Thursday, September 29, 2016

Michaelmas Day 2016: Dreaming of Angels

I've just read the epithet "Life is about dreams. A teacher makes them come true" on a colleague's coffee mug. It's one of those statements designed to make teachers feel good about what they do, and yet the reality  of the case seems far from what amounts to this sentence written only to raise the spirits. A child's dreams may indeed be influenced, positively or negatively, by a teacher but there are so many other factors which come into it as to render the true contribution of each teacher objectively invisible. Personally, I hope that I am not responsible for any of my students' dreams coming true, for then, I might be responsible for an inevitable nightmare!

Dreams are regarded with quite some suspicion or derision these days. What we would dearly love to happen in our lives is often not what we actually want. It is because of the rather insubstantial nature of dreams that causes them not to work out in reality. From life's bitter experience, dreams are often punctured with a good dose of cynicism, derision, or just plain fact. Nothing spoils a dream more than waking up to what really is.

I wonder if we are becoming obsessed with what is and is not real. Science claims to have complete objectivity and the deciding means of what is and is not truly real. Philosophy questions this and, in the multitude of metaphysical and existential theories, renders the question "What is reality?" inaccessible to the person on the street. We know the difference between dreams and reality, surely?

(Thanks to Channel 4 and Fr Ted for this!)

Well then, what about the angels?

We need the angels more than ever, but we also need to get out of thinking the wrong things about them in order to truly appreciate their influence and assistance in our lives and in our relationship with God.

Are angels real?

Our Lord talks about them in St Matthew xiii.39, is ministered by them in St Matthew iv.11, are present at the empty tomb in both St Luke and St John's gospel. Crucially the Lord says that they are ascribed to each of us when He says, "Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven." He speaks of the presence of angels in Heaven telling us that we shall stand before them. However, we are only a little lower than the angels.

This is crucial. Our Lord, a historical figure, the One Whose Resurrection has sound historical evidence and thus historical evidence that He is Who He says He is, says that there are angels. If we trust Him, then there are angels indeed. Not floaty people with wings and harps but strange beings, sometimes appearing as men, or as wheels, or as six-winged seraphs. There is a legion of them out there yet, because they have no material existence, they are often missed.

I pointed out to Fr Anthony that there are times when I've celebrated Masses in which I enter 1 in the attendance and communicants column in the Parish Register. Yet, I know that when I celebrate Mass, I do so with the whole angelic host around me, as well as being present with every Catholic priest saying Mass in every time. That's the nature of Reality with God. It passes our understanding because our eyes are veiled.

We do not see, and therefore we are tempted to forget. It is in forgetting that we try to trust in ourselves to dispel evil, and then only end up propagating it. Yes, there are evil angels that we call demons. How can we battle such beings when we can't even control our own bodies? Looking at the world around us, the evil is growing in the spirits of Men. Cynicism, hatred, intolerance, scorn, smugness, self-righteousness, hubris, ambition, promiscuity, lust, dissent, deliberate confusion, complacency, apathy, apostasy, and pride are all on the increase - or at least we hear of them more with greater access to the media. These are spiritual evils from which we need to be exorcised, yet we allow them into our lives on a daily basis.

If this world's spiritual health is to be renewed then it can only come with God and the Angelic Host that He has under His command. We need to see the angelic force as being something that is real and effective, rather than as some dream, story, or vague Medieval superstition. We need to call upon God to send help, and pray to St Michael and our guardian angels to assist us in our daily struggle against evil. For God has given His angels charge over us to keep us in all our ways to God Himself. Indeed, they shall bear thee in their hands that thou hurt not thy foot against a stone but not, as Our Lord points out, to the extent that we put God to the test.

We need to start with ourselves and ask God and His angels to take us by the hand to walk along the path of Life. Their company will uplift us if we trust them, and we can trust them as they have been sent by God for that very purpose. Then we can pray for the angelic host to help us defeat the forces within our society and in our world that seek to separate and destroy the Creation of God. We each need this help if we want to overcome the growing spiritual darkness around us.

Holy Michael Archangel, defend us in battle.
 Be our guard against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
 May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
 and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
 by the power of God,
 thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits,
 who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Desert Island Virtues

The premise of Desert Island Disks is that a celebrity is encouraged to choose the eight records they would choose to take with them to a desert island. One would assume that they would have the means of playing them. Can we play the game with the virtues? If we had to live life cultivating only two virtues, which would we choose?

Yes. It's silly, and yet...

The fact of the matter is that, of course, we'd like to acquire all of the virtues in order to be in perfect harmony with God and to live a life worthy of our calling into being. However, the fact is that we may spend our time trying to acquire one virtue (or eradicate one vice depending on your viewpoint) and fall into other vices. Then when we realize this, we give them better attention and, while doing so, neglect the virtue we've been trying to acquire. Living the virtuous life is like trying to fit an oddly-shaped carpet into an oddly-shaped room which may or may not be the same shape as the carpet.

