Monday, October 24, 2016

Humility in the sixth degree

The sixth degree of humility is that a monk be content with the poorest and worst of everything, and that in every occupation assigned him he consider himself a bad and worthless workman, saying with the Prophet, "I am brought to nothing and I am without understanding; I have become as a beast of burden before You, and I am always with You".

In an age in which we are encouraged to be self-affirming and self-confident in order to find peace with ourselves, St Benedict’s words seem to be severe and negative of our existence. He even seems to contradict Our Lord’s teaching that we are worth more than many sparrows. Does St Benedict really mean that we should berate ourselves, demean ourselves, wallow in a pit of being “ever so ‘umble” like the great hypocrite Uriah Heap?

Not at all, and it is misreading this verse that leads us to the idea that Humility is a constant doing ourselves down. It is not true, for this leads us to a greater pride of believing that God is wrong to love us and create us as He has.

What is St Benedict saying? What is worthless but that which has no worth attributed to it? If we attribute our own sense of worth to our actions and possessions, then we fail to see the truth of the blindness of our sight, and the fallibility of our own estimation. St Benedict challenges our whole value system of attributing worth and importance to things. It’s this that we need to shed in order to find God, for it is God that makes things truly worthy. We are to cultivate that sense of God’s worth. He does not see that worth in chasubles or chalices, but sees only the dedication that their makers have in making things beautiful for Him. He will spurn the chasuble and chalice of a heart dedicated only to “doing things right” in favour of a dirty old surplice and a tin mug of a heart in poverty, yet even seeking the Real Presence of Christ with intensity and passion.

In the Humility of losing the worth defined by the world, we gain the worth that is defined by pure Love. We know that new worth to be topsy-turvy, upending even the ladder of Humility so that ascending this ladder we end up with our feet on the ground of Truth rather than in the air of our own devices and desires.

If we take pleasure in something that we do, then let it be because we have sought God’s good pleasure first and bask in His mercy in bringing our task to its end. If we find nothing disappointment in what we do, then this is a good thing as it will teach us to find Worth where it resides more truly – in the Sacred Heart of Our Lord.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Humility in the fifth degree

The fifth degree of humility is that he hide from his Abbot none of the evil thoughts that enter his heart or the sins committed in secret, but that he humbly confess them. The Scripture urges us to this when it says, "Reveal your way to the Lord and hope in Him" and again, "Confess to the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever" And the Prophet likewise says, "My offense I have made known to You, and my iniquities I have not covered up. I said: 'I will declare against myself my iniquities to the Lord;' and 'You forgave the wickedness of my heart'".

Nothing less than the truth matters in Christianity, call it Truth, Reality, Authenticity, et c, only what really is lies at the centre of the Christian life. This means that the Christian needs to take very seriously the idea that in order to love God, he must look carefully at what God has created in Him. This means delving down into the depths of one’s being and seeing what is really there, and what is really not there, and being honest about it.

On the journey into the self, we open doors behind which lie things of which we are proud. These doors are well-oiled and open easily without any difficulty. They are kept unlocked and we are very ready to open them, especially to other people. There are other doors which do not open so well and behind which lie things of which we aren’t that proud, but which people know anyway. There are also doors which are very stiff, which we open only during Confession. And there are doors in our soul which are locked and bolted, the hinges rusted, the keys lost.

In order to be ourselves in the eyes of God, to present Him with His own Creation as it really is, these doors will have to be opened too. Within there are things about ourselves which we are afraid to face up to, things we refuse to accept, things we want destroyed in ourselves. God gives us no choice. These doors must be opened too and what’s behind revealed.
God created us. Only He gets to say what must be destroyed in us. The only thing that needs to be destroyed is Evil, and the only thing that destroys Evil is Love, the presence of Almighty God Himself. Our honesty about ourselves is uncomfortable, but our continual repentance, our continual turning towards God will allow us to be filled with the Holy Ghost Who certainly dwells within every Baptised person. The more doors we open to Him, the more we allow Him to shed His life into our lives, and the more He will shine out of our lives too.
God gave us the priesthood so that if anyone needs to confess their sins, they can find the ear of Christ present in the ear of the priest. Any priest who takes that ministry lightly or, horror of horrors, as a position of power over the penitent will gravely endanger his soul. We should not then fear Confession but see it as an opportunity to force open those doors to our selves. When the final door is forced open, we will see the eye of God Himself peering back at us.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Purgatory and punishment

The question of Purgatory has vexed Christians throughout the ages. The Romans have it as part of the doctrine, yet it is rejected by the Orthodox and the Protestants. This in itself is quite reasonable: the Roman doctrine of Purgatory is largely 12th Century in origin. There are allusions to an intermediate state by Origen (whose doctrine on the Last Things was not renowned for its orthodoxy), St Ambrose, and St Gregory the Great. This is not exactly what one might call a Catholic consensus as demanded by the Vincentian Canon.

