Friday, December 30, 2016

The last lesson (until the next one)

I’m taking a break from teaching mathematics for a while, so I thought I would just have one last gasp with some irritations from Facebook and try and convince people that these are just silly things that arise from playing fast and loose with the grammar of mathematics.

What is 5+3×2?

There are many people who believe that the answer to this problem is 16: 5+3=8 and 8×2=16. Yet, this is wrong and many a Facebook page has been curdled by disagreements about what the answer should be. Mathematics has its own grammar that comes from its understanding of structure. The structure of how numbers interact is properly called algebra. People may think that this is just using letters to stand for numbers, but the actual study of how the numbers combine and reduce is really what we mean by algebra.

What does a mathematician make of 5+3×2? Well, to see my point, let’s rephrase it in English. What are five and three lots of two? Still not sure? Try reading that sentence again, but leave a little pause after the five. What are five(,) and three lots of two? Well, three lots of two are six, and five more makes eleven. This is the correct answer. The mathematical grammar says that you must do multiplication before addition. We have to understand what three lots of two are before we add the five.

Now, let’s try reading that sentence another way. Put the pause between the “three” and the “lots”. What are five and three(,) lots of two? Ah! Now you’re asking a different question. Five and three are eight, and two lots of eight are sixteen. We’re doing the addition first. The way that a mathematician would write this is (5+3)×2, bracketing off the bit we do first.

I’ve seen some bizarre answers to things like: 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1×0+1=? But apply the mathematical grammar, do the multiplication first: 1×0=0. So we now have:


I suspect that many people might have thought the answer to be 1, but that would be the answer to:


There are some genuine mathematical ambiguities out there. What about 1-1+1=?

Is that 1-(1+1)=-1?

No. Otherwise we’d put the bracket in to show that we are adding the 1 and 1 together first. We have to understand this as a credit of £1 plus a debt of £1 plus a credit of £1 is £1. This is why the old acronym of BIDMAS (or BODMAS or BEDMAS if you’re of an age) sometimes tricks us into getting the answer wrong. BIDMAS gives the order of operations: Brackets, Indices (Orders or Exponents), Division, Multiplication, Addition, Subtraction.

However, we see that this is a bit vague when it comes to the order of addition and subtraction. We have to see subtracting as adding a negative.

A truly ambiguous mathematical question is 6÷2(1+2). Clearly, as mathematicians, we should do the brackets first.

6÷2(1+2)= 6÷2×3.

Strict BIDMAS would now say do 6÷2=3, and thus 3×3=9.

However, what is not completely clear is whether it is intended for six scones to be shared between two families each of one and two people (Johnny and his parents, Dorothy and her parents), or if we’re trying to find out the number of eggs needed when bumping a recipe for an omelette for two people that requires six eggs up to an omelette for Johnny and his parents. If it is the former, then each person gets one scone each. If it is the latter, then nine eggs are needed.

So ambiguous statements do exist in mathematics if we are not careful. We could make that last calculation a little easier if we write:

(6÷2)(1+2)=9 or 6÷[2(1+2)]=1

Of course, strings of numbers and calculations are all rather fun to play about with, like word games which reveal much about our language. It’s making sure that we do the correct calculation when it counts.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Blogday 2016: Changing and the changeless

I suspect one thing that puts people off public transport is the frequent need to change and make a connection. If you have your own car, this is not something that will affect you greatly, though you’ll have your own set of problems.

However, for those of us who rely on public transport, there is always the worry that you’ll make the right connection at the right time and in the right place. Until it’s time for that change, you can at least relax and enjoy the view.

When it comes to make the change, you then have to grab your bags, make sure that you haven’t left your phone charger in the socket, join the exodus onto the platform and, in the midst of all this confusion, seek to make your way to where you should be. This is not an easy job – in fact, if you don’t know where you are, it can be quite terrifying. The great fear is that we find ourselves on the wrong train to the wrong destination hundreds of miles from where we should be. We have a fear of getting irretrievably lost from the familiar path and from the place where we know we should be.

2016 has been a year in which many of us have had to change trains in their lives. This is so true for me. I am now preparing for a move North. I have left my parish in Rochester with heavy heart and fond memories. I leave my family and my old community behind to embrace the unfamiliar; my poor wife is in the same situation. I have left my teaching job in the South East and prepare to engage in a new job with a new boss who is very demanding, but a sheer delight to work for. I face the prospect of finding a new home, a new community, and the uphill struggle of building God’s Church on bare earth.

I truly envy the Franciscan way of life which is rooted on the idea that we are all on a journey and that we must disengage with things in order to engage with God. The same idea is true in Benedictine Spirituality, yet the notion of stability to the community usually leads to a more static location, unlike the mendicant Franciscan friars. For St Benedict, possessions are for the community, not for the individual, and the abbot must be in sole charge of things. For the Franciscan, possessions are fleeting things that come and go, and we may not cling on to them. The Benedictine seeks to put down roots, the Franciscan seeks to allow God to blow her where He wills. Both are valid spiritualities beloved by God. Both challenge the materialist view of the world. Both call people back to God, accommodating different personalities.

