nothing, not things, relationships, nor beautiful landscapes could I take with me. All had to be left behind. From that experience, I took away the profound lesson that nothing in this world is solid. All is fleeting. I cannot take anything with me. All ends sooner or later, even the best, and the only really unchangable and solid thing in the universe is God.

A corollary of this was the necessity of reciving everything as a gift. When I set out each morning, I didn't know what the day would bring, what I would see, who I would meet, what opportunities there would be or what might be required of me. Literally anything could happen, but I set out in the knowledge that whatever happened, it was ordained by God. It was given by Him, shortly it would be taken by Him. My attitude had to be endlessly flexible, able to gratefully receive whatever person or thing or experience might come my way, and able to let it go just as freely when the time came to leave it behind.

In many ways, this is a microcosm of what life is like, and of what our attitude ought to be in all circumstances. Pilgrimage only served to make it clearer.

This kind of wandering from place to place (albeit with a final goal in mind) seems to be the antithesis of the counsels of Benedict. And yet, here too is a sure avenue to the love and knowledge of Jesus Christ. And there have been some who have made a lifestyle of it and not been gyrovagues or fallen under Benedict's condemnation. The friars, especially the early ones, embodied this attitude of pilgrimage. Almost every story one hears about Dominic or Francis (certainly after their vocations were taken up), they are on a journey, travelling. Francis especially embodied the receiving of all things as a gift from God without seeking to possess them. This is not due to boredom or a desire for novelty. Friars are not gyrovagues (or they shouldn't be). Benedict condemns those who "never settle, following their own wills", but the friar never settles precisely because he is not following his own will but rather seeking to leave himself open to God's will, relinquishing his grasp on anything he might desire to keep for himself in the hope it might satisfy him, even people and places. Yet the friar is not unstable. The whole world is his monastery. Every person he meets is a brother or sister (even, in Francis' case, the animals). The two ways of life complement each other beautifully.

By the vow of stability, the Christian puts on armour to protect himself from the endless pursuit of novelty and the suspicion God can be met somewhere other than here and now; that I could learn love if I wanted to, if only I could get away from that guy.

In the life of wandering and journeying taken up by the pilgrim and friar, the Christian puts on armour to protect himself from undue attachment, from a false feeling of security in the presence of the known, against the substitution of transitory things which will pass away for the love of God which will not.

Saints Stoop

Here is a wonderful quote that I stumbled across recently:

God always approaches man from beneath
And man must always stoop to meet Him.
- Nicholas Zernov

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Islam and the Victorious Defeat of God

I had an encounter with one of my Muslim students the other day where we spoke of what we each believed about Jesus Christ.

Being a student of history, I (unlike most of the Western world it seems) have not been unaware of the inherent military nature of Islam and the eternal antagonism between it and Christendom, nor yet under the illusion that that antagonism is likely to disappear anytime soon, even if Christendom has lost its faith and the Islamic world most of its teeth. Nevertheless, it was startling to me to be brought face to face and confronted with the source of that antagonism.

There are views and groups in this world who are hostile to each other because they misunderstand each other or treated each other badly at some point. But there are other views and groups who are not hostile because of misunderstandings or maltreatment but rather because they understand each other only too well. The centuries-long conflict between Christianity and Islam is like that.

Yes, I acknowledge that we worship the same God. People who refuse to admit that are simply living in denial. But Who God is: there we fundamentally- fundamentally!- disagree.

Jesus brings this stark difference home. Even if we were to accept what Islam accepts- that He is merely a Prophet (though a great one)- we are confronted by something. Islam says (from what my student told me) that Jesus ascended before the crucifixion, and that God miraculously caused another man to look like Jesus, and it was he who was crucified in Jesus' place- and, moreover, stayed dead. Even, as I say, if we accept that Jesus was a Prophet of God, what kind of Prophet is this, and what kind of God does he represent? This Prophet takes the easy way out. He lets a (possibly innocent) third party suffer for him. God colludes with this and brings it about through miraculous means.