Yet, I don’t think one can just throw the concept away as easily as that. There are some very puzzling thoughts in Holy Scripture that suggest that there is an intermediate state or rather, perhaps, mode of being that will test the soul and for whom the prayers for the dead will be efficacious.

St Luke says: For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad. Take heed therefore how ye hear : for whosoever hath , to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have. (viii.17-18)

St Matthew says: But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come. The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household? Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed ; and hid, that shall not be known. What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.  (x.23-28)

And St Paul, famously, says on the issue: According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid , which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;  Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is . If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned , he shall suffer loss : but he himself shall be saved ; yet so as by fire. (I Corinthians iii.10-15)

Scripture seems to be quite clear. Human beings will answer for their deeds. Even in Psalm xcix, we have:

O magnify the Lord our God : and fall down before his footstool, for he is holy.
Moses and Aaron among his priests, and Samuel among such as call upon his Name : these called upon the Lord, and he heard them.
He spake unto them out of the cloudy pillar : for they kept his testimonies, and the law that he gave them.
Thou heardest them, O Lord our God : thou forgavest them, O God, and punishedst their own inventions.
O magnify the Lord our God, and worship him upon his holy hill : for the Lord our God is holy.

I mentioned below about how ferocious God is about Evil. There is war even in Heaven, but it is a foregone conclusions. The issue at hand is God’s justice as well as His mercy. Only God is capable of wielding these two ideas with appropriate deftness so as to make all things new. We really have to get out of the courtroom here. Justice is not quite the same as we might understand from the point of view of the Crown Court. Justice is synonymous with Righteousness and Righteousness burns with Pure Love. The mercy that God has shown us is that we can indeed be saved from Evil, yet if we reject His salvation, His justice cannot allow us into His Eternal presence.

What we read above is that the Lord knowest the secrets of our hearts, and that these will be revealed to the company of Heaven, and to us. Oh who may abide the day of His coming?! This should make us very uncomfortable. If we have any shame at all, then we will burn with it when these secrets are revealed in Heaven. It will be unpleasant and distressing, and yet, completely transforming! This is God at His most merciful. Just as we undress in front of the doctor, so will we be stripped in front of the company of Heaven so that the salvation of our soul can take place. It is the only way that our transformation can occur and it requires our repentance for it to work. This is probably what Purgatory is – at least in my humble reading of things.

It seems that we must be aware of this process so that we may indeed be ashamed of our sins, yet we find complete and utter acceptance in the arms of a forgiving God. We see the consequences of our actions, yet we are given the strength to bear those consequences through the love of God and the support of the Church. It seems to me that our prayers for the dead are precisely an expression of that support for all those standing before God weeping for their sins, as we all must.

Yet, Scripture is quite clear. God will wipe every tear from our eyes. He only does this because He loves us and wants for us all to be reconciled.

As I look back at my life, I see people that I even now struggle to forgive. I bear them no malice. Indeed, I pray earnestly for their eternal presence in Heaven with God, enjoying unending bliss and joy. I have absolutely no wish for them to spend even a microsecond in The Other Place. However, if I want the same for myself, then I will have to share God’s presence with them. Thus, this transformation, this final theosis, becomes vital both for me and for them if we are to spend Eternity in God’s presence and in mutual love. There will be people who will regard me in the same way, I’m sure. Reconciliation and the healing of harms have to take place for love to be perfected in us. For me, this is a comfort.

Of course, this is speculation on my reading of Scripture, and thus unlikely to be completely sound doctrine. Yet, it seems the most reasonable reading if there is to be any true notion of Justice at the end of time. For our part, we must cleanse our way even by ruling ourselves after God’s word. We must also continue to pray for the dead. That, too, is an expression of Christian Charity for we are in solidarity with all who die. Likewise, we will stand in solidarity with them before the face of Almighty God on that dread day!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

St Luke at war!