We see the world in a state of political flux. There has been a shift to the right further than we are perhaps comfortable with, yet we knew that there was a growing undercurrent of discontent, and political ideologies always change. We have lost a large host of treasured celebrities despite knowing that Death is certain for us all. Without their passing, Art and Entertainment cannot receive a charge of the new, even if the new is discomforting and takes some getting used to.

Yet, we know that change for the sake of change is not all it’s cracked up to be. The Christian Faith does not change because all Humanity, past, present and future needs the same Salvation through the same Saviour. Thus our rule for believing cannot change – the Nicene Creed cannot be altered. This is why we should drop thefilioque, not because it’s necessarily incorrect, but because it has not been sanctioned by the Church Catholic. This staff of changelessness, this Rock of our relationship with God, remains immutable through Time and gives us something to cling to when the Winds of Change blow roughly in our lives and in the whole world.

2017 is a time in which those winds will blow hard. They will blow hard for me in my new life. They will blow hard over the great political ocean as the storm rages for control of mankind. We must see ourselves both as fleeting creatures and as possessors of Eternity. We can dare to do this as Our Lord Jesus has given us the pattern for doing so. With His Divine and Human natures inseparably entwined in His substance as God, He shows us that our fleeting lives can hold Eternity tightly. The Church is there to care for Humanity passing through Life. It is a hospital for the souls that are dashed upon the crags of sin; it is a rock on which the uncertain can cling knowing that this Faith has not changed in the history of Mankind; it is a safehouse through which one can view the turbulence of Life; it provides the sustenance of Grace that the journey needs to continue on to its very end.

In times of our upheaval, we must look carefully to ensure that the fear of the unknown does not erode our faith that all of what happens to us in our lives – happy, sad, boring, exciting, terrifying, miserable and ecstatic – become part of our souls and present to God in His Eternity. There is nothing in this life that can separate us from His love. Even the most excruciating torture will end and pass into nothingness: Love can, and indeed, lasts beyond Time. This is why we cannot allow our lives to be defined by things temporal. If all we know is misery in life, why should we allow ourselves to be defined by that misery and let Misery win? Rather, should we not learn to rise above it by seeking that Joy which lies beyond and yet breaks though into this World to announce His Existence?

I pray that the vicissitudes of 2017 will rather edify and strengthen my dear readers in the Hope of Christ. Do please pray for me in my “interesting times” as somehow I’m going to have to practise what I preach! 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Feast of the Nativity 2016: TODAY!

Sermon preached at the First Mass of Christmas 2016 at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis.

If there’s one thing that brings disorder to an ordered life, it’s the birth of a baby. Want a quiet meal? Someone wants to play see how far the puree can fly? Sleep patterns? I don’t think so! Want to read? No, let’s play guess the smell. The arrival of a baby throws our established patterns into chaos. And yet, isn’t it wonderful?


With the birth of a baby, we are given a whole new opportunity to look with completely fresh eyes on things. We present the way life works to a new little person with their own thoughts, their own personality and their own way of telling you that you’ve got it so wrong that you’re embarrassing. 

It doesn’t matter if this is not your first baby, you’re still sailing uncharted territory as someone new learns about you. Our Lord bids us to suffer the little children to come to Him. This includes the little child within ourselves. Each of us was once new, and even if we think ourselves to be old, or “above that sort of thing” we are still living things new.

Today is always new, always special, always offering something to encounter. Yet, we have a tendency to try and grow up and leave the new behind and ensure that each day is no different from yesterday. Sometimes it is as if the terrible events in the World, and indeed in our own lives give us no choice but to grow up.


In a manger, a baby lies who has already disrupted the lives of a young woman and her husband.
This baby has already disrupted the common-place by being born of a virgin. His birth is announced by angels, and by astrological events, bringing surly shepherds and aloof academics alike to Bethlehem.

The birth of this child disrupts the life of a king who so wants to maintain the status quo that he will kill even the innocent to try and preserve his balance. This child’s birth is indeed a disruption to the old life of sin and law, of schedule and control, of standard and conformity to a world enshrouded in its own narrow-mindedness.

The chief end of the Devil is to ensure that we hate God and His Creation by boring us by it, by corrupting it and making it all common place so that we cannot see the newness of God’s Creation in a little thing called TODAY. We can resist by allowing that Child to disrupt our lives so that He becomes the centre. He comes to disrupt that cycle of offence and counter-offence by bidding us to forgive sins. He comes to disrupt that cycle of sin and guilt by bidding us to repent, turn and see His light. He comes to disrupt the very cycle of life and death, by dying horribly on a Cross and then rising from the dead to bring us to Salvation in unity with the Father Who made all things.

