Friday, August 31, 2007

God's work (Merton)

On August 21st, 1965, Thomas Merton wrote in his journal:

This morning-grey, cool, peace. The unquestionable realization of the rightness of this, because it is from God and it is His work. So much could be said! What is immediately perceptible is the immense relief, the burden of ambiguity is lifted, and I am without care - no anxiety about being pulled between my job and my vocation. I feel as if my whole being were an act of thankfulness - even the gut is relaxed and at peace after good meditation and long study of Irenaeus. The woods all around crackle with guerilla warfare - the hunters are out for squirrel season (as if there were a squirrel left!). Even this idiot ritual does not make me impatient. In their mad way they love the woods too: but I wish their way were less destructive and less of a lie.

Thomas Merton: Dancing in the Water of Life. Journals, Volume 5. Robert E. Daggy, editor. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1997: p. 283

Whatever the very real difficulties of living in community, one of the enormous blessings must be this sense of rightness, of freedom to be wholehearted: "the burden of ambiguity... lifted." My heart sings just to read the words. Of course those of us who have made a retreat of any length know a little of this feeling - but the real deal, permanence, must be remarkably close to Heaven; or at least to the sense I always have thinking about Heaven, that the first, totally conscious, sensation must surely be a truly immeasurable relief, an incalculable lightness of the spirit, not unlike the first day of the school summer holidays, to the nth degree: "At last!"

On work

Sr Joan Chittister OSB has a wonderful passage in her book Illuminated Life (Orbis), which I thought I'd quote for all you people over the water, who are about to celebrate (?) Labor Day:

One of the most demanding, but often overlooked, dimensions of the creation story is that when creation was finished, it wasn’t really finished at all. Instead, God committed the rest of the process to us. What humans do on this earth either continues creation or obstructs it. It all depends on the way we look at life, the way we see our role in the ongoing creation of the world.

Work is our contribution to creation. It relates us to the rest of the world. It fulfills our responsibility to the future. God left us a world intact, a world with enough for everyone. The contemplative question of the time is, What kind of world are we leaving to those who come after us? The contemplative sets out to shape the world in the image of God. Order, cleanliness, care of the environment bring the Glory of God into the stuff of the moment, the character of the little piece of the planet for which we are responsible.

The ideal state, the contemplative knows, is not to avoid work. The first thing Genesis requires of Adam and Eve is that they "till the garden and keep it." They are, then, commanded to work long before they sin. Work is not, in Judaeo-Christian tradition, punishment for sin. Work is the mark of the conscientiously human. We do not live to outgrow work. We live to work well, to work with purpose, to work with honesty and quality and artistry. The floors the contemplative mops have never been better mopped. The potatoes the contemplative grows do not damage the soil under the pretense of developing it. The machines a contemplative designs and builds are not created to destroy life but to make it more possible for everyone. The people the contemplative serves get all the care that God has

The contemplative is overcome by the notion of "tilling the garden and keeping it." Work does not distract us from God. It brings the reign of God closer than it was before we came. Work doesn’t take us away from God. It continues the work of God through us. Work is the priesthood of the human race. It turns the ordinary into the grandeur of God.

To be a real contemplative and no shaman of the airy-fairy, I must work as if the preservation of the world depends on what I am doing in this small, otherwise insignificant space I call my life.

Sr Joan's remarks remind me of the comments people sometimes used to make when they discovered that I was both a contemplative and a dairy herdsman. "Not much time for sitting and navel-gazing, I'd have thought..." or words to that effect! But there was no conflict - that work, solitary as it usually was, and unarguably useful and necessary as it always was, became part of my contemplative life, or else contemplation became a part of work. I'm not sure I know which. Strangely enough, now that I'm retired (after a farm accident a few years ago), I have to work far harder to find time for contemplation, and it feels far more like an artificial construct. Go figure!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Mother Teresa and doubt

A few people - just a few, thank God - have gleefully been catching hold of a few sentences in a few letters of Blessed Teresa published in a new book, Come, Be My Light by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the postulator of her canonization cause, to suggest that behind her public persona of a believer was a tortured soul defined by her doubt.