Christian, dost thou see them
on the holy ground,
how the powers of darkness
compass thee around?
Christian, up and smite them,
counting gain but loss,
smite them by the merit
of the holy cross.

Christian, dost thou feel them,
how they work within,
striving, tempting, luring,
goading into sin?
Christian, never tremble;
never be downcast;
gird thee for the battle,
watch and pray and fast.

Christian, dost thou hear them,
how they speak thee fair?
"Always fast and vigil?
Always watch and prayer?"
Christian, answer boldly:
"While I breathe I pray!"
Peace shall follow battle,
night shall end in day.

"Well I know thy trouble,
O my servant true;
thou art very weary,
I was weary, too;
But that toil shall make thee
some day all mine own,
and the end of sorrow
shall be near my throne."
Translated from the Seventh Century Greek by Fr John Mason Neale
It seems strange to reflect on these words on St Luke's Day, especially when we are celebrating a compiler of Good News. There is no good news in smiting one's enemies, is there?

One thing that St Luke presses for more than anything else is the Truth. He is a seeker of what really occurs in the life of Our Lord.
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed. (St Luke i.1-4)
He speaks to the eyewitnesses, hears the narrative and even uses his own personal testimony to bring together the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. He has been described as an historian in the spirit of Thucydides, an historian of great accuracy and trustworthiness. Modern historians disagree mainly on the grounds that his history makes sense only if it fits one’s worldview. A materialist would regard tales of miracle and resurrection as superstition as being historically inaccurate to say the least.

The fact of the matter is that no evidence, no matter how obvious, will convince the hardened materialist that miracles happen. Of course, they will turn that around and say of us that no scientific evidence, no matter how obvious, will convinced the hardened Christian that miracles don’t happen. Crossing the worldview is a very difficult thing to do. Some manage it, either to their cost or to their benefit.

There is more to St Luke’s truth than just meets the eye, and it is an important and unpalatable point. Until we are all perfected, Truth will be inconvenient and difficult to swallow. Our Lord is, these days, portrayed in the secular sphere as a nice guy, and in many liberal Churches as a nice guy who saved everyone from their since so that we will all go to heaven and be happy together. St Luke paints a different picture of Our Lord:
…a certain Pharisee besought him to dine with him: and he went in , and sat down to meat . And when the Pharisee saw it, he marvelled that he had not first washed before dinner. And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness. Ye fools, did not he that made that which is without make that which is within also? But rather give alms of such things as ye have ; and, behold, all things are clean unto you. But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done , and not to leave the other undone.  Woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye love the uppermost seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them. (St Luke xi.37-44)
It is in St Matthew’s Gospel where the Lord calls the Pharisees children of Hell (xxiii.15). This is important. The Good News contains the truth about ourselves. It is Good News because recognising the evil that is in us is the first step to our recovery. We can only recover once we know that we are ill. The trouble is that this takes some doing.

In this passage from St Luke’s Gospel, we see the God of both the Old and New Testaments. This is a God who will not tolerate any scrap of Evil. His very being fights against it and, being the only whole substance, automatically prevails. God’s very being is an act of war against Evil and Evil must flee from His presence. This has devastating consequences for all who hold to Evil. God will not suspend His hatred of Evil in order to allow those who will not repent of sin to be part of His kingdom. If there is no desire of repentance, then there is no possibility other than Hell itself.

This is so difficult for the modern mind to hear precisely because it is so against our notions of love, compassion, and tolerance. However, think about it. Would we want a Heaven in which Joseph Stalin, Osama Bin Laden and Adolph Hitler were allowed to be present regardless of whatever atrocities they instigated in the same place as their victims? Would Heaven be Heaven if members ISIS were allowed to receive their apocryphal seventy-two virgins, just because God is good and kind? Our Lord testifies to the existence of Hell and it is to our Good News – Evil will not be tolerated! Hell is not empty – Judas Iscariot (called the son of perdition by the Lord). Lucifer and the Demons are there. We may not know who else. Without Hell, there is no justice.

We have got so used to this idea of tolerance that we are becoming intolerant of people who are intolerant. What do we mean if we are tolerant? We hear hate the sin and love the sinner. This is true. God loves even the denizens of Hell – it is because they reject Him that they suffer. However much we love the sinner, we must hate the sin. This puts a strain upon us because Love brings people together whilst Sin forces them apart. The pain of this is precisely borne upon the Cross. It is a tearing of the flesh of Christ which must take place in order for any reconciliation.