He bids us suffer the little children to come unto Him. He bids us suffer ourselves to come to Him by embracing the life of a child. You only have to look at a child to see what they can do that we adults often forget to do.

The capacity of a child to rejoice in the tiniest of things is immeasurable. This is what we must remember to do. THIS is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

O and Ero Cras

I have always loved the Great O Antiphons of Advent and have reflected on them a few times here on this little blogling. They remind me of the door of the dark world being opened shedding a shaft of indescribable light onto the cold night of winter.

However, it seems odd that we still hanker after the dark days of December and January. Snow and ice are deadly; people die of hypothermia; accidents happen; yet we still long for the fabulous White Christmas. The nights are long; people suffer from SAD; the world of work draws the sluggish out of snuggly beds; yet, we love Christmas night. Are we perverse?

Yes, but not in the way we are thinking here! It is the light of Christmas that makes things wonderful. The nights cannot be completely black or else we would see nothing. Ice and snow look lovely as the light glistens off of them, and for a moment we forget about the cold, about any danger or inconvenience and watch how each flake gleams in the half-light. It is the presence of the light that makes the dark bearable.

What of us who have not seen a White Christmas for a long time? What happens when we look out of the window on Christmas morning, and see everything utterly unchanged? Just the same old grey houses, the same old grey road with the same old cars; everything utterly untransformed by the non-event of Christmas Day. It seems that we forget to say O.

Each of the O Antiphons begins with that cry of “O!” It is there to awaken our attention to Christ, not for us to awaken the attention of Christ to us. He is the subject of all the O Antiphons with the exception of the O Virgo Virginum which was added later. It is in this O that our encounter with Christ begins because in saying “O” we have to have stopped, focussed on the subject of the O, and realised its significance and wonder.

Christ bids us approach Him like little children. This is why the school nativity play is so important as it reminds us of the child-like simplicity in which we encounter the One Who Is. We can look at the nativity play and seek children running around in tea-towels and dressing gowns, beating each other up with toy sheep for some hitherto undisclosed misdemeanour; we can see Mary in an adjusted Frozen dress and Joseph unceremoniously picking his nose; we can see the plastic dolly in the crib with a lazy eye and a loose leg. If that’s what we see, then we have forgotten how we can say O.

Or we can lift the veil and see ourselves as the children participating in the Mystery of the Incarnation. We can see our fallible selves twinkle and shine as the light of Christ glistens upon us. We can see our grey streets become the streets of Bethlehem, all full and without room for the blessed infant, yet remembering that the room that has been prepared for Him is in our very hearts and souls. Let us, then, think hard on these O antiphons and remember that

O Sapientia
O Adonai
O Radix Jesse
O Clavis David
O Oriens
O Rex Gentium
O Emannuel

form a backwards acrostic of Ero Cras - “Tomorrow I shall be!” Does this refer to Christ? It might not so appear – He has always been. Yet His birth is in Time so only He has the capacity to say this, unlike we ourselves. Even now, we cannot say, “ero cras!” for our days are as grass and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. Yet, in simple trust, we cling to Christ and through our “O” and sheer love for Him, we can say in Him our “ero cras. Let us make room for “O” and for true Joy to enter our hearts once more in five days’ time.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Difficulty rejoicing

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

Just how do we rejoice?

For a lot of people, particularly at this time of year, rejoicing is something that seems to be completely impossible to do. Not only do we have those who suffer from the lack of light, but you only have to look around and see those who are dreading Christmas: the homeless, the lonely, the financially compromised. There are those who are suicidal at this time of year, and besides, with all the political and economic upheaval at the moment, rejoicing is the last thing on our minds.


Many will try to rejoice. They will do so by eating lots and drinking lots and trying to laugh lots, but they quickly find, when all the festivities are over, that the crushing weight of this world with all its cares and concerns creeps in and the gloom of mid-January causes the sun to set once more upon the soul. How can we rejoice? How can we rejoice always?


In writing to the Church in Philippi, St Paul utters the famous lines, “Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say, Rejoice.” Surely that’s easy for him to say! Except it isn’t. Look at what St Paul goes through. In writing to the Church in Corinth a second time, he says:
“I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned , thrice I suffered shipwreck , a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.”
Does it not seem that if anyone has cause not to rejoice, it’s St Paul? The world will look at his life and see it as one of abject failure. Yet he does not. He exhorts us to rejoice always and this must mean that he has found a way of being able to do this himself.

We are to rejoice in the Lord.

Don’t think for one minute that this is easy, but it is possible. For St Paul this means that we can find the greatest joy in serving God. He boasts not in any achievement of his, not in any possession of his, not in his apostleship or position as missionary bishop. He boasts solely in the cross of Christ. He remembers that all his sufferings find worth in that cross. Whatever pain he’s in, whatever persecution he receives, whatever hardship he endures, he is participating in the sufferings of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and if we suffer with Christ, then we will rise with Him.