In an excellent article on this "revelation" in the National Catholic Register, the editors remark:

The difference between the doubt of a modern atheist and spiritual darkness is as distinct as the difference between a "Dear John" note and an "I miss you, Johnny" letter. These saints never cease having a relationship with God; on the contrary, their relationship grows more intense as they long to be reunited. They live the experience the Song of Solomon refers to: “I sought him whom my heart loves — I sought him but I did not find him..."

The dark night lasted as long as a year or two for Teresa [of Avila] and Thérèse [de Lisieux]. For Mother Teresa, it lasted 50 years. "Mother was sharing in the longing and sufferings of her beloved," said the postulator of her cause.

And far from masking this aspect of her faith life, as the article suggests she did, Mother Teresa put the insights she gained from it at the center of her congregation’s spirituality. Missionaries of Charity chapels are adorned with only a crucifix and the words "I thirst" over the tabernacle.

"This seems to me the most heroic thing of her spiritual life," said the priest. "Mother was not only sharing in the physical poverty of the poor, but also the sufferings of Jesus — his longing for union, as expressed in Gethsemane and on the cross."

Her unique experiences are what make Mother Teresa such a powerful intercessor for the Church of the 21st century.

There is much more fascinating comment in this article, and in the others referenced in Deirdre Good's blog. You need to read these comments for yourself; but before you do, read the long Time Magazine article they mostly refer to - from start to finish. So far from being the attack on Mother Teresa some of them unfairly imply, it is a superbly balanced account, ending with these words:

The particularly holy are no less prone than the rest of us to misjudge the workings of history - or, if you will, of God's providence. Teresa considered the perceived absence of God in her life as her most shameful secret but eventually learned that it could be seen as a gift abetting her calling. If her worries about publicizing it also turn out to be misplaced - if a book of hasty, troubled notes turns out to ease the spiritual road of thousands of fellow believers, there would be no shame in having been wrong - but happily, even wonderfully wrong - twice.

Monday, August 27, 2007

I will tell you a mystery!

Another wonderful quote, courtesy of Vicki K Black at Speaking to the Soul:

The growth of the spiritual kingdom, as a divinely appointed organization, is a mystery; and the growth of spiritual life in the hearts of each individual member of the spiritual kingdom is a mystery. We behold indications, from time to time, marking the gradual progress of these two kinds of growth; we believe in them, as realities coming to pass, in consequence of Christ’s redemption, and yet we know not how. "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8).

Oh! let those to whom the gospel announcements have come, be not faithless, but believing. Beholding the wonderful work which God, through Christ, has wrought for mankind by the mysterious instrumentalities of his infinitely wise appointment, let all become genuine, devout communicants of the organization which has existed, though they know not how, for upward of eighteen hundred years, as the grand regeneration of the human race; and in due time, they shall be the possessors of the peace of God, which passing understanding, is the earnest of the good things to come in the future life, of which it hath not entered into the heart of man to conceive. Oh! let us have entire faith in the Divine arrangements for the growth of spiritual life, although they are to us, in our present condition, unfathomable mysteries.

From the sermon preached at the first service held at St. Ann’s Church for Deaf-Mutes by Thomas Gallaudet, quoted in A Year With American Saints by G. Scott Cady and Christopher L. Webber. Copyright © 2006. Used by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY.

So often we become obsessed with what might be called the achievements of the church: church growth, discipleship, even spiritual formation. We come to think of them as heavy burdens we carry, responsibilities we must discharge. We look at our attendance figures, and ask ourselves, (or are asked by our overseers,) "Is the church growing as expected?" We look at the people in our church, and we ask ourselves, (or are asked by our overseers,) "Are lives being changed?" And if not, why not?