It is interesting that only St Luke records the words of the thieves crucified with Jesus. In a conversation lost to the other Gospellers amid the noise of mockery and jeering, only St Luke hears (possibly from Our Lady or St John) the salvation of a penitent thief at the eleventh hour. This is the Good News indeed! While there is life, there is hope for us! The other thief dies without the words of comfort that the penitent receives before his legs are broken and his life ebbs away next to the already dead body of Our Lord. If that thief were not penitent after that, there can be no salvation for him – but we CAN’T know that!

The Good News of St Luke and the other Evangelists is clear. We walk in darkness with its powers trying to lay claim to our lives. We walk appropriating the darkness for ourselves and call it good. The Light of God comes and shows us that we are indeed in darkness, that we love darkness, that we even revere it! He shows us that we but need only turn to the light and walk as children of the light, bringing light into the darkness. He makes the way to light through Himself – we see that light of God through the holes in Christ’s body. And then, as children of light, we rise with Christ.

We must truly and viscerally hate Evil and wickedness. We have to loathe our sins and really must seek to die before we commit them again. We have to fear that our sins have become so habitual that they have an effect on our lives. We have to worry about any stain of sin in us. We are not to judge others because we have no capacity to know their hearts. We must judge ourselves in our own actions and bitterly bewail the wrong we have done, and make true repentance!

We must also have hope. God does not desire the death of a sinner but rather he turn from his wickedness and live. If he will not turn, he will die, that’s true, however if he does turn to Christ honestly, truly, and fully, he will be saved. The hope is that any battle against Evil that we undergo for love of Christ will be met with unmitigated victory, though in the eyes of the world that victory may seem like the defeat of the Cross. We have to be deadly serious about getting rid of Evil in our lives. We must seek what is truly good, and not let the World deceive us that its good is the True Good: it is not, but rather so far from truly good as to be sickeningly twisted. The World would have us believe that morality is a human construct. It is not. Good deeds can be done by all, but only those done from good intentions will matter to God.

St Luke, the physician, brings us the Good News of our hellish sickness and its Holy Cure. Let us pay heed to its words for they come from The Word Himself. We may tire and falter in our intentions, but God really is good, a true fighter against evil and a mighty warrior in battle against the forces of darkness. Under His command, we will obtain victory, then true, lasting, loving peace.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Humility in the fourth degree

The fourth degree of humility is that he hold fast to patience with a silent mind when in this obedience he meets with difficulties and contradictions and even any kind of injustice, enduring all without growing weary or running away. For the Scripture says, The one who perseveres to the end, is the one who shall be saved; and again Let your heart take courage, and wait for the Lord"!
And to show how those who are faithful ought to endure all things, however contrary, for the Lord, the Scripture says in the person of the suffering, For Your sake we are put to death all the day long; we are considered as sheep marked for slaughter. Then, secure in their hope of a divine recompense, they go on with joy to declare, But in all these trials we conquer, through Him who has granted us His love. Again, in another place the Scripture says, You have tested us, O God; You have tried us as silver is tried, by fire; You have brought us into a snare; You have laid afflictions on our back.
And to show that we ought to be under a Superior, it goes on to say, You have set men over our heads. Moreover, by their patience those faithful ones fulfill the Lord's command in adversities and injuries: when struck on one cheek, they offer the other; when deprived of their tunic, they surrender also their cloak; when forced to go a mile, they go two; with the Apostle Paul they bear with false brethren and bless those who curse them.
So far we have seen that Humility involves the fear of losing God, that we gain freedom by finding the Reality of God's Creation in us, and that we are active in our obedience to the overarching work of Love. The fourth step brings us to the consequence of our active pursuit of Humility. We know that humility is hard to obtain, indeed perhaps the hardest virtue to obtain precisely because it exists on the knife edge of what is real and what is not. Time does not help here, as what we find to be real disappears into the past and is inaccessible to us, while the future only becomes accessible precisely when it ceases to be the future. What is appears to be in a state of flux for us.

Of course, from the point of view of God and thus also of the predestination (or, rather, the eternal destination) of the Church, Past, Present and Future are part of reality, even when they are not accessible to us. That things change around us and our perception of reality alters with that change means that we can easily fall off of the path of Humility.