This is why Pelagianism is wrong. We cannot earn our way into Heaven. We cannot acquire the virtues without God starting us off, without His constant assistance, without Him perfecting the virtues in us. Why bother, then? If we can't do this for ourselves, why not just sit back and let God do all the work? If He is the one to save us, then let Him save us and we'll just carry on living life.

Oh dear!

The only means of Salvation is Our Lord Jesus Christ. We have to become like Him: that is the destiny He wants for us. The trouble we find is that while Our Lord has two natures, Divine and Human, we have only one, and that is our trouble! We are separated from God by reason of our fall; our nature is flawed and that is a cause of separation. We need to recognise that this fallen nature of ours impedes us from ever obtaining any of the virtues by which we can become Christ-like.

However, this recognition of fallen-ness is itself a virtue. It begins in Christ because Christ reveals Himself to us as a man - a perfect man. This is the virtue known as Humility. Humility is an attempt to know oneself as one really is, warts'n'all. It is a knowledge of our existence as human beings, and the knowledge of our incompleteness being human beings. Humility is a difficult virtue to acquire because it is so painful. Our fallen humanity is the cross we have to bear. It is the cross that the Lord bares and through this very cross opens the door to reunion with God.

We are only half-formed and we must realise that there is nothing in us that can generate the perfection that brings us back to God. Humility brings us back to the dust from which God formed us. It is the virtue that Our Lord preaches and practises throughout His life; it is the virtue that scandalises the Pharisees to the extent that they seek to kill Him; it is the virtue that resists temptation to be anything other than human; it is the virtue that brings us to repentance and thus to the feet of God.

Humility begins with God when we lift our head to see Him, and in seeing Him recognise our imperfections. The second virtue we need is Love because, as St John tells us, "Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God". It is love that helps us complete our repentence, but requires us to be seeking the constant presence of God, because we cannot know love without God. The time from the giving of the Law and the Incarnation demonstrates this clearly to us just as it demonstrates our lack of Humility.

We see then that, just as Our Lord has two natures in one person, so He embodies Humility (from the nature of Humanity) and Love (from the substance of God). We are to seek the Kingdom of God. Humility is accepting the Kingdom as we are; Love is accepting God as He is, even if we cannot comprehend either. It is my opinion that the development of Humility and Love puts us on the path to develop the other virtues and thus enable God to work greater miracles in our lives until He completes that work in our resurrection from the dead and subsequent salvation.

I hope, with God's good pleasure, to reflect on these two virtues further, especially from a Benedictine point of view.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Boring as Heaven?

Following Fr Chadwick's posting on Symbolism in pre-Renaissance Art, I found myself re-visiting the work of Hieronymus Bosch, an artist who intrigued me as a child, fascinated me as an adolescent and frightened me as an adult. His famous Garden of Earthly Delights is a monumental work of religious art depicting the Paradise of Eden, the Garden of Earthly Delights in all its obscene luridity resulting from the Fall, and then the tortures and horrors of a Medieval Hell brought into the dimensionality of the Renaissance.

Interestingly, it is the depiction of Hell that is richest in its symbolism: the ears with the knife speak of the evils of gossip; the egg-man points us towards the dangers of alchemy; the nun-pig points to the acceptance of heresy. Yet, this yields a rather troubling fact. There are far more paintings and images of Hell than there are of Heaven.

Perhaps that's not quite true: the Ikon is a window into Heaven by which we may glimpse a view of the saints and the Glory of God. Yet, if you ask someone to picture Heaven and Hell, Heaven will be depicted as a place where (somehow) we are all turned into angels (a common error) bear halos and play harps all day. Hell will be full of violence and pain, and often very, very hot in accord to the lake of fire we see in the Revelation of St John the Divine. Heaven sounds desperately dull. I've heard from many an atheist that they'd prefer Hell to Heaven on the grounds that at least Hell isn't boring, whereas Heaven is floating around all day "praising God".

The fact of the matter is that human beings do not have a good idea of what Heaven is like. Actually, I'm not convinced that a Hell is quite as Medieval as it is depicted. Reading the Apocalypse of St John carefully, the twenty-first chapter begins
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away ; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold , the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away . And he that sat upon the throne said , Behold , I make all things new.
This gives us more of a clue of what Heaven will be like. The Creation in which we live in now at present has moments where it seems like the best, and like the worst. The new life which Humanity is promised in God is probably going to be very recognisably the life we live now but transformed. We will once again be aware of God in our midst forever because we will be complete in Him. We don't need to picture Heaven so much, because we're already here. We just need the renewal of God to make our existence an endless bliss. This is why we should cherish the world around us, as it is very much what we shall perceive in the hereafter.

There will be big differences, of course, but in order to understand these big differences, we need to be able to approach Eden, and the sword of the Seraphim prevents us. This is a result of our fall, the blindness to the true beauty of Creation. We can imagine Hell for it is our sin that has made Hell possible, thus we can imagine what a life of eternally rejecting God must look like, and it is vile - full of infernal activity in an attempt to claw some purpose of existing from the meagre phantoms of what once was.