This sticks in my throat, not only because it seems to me unjust, but because it goes against the grain of all that has come before. Sure, there are parts of the Torah and parts of the Tradition where the message is that God will make His people victorious, that they will triumph over their enemies, that if they follow His law all will be well for them and they will prosper. But these are balanced (sometimes outweighed) by other parts, where God takes the part of the downtrodden, where He takes pity on the alien, the widow, the orphan. It flies in the face of the experience of His prophets before Jesus: Moses, who never enjoyed the fruit of his long labours but died on Mt Nebo unsatisfied, Isaiah who was sawn in two, Jeremiah who went from misery to misery and was given a mysterious sharing in the suffering of God Himself. Then (says Islam) along comes Jesus, who gets whisked out of harm's way in the nick of time, lest anything bad happen to him, and some random gets it in the neck instead. It doesn't match.

And what kind of God is this anyway? This is a God for winners only, a God who sides always with the victor against the defeated, a God of the rich, a God of the intelligentsia, the bourgeoisie and the upper echelons. For this God suffering and poverty are signs of condemnation.

How different is the Gospel to this? In Christianity, God does not take the easy way out. He enters into suffering, pain, grief, loneliness, loss and death. He drinks all of human anguish and He drinks it to the dregs. He takes no shortcuts, enacts no Deus ex machina. He suffers. He dies. God dies. And then He rises, by His own power, and takes all with Him (or will, at any rate). For this God stands in communion with Man, redeems him from where he is, by being what he is and experiencing what he experiences. This God knows misery intimately. This God knows pain. This God knows what it is to be wronged, to be sinned against, to experience malice and evil. This God knows loneliness and abandonment and mortality.

This is a God worlds away from one Who smiles and sympathises only with the rich, fortunate and powerful. This God loves the powerless, the poor, the miserable, the suffering, the dying and the dead. He has Himself been one of them.

And we are asked to follow Him. Not just follow Him as a teacher, but follow Him where He went. That means we are supposed to suffer, be lonely, be poor, be miserable and powerless. And only to the extent that we are can we say that we are like Him. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts and His ways higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9), precisely because lower. He dives deeper than we dare. Where we instinctively desire self-aggrandisement, He abases Himself. Where we hunger to be full, He empties Himself. It is on the Cross that God has delivered the most complete revelation of Himself. We shrink from lack, from loss, from loneliness, bankruptcy, dishonour and humiliation. But it is in those places that we see and know God most completely. It is in those places that He is to be found by those who seek Him. It is in those places that we really come to understand and know Who God is, Who Jesus Christ is.
How easily we miss the significance of this. Humiliation is just as divine as glory and honour. Obedience just as divine as authority. Impotence just as divine as omnipotence.

All our gains must be regarded as loss (Phil 3:7-8), as excrement, in fact (which is what scubola means in that verse). This is no idle saying. We must take it seriously if we are to be His disciples. A paradigm shift is required, against which every fibre of our being rebels and revolts (My ways are higher than your ways). I may have many good things. These indeed may be blessings, and perfectly legitimate goods in which there is no hint of illor temptation or sin. But precisely because they are good and legitimate pleasures, they stand between me and the God revealed in Christ Jesus. For in Christ Jesus, we must give things up to receive them. He always gives them back (though not necessarily in this life), but we must give them up first, and without expecting them back.