St Benedict emphasises the need for patience and perseverance. Humility suffers when reality becomes distorted, when fashions raise and fall. Humility cannot be the slave of fashionable ways of viewing the world. There is only one view that matters and that is God's. That view is inaccessible to us and, while we remain blind to that view, we have to hold on to what we know to be real. God shares that view with us by His Revelation to the Whole Church in temporality and in Eternity, chiefly through Holy Scripture. This is why God's doctrine cannot change its meaning, and why fashion is inimical to our submission to God's authority.

It requires much patience. Holy Scripture does contain things that scandalise us, frighten us, confuse us, perhaps even depress us. Yet, we have to persevere, holding on to what is said and having faith that God is Love and that even the most difficult passages which we cannot understand uphold the idea of God's love for us. What we cannot do is proclaim that things have changed and that we are living in more enlightened times, thus submitting God's Revelation to our time, shaping the meaning to our ends, and thus trying to change what God has said for what we think He has said.

The Evil in the world seeks to propagate by the destruction of God's order. The practitioner of Humility remembers that it is Love that must be the constant factor in all his doings, even when it is painful to practise that Love. Patience is required to recognize that the pain we suffer is the price to pay for love, a price which God Himself pays and, in paying, destroys Evil by filling its privation with His substance. We are to persevere so as to remain constant in the conviction we have that God is Love, and that perseverance in Humility allows us to persevere in Christ's Humanity so that, at the last, He will unite us in His Divinity.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Humility in the third degree

The third degree of humility is that a person for love of God submit himself to his Superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle says, He became obedient even unto death.
For those of us not in a community. it is difficult to see whom we accept in the role of Superior. Is it our parish priest? Is it our boss? Is it our spouse?

In the letter to the Hebrews, we read: " Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves : for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief : for that is unprofitable for you." Further, in the first letter to the Corinthians, we read:
Let no man therefore despise him: but conduct him forth in peace, that he may come unto me: for I look for him with the brethren.  As touching our brother Apollos, I greatly desired him to come unto you with the brethren: but his will was not at all to come at this time; but he will come when he shall have convenient time .   Watch ye , stand fast in the faith, quit you like men , be strong .  Let all your things be done with charity.  I beseech you, brethren, (ye know the house of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints,)   That ye submit yourselves unto such, and to every one that helpeth with us, and laboureth .   I am glad of the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus: for that which was lacking on your part they have supplied .  For they have refreshed my spirit and yours: therefore acknowledge ye them that are such.   The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.   All the brethren greet you. Greet ye one another with an holy kiss.  The salutation of me Paul with mine own hand.  (I Cor xvi.11-21)
Imitation of Christ is an action and our actions have a purpose. Therefore, our obedience is always for a purpose, and Humility recognizes that we have responsibility to play a part in this world. Often we think of Humility as being completely passive - a mere recognition of the state of play - however it is the presence of Love that galvanises our being into action. Our Bishops have care over our souls, and the good Bishop will be weighed down with this as he seeks to be obedient to the Church. The care of his flock will be a cross which he has to bear which is why the bad bishop will be concerned more with himself and his own image rather than his flock.

The obedience that comes from humility is precisely that which realises our purpose in the Church. Our Lord demonstrates Humility by His unswerving mission to His death on the cross. For Him, this is as far from glamorous as it's possible to get. It doesn't earn Him degrees, or diplomas, it doesn't earn Him a crown, it avails Him nothing save the knowledge that He does the Father's will. The Father's will is perfect love, and it is that love that fuels Humility.

We are to be obedient to everyone, to submit ourselves to the overarching concern for their care. In the Church this is canonical obedience. Canonical obedience to the Bishop is humility framed in love for the Church, in love for the person of Christ represented by the Bishop and, indeed, any Christian.The well-being of the Church, its organisation, and its processes should be regarded as vitally important when they lead inexorably to the working of Love's purpose so that things may be done decently and in order.

To whom then should we submit? We submit ourselves to anyone who is working out Love's purpose. We need to learn to discern that in ourselves and in others. If we are working out of self-interest, self-adulation, or self-publicity, then we are not submitting ourselves to the Church's mandate to be a blessing to the world, we are not practising Humility. We should always pray for discernment and, as we learn to live in Love, this discernment and obedience will become easier.

Should we hail the Holy Queen?

I have often said that it is good that the Church has people who will call her doctrine into question. The discussions that follow are valuable and, if done in the right way, can enrich people's faith so that they can live better the Christian life.