There are mystics who say that they have seen both Heaven and Hell. Who's to say that they haven't? Yet I rather think that, because we're talking about states of existence in Eternity, these glimpses are precisely that. Heaven appears boring because we cannot see beyond the rather small way that we worship God now. Once our worship of God gets bigger, the better an idea we shall have until we either obtain the famous beatific vision which stultified and silenced St Thomas Aquinas, or pass through the veil when God draws us to Him.

While this life may be boring at times, the fact that there are times that we enjoy life is an indicator that Heaven will not just be as enjoyable, but beyond that. We may be blind now, but faith requires us to trust God that His Eternal presence will be a life better than we can ever know in this life.

Perichoresis and collecting taxes.

Ikonography tells us many wonderful truths about God, even when they are not able to be expressed in words. The image of Christ appears in Gospels to teach us through words. If it is true that St Luke was the first ikonographer, then we have the image of Christ appearing in pictures too.

Here in this Ikon of the Chalice of Christ by Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov we see Our Lady with her arms raised in prayer, her son in the Chalice of the New Covenant ratified by His Incarnation, His arms raised in blessing. It is if they both raise their arms in a dance, the Lord even as a child allowing Our Lady to take Him by the hand and lead her in the dance of friendship and love.

The idea of dance is inherent in our paltry understanding of the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity. This dance is called perichoresis (a dancing around) as each Person interacts in perfect harmony with the other two Persons within the Hypostatic Union. It is not something our brains can comprehend either, which is why our understanding can only flit from one Hypostasis to the next in a muddled, skittering dance of its own as befits our earthly, limited state.

St Matthew, whose feast we celebrate today, paints a picture of Our Lord as the embodiment of the eternal dance between Israel (and then the Church) and God. Mankind forgets the steps all to often and moves out of synch with the Divine. Such a dissonance permeates the universe just as the presence of one out-of-tune violin permeates the whole symphony. St Matthew is used to being out of step: as a tax collector and collaborator with the oppressive Roman government, he has sought to find safety and security in money and in appeasing the ruling force.

It is when he meets Our Lord, recognising in Him the harmony of Eternity itself, that he hears the dissonance in his life. His preoccupation with earthly things is out of harmony with that which created earthly things producing his cognitive dissonance. He knows from bitter experience that one cannot serve two masters. Mammon's dance is flat, inelegant, oppressive, and almost static through sheer emptiness. The dance of God is free, almost wild in its sheer exuberance, yet wholly led by the hands of Christ Himself.

In listening to the Gospels, we hear different dances. St Mark's is a whirlwind of a gallop as we are blown from one passage to the next. St Luke's is lyrical, like a serenade or barcarolle, filled with the songs of the saints. St John's is stately and ethereal, like a canon of pavannes, repeating and yet expanding themes and motifs.

But it is St Matthew's Gospel that produces a dance that sounds as if it has been going on forever. Majestic, and filled with the folk dances of long ago, bringing their meaning from the Old Covenant into the New. Our Lady was born in the Old Covenant, yet she takes the Lord by the hands and follows His steps into the New. Likewise St Matthew, knowing the dance of the Old Covenant, yet being suppressed by the dance of Mammon, takes the Lord's hands and learns how the new dance is what has always been the old dance. It is this fact that he writes into his Gospel.

We, too, have the opportunity to take the Lord's hands and enter into the dance of Perichoresis, taking the steps that are in harmony with all that is. We can only do this through prayer and listening closely to the tune that life is really playing. There are so many noises that distract us, yet God will always allow us to hear His music if we truly want to.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Cross of the Virgin

It is significant that the Octave Day of the Nativity of Our Lady should be the recollection of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady, and that this should be a day after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. As we saw yesterday, the Christian life, rather than avoiding the cross, must seek to embrace it. This is a hard saying, but we have to trust God when it comes to suffering that its significance may be revealed to us and the transforming power of His love work even through the times that of the most profound horror and pain. If this life is all there is then there is nothing but pain and sorrow ending in nothing. Yet, if this life really is only a fragment, indeed an important fragment, then it must be taken in the context of a wider existence. Pain warns us to the existence of Evil, and the war against Evil is the Christian Life.

Even for our Lady.

The First Sorrow: Simeon's Prophecy

The fear of impending suffering is in itself a suffering. This is how Our Lord suffers the night that the mob comes for Him. Like Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin has this increasing knowledge of impending pain for all of His life on Earth. The temptation is to turn aside and avoid the suffering: to do so would be to allow Evil free reign over life, to take over control and be its master. Both the King and the Queen Mother refuse to swerve and continue on course for the destination.

The Second Sorrow: The flight from Egypt

The suffering of being driven from one's home by violence is one that many of our brothers and sisters are going through right now. Our Lady is no exception. To protect the Holy Infant, she and St Joseph must leave their home in a hurry, and seek shelter in a strange land where the customs, culture, and religion are very different - even hostile. The temptation is to remain static and to take one's chances against Herod: to do so would put the precious life of a baby in danger. Our Lady must abandon the security of a settled life for love of her little boy.