And yet our Saviour said, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11.28-30)

We need to understand that we are called to pray, and to preach, and to do whatever works our hand finds to do, with all our might. The results are not up to us: they are God's concern, and they are for him to bring about. How, and when, and to what degree, are mysteries hidden with Christ in God. If we take on ourselves responsibilities that are properly God's, not only will we stumble under the weight, but we will hurt those for whose growth we hold ourselves responsible, by trying to force them to comply with our "vision."

In Romans 8.26-27, Paul says, "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."

We might extend that, by adding "work" to "pray." And we might find rest from our anxiety, our stress, and our manipulations. And we might set Christ free in our lives, free to do signs and wonders among the church.

St. Monica

Today is the day we celebrate the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. I don't want to say too much about her here - you can read far better accounts than I could give at Saint of the Day and the Catholic Encyclopedia.

What I do want to remember is her patience in prayer. Her son was a most unpromising subject for prayer, having accepted the Manichean heresy and living a seriously immoral life. More than that, she had an evil-tempered husband and a cantankerous mother-in-law. But she knew how to pray...

For many years she prayed, so much so that a bishop, whose name history doesn't record, said to her, "The child of those tears shall never perish." Before her death in 387AD, in her late 60s, Monica had seen all three accept Christ their Saviour. In Augustine's case, it took 32 years. She did not know it at the time, but her death appears to have prompted Augustine to write his Confessions, the most famous of all his works, and one of the great documents of the early Church.

Truly, I know I've never even scratched the surface of Luke 18's "pray always and not to lose heart." The life of St. Monica gives us just a hint of how it could be if we were to take those words seriously...

Friday, August 24, 2007

Hidden with Christ...

Wonderful quote from today's Saint of the Day, St. Bartholomew - Saint of the Day - American Catholic :

The simple fact is that humanity is totally meaningless unless God is its total concern. Then humanity, made holy with Gods own holiness, becomes the most precious creation of God.

It's not entirely clear (to me at any rate) who wrote it (quite possibly Fr Jack Wintz, of Friar Jack's E-spirations) but it certainly spoke to me today. Unless we are lost in God, we will never find ourselves. "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory." (Colossians 3.2-4)

Praying in the dark...

Vicky K Black has taken over my Merton quoting function, by the look of it. She has this wonderful passage, which is so encouraging for those of us who sometimes wonder why some of our prayers seem to disappear somewhere unseen, without even an echo:

Prayer and meditation have an important part to play in opening up new ways and new horizons. If our prayer is the expression of a deep and grace-inspired desire for newness of life - and not the mere blind attachment to what has always been familiar and "safe" - God will act in us and through us to renew the Church by preparing, in prayer, what we cannot yet imagine or understand. In this way our prayer and faith today will be oriented toward the future which we ourselves may never see fully realized on earth.

From Contemplation in a World of Action by Thomas Merton (Doubleday, 1971).

I suppose I'm feeling more than usually vulnerable in this area just now, as we have had some scary news regarding Jan's health. I know perfectly well that her life is in his hands, and that I can trust him with her as I could never even trust myself - but it doesn't help the terrible hollow feeling in the pit of the stomach. Which is why I was so glad to read Vicky's Merton quote!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

From St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Since Scripture says that God made everything for himself, there will be a time when He will cause everything to conform to its Maker and be in harmony with Him. In the meantime, we must make this our desire; that as God Himself willed that everything should be for Himself, so we, too, will that nothing, not even ourselves, may be or have been except for Him, that is according to his will, not ours. The satisfaction of our needs will not bring us happiness, not chance delights, as does the sight of His will being fulfilled in us and in everything which concerns us. That is what we ask every day in prayer when we say, "Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

To love in this way is to become like God. As a drop of water seems to disappear completely in a quantity of wine, taking the wine’s flavor and color; as red-hot iron becomes indistinguishable from the glow of fire and its own original form disappears; as air suffused with the light of the sun seems transformed into the brightness of the light, as if it were itself light rather than merely lit up; so, in those who are holy, it is necessary for human affection to dissolve in some ineffable way, and be poured into the will of God.