This seems to be the situation when we come to the way in which we express our relationship with Our Lady through our prayers and our attempts to show hyperdulia - the unique veneration that we have for the Queen of Heaven. As I've said before, this is not worship.

It is quite well known that the Ave Maria is thoroughly rooted in Scripture.

Another famous prayer is the Salve Regina which we say after Compline during the summer and at the end of the Rosary. It is 12th Century in origin and therefore not a compulsory vehicle for doctrine, occurring as it does after the Great Schism.

However, let us take some time just to look at the words and see what this Marian hymn is saying.

Salve, Regina, Mater misericordiæ, vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve. Ad te clamamus exsules filii Hevæ, Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle. Eia, ergo, advocata nostra, illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte; Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis post hoc exsilium ostende. O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria.

Hail [Holy] Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope, hail! To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we sigh, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Ah! turn, then, our [most gracious] advocate, thine eyes of [that] mercy unto us; and, after this exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O pious [loving], O sweet Virgin Mary.

The version we say today in English does embellish the original Latin and we need to ensure that our embellishments do not push us from hyperdulia to idolatry.

Let's be systematic:

Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy: - If Our Lord is the King of Heaven, that necessarily makes Mary the Queen Mother. Is she holy? The Church Fathers are practically unanimous in saying that she was uniquely set apart for the birth of Our Lord and is therefore holy. Our Lord's Incarnation is an expression of God's perfect mercy on a sinful creature. To call Mary the mother of mercy is to bear witness to her son's mission on Earth.

Our life, our sweetness and our hope: - Notice that we're not saying that Mary is the cause of our life, sweetness and hope, but calling to mind the humanity that we share with her all as beings of a single nature. We call to mind that which God has given her to display. As a human being, she shares our life and lives now with God. We look to her to see how life with God can be sweet, despite the horrors of this world. We hope that we will follow her into heaven and receive that relationship that Our Lord promises for all who do the will of His father.

To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve: - Why aren't we crying to God? Why aren't we crying to Jesus? Of course we should! He will hear our prayers wherever we are and whether or not we are in a state of Grace. Sometimes though, God's holiness, Our Lord's majesty, just get the better of us. Perhaps St Peter expresses this well when he tells Jesus "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord." We recognise that we, like Eve, have fallen and are sinful and know we are not worthy of the attention and love that God gives us because of sin. Sometimes it just seems that it is a struggle just to call upon God because of our sins in the blindness of our darkness. To cry to Mary is to call out to another human being who is in proximity to Jesus and, like blind Bartimaeus, be led to Our Lord by her hand, then we can address God directly. As I say, it is not necessary that anyone pray this prayer, but it would be good for some to do so.

To thee do we sigh, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears : - We remember that the sword pierced Our Lady's soul at the death of Our Lord. She knows pain and suffering and therefore stands in solidarity with us, just as all the other saints in Heaven do. We might feel we suffer alone, but we don't. At all times, we are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses, witnesses to God and witnesses of our lives. The saints willingly stand with us, and will propel us towards God. We are the Church. We are in this together, throughout time and into Eternity!

Turn, then, Most gracious advocate...: - The word "Most" is an addition to the text. Is Our Lady an advocate? The Latin advocare literally means "to call to" and has the sense of calling to someone on someone else's behalf. Thus, yes, Our Lady is indeed an advocate. She calls to her son on our behalf. Most gracious? Our Lady is full of grace - you can't get more gracious than that! Again, she is not the source of Grace, she is its vessel.

...thine eyes of mercy unto us : - The Latin is a little convoluted and embellishments have arisen here. Looking at it literally, it sort of reads "turn then those your mercies eyes". We see that the words are entwined somewhat inextricably - a device that is very potent in Latin and Greek. We could say "turn, then, your eyes; turn, then, those mercies" but we lose that intertwining, that association. What do we desire? We want Our Lady to look upon us and, in so doing, extend to us the mercies that come with her, through her, but not from her. Our Lady is mother of mercy, and she sat God's Mercy upon her knee.

and, after this exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus :-  This largely sums up what we have just said. We are, like Israel was, in exile in Babylon. Our destiny is with Christ. Using Our Lady as a signpost, we will find Him very near.

O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary. : - Again, we call upon someone who shows the virtues to which we aspire. We cannot be pious without being loving. We need to be clement, not allowing the storms of this World to distract us from God so that people see in us the Holy Harbour in times of distress. We need to be sweet, so that people can taste and see how gracious the Lord is.