The Third Sorrow: The losing of the boy Jesus

Children cause much suffering by the way that they live life not knowing the dangers they face. When the story that a child has gone missing makes the news, the heart of every parent sinks for fear of their own children and in solidarity with the suffering parents. The parents of the missing child go into a frenzy, imagining all kinds of terrible things that Evil can do to one so small and innocent. The temptation is to try and protect our children so much that they do not live: to do so will prevent them from going to the Father's house and thus being the person that they were created to be, separate from mother and father. Our Lady must embrace the fact that she will not be able to protect her child.

The Fourth Sorrow: On the way to Calvary

Once we are on the path to suffering, the worries of the past intensify. We are now presented with what we feared and we know the inexorable conclusion. Chemotherapy begins; the nurse with the needle approaches; the militant with the knife bursts into church. Our Lady is presented with an already bloodied Jesus struggling on His journey to worse sufferings, and there is nothing she can do. The temptation now is to panic, to lose control and flail about: to do so will focus the soul away from God and thus disallow Him to be present with our suffering and thus offer His peculiar comfort and give meaning. Out Lady must submit to the fact that this is happening, and walk with her Son to Calvary.

The Fifth Sorrow: At the foot of the Cross

It is as intolerable for us to watch suffering as it is to suffer: sometimes it is worse. This is what scandalises many people against the Christian Faith and against God Himself. Our Lady sees her son suffering enormous pain, the nerves in his hands and feet screaming at the cruelty of nails tearing His flesh. How can she bear to see it? The temptation is to look away, to leave: to do so would to be to rob the Lord of her presence in His suffering.  Our Lady is there at the foot of the cross, that is enough. She must stay and watch; her presence nonetheless gives comfort to her Son.

The Sixth Sorrow: The descent from the Cross

We have been presented with pictures of the dead in recent years. We see the body of Fr Mychal Judge pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Centre. We see the little body of Alan Kurdi face down in the water. We see life extinguished unfairly. We see the innocent snuffed out having barely lived. The body of the Lord is pulled from the Cross and placed in the lap of His mother. What misery that must be! The temptation is to despair of life, and of God, to become cynical, hardened and not willing to love again: to do so is to lose all that one has, to render meaningless the life that we possess, and to distance ourselves from the possibility of ever being happy again. Our Lady must hold her son's body, weep, and yet still have hope.

The Seventh Sorrow: The burial of the Lord

The death of a loved one affects us beyond their committal to earth, air, or water. The act of this committal means a physical letting go of the body, and thus the physical presence of one we love. To see the coffin lowered into the ground or conveyed away to the furnace is a horror as it confronts us with the fact of death. Our Lady sees her son placed into the tomb, the heavy stone rolled in place, and then people leave. The temptation is not to let go, to devote oneself to a corpse: to do so is to lose hope, to rot with the body, to fade away in despair. Our Lady must remember the words of her son that He will rise again, to cling to His words, not His body.

Oh there is so much suffering in this world! It is too much for us to bear at times and how we weep at the suffering of others even when they are far away! Our Lady's Sorrows show the effect of suffering on one so close to Love. We suffer because we love. We suffer because to love means to give of the most vulnerable parts of our being up for wounding. Yet, as Christians, we must love and so must suffer. However, our Christianity means that we can do something that the world cannot, we can make a sacrifice. Our suffering becomes holy, presented before God as an act of self-giving. Our suffering shows the world that Love still exists and will not grow cold despite the presence of Evil.

Our Lady loves, and thus suffers. So must we but, like her, we will not be alone! Where she is, her son is. The same is true for the Christian.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Getting Cross with Christ

Thy Cross do we adore, O Lord, and Thy holy Resurrection do we glorify.

We don't get a choice. Once we have sincerely chosen Christ, then we have necessarily chosen the Cross. Just as Our Blessed Lord's body is nailed to the cross, so is the cross irretrievably fastened to the Christian life.

Today we exalt the Holy Cross, not as an object of worship, but seeing in it our salvation. First, we gaze at the bloodstained wood, the splinters and jagged edges, and we see the pain and suffering in this world. We see that it is unavoidable and that the cross is a reality that we have to bear. If we flee from it, then we flee from reality; we flee from a true and authentic existence that embraces what it means to be. The pain of human beings is a testament to the presence of Evil. Yet the cross is precisely shaped for the human body. It exists for Humanity.

Yet, in gazing at the cross, we realise that we gaze upon the very instrument of the death of Evil. For, on this wood, the blood of Christ is poured, filling the world and flooding out the network of holes where Evil lurks. We gaze upon the wood which itself was alive, is now dead, and yet brings new life because of the Glory that hangs upon it.

Then we gaze through the Cross, and we see beyond a vast ocean of Grace and Love which floods out through the cross like a great gate carved between this small world and the fulness of the world beyond. Every time we make the sign of the cross, this grace pours out blessing us and all around us, giving people the opportunity to receive blessing, grace, love and peace. As the Cross opens the Way to us, so we must open ourselves to the Way and strive to receive Him more and more.