This is still not easy. It takes time for us to learn not to be earthly minded. We have to rid ourselves of the tendency to define our lives by anything other than God. It calls for prayer. In order to rejoice in the Lord always, St Paul tells us,
“Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing: but in every thing, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
God is interested in our problems and pains. St Paul tells us to make our supplications to God, but to remember to give thanks for the things that we do have. Everyone has something to be thankful for if we look carefully enough. The world wants us to be grateful to it rather than to God. This is where the culture of right and entitlement comes from. We Christians are to be careful for nothing: we are not to see our rights and entitlements as things to be grasped and held onto. These rights and entitlements are merely part of the sinking ship. Our cares will cause us to sink even as St Peter started to sink when he tried to walk on water. We need to learn to let go.

Once we let go, we will receive peace from God the like of which the world can never know, let alone give. This peace will help us to be joyful. Note that joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is a fleeting thing that will perish with the world. Joy is something that lasts. It is a fruit of the Holy Ghost and therefore nothing that the world can give.

It is the cross of Christ that connects us with Eternity. Our sufferings in this life, hurt, and cause us much tribulation, but we must see them in the context of Christ’s Holy Cross and put all our faith in God, not divide it with things of this world. If we work at it, then we will find the promised joy. St Paul found it, and he wants us to find it too. We should do the same, find joy and pass it on to others. That way the world will see a greater dawn than it ever could imagine.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Sight for the inly blind

Today is the feast of St Lucy who appears in the Gregorian Canon, but it is also that of St Odile of Alsace, a Benedictine Nun. Both of these saints have patronage of the blind and the partially sighted. They are also my go-to saints for the times when my eyesight is playing me up. I won't go into the gory (literally) details of how these two ladies obtained their patronage, but I am grateful to God for their example and for their prayers.

I do pray for the healing of my eyesight, but I pray rather more for my interior sight than I do that of the rather idiosyncratic orbs in my head. I fully expect Our Lord to heal my eyesight at some point but I would rather that he help me see the way ahead.

As I was baptising a sweet little girl on Sunday, I gave her the edge of my stole to "lead" her to the font. This was a largely symbolic gesture as our chapel is too small to lead anyone physically, though I pray that people are spiritually led to Christ there. As I gave her my stole, I remembered that my stole effectively functions with God the same way that reins function for the parent of a two-year-old. If I am being pulled by Christ, then anyone who holds onto my stole is pulled with me. My stole thus allows me to be sure that I am led by Christ in this state of blindness to Him.

Of course, we live by faith, the hope for things which are unseen. Our senses are not sufficiently sensitive to pick up the fullness of our existence. The problem of Consciousness cannot be solved by science - at least not compellingly - for science is restricted to the narrow set of the observable. I maintain that the evidence of my own experience is sufficient for me to believe in the existence of God. There are those who will accuse me of being deluded, but the question can be turned around. How do we know that atheism is not a delusion? How do we know that empirical evidence of the observable is sufficient to describe reality? I know that God exists, but I cannot give a compelling knock-down argument because my knowledge comes from within me, even from places within me that are unobservable to me. There can be no knock-down argument, for we are called to God by Love, not by Knowledge.

Yet, I desire very much to be able to see clearly. I want to see God's hand in things. I want to behold His glory. I want to see the sheer magnificence of His Creation, behold His angels standing with me at the Mass. Oh how I miss the point!!

It's not my eyes that need to be opened, nor my eyesight that needs to be made clear, wonderful though this may be. It's the eyes of my heart that need the cataracts removed. Obviously I have been blessed with some sight of God within my heart, or I would not be able to appreciate the beauty of His word, yet what causes the problem is marrying the inward sight with the outward. In my heart, I know that Christ is present within the Sacred Elements at the Mass, but I cannot see that with my eyes. That's deliberate on God's part, I think. The recognition of Christ's presence in the Mass is a gift for those who, in their blindness, call out to God like blind Bartimaeus. For those who do not want to see, God permits that, preferring the free choice of His children to revealing Himself in glory unequivocally and thus forcing Himself on them before the Day of Reckoning.

Today, I pray for all who suffer with their eyesight whether inwardly or externally. I pray that they may be able to see God's goodness and rejoice in it. I pray that the eyes of the world may become more attuned to the light of God's presence. And I ask St Lucy and St Odile to pray with me and for me, that I, too, may see ever more clearly the good things of God.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Eternity in an hour

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
I've quoted from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence before on how we can see the whole of God's Creation in the very small. My recent conversations with my peers on Hell, although a frightening topic, was very fruitful as it forced me to confront my understanding of Eternity. The framework of our conversation was the question as to whether we are to go a finite duration punishment or an eternal separation. Can mortal man separate himself from his Creator eternally?