We do notice than in praying the Salve Regina even with its embellishments, we are not claiming that she is the source of any virtue, but that she embodies them in her single nature. We can embody virtues, too, only by being part of the Church and seeking the kingdom of God first. When we pray to Our Lady, we pray as we would ask another human being for their prayers, their solidarity, and their moral support. She will help us come to her son, because she is never far from Him.

This is a prayer of the Church within the Church for the Church to meet her bridegroom. It is not idolatry for we are always looking to the One who is beyond the Church, yet always so close.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Magic, Miracle and Mystery

Ah! Already in the social media, the little pumpkin Jack O'Lanterns are coming out to play. As always, a one day festival is strung out for a month or more, not that Hallowe'en is technically a festival, just the Eve of the Feast of All Saints. Of course, this is a time of year well steeped in ancient religion and superstition. We Christians may have plonked a major festival on top of a pagan celebration, but both do point to something, though we point in different directions.

The underlying nature and abiding atmosphere of Hallowe'en is the central mystery of life and death. We're sandwiched between two great unknowns of before-we-were-born and after-we-die and, as the nights draw in, and the chill wind blows the leaves from the trees, our minds perhaps linger more on the memories of loved ones past, and the future appointment that we have with the Grim Reaper. Yes, this time of year does point to that.

Ancient Paganism as it stood does have some resonance in Christianity. Both revere the natural processes around us, both stand as stewards of Creation. Yet, while the pagans worship divinity contained in nature, we Christians worship the One True God who cannot be contained in nature and necessarily stands apart from His Creation.

One of the themes that has come out of the Christian perception of paganism is that of magic. Christianity has always condemned the practice of magic. The idea of divination and magic are contained in Genesis with prohibitions in Leviticus xvi and Deuteronomy xviii. We see magic used to bring a message purportedly from the Ghost of Samuel conjured up by the Witch of Endor with disastrous effect in I Samuel xxviii. St Paul condemns witchcraft in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Galatians. We have also that famous and dreadful phrase "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" from Exodus xxii, a phrase that has seen bloodshed, torture, and death on a massive scale. Interestingly, the persecution of witches did not come about until after the Protestant Reformation: witch hunts were only part of the Inquisition on the grounds of heresy and the Inquisitors usually had bigger fish to fry (if you'll pardon the rather tasteless pun). The Protestant grounds were based on a reading of Exodus xxii:18 and fermented with a good rage against superstition.

What is really behind this Christian hatred of witchcraft?

Perhaps we see it most clearly when Our Lord is tempted to change stones into bread. He can do it, but He does not. Satan seeks to tempt Our Lord into using His power to force nature to do His bidding. Our Lord reminds Satan that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God". God has ordained the Laws of Physics as He has in order for the world to be as it is. Bread is bread; stone is stone. If Our Lord were to change stone into bread, it would demonstrate a caprice which would actually damage His mission to submit to nature and thus redeem the world from within. All things are created at a word from the Creator. Magic, then, seeks mastery over Creation, and seeks to manipulate Creation by force using the caprice of the magician!

What about the Lord's miracles? Are these not instances of magic? First, we see that Our Lord performs miracles in full submission to the Father. He prays, and blesses, and glorifies His Father. The miracles He performs do not pervert what His Father has created. Water is supplemented to become wine; bread and fish are extenuated; blind eyes, deaf ears, a dead body - all have life and function restored to them. There is no contravention of nature. Stones remain stones.

What about the Sacraments  - the Holy Mysteries? Are Christian Priests really magicians? We'd be the worst magicians in the world if we were! No. The Sacraments exist to give us grace to turn back to God. They change us from within: they change our hearts, minds and intentions. In the Sacraments, we effect nothing, all is done by God as part of a covenant. God is no familiar spirit, or genie, or wish-fulfilling leprechaun. It is His way or..., well there is no or.

 The Christian is to be a steward of God's world, to be a blessing to it and help it to be fruitful. There are those who want to control the world by changing it substantially. Some try to do this through sorcery and magic spells: we have the idea of the witches' coven seeking to cause mischief and ruin by convincing Macbeth to murder Duncan and proclaim himself king. We think of the magician who seeks to force his way into the beautiful woman's affections through the use of a love philtre. We see another whistling for the wind. We see the animist dancing for the reign. Each seeks to command nature by forcing their will upon it.