From "Four Degrees of Love" by Bernard of Clairvaux, quoted in Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology, edited by John R. Tyson (Oxford University Press, 1999).

[courtesy of Vicki K Black]

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

It's a rich man's world... (with apologies to Abba)

Jennifer F at Et Tu? has an excellent post where she laments our Western Christian lack of zeal, our fear of Biblical austerity, and our failure "to stand out like sore thumbs more than [we] do" by living distinctively Christian lives amidst a broken world.

I couldn't help but be struck by the parallel with this account, from Saint of the Day, of a remark by Pope Pius X (1835-1914):

Ever mindful of his humble origin, he stated, "I was born poor, I lived poor, I will die poor." He was embarrassed by some of the pomp of the papal court. "Look how they have dressed me up," he said in tears to an old friend. To another, "It is a penance to be forced to accept all these practices. They lead me around surrounded by soldiers like Jesus when he was seized in Gethsemani."

The entry goes on to state:

Interested in politics, [Pius X] encouraged Italian Catholics to become more politically involved. One of his first papal acts was to end the supposed right of governments to interfere by veto in papal elections—a practice that reduced the freedom of the conclave which elected him.

In 1905, when France renounced its agreement with the Holy See and threatened confiscation of Church property if governmental control of Church affairs were not granted, Pius X courageously rejected the demand.

While he did not author a famous social encyclical as his predecessor had done, he denounced the ill treatment of the Indians on the plantations of Peru, sent a relief commission to Messina after an earthquake and sheltered refugees at his own expense.

This is the attitude we need in order to live prophetic lives among the wealth and pain of our Western culture.

The paradoxical thing is, though, as I said in a comment on Jennifer's post, that in the West the church is so inured to its comfortable lifestyle that, living simply, we can sometimes find ourselves being looked down on by "better-off" believers. (This especially in true of some of the more evangelical churches, ones who consciously claim to resemble New Testament fellowships, I'm sorry to say.)

I think the assumption may be that, if you're following Christ, you will be blessed. Seeing blessing in material terms, comfortably-off believers assume that if you're not "blessed" in the same way, then there must be something amiss with your "Christian walk."

Asceticism is, to some degree, an inevitable part of our Christian calling, part of the way we are to be "salt and light" in a damaged world. We forget this to our peril, and risk becoming like the rich young man in Matthew 19.15-25, who, unable to accept Jesus' call to asceticism, "went away grieving, for he had many possessions..."

Monday, August 20, 2007

Ave Maria... benedicta tu in mulieribus

Sherry W of Intentional Disciples has an interesting post, Raised to the Dignity of Being Causes, where she quotes from St Irenaeus:

Eve... having become disobedient, was made the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race, so also Mary, betrothed to a man but nevertheless still a virgin, being obedient, was made the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race... Thus, the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith.

Against the Heresies, 190AD

I've been thinking a lot about Mary recently: about the extraordinary significance of her choosing obedience, in the face of all human caution and respectability. What an astonishing girl, to risk everything she held dear, her own life even, to become the living bridge between God and mankind, the frail vessel that sheltered the Son of the living God for nine long months, and bore him into an unknowable future.

No wonder - and all wonder - that "all generations will call [her] blessed" whose free choice, to dare all for what must be the most fantastic promise ever made, opened the gate through her own flesh and blood for salvation to come to all Creation (see Romans 8.14-17; 19-21). That she knew very well what she was getting into is shown by the remarkable fact that she had the presence of mind neither to reject, nor accede to, Gabriel's word till she was clear in her mind how this was to come about. And then she chose to obey, to accept the greatest and the strangest gift of the Spirit that ever a human accepted from the hand of God.

Truly she is blessed among women!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Flavor of the Month: God isn't "nice"

Sr Claire Joy has a wonderful post today: Flavor of the Month: God isn't "nice" I can't resist quoting at length, especially as what she said is so reminiscent of what Rhona said in her sermon this morning at Holy Rood...