We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee: because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Ransom and the Dimensions of Love

St Paul always seems to ask the impossible for us. Apparently, we have "to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge", to know the unknowable. Thanks a bunch!

Actually, what St Paul is doing is showing us that, as Christians, our conversion to Christ must always be ongoing.  There is no point at which we can sit back and say, "well, I've done all that I need to do." Our Salvation doesn't occur at a point in Time. It occurs in Eternity with God. Our lives themselves form only a fraction of our Eternity which is why who we are now matters. The secrets of our hearts form our thoughts, words, and actions which shape our being as something beyond even our own understanding. God's possibilities for us are endless!

We normally think of our space as being three dimensional, yet St Paul points out that God's love has at least four dimensions,"breadth, and length, and depth, and height, which the saints comprehend because their being has been lifted out of the constraints of Earthly Life into Heavenly Life. We begin to see the challenge of the Christian Life right here because our Earthly existence is constrained and small. In comparison with Eternity, and especially God Himself, we are insubstantial and riddled with a particular brand of insubstantiality called Evil.

We know that Evil is an absence of Good. It is an absence of God! As far as Existence goes, Evil is a hole, a void, a negative space that cries out to be filled. In monetary terms, a negative space in one's bank account is called debt. While we have Evil in us, we are in debt. In debt? To whom?

Well, to no one really, in the literal sense of the word "really"! While the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus is indeed a ransom on our behalf, it is not an ransom to anyone. It is a debt of true existence which is paid by plugging the gap with the fulness of God in Christ. While we exist in sin, we exist in a half-life where our being is being torn apart by the evil within us, the evil we permit to be within us. We seek to be full, whole and actual. At the moment we exist like the ghosts in C.S Lewis' Great Divorce. We only obtain being from God Himself and it is He that give us our being, first as insubstantial beings then, as we seek to know Him, as beings of increasing substance, increasing fulness. It is through the cross of Christ that the gate to such substance exists for through the Cross, the substance of the Incarnation bursts into the imperfection of our substance as we open that imperfection to the Cross.

The Cross then opens the floodgates of Grace, pouring through the unification of Humanity and Divinity in the Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Each time, we receive a sacrament properly, we are opening ourselves to the Grace of God which completes us, renews us and recreates us. Yet to receive any sacrament, we have to open ourselves to God so that His grace may indeed flood our lack of being. We have to acknowledge it, bewail it, and do something about it, for the gift is there: God has taken the first step of offering Himself to each one of us; He has given us the wherewithal to receive Him, and yet He sits and waits, running out to meet us when we say YES! to His most generous and loving offer and walking us back home, drawing us from our meagre three dimensionality into the four..., five..., six..., indeed numberless, dimensions of His love and reality.

Doesn't His love deserve a response? Let us earnestly and joyfully pray with St Paul "unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto Him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end."


Links to other websites

I've been rearranging my links to other websites, cutting off the broken links, making adjustments to existing sites and adding a websites or two.

I now have renamed Fr Chadwick's Blog as New Goliards.

I have added his revamped Civitas Dei website, now known as As the Sun in its Orb on liturgical and concomitant matters which looks as if it will prove an invaluable resource.

I have also added Fr Michael Woods' blog Notes on Life.

I would also be grateful for other suggestions for blogs/websites that might be appropriate to this little blogling. Please let me know!

Thursday, September 08, 2016

The other Nativity

The story of the birth of Our Lady is recorded in the Protoevangelion of St James. It's blatantly obvious that this is not a book of the Bible and so it must be approached with a certain amount of caution, and cannot be used as an authority. Tradition says that Our Lady's parents are St Anne and St Joachim. This is more likely to be true. However, all the myths surrounding the birth of Our Lady are precisely that. From the beginning, Our Lady is enshrouded with mystery.

One might think that she is surrounded by clouds that come from the lack of knowledge, clouds that can be blown away by scientific endeavour. Yet this is not quite the case: Science cannot answer questions of History: if a historical record is lost forever, then it can only be known by its effects. If there are no effects and the historical record is lost, then it as if the event never really happened.

However, Our Lady is not clothed with clouds that obscure our vision. She is clothed with the Sun. The light of her Divine offspring prevents us from gazing at her. We only found out enough about the planet Mercury when we were able to send spacecraft there. Its proximity to the Sun made observation very, very difficult. Our Lady is more so. Like St John the Baptist, she seeks to decrease so that her Son increases. Her proximity to the Lord means that her being is eclipsed by her Son.

It matters to us THAT she was born, not the manner of her birth. Were she not born, she would not be a human being. Were she not born a woman, she could not be a mother. Were she not a mother, she would not have a son. We have her words, though precious few that are recorded Biblically. The last words the Bible records her saying are "Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it." Her birth is the beginning of a life that fulfills this saying and this devotion to her Son gives her the authority to tell the world to be obedient. That obedience brings us to the Cross, to the piercing of the Soul, and the opening of the being to the grace of God.