How familiar that sounds. Arthur C Clarke says, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Indeed. We use science to manipulate the world around us so that it does things that it isn't meant to do: roses in winter, bananas growing in Croydon, permanently lactating cows, Orcas in tiny tanks, light in darkness. While I am suspicious of scientific proclamations, I cannot help but agree that Global Warming is a fact and caused by the human lust for control over the planet, over Nature herself.

As William of Baskerville says to Adso of Melk when the latter needs to visit the little Benedictine's room, "Adso, in order to command nature, one must first learn to obey it"- a sentiment perhaps later adopted by Sir Francis Bacon. This is something that perhaps human beings have forgotten and, as a result, unwittingly inflict disasters upon ourselves. We tend to call these disasters "natural evil" but it seems all the more likely that this "natural evil" is in fact human stupidity, selfishness, and sin in disguise. What's the point of prolonging our lives if, in so doing, we withhold the privilege of life from others? What's the point of a beautiful uniform lawn, or fatter strawberries, or bigger pumpkins if it kills off all bees and other insects?

Where pagans and Christians agree is that this is a wonderful world worth taking care of and worth submitting to its rhythms and tides even if they don't always work out in our favour. I believe William of Baskerville is right, we should first seek to obey nature by obeying God's decrees, ordinances, commands and love before we learn to command nature. In doing so, we lose magic as a force against nature and recover it when we work with nature, harnessing its power. We lose Miracle as a quick fix of getting better and, instead, see it as Our Lord intended as a sign of God's mastery over Creation and His unending concern for our well-being as citizens of Time and ultimately Eternity. We lose Sacrament as a bargaining chip to keep people subjugated to a pharisaic and political religion, ruthlessly persecuting those who will not accept its rule, and see it as part of God's relationship with the Church to allow it to convey His blessing to the world and all its inhabitants.

The correct way to understand Magic, Miracle and Mystery, is through humility and obedience seeking to play the part that has been ordained for us by Almighty God. This is how the Kingdom of God is truly near us, and in us even now!

Bodily lies

Sermon preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity 2016

We are constantly being lied to.

 You may think that this is coming from politicians, or people of importance, people who run this world, yet the fact is that they are being lied to, too. We are all being lied to.

This particular lie has always walked with humanity, even before Our Lord was born. It is very simple: spirit good, flesh bad. The idea is that all we see around us is inherently bad, that the world is a prison and something to escape from. The only good things are spiritual and the way to live a good life is by abandoning material things completely and live a spiritual life so that, when we die, our spirit can be free of this body of death.

The trouble is that it sounds so Christian. We can hear Our Lord saying, ”For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it,” or “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” We can hear St Paul say, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Perhaps we aren’t being lied to after all.

But we are, because we keep hearing the opposite lie, that there is no God, no such thing as the spirit, that there are only those things for which we have scientific evidence. All that exists is matter and energy and nothing else. It seems that we are being presented with a choice: reject the body and seek the spirit, or reject the spirit and seek the body. Neither are right with God.

Let us be clear. We believe in the Resurrection of the body. Look at how God has created us. We are the union of body and spirit – one soul but with two different aspects of our being. We cannot be pure spirit, nor pure body otherwise we cease to be human. We are not body and soul: we are each a soul – a living being. We have to love God more than ourselves otherwise we will lose any form of being that we have. It is our sins that make our bodies difficult to live with. It is not the world that is our prison, it is Sin.

God created our bodies to be part of ourselves. This is what God has created and He is no liar. We must not live our lives then as if our bodies are evil, treating them with contempt and wishing our lives to be over for God has given us life to enjoy with Him. Neither should we give ourselves over to worldly living as if there is nothing after death. St Paul urges us to redeem the time, “because the days are evil.” Our Lord has redeemed us by His own blood. Likewise, we are to redeem living in this world by living with Our Lord, enjoying the life that He gives us and helping others to enjoy life. Just as Our Lord’s blood gives us life and blessing, so is the Church to give life and blessing to the world so that it may be able to see the Creator within us.

Life is full of hardship, pain and loss, and realising this can send us down one of the two paths of lies. In the Holy Spirit, we can tread the narrow way back to God, remembering that we are His creation and being thankful for it. In Him every tear will be wiped away. In Him every joy will be made complete. That’s the truth.