Luke 12: 49-56

Some preachers will focus on the last verse of today's Gospel, where Jesus tells the crowd they can read the weather but not the signs of the times. In our generation apparently we can't do either; global warming being just one case in point. Our celebrant chose the verses in the middle: "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?" (Well, uh yes. Weren't the angels singing about that at your birth?) "No I tell you, but rather division."

He related the story of a famous theologian who told his class about the experience of his own Sunday school training: In a Texas drawl: "God is naa-ice. And He wants us to be naa-ice."

Well, doesn't he? There are cute little signs in catalogs that say: Nice Matters. And what about Forgive your enemies, turn the other cheek, run the extra mile, give up your life for your friend? The point was, of course, that these are not matters of nice. These are radical dangerous ideas, counter-intuitive to the way the world runs, and if you follow Jesus' radical teachings, you will be divided, and in radical ways. "Father against son, Daughter against mother. Mother-in-law against daughter-in-law." Our church has been fighting over itself since the early days when it was little more than "the way." We call it the Holy Catholic Church, and then go on to accuse each other of apostasy, heresy, apathy. If Jesus came to bring division then he has done well: we are divided.

But there is more to the reading... the very first verse says: "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" We could take this as a warning, or we could think of it as a promise. Fire is symbolic of punishment and judgment, yes. But it also stands for purification, refining, enlightenment. "How I wish it were already kindled." Maybe he was having a bad day. maybe he was envisioning possibility. Either way, he was reminding us that life isn't always nice, and neither is God. I'm reminded of a line from C.S. Lewis referring to Aslan: Is he safe? Well of course, he's not safe. But he is always good.

The point Rhona brought out so well this morning is that if we are faithful to our Lord, if we really do try and follow him as he asked us to, then how we live will inevitably be set over against the way that others live. When those others are our friends and relatives, people who feel they have a claim on our loyalty, and we then go on to demonstrate that we have a higher loyalty - to one who, in the final analysis, has a higher claim on our lives than they do - then they are going to be hurt. And no attempt at "niceness" on our part will draw the sting from that hurt.

St. Francis and St. Clare knew this only too well. The stories of how Francis had to choose between Jesus and his earthly father, and of how Clare's family attempted to make her choose them, by force, are probably too well known for me to quote here at length, but they are certainly apposite!

If you'd like the accounts in full, you can read about Francis' and Clare's family lives at for St. Francis, and for St. Clare.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Allchin again...


There is a closer relationship between faith in the Virgin birth and faith in the bodily resurrection of Christ than might at first sight appear. Both doctrines affirm the depth of Gods love, the extent of his involvement in the human mass, in the very substance of our human history, its reality of flesh and blood. And both doctrines affirm the potential greatness, the infinite openness of that human history. In the reality of flesh and blood, the eternal is made present and made known. It is not surprising that our own society, with its sense of being held in an iron reign of necessity and death, with its particular difficulty in believing that human life can open out into something larger than itself, finds these doctrines difficult to accept. In some sense, however, this has always been the case, for at all times these articles of faith have brought a judgement on our fallen ways of thinking. They are bound to come to our minds first as a cross and only afterwards as a fulfillment.

Neither Christ's conception nor his rising again is an isolated wonder, unrelated to the rest of human history, to the nature of the universe as a whole. The truth, which is revealed in them, is at the same time situated at the heart of history, at the basis of creation and at the goal of history. All stories of strange or miraculous births, and there are many in legends and mythology of man, hint at the potential of a birth from above, at the mystery of each human life as a new creation, a possible point of intersection of the timeless with time. The birth and death of Christ, given from on high, are a full and perfect confirmation of these half-lost human longings. They are at one and the same time a revelation of the mysteriousness of the divine love which goes far beyond anything the mind could have thought or the heart desired, and also a revelation of the mysteriousness of the human calling and destiny. Planted at the heart of mans being there is an openness to what is beyond him.

From The Joy of All Creation by A. M. Allchin (Cowley Publications, 1984).