I leave that answer, such as it is in its paucity, to my previous posts.

My question now turns to what Eternity is and how God can be Eternal. As usual, as befits my Rational, Anglican Papal, mathematical methods, have a working definition, but I realize that all my definitions must, in some way, be merely working definitions.

A definition is a statement about what is, and, if we think about it, only God has the authority and scope to say what is. God is the Being from whom we derive our very being: who am I, then, to presume to say what is? Yet, clearly I do have some possibility. God is incarnate: He speaks to us, interacts with us, provides a bridge for us back to God the crossing of which washes us clean in a tide of blood. This means that we can have some definitions that will work as far as our understanding of being is concerned. God saves us, and we have sufficient knowledge of what saves means in order to know that we need to be saved. However, we also know that we are not saved by knowledge otherwise the unborn, the ignorant, and the incapable cannot be saved. We have sufficient understanding of being to know that being with God will fulfill our existence, and separation from God will cause us anguish, the like of which we would be better off never knowing.

However, we have insufficient knowledge of how God exists. There is an established philosophical debate about whether God is timeless (i.e. utterly beyond Time) or everlasting (i.e. within Time but unchanged by it). Each position has its problem: an Eternal God cannot interact with Time; an Everlasting God cannot have created Time. At least, these are the problems that confront human thinking, and ones that cause atheists much joy in thinking that they have a proof for the non-existence of God. This misses the point though. We are temporal beings and, although we have capabilities to express questions about timelessness and "everlasting"ness, our powers of reason are liable to break down. I can make philosophical enquiry into the situation, but philosophy is not theology, and theology is more pertinent.

The Bible is not clear on the question of Eternity. Indeed, we find ourselves back to αἰώνιος and ἀίδιος which underlie the philosophical problems as stated above. We have a Platonic Eternity which is "out there somewhere" and an Aristotelian Time which Newton would use to great effect in his theory of Absolute Space and Absolute Time. If anything the revolution that Einstein puts forward in his theories of relativity indicates that, due to the idea of simultaneity being subject to one's motion, Plato may indeed be right and that the past and future are "out there somewhere". This does seem to suggest, then, that the Creation that God has created exists in all Time, with Time as an ingredient within Creation, God standing "outside" of it yet His interactions with it all made from this "outside".

If this is true, then we do indeed have an Eternal existence, our soul being our totality within the Creation that God has made. Our consciousness of how time passes is thus an accident of how we experience being. Our consciousness is narrow and requires some kind of opening up our into the truth of reality. This is not something that can be done via any process of ours because all of our activity is necessarily dependent on our relationship with Time. It is how God can open our minds for us, as I believe that He did with St John the Divine in opening up the mind of a little human being to the complexity of Existence. Look at this Apocalypse, this Book of Revelation and see just how difficult it is to pin Time into it. There is silence in Heaven for about half an hour, but only for the perception of St John who is used to thinking in terms of Time.

This is such a beautiful possibility, but it is only that being, as it is, dependent upon the observations and theories of mortal man. Yet, if it is true, then it means that our dead still exist, preserved in the fabric of spacetime for God to draw out into His Eternity at His decision. We have nothing to fear, then, for whatever awaits us, we are being gazed upon in Love by the true Being Whom we cannot comprehend. All of our lives are open to Him and He truly does offer us true life in Him. I can only see that life in Him being Eternal. I don't know how we will experience it, but I know that, if those closing chapters of St John's Apocalypse are anything to go by, it will be more beautiful, more peaceful, more lovely than any human sense can behold. This is truly Heaven!

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Sex and the Immaculate Conception

Today is the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. If we think on this for a moment, we are actually celebrating the day on which St Joachim and St Anne had sex. My readers will no doubt be shocked by what I have just said and, to tell you the truth, I feel rather uncomfortable even writing that. But why? Because sex is dirty, unclean, and ungodly? Or is it rather because even to consider that fact is a forensic intrusion upon the private relationship between two people.

Here is the fact that we must accept: our parents had sex. If anyone has children then, unless God has some kind of new miracle He wants to show us, then they have had sex. It's a fact we either don't like to speak of primarily because it has absolutely nothing to do with any other person than the husband and wife. It is not polite to discuss such matters.

There may be some of my readers who are scandalised by my juxtaposition of the Conception of Our Lady with the whole topic of sex. Our Lady is a virgin perpetually and held to be a pillar of Christianity. Most female saints are consecrated virgins: there are more married male saints than female. In the breviary, married women seem to be an afterthought. There is something terribly wrong with this. Parenthood is a quintessential role in any community, especially the Christian Church. BOTH parents are needed, BOTH have a role and a responsibility, and BOTH should be valued highly. We know that child-rearing is a gift from God as much as consecration to the Religious life. For St Elizabeth and St Zacharias, as well as St Anne and St Joachim, to be married and not to have children is painful and tragic. Except for Our Lady, childbirth involves sex and God's blessing on that act of conjugal union. It is far from being sinful and wrong, but rather as a means of God's grace to the married couple and to the world. A child is a gift to a community, not just to the parents. We need to cherish children, not view their production as something vile.