The God revealed in Christ Jesus works through the Church throughout history and we see His mark on all things. When Christ died, He won victory over evil, sin, death and suffering and rose to a life that was greater than that in which He died. Likewise, when the Church has sought temporal goods, when things have looked favourable for her, she has tended to lose sight of her Saviour and God. But when she has been oppressed, downtrodden, discriminated against and forces have arrayed against her to destroy her utterly, then she has mirrored Him and been victorious. And new and greater life has emerged- a risen life (or a glimpse of it) to share with the risen Lord. Two recent cases. Post-Revolution French Christianity was dynamic, sent missionaries across the earth and brought forth dozens of saints, one of whom is incorrupt and another of whom is now a Doctor of the Church. Secondly, the post-Soviet Church in Russia is now going from strength to strength, from what I hear. A quote I found some years ago in a history text on Soviet Russia from one of the government officials sums it up: "[Christianity] is like a nail; the harder you hit it, the deeper it goes into the wood."

The Church, like her Lord (and this goes for the individual Christian as well), wins by losing. She is victorious only through defeat. Through His shed blood we have redemption; in losing our life, we find it; through defeat and suffering we conquer. Our soldiers are martyrs, and their blood is the seed of the Church. For she imitates her Saviour. Her life is cruciform. And so must mine and yours be.

Easter Sunday

Χριστός ἀνέστη! Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

Monday, 6 April 2009

The Strange Vengeance of God

Today there is a quite extraordinary reading in the Office for Morning Prayer. It is all the more extraordinary because it is clearly intended for Monday of Holy Week- it occurs on no other day. It is this:

But you, Lord Sabaoth, Who pronounce a just sentence, Who probe the loins and heart, let me see the vengeance You will take on them, for I have committed my cause to You. (Jer 11:20)

I have no particularly clear understanding of the metaphysics of the disembodied human soul, and if it is aware of events in the physical realm. I do not know if there is any sense in which the soul of Jeremiah was able to see what that vengeance looked like when it came, or whether he had to be told about it, as it were, when Christ descended to Sheol. Nonetheless, it is an extraordinary thing to contemplate, the nature of this vengeance of God.

Again, as always, we naturally assume that God reflects us and that He differs primarily in quantity and scale- what we can only do on a small scale He can do on a grand. We have a knowledge of some things. He knows everything about everything. We have a certain limited power over matter, over people, over ourselves; He has limitless power over all things. While this is true as far as it goes, we are unprepared for those countless ways in which God differs from us not simply in a quantitative fashion, but in a qualitative.

"Vengeance is Mine, says the Lord." (Deut 32:35) We automatically think: Ah, this means that whereas I would like to do violence to those who do violence, show them what it really feels like (because of course the desire for vengeance is merely a perverted desire for justice), instead I should wait for God to do them violence and show them what it really feels like. It doesn't take a great effort of exegesis to deduce that this is the literal meaning of this passage from Jeremiah either. Certainly that was what he desired and what he believed, through faith, would happen.

But this is Holy Week and the passage is read now for a reason. For God's vengeance is utterly unlike what we would have expected, utterly unlike anything that we would call vengeance. We delight in seeing the Coyote fall ino the trap he has set for the Roadrunner. We find satisfaction in Robespierre being dragged, kicking and struggling, up to the guillotine to which he had condemned so many. Not so God. He does not visit the consequences of the sin back upon the perpetrator. His vengeance is not the kind that says, "There! See how you like it!" Instead, He twists the weapon out of the evil man's hand. He takes wickedness and turns it into blessing. He takes grief and pain and turns them into joy and delight.

So the evil man stands disarmed. All his evil intentions have been turned to good. His malintent has been subverted, undermined. In a way, he is trapped. If he does good, it turns to good. If he does evil, it turns to good. He has nowhere to run. "But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive." (Gen 50:20)

Jeremiah's cause is indeed won, but won with an almost post-modern twist. What he must have thought when he found out! God is like a true alchemist; everything He touches, even coal and excrement, turn to glimmering gold!

Of course, the words from Deuteronomy apply to us also, and we may be tempted to perpetrate vengeance with our own hands and in our own manner. We may find it difficult to see the true plight of the evil man, that no matter what he does, everything he intends, both good and ill, will ultimately turn to good. But it is true nonetheless, even if neither he nor we can see it, and the Gospel, the Easter Mysteries, are the great guarantee that it is so.