Our Lady's life is full of grace, and life begins at conception and is revealed at birth. At her Nativity, we see the light of this grace begin to shine, blinding us to the life of Our Lady apart from Her Son. Too much ink has been spilt on forensic analysis of her life. All she wants us to know is her Son and so she is happy to be forgotten by history so that we can be endeavour to be as devoted to her Son as she is. She will take us by the hand to bring us to Him if we allow her, but she wants no attention from us that will distract us from the One who gives grace.

Hail Holy Queen!

Monday, September 05, 2016

Lex orandi v lex credendi: the Book of Common Prayer

I wanted to respond to JD's comments on Why Worship God? which deserved more than the rather glib answer that I gave. In so doing, I rather open myself up to the wrath of many Anglicans and even some of my own confraternity in the Anglican Catholic Church, given that I find the Book of Common Prayer somewhat troublesome.

The genius of the Anglican Catholic Church is the much same as many other extra-Lambeth Anglicans. As I've said (too) many times, the doctrine of the ACC is founded upon the Faith of the Undivided Church, i.e the Church before the Great Schism. The normative for the liturgy is the Book of Common Prayer which we take to be the 1549 (though the American Church hold to their 1928 prayer book). By and large this is fine. Much of the text is taken from the Pre-Reformation Roman Breviary, the Gelasian Sacramentary and from the Sarum Missal. Everything is kept according to the principles of the Rule of St Benedict and the need for the people to be steeped in the Office and Holy Scripture as much as is possible. This in itself is fine, yet there are inconsistencies.

Problem 1: The Filioque
There are a couple of problems with the Nicene Creed as it appears in the BCP. On the minor, the word Holy is missed out when we say that we believe One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I believe that was a printer's error, yet it does change the Creed is we omit it. The Church in its Catholicity is indeed Holy. She is predestined for Holiness even if her individual members may compromise their own. Already I've said something that will infuriate Augustinian Anglicans. I may need to justify myself later on.

This is largely the minor issue because most Anglicans reinsert the missing "Holy" naturally, but how many will miss out the Filioque?

I have blogged on the Filioque before, saying that I was happy both to say it and not say it. Lately, though, I have become somewhat uncomfortable with the "default" setting, i.e. the Creed with the Filioque. My dear friend, Ed Pacht will tell me that the problem is not the answer, but the question. God is unknowable and therefore we must expect inconsistencies with the way we express the Divine Nature. To an extent, I agree with him, yet given that the Creed was given for clarification and a starting point with which to engage with the Divine, the words of the Creed should lead us into the Divine Mystery. It is from the Creed that we know that the classical heresies are indeed heresy. The words of the Creed literally matter an iota. This does mean that the question of the Filioque does have importance and therefore that I cannot just let the question go - perhaps this is again a symptom of my malaise at regarding things philosophically. I'm sure that Ed would urge me to step back and abandon myself to the Divine Unknowability. Perhaps one day I will! Perhaps I am high-minded and have proud looks. Alternatively, perhaps this will give me the avenue in which I can surrender myself to the Transcendent. I know that he, like me, would prefer the Creed without the Western alteration.

I find myself wanting to change the default setting and to learn the habit of not saying the Filioque. This is not because I seek to become Eastern Orthodox, but rather to be true to the doctrine that the ACC has set for itself. Seeing that the Filioque did not make it into one of the great Councils means that I can only ever hold it as a matter of pious opinion. The Nicene Creed as printed in the Council must be the default setting, and I should not be able to force a pious opinion into the Liturgy of the Mass.

Yet, as an Anglican, I must have some engagement with the Prayerbook. As I have said, for the ACC, the engagement must be liturgically. Our Missals and Daily Offices conform to the Book of Common Prayer. For us in the U.K. the normative must be 1549 - the 1928 prayerbook is not part of English Anglo-Catholicism, but it is part of the American Anglo-Catholicism. The Filioque is there in the liturgy. Given that we have a firm belief in lex orandi lex credendi, it seems imperative for the ACC to be conclusive about the Filioque as soon as it can be. We need a Holy Synod for this to happen, and I hope this happens soon. I might be comfortable not saying the Filioque, but I have no wish to scandalise the laity I serve by its omission.

Problem 2: Augustinianism in Anglicanism
Part of my problem with reconciling Post-Reformation Anglicanism with the Primitive Church is that of St Augustine of Hippo. The trouble is that his is a loud voice in Western Christianity, yet is so quiet so as to be silent in  the East, This is due to the fact that St Augustine writes in Latin, and the East speaks Greek. It isn't until much later that his work finds its way into the Eastern Church. This leaves us with a problem in that both East and West lie at the heart of the Primitive Church - they bave been compared with the two lungs of the Body of Christ. The Western lung is heavily influenced by Augustinianism, the East not so much. If they are both properly Catholic, then Augustianism cannot give rise to doctrine but to pious opinion.