[From a post by Vicki K Black in Speaking to the Soul]

The world we live in, caught as it is in the "iron reign of necessity and death," is cold and narrow for so many of us. How can we live with our sisters and brothers in the world around us, and not long to throw open the smudged and curtained windows for them onto the more-than-breathtaking beauty of eternity, the clear light and the golden horizon, the paths that lead forever into wonder? If we could only open our hearts truly to that vision, surely our evangelism would change from a crabbed and lifeless duty to a joyful, glorious privilege?

So often we are blind to the riches we have in Christ - like tramps starving amid heaps of unrecognised jewels - and so we live dry, grey lives, and have nothing to share but dry, grey dogmas, on the very borders of the Promised land; bored at the edge of unimaginable glory.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

St. Stephen of Hungary


The Church is universal, but its expression is always affected - for good or ill - by local culture. There are no "generic" Christians; there are Mexican Christians, Polish Christians, Filipino Christians. This fact is evident in the life of Stephen, national hero and spiritual patron of Hungary.

Born a pagan, he was baptized at about the age of ten, together with his father, chief of the Magyars, a group who migrated to the Danube area in the ninth century...

When he succeeded his father, Stephen adopted a policy of Christianization of the country for both political and religious reasons. He suppressed a series of revolts by pagan nobles and welded the Magyars into a strong national group. He sent to Rome to get ecclesiastical organization - and also to ask the pope to confer the title of king upon him. He was crowned on Christmas day in 1001.

Stephen established a system of tithes to support churches and pastors and to relieve the poor. Out of every 10 towns one had to build a church and support a priest...

He was easily accessible to all, especially the poor...

(From Saint of the Day)


Although the Church has contributed much to the development of culture, experience shows that, because of circumstances, it is sometimes difficult to harmonize culture with Christian teaching.

These difficulties do not necessarily harm the life of faith. Indeed they can stimulate the mind to a more accurate and penetrating grasp of the faith. For recent studies and findings of science, history and philosophy raise new questions which influence life and demand new theological investigations.

(Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 62).

St Stephen lived from AD 975-1038. Pope Paul VI promulgated the Pastoral Constitution on 7th December 1965. All this time has passed, and still we don't haven't taken on board these insights. If we had, we wouldn't have the stand-off between Creationism and Evolutionism; we wouldn't have such problems talking openly with Muslims and others living in our communities; and we might even be able to cope reasonably gracefully with the differences of opinion between those of us who long to welcome LGBT people freely into every part of the life of the church, and those who fear this for what they believe to be Biblical reasons!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

St. Mary the Virgin


It is the moment of the annunciation which makes sense of all other moments. It is a moment which is truly in time, not out of time. It has a whole series of temporal consequences; the embryo begins to stir in the womb. But it is a moment in which eternity has really come, in which God is present and at work. Both the birth and the death of Jesus witness to the depth and immensity of Gods love, and to the infinite openness and potential of human life. And just as, in baptism, the death of each one who is baptized is included in Christ's death, in order that the whole process of dying may become dying into life, so also the birth of each one is included in Christ's birth, in order that the whole process of living may be open to the coming of the Spirit, who is Lord and giver of life.

It is in this sense that we may rightly think of Mary as the mother of us all; in this sense that Andrewes speaks of the font as the womb of the Church, of one substance with the Virgins womb, with a power given it by the Spirit of bringing forth sons of God. From his participation in our human nature follows our participation in his divine nature. The life of eternity enters into time, so that the life of time may find its fulfillment in eternity.

From The Joy of All Creation by A. M. Allchin (Cowley Publications, 1984).

[From a post by Vicki K Black in Speaking to the Soul]

Monday, August 13, 2007

Desert Things

Vicki K Black has posted this remarkable passage

The desert is the threshold to the meeting ground of God and man. It is the scene of the exodus. You do not settle there, you pass through. One then ventures on to these tracks because one is driven by the Spirit towards the Promised Land. But it is only promised to those who are able to chew sand for forty years without doubting their invitation to the feast in the end.