Yet, we must be careful. Sex is only meant for married couples and the mutual commitment that surrounds them. Our Lady's conception does indeed bring us to consider facts that intrude upon the relationship of two saints, but we must learn to stop and pull back out of respect for their intimacy. We can become too curious to be respectful of others. It suffices us to know that Our Lady was conceived by a mother and a father who desired her existence and blessed God with great joy when she was born.

It suffices to know that the Angel called Mary full of grace when he met her, implying that she was already so before the annunciation. It can only really be true if she always was full of grace. The Holy Scriptures and the Church Fathers recognize that she was indeed sinless. If one subscribes to the doctrine of Original Sin, then this does provide evidence for the Immaculate Conception. If one does not subscribe to the doctrine of Original Sin, then one can still accept that the Blessed Virgin was unique in humanity to have been saved from sin by her yet unborn son without compromising her free-will. The fact that she was a virgin when she conceived the Lord is not to do with any concerns about the sinfulness of sex, but rather because the Lord was the Son of God, not the son of Joseph - at least not biologically.

King David laments "I was shapen in wickedness and in sin hath my mother conceived me." Is he being literal here? Or does he recognize the depth of sin in his life, how the world around him has affected him as he has grown, and how the sins of his parents have affected his view on life? This may be an argument for the weakness of the human will and its need for redemption but not, I think, evidence for sex as means of carrying the infection of sin.

The Conception of Our Lady shows that we all need to have a much more healthy and thus godly view of sex. We need to affirm that it happens, and not be prurient about it. We cannot afford to regard it as sinful but rejoice in it as the means of creating loving, stable, and happy families. However, we must give it the respect that it is due and preserve it as part of the intimacy of marriage rather than vulgarizing it with seedy and unseemly media, and cheapening it as some kind of sordid recreational activity. Our viewpoint must always be to look for the good of children and to remember that each child is an instance of the miraculous. To be a parent is a high calling and a privilege of hard work. That is what sex is for.

Of course, today, this does lead us to pray for all childless couples and those who are trying hard to have babies, and support them appropriately in our communities. The cheapening of sex trivializes their plight, and this is deeply unfair. As Christians, It is our duty to weep with the childless, and to bring them hope. We need to pray hard that God will help the childless and the barren in ways that will transform their lives into fulfillment, joy and love. May they indeed have fruitful lives, and may each child conceived receive the blessing of the love of good people!


Again, I have been very heartened by the scholarly debate about the Other Place, given that it is such an emotive topic. I am gratified to have enjoyed talking about this and listening to the wisdom of Archbishop Lloyd and Fr Chadwick and Fr Wassen who writes here.

I think I first need to address a point that Fr Wassen makes about my argument about Matthew xxv:46 in which I compare  κόλασιν αἰώνιον and ζωὴν αἰώνιον (zOen) and say that the senses of αἰώνιον must be the same. The good question that Fr Wassen raises is the nature of κόλασις that it has the idea of activity. How can an activity which is time-bound therefore be Eternal? I've thought about this below as a mathematical activity, and cannot say that my thoughts are completely coherent. The trouble is that of Time and Time seems to be something that, with St Augustine of Hippo, we know but can't say much about.

Yet, this word κόλασις is a noun, and not a participle. It has the sense of pruning, but also that of mutilation. It is related to κολαφίζω (kolaphIzo) which means "I buffet" or "I strike" and is directly linked to punishment. Pruning involves cutting off, and perhaps we see precisely what Our Lord is saying in His words in this verse if we translate κόλασις as a cutting off, a separation, a pruning from the True Vine. This makes sense in Our Lord's further references to Hell being a separation, a gulf, outer darkness. It is we who cut ourselves off!

However, I do stress that, in the light of the Primitive Church, the whole business of the Eternity of Hell is not cut and dried (no κόλασις here!). It is in Western thought with those who follow St Augustine and the Scholastics, but not in the Primitive Church. Origen, St Gregory Nazianzus, and St Gregory of Nyssa all share the belief that Hell is not an absolute. In this case, it seems they equate Hell with Purgatory. There is something comforting about that, but the only trouble is what happens to the Devil and the Fallen Ones? Will even they be reconciled with God?

It is for this reason, that I do respect Fr Wassen and Fr Chadwick in their holding of a different opinion from me. As Fr Chadwick says, I am rooted in mathematics, logic, scholasticism, and largely Western ways of thinking. I am not a Romantic, but more of an Idealist. Yet all of us Christians live in the hope for union with Christ rather than separation. That is without question. I still believe that Holy Scripture and the Fathers support the idea of Eternal Damnation: those who side with the Devil must expect to receive the same punishment as he. However, perhaps the debate on Hell must be set aside here in favour of thoughts on the nature of Eternity itself.