Even in his day, the theology of St Augustine was questioned. Indeed the Commonitorium of St Vincent of Lerins containing the definition of Catholicism was written to curb Augustinian excesses. What is interesting is that the Vincentian Canon satisfies the Vincentian Canon, and St Augustine does not in a technical sense. The main problem with St Augustine is that he relies to heavily on Platonic philosophy. We really do have to be careful with philosophy because it is not necessarily theology. We all come to God bearing a philosophy and God laughs at us for our high-mindedness, confounds our thinking and loves us anyway. St Thomas Aquinas relies heavily on Aristotle who opposes Plato. We can only reason about God up to a point. An Augustinian notion of salvation in terms of predestination of individuals is speculative and not held definitively by the Primitive Church. An Anglican Catholic must therefore ensure that if they wish to take up a particular philosophical position, they do so as a pious opinion and as a theologoumena.

This leads to...

Problem 3: the Thirty-Nine articles
It seems to me that Anglican Catholicism must disengage from the Calvinisim that has entered Anglicanism at the Reformation so as to do justice to the idea of Augustinianism as pious opinion. When it comes to the Anglican Formularies of the Thirty-Nine Articles, if the Anglican Catholic wishes to hod to these, then he or she must subordinate them to the Primitive Church. In particular, we can see this in Article XXXV: On the Homilies. The Homilies "contain a godly and wholesome Doctrine, and necessary for these times". The third part of the Homily Against Peril of Idolatry does contain a clear broadside against the teaching of the Seventh Oecumenical Council:
First, it is alleadged by them that maintaine images, that all lawes, prohibitions, and curses, noted by vs out of the holy Scripture, and sen­tences of the Doctours also by vs alleadged, against images and the wor­shipping of them, appertaine to the idols of the Gentiles or Pagans, asthe idoll of Iupiter, Mars, Mercury , etc. and not to our images of GOD, of Christ , and his Saints. But it shall be declared both by GODS word, and the sentences of the ancient Doctours, and iudgement of the Primi­tiue Church, that all images, aswell ours, as the idoles of the Gentiles, be forbidden and vnlawfull, namely in Churches and Temples.
As I've said before, it is good for all of us to make sure that we tread carefully when it comes to ikonography, yet this "wholesome" homily does not affirm the doctrine of the Seventh Council. One cannot then ascribe to this Council without rejecting the idea that God's word regards all images in Churches and Temples as being unlawful. Whilst pains have been taken to show that the Articles can be given a fully Catholic reading, those pains also include torturous twisting of language. It seems that there is much in the Articles that does not allow for a reading in the Primitive Church. An Anglican Catholic is not bound by the Articles and for a very good reason. Yet if we do reject the Articles, then we do put a wedge between us  and the Classical Anglicans.

It seems more honest to say that Anglican Catholicism is simply not the same as Classical Anglicanism. In so doing, we perhaps find ourselves closest to some form of Western Rite Orthodoxy. If Classical Anglicans accuse us of not being Anglican, then we can say, "you're right. We're not Anglicans, we're Anglican Catholics and that's different."

I write all this remembering that the identity that I make for myself is something that I will have to renounce along with everything else in order for me to decrease so that God can increase. The law of lex orandi lex credendi is vital and to my mind a necessary path for people to follow in order to find God. While we do have to embrace unknowing, we do have to start somewhere. Our starting point should lead us into a faith that is nor arbitrary but rather clear and unconfused about the nature of salvation. We remember St Paul saying that "God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints." This might be the response to speaking in tongues but theologoumena may as well be speaking in tongues. They can confuse and get in the way. I see the basics of Anglican Catholicism, shared by many other Catholic jurisdictions, as being an antidote to that confusion. With proper prayer and study rooted in the adoration of the Unknowable Divine, we can put an end to confusion and stand together gazing into the transcendent beauty of God.

Called to have muscles

I notice an interesting discussion between my confrere Fr Anthony Chadwick and an old "sparring-partner" Deacon Christopher Little about the issue of "Muscular Christianity". Can there be a truly Christian militia in this day and age? Can there be a truly Christian declaration of war? Or should Christians be pacifists?

There are good arguments on both sides. Holy Scripture is full of battles and skirmishes. King David is practically Arthurian in his conquest. Yet Our Lord bids us turn the other cheek. There a theological theories of just war, most notably from St Thomas Aquinas, yet the memory of the atrocities of the Crusades is still alive and thrown in the face of the Church by Islamic Polemicists and the more passionate atheists. They have a point, though History supports no party with regard to the truth.

In the U.S. they have the romantic figure of the cowboy, the gunslinger with a heart of god saving the town from the villain and getting the girl and a shot of bourbon slid across the saloon bar. In Britain, we have the romantic notion of the knight in shining armour. St George ceases to be a Turkish Roman and becomes the iron-clad dragon-slayer. The U.S. being somewhat younger than the U.K. has many who can trace their lineage to the Wild West. Here, it is only a few who can find the noble knight as their forefather.

Neither appealed to me as a child. I turned off the Westerns and sought refuge in Science Fiction and Folklore rather than the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood. All this testosterone flying about just didn't appeal to the Games-skiving bookworm that I still am.