Alessandro Pronzato, quoted in The Desert: An Anthology for Lent by John Moses. © 1997. Used by permission of Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The Desert is a place of the heart, almost more than it is a physical isolation. It is a place of stillness apart from the alien concerns of the world, a place where the incrustations of possessions and the desire for possessions (whether things or people or fame or security or anything else...) fall away, and we are alone. There is nothing there to hide us from God.

In being unable to hide from God, we are paradoxically unable to hide from our call to love all our fellow-humans as ourselves. The Desert is not a place to deny human life: it is a place to know the truth of it, and to know that we are bound in love to every other life. In Christ we are part of everyone who has ever lived, part of the whole Creation, for "without him not one thing came into being," (John 1.3) and in the Desert there is nothing to prevent our realising it.

I'm afraid of the Desert myself, and yet it's where I long to be. I think this is more than a shrinking from seeing myself in the mirror of that poverty, that absence of "riches." In folklore, I believe, the Desert is regarded as the dwelling-place of ghosts, and I can sort of see where they're coming from. CS Lewis has a passage somewhere (I can't place it just now, but it's quoted in Rudolph Otto's The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational):

Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told "There is a ghost in the next room," and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is "uncanny" rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply "There is a mighty spirit in the room" and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.

The Desert, then, is the place of encounter with the Numen. There is a very real sense, no pious figure of speech, in which we do meet God face to face - or as nearly face to face as we could survive - in the Desert. There is a sense of the possible terror of this (though in a different context) in Hebrews 10.31: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."

Yet within awe there is something far more than shrinking: there is a quite desperate longing, which goes way beyond "risking one's life for." The sense of it is captured once for all in that psalm of the desert heart, number 42:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

St. Clare

Today is St. Clare's Day. She is my very favourite Franciscan person, I think. There's a long article this month on the online St. Anthony Messenger site, and I've taken the liberty of extracting a few bits, since they are so much better than anything I could write myself:

Within each of us is the potential to be a light focusing attention on God's presence in our world. Clare of Assisi's life reveals just how much light she shed.

As a friend and as cofounder of the Franciscan movement, she supported Francis as he discerned God's message for himself and his followers. Together with her sisters, she wrote the first Rule written for religious women by a woman. She modeled the ability for the authority or power of a group to be held by the entire group (collegiality).

This year, the Franciscan family throughout the world celebrates the 750th anniversary of Clare's death in August 1253. Her life continues to speak to all of us. She challenges us to incorporate simplicity, singleness of purpose and unity within families and communities into the complexity of our 21st-century lives...

Clare was born in 1193 in Assisi, a small town in the scenic Umbrian Valley of Italy. She was born of nobility, the oldest child of Ortulana and Favarone di Offreduccio.

At the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century, Italy was a cauldron of political and military strife. Society was divided into two groups: the maiores and minores. The maiores were the nobility. The minores were former serfs, who had become merchants, craftsmen and field workers. These two groups were continually fighting for power among themselves.

In her early youth, Clare was exiled to Perugia. While the men in the family were off fighting their wars, the women chose to live as penitents. Ortulana, along with her daughters, as well as other women among Clare's family and friends, were fasting, praying, bringing food to the poor and visiting prisoners.

This time of suffering and exile became a time of spiritual formation. Many of the women living with Clare in Perugia, including her mother and sisters, later became some of Clare's first followers in San Damiano.

In 1205, Clare's family returned to Assisi. Francis had already begun his conversion. He had publicly renounced his father and started rebuilding San Damiano. In 1208, he began preaching. Clare's cousin Rufino became one of his early followers.

Clare's household had to have experienced the stir that Francis was causing. An eyewitness, cited in the Acts of the Process of Canonization [of Clare], said that, during this time, Clare went to hear Francis preach, gave him some money to rebuild churches and to feed the poor, and arranged to talk to him in private.