Let us therefore, as the time draws ever closer to celebrate those Mysteries and to enter into the heart of that Gospel, stop for a time and see the vengeance that He has taken on them. And in the light of that most peculiar vengeance, let us commit our cause to Him.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

As Holy Week Begins...

Now we enter the home stretch. There is anticipation in the air. Weighty deeds are imminent.

The Mysteries we approach this week are opaque, too dense to see through, like murky waters, or like blinding light (or darkness, for that matter). All suffering, all evil gathers, brought to a point, a white-hot intensity, then turned completely on its head, to become eucatastrophic joy beyond all imagining, unlooked for, unhoped for.

But that is not yet. The thing must be lived in order. Suffering and evil reach their zenith first. And there is no Deus ex machina. No salvation at the last moment. No leaping desperately from the car before it plunges over the precipice. No, it plunges and explodes with all aboard. Salvation comes not in the nick of time but after it. And not even immediately after. There is a whole day of unmitigated and numbed despair, and that too must be lived through (that is why, as Christians, we also observe Holy Saturday, just as much as Good Friday and Easter Sunday, or at least we should- the Resurrection did not happen immediately and we live that truth, acknowledging and observing it, and wrestling with it if needs be).

Here we watch as the total revelation of God is displayed- not a tyrant, not a blind watchmaker, not a divine child-abuser, not even primarily a cosmic judge and, most mysteriously, not a Being Who snaps His fingers to make all evil and suffering disappear in a flash, even when it is directed towards Him. How can we fathom this fact? How can we understand the heart of this Person?

How much does my soul cry out for all ills to be at an end? Wouldn't it be simple, Lord, to just make all the bad stuff go away? You healed people. You are not impotent. Do You prolong suffering because You take pleasure in it? Surely, at the very least, You could manipulate circumstances so that all those who commit evils and remain ever unrepentant should be the sole ones to suffer in the world? Why should a person who does their best, who seeks to help others, who raises their family in love, reaches out to those in need, who sets an example for others to follow and inspires virtue and love in those they meet; surely such a person ought to be spared suffering?

Even given a basic reading of Christian truth, one questions. If Christ's death on the cross was meant to save the world, why is the world still screwed up? What changed? Like the story of the rabbi whose disciple heard about the gospel from a Christian missionary and ran to his master, shouting, "Rabbi, Rabbi, did you hear? The Messiah has already come." The Rabbi took a quick look out the window, saw things proceeding as normal, children playing and fighting, merchants hawking their wares at inflated prices, a thief stealing an apple from a cart, a couple having an argument in a building across the way. He turned back and said simply, "No, he hasn't."

Christ's coming ought to have changed something, oughtn't it? If He came to save us from suffering and death, why is there still suffering and death? "O Death, where is thy sting?" sounds like a bad joke if you say it at a funeral.

The medievals wrestled with a different but related queston. If salvation had to come through the blood of Christ, why couldn't He just have pricked His finger to save us? If it had to come through His death, why couldn't He just die in His sleep? What is gained by making it excruciating and agonising?

But none of these is the fundamental question and all of them ultimately miss something. The fundamental question, as Fr. Greg Homeming from the Carmelite monastery at Varroville teaches, is Paul's question on the Damascus Road: "Who are You, Lord?"

We live these mysteries to find out, to discover Who He is. And it is not something that can be summed up in a sentence or, for that matter, a sermon. It can only be known through a lived relationship. Even then, as our knowledge deepens, He remains opaque to us.

Partly because so foreign. He does not love as we do. We love after a whole host of criteria have been fulfilled eg. not too annoying or embarrassing in social situations, not too severe body odour, etc. Solid and committed friendships are rare for us and require great effort. We accumulate as we go on in life old friends and acquaintances with whom we fell out or just lost contact. We are quick to anger, quick to ignore, painfully slow to exhibit steadfast, ongoing love. But He is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Ex 34:6).