Being English, I cannot understand the American preoccupation with guns and the right to bear arms, but then, their culture is not mine. In the U.K. we arm our police only when necessary, and we have a wonderful militia. I have several former students who have spent some time in the forces. This has worked because the U.K. is a small and old country. The U.S. is big and new. The American Civil War is still within two long-lived generations. The English Civil War is long past - yet its presence still colours today's culture. It still makes sense that the right to bear arms is a matter of contention in a country where the need is within living memory of its eldest citizens.

This is where I see the difference of opinion between the Pacifist Christians and the Muscular Christians. Typically Anglican, I sit between in a certain degree of "agnosticism". The fence is a happy place to be at times, but only when one side aren't taking pot shots.

Yes, I acknowledge that there are times when the Christian must take up arms against the foe. However, it does make sense to make sure who the foe really is. It's this latter that causes the trouble. To consider who the foe really is takes time, and time is often an all-too-expensive luxury. On the other hand the principle of "shoot first, ask questions later" is too careless in regard to the over-arching Christian principle of Love.

As I preached just down below, we have to focus on one thing in order to get on in life and that is seeking the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. It is clear that He has warrior angels fighting on our behalf. I rejoice in the defence provided by St Michael which comes with God's power and mandate. All Christians are expected to fight Evil actively, both in their own lives and out in the world. How we do that is a matter of God's command and God's call. Our battle begins with ourselves, and God employs us in the fight that is best suited for us, even though it may make no sense to us.

As a priest, I am indeed a warrior for Christ. I have weapons that I am commanded to use by which I can resist Evil and edify others. All of these weapons can be summed up as expressions of the grace and blessings of God. Yet, I have been called to be a priest - deployed if you will. Others get deployed differently in order to engage in battle as appropriate to the will of God.

Being in the Militia is thus a calling: just as one cannot assume the role of priest without God's sanction (and we only have to look at King Saul to see what goes wrong there), one cannot just assume the role of soldier without checking on our deployment with God. I am full of admiration for all those men and women who offer themselves for military service and thus open themselves to fight, suffer, and lay down their lives in my defence and the defence of the vulnerable. The nobility of their actions and the professionalism of their training demonstrates their Divine calling.

In contrast, it is those who believe that they have a military calling when they do not who do a lot of damage just like King Saul damages his own soul and puts his kingdom in jeopardy because he takes on the role of priest. Just like Saul, passions may run high, the injustice may appear too great to bear, the fury may rise, but the true warrior will not let those distract her from her mission. When one has appendicitis, it is better to be in the hands of a trained surgeon with his fine, clean scalpel than with the local butcher and his well-used meat cleaver no matter how bad the pain is.

All Christians should be muscular, for muscularity implies doing something for the love of God that will improve and grow the more we use it. St Teresa of Calcutta was a muscular Christian - she did what she had to do despite criticism and many challenges. So was St Martin of Tours - a famous soldier who handed an earthly mandate for a heavenly one. Yet, there are different muscles in the Body of Christ and we must not presume that the muscles we use will be the ones we believe to be strongest. However, God's mandate is clear: even Mary will eventually have to leave the feet of her master to help Martha. We must DO the will of God and fight Evil. Then we can come back to Him with our wounds exposed, tired, and hungry, and He will heal us, give us rest, food and water, and turn our scars into badges of His honour.

Onward Christian soldiers....

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Earworms, Glorious Earworms

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

Seek ye first...

You've got that tune going around your head now, haven’t you. Round and round it goes and try as you might, you won't get rid of it. It's called an earworm.

This is a wonderful earworm to have even if the tune is a bit twee. What is now in your head is the pattern for how to live your life.

If you have a decision to make, seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. It might not help you to decide whether to put the rubbish out or do the washing up, but if we start each day seeking first the Kingdom of God, then our day is already consecrated to the glory of God and the glory of God will take care of everything else.

The notion of glory is intimately bound up with worship. The Hebrew word for glory is kadosh and literally means impact. The glory of a glass of Ribena on the kitchen floor is lots of pieces; the glory of the floor made by the glass of Ribena is a stain that is going to take a lot to remove.

Already we begin to see that the glory that we encounter in our daily lives is not very positive.

The Galatians are being taught that in order to be a Christian you have to follow the old Jewish Law. The people teaching this are Christians who probably used to be Pharisees and who want their power back. They want to have an impact on those just coming to the Christian Fairh, and this impact is circumcision. This is their glory. How small it is. Thus St Paul says to the Galatians, "For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh. But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world."

The glory of Our Lord is His Incarnation: this is His impact on Time and Space. It is this glory we mst seek first. In putting God first, we shew forth our worship of Him. In order to worship God, we must seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. In so doing, we get a promise. All that we need, what we desire most, will be given to us in God. God knows our needs, He can supply our needs and He wants to supply our needs. And we will have our needs met by seeking Him.

This is why Mass is one of the highest expressions of worship that there are. For here we seek God's very presence. The One who says "Seek ye first" is here for us to seek and to draw into ourselves. We may still worry about tomorrow but, by allowing that earworm to continue, we can be assured that, in our search, today will fall into place and tomorrow will as well. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Sufficient unto all eternity is God's love.