We might not be able to fathom Eternity, but is there anything we can say about it?

Tuesday, December 06, 2016


Wow! What a set of fascinating discussions I have with some people whose opinions I truly value. I am grateful to Fr Gregory Wassen and Archbishop Jerome Lloyd  for their comments on my earlier post, and to Fr Chadwick for his own thoughts which he has published here.

Archbishop Jerome focussed on the fact that Love requires reciprocity. We all receive the love of God, yet, if we reject that then we reject Him. He has always been prepared to suffer for us, and thus He suffers us to reject Him. This rejection forces us to suffer the logical consequences of that rejection. We human beings have no excuse for our sins. St Paul says,
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:(Romans i.18-20)
This is galling to say the least. We are also minded of those who say "Lord, Lord!" and yet the Lord will say, "in truth, I never knew you!"

From my thoughts on this, the fear that the Christian should have is not a fear of Hell in itself, but the fear of losing God which logically leads to Hell. Yet how sweet it is for us to hear that God say to us, "be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest." We tremble before Almighty God in sheer awe. I find it odd how human beings of the present age have lost the ability to feel awe, yet surely we must have awe for this mighty Being of Beings whose command of existence is so absolute and yet will strip Himself of that command in order to be with us in Humanity that we might share in His Divinity.

Fr Wassen asks a different question and draws on the theology of Origen and St Isaac the Syrian. The discussion he draws on centres around two Greek words αἰώνιος and ἀίδιος (a-Idios) which are both used to describe the notion of eternity. We've already seen the word αἰώνιος used in the context of "eternal" life and "eternal" punishment. The word ἀίδιος is used above in Romans i.20 in discussing God's eternal power. In Jude 6, we read:
ἀγγέλους τε τοὺς μὴ τηρήσαντας τὴν ἑαυτῶν ἀρχὴν ἀλλὰ ἀπολιπόντας τὸ ἴδιον οἰκητήριον εἰς κρίσιν μεγάλης ἡμέρας δεσμοῖς ἀϊδίοις ὑπὸ ζόφον τετήρηκεν:

And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day.
Again we see ἀίδιος describing the "everlasting" chains of the fallen angels. And Wisdom herself "is the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of his goodness." (Wisdom vii.26)  Again, the word ἀίδιος used to describe the everlasting light. One might imagine the angels, being pure spirit, being subject to different bonds to human beings but we know that both the fallen angels and the unrepentant end up in the same Abyss. In the biblical sense, are αἰώνιος and ἀίδιος synonyms? Etymologically not: αἰώνιος can be translated as age, whence we have the wonderful phrase of "unto the age of ages" in Orthodox liturgies where we in the West would say "and ever shall be world without end". The Eon is a passage of finite time. Yet it does possess a notion of permanence. The Latin is "saecula saeculorum" and we understand that as "everlasting".

What is also important is that, in the parable of Dives and Lazarus (St Luke xvi), between the blessed and the damned "there is a great gulf fixed : so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot * ; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence." The terms are absolute, and not relative. It would seem that there is something wrong in Origen's thought and with St Isaac the Syrian too. But let us not be hasty: do we stretch the parable too far?

On an apparently unrelated note (bear with me) it is interesting that Black Holes evaporate into radiation. Mathematically speaking, the Black Hole possesses a singularity where the laws of space and time break down. This is represented in mathematics as an infinity. An object which goes over the Event Horizon will be seen to be sen to be slowing down to a halt to an observer outside the black hole. We also have Zeno's paradox of motion in which in order to cross a room, we first need to cross half the distance, then a quarter, then an eighth, then... et c. Thus we never seem to be able to cross the room. We have mathematical ideas of limits. An eternal pruning is mathematically possible and thus, although it be an activity, it can still happen eternally and thus in a limitless fashion. The juxtaposition that the Lord gives in Matthew xxv.46 between κόλασιν αἰώνιον and ζωὴν αἰώνιον seems ample evidence that the two senses mean the same. Yet, nonetheless, is it possible that Hell itself, being the blackest of black holes might evaporate? Milton suggests that Hell is coldest at its heart.

Outside of Time, it is difficult to say. We lack the eyes to say so. We can test for black holes by observing their effects on the objects around them. Likewise, we can observe the presence of Evil by its effect on our world. In the presence of God, we cannot have the presence of Evil and to an extent it becomes unobservable because we cannot bridge this gulf. My instinct is to understand αἰώνιος in the sense of Eternity because of God's Eternity. I may be wrong, but my prayers and efforts are the all humanity should be able to get on the right side of Eternity.