And this suffering thing is utterly inscrutable to us. In Orwell's 1984, there is a point when the protagonist is in prison and is beaten violently. Whereas before he had proclaimed his willingness to suffer for what he thought was right, in the moment of suffering his thoughts are different. He realises that when one is in pain, all abstract thoughts and ideals dissolve and the mind is possessed by only one thought- to do anything to make the pain stop. Yet Christ, Who certainly had the ability to make it stop (what must John have thought, who had seen Him raise the dead and even transfigured, and here nothing?), didn't.

Why does God choose to endure suffering rather than simply make it cease to be? Couldn't all the benefits of the resurrection, the grace of our salvation, have been given simply by divine fiat? This is not a question to be answered blithely but to be wrestled with in the midst of the full stream of human life and experience. And it leads less to a discussion of soteriology than to the revelation of the heart of a Person. The fact that Christ suffered, the fact that suffering and death still exist even now, must tell us something about Who God is.

There is a verse in one of the hymns sung today (Palm Sunday) that runs, "The winged squadrons of the sky/ Look down with sad and wondering eyes/ To see th'approaching sacrifice." To contemplate these Mysteries, too big and too obscure and ineffable for us, and to contemplate this Person, is to take that attitude. Sad and wondering eyes. Our grief and despair are deeper than that of the atheist, and our joy is higher. But the joy is not yet. There is no dilution. Both excruciating agony and pain and devastation and loneliness and alienation on the one hand, and utter bliss and eucatastrophic joy and exultation and glory and ecstatic delight on the other, are taken in chemical purity. If we are to believe John (Rev 13:8), both in their own way lie at the foundation of reality, possessing the heart of the Being Who is the ground of the existence of all things.

There is more. The angels may look on with sad and wondering eyes, and so may we. But there is more than that for us. He is Man then, now and forevermore, so all mankind shares something with God now which the angels do not. Furthermore, we are members of Him through baptism and we are doomed and privileged therefore to participate with Him in the eternal Mystery of His love. Our reception of and participation in the sacrifice of Calvary at the Mass is the heart of this, but our daily life flows from it, like the river from the Temple in Ezekiel. He is not just our example. We live His love with Him and in Him, and that means there is nothing that He experienced that should not be ours. All of us are called to the Cross. All of us are summoned to the pit of agony and despair with Him so that His glorious resurrection may be ours. That is the terrible condition that Paul speaks of in Romans 8 and which we so easily pass over- "heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified with Him." (Rom 8:17) In Paul also we find that most mysterious of clues as to why nothing seems to have changed and suffering and evil still exist in the world: "I now rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His Body, the Church." (Col 1:24). There are deep and terrible realities here, beyond our grasp, of which we can only get fleeting, by turns terrifying and enrapturing, glimpses.

St Francis, I am told, used to meditate for hours and days at a time on the Passion and, following the teaching of Paul (Gal 2:20), would imagine Himself on the cross with Christ, trying to understand what it was like to have men hammering nails through your flesh and to love them utterly as they were doing it.

We each have our own path to walk with Him, but every one includes this. You can't be a Christian and get out of it. Narrow is the way. Lent has been a long preparation for it. Now we begin to enter into the heart of the Mystery, into the heart of God. May God open our hearts to welcome what we would otherwise flinch from. May we begin to know the loss of all things, the prospect of utter devastation, that we may know the pinnacles of joy that follow. Teach us the meaning of what the angels watch with sad and wondering eyes. Teach us Who You are, Lord.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Something Right

Found this quote here, in an article entitled "Following Atheist Trend, Britons Seek De-Baptism":

"The Catholic Church is so politically active at the moment that I think that is where the hostility is coming from," said [National Secular Society President, Terry] Sanderson, "In Catholic countries, there is a very strong feeling of wanting to punish the church by leaving it."

I guess we must be doing something right.