I need to think more on what Eternity means. Perhaps the dialogue needs to continue further.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Eternity of the Other Place

A recent conversation with my confrere Fr Chadwick has made me think on the nature of Hell. Clearly, this is a difficult topic for Christians as it does touch on the whole Problem of Evil. Readers of this little blogling will know that I don't believe that there can be an intellectual solution to the great Problem of Evil, but the solution itself can only be found in the inexpressible Love of God. Let us look at the primary teaching on the nature of Hell. We look at the words of Our Lord Himself.
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred , and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in : Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying , Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty , and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed , into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred , and ye gave me no meat : I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst , or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. (St Matthew xxv:31-46)
Perhaps we need to look at the last verse in the Greek.

καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον. 

What do we see here? Ought the King James text use the same adjective to translate "αἰώνιον" (aiŌnion)? Is everlasting the same as eternal? We do have to be careful here because we can find ourselves getting rooted too much in a particular philosophy. Platonism would regard Eternity as some timeless existence. St Thomas Aquinas uses this idea of Eternity to prove that God is changeless. If God is perfect then there is can be no change, for any change would either be to a more perfect state which cannot be, or to a less perfect state, which would contradict the existence of God. If Time is a measure of how things change, then we cannot ascribe temporality to God. Except Our Lord makes a mockery of this argument as He comes to exist with us in Time.

What do we know? Well, we do know that God created all things, which must include Time's passage. Thus God is beyond Time and has an existence that cannot be ruled by Time. Clearly the Mystery of the Incarnation shows that God can submit Himself personally to the passage of Time, but as an unfolding revelation of His perfection. Christ was not perfect in the sense that His life was not complete until His last moments upon the Cross. Presumably, His Divine Nature possessed the perfection that was communicated to His Human nature in the unfolding of the Divine Revelation by the Incarnation. In Christ, we do have this union of the time-bound human being with the Eternity of God. It is clearly possible though we don't know how. Entering into this mystery involves speculation that goes beyond Faith. The child that believes this is clearly on the road to greater Divinity than the one who rejects it because "it doesn't make sense."

Yet, Our Lord is clear, the timelessness or duration of the punishment is of the same nature as the timelessness or duration of the life offered by Salvation.

Horrible, isn't it?

I can fully see why folk like Origen balked at the idea and taught that eventually even the Devil would come to Salvation. Others will wonder how it is possible for a finite human being to deserve an infinite punishment. As a consequence, they will see God as a monster for creating this place called Hell and throwing people into it. The Medieval and Renaissance artists are very good at conjuring up pictures of the tortures of the Damned.

Yet, one really has to look at the urgency with Our Lord urges us to avoid Hell. This does not seem to be a place where, once you've paid your debt, you get out. He is clear that He wants to save His children at all costs, even to the Death on the Cross. Hell is not something God wants for us. Clearly eternal means eternal. But punishment?

The word used is "κόλασις" (kŎlasis) which has the sense of pruning. One would "punish" a tree by correcting its growth through pruning. This punishment, then, is meant for correction which might lead us to hope that such an ordeal might not last forever, but then Our Lord qualifies it with "eternal".

We know that we cast ourselves into Hell by rejecting God and refusing to repent of Sin. The existence of God is a direct privation of Evil and sin. Where Sin is, God is not. Where God is, there can be no evil. This limitation that God has effected on Himself is of Love whereby He does not insist on His own way but bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things for the object of His Love which is His Creation. It is clear that He predestined us for Eternity and somehow all that we are has the potential for Eternity. We may need to be pruned for it, and thus repentance allows that pruning to have an effect for us eternally, else why does Our Lord begin His ministry with the word, "repent"?

Yet to refuse to repent must also have an effect on our eternity. Evil deeds are the fruit of this lack of desire to repent, to receive correction. If we all possess some eternity in our nature through bearing the image of God, then who we are on earth affects who we are in Eternity. Accepting the pruning now or in some form of Purgatory fits us for Heaven to dwell with God. Refusing the pruning leads to an existence of utter separation from God, yet still bearing His image which must surely drive the denizens of Hell insane as they possess the very existence of the One Whom they hate and have eternally rejected. Perhaps Charles Dickens' view of Hell as being doomed to carry the weight of one's sins like chains is a good analogy. Only through Christ do we get the bolt cutters that will free us.

Hell must terrify Christians. We must be afraid of Hell, not just for ourselves, but for all human beings. Christ wants all folk to be saved and brought to Him for Eternity. It will scandalise us but it must do so because we still cannot understand the problem Evil poses us. The call is for Faith. We need to trust God, not just that He exists, but that He is fully good despite the image that the opposing forces would want us to believe. The Church must work for the salvation of the whole world. It is possible that Hell may be empty save for the few that the Lord mentions. We must never despair of the love and mercy of God. However, we must work for His righteousness ensuring that every human being knows that they are loved and can be saved from the fate that they can make for themselves. We do bear each other that responsibility.