Clare and Francis were both experiencing God breaking into their lives, changing them and calling them to give themselves over to God. Both were facing unknowns and both were probably frightened and unsure of themselves. It must have been a comforting grace to meet a kindred spirit and to encounter another human being who was experiencing the same call and facing the same doubts.

Clare's sister Beatrice tells us (in the document of the canonization process) that Francis first initiated the visit with Clare. Some speculation suggests that women were asking to join his movement and Francis needed a strong woman to lead the others...

Francis and the brothers received Clare on Palm Sunday night at the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels (the Portiuncula) in the year 1212. Shortly after this, she was taken to San Paolo, a Benedictine monastery in Bastia.

The men in Clare's family were not happy with her following Francis. Their power and wealth were diminishing with the changes in society. Clare was beautiful and they had hoped that her marriage would bring prestige and continued wealth into the family. They followed her to San Paolo with every intention of bringing her home.

Clare instead held on to the altar and claimed sanctuary. She had made her choice. She would never turn back.

Clare's sister Catherine, soon to be called Agnes, joined Clare. The two lived for a while with a group of Beguines (13th-century women under vows) in Sant'Angelo in Panzo until Francis brought them to the church of San Damiano. There, the Lord gave them sisters and their community grew quickly...

Clare's community was to be vastly different from the monastic communities of her time. The sisters were to live poorly without large land holdings. Like Francis, their Rule would be to embrace the gospel form of life. They would all be of equal rank, and all decisions affecting their life would be made by all of them.

They would have an abbess, but she would consider herself "the servant of the sisters" and she would lead more by her example of virtue than by instruction or admonition.

Clare was the perfect follower of Francis. She understood his message and would spend her entire life making it a lived reality. Her life and the lives of the early sisters, however, were not easy ones.

Francis died young. Clare outlived him by 27 years. She remained firm and kept the ideal alive, despite Francis' absence and the dissension among his brothers. The Church would see the poverty of her life as too difficult. She negotiated with popes and worked to get her Rule approved until the day before she died—August 10, 1253...

Clare was a woman of prayer, and her entire life was lived in trust of the God whom she knew loved her. She needed little material wealth because she trusted that God would care for all her physical needs. God never let her down. It takes deep faith to live so, but anyone who has tried to live dependent on God learns quickly the joy of simplicity.

Clutter blocks freedom and blurs perception. Living simply helps one develop an attitude or willingness to be emptied. One quickly learns what is important. Those who live simply learn to live with open hands: to appreciate what is given but to be equally willing to let go, when letting go is what is needed.

Contemplative living was Clare's reason for living simply. One needs to be poor to have the space to meet God. Clare, by her way of life, witnessed to others the one thing necessary and found herself united with all people in sharing her need for and reliance on God...

Clare wrote four letters to Agnes of Prague, the queen of Bohemia, who became a Poor Clare. (Clare's sister Agnes is known as Agnes of Assisi.) In her third letter to Agnes, she writes, "The soul of a faithful person is greater than heaven itself, since the heavens and the rest of creation can not contain the creator and only the faithful soul is God's dwelling place and throne. As the glorious Virgin of Virgins carried Jesus materially, so we too, by following in her footprints, especially those of poverty and humility, can without a doubt, always carry Him spiritually in our chaste and virginal bodies, holding the one by whom all things are held together, possessing that which in comparison with the other transitory possessions of the world, we will possess more securely."

Taking these words to Agnes seriously would change the way people look at themselves and others. The answer lies within. The realization of this "indwelling of God" calls for a respect and an appreciation for who we are. Clare taught her sisters to see themselves as temples of God, mirrors of Christ and revelations of the Holy Spirit. Such servanthood holds none of the unhealthy implications of being either slaves or doormats.

It calls us to mirror the self-emptying compassion we have seen mirrored in Jesus. It is the same Jesus, as we clearly know, who dwells in our neighbor. Our neighbors are also temples of God, mirrors of Christ and revelations of the Spirit. Our God dwells in each of us and each of us uniquely manifests our God.

Like Mary, we are called to birth our God for one another, to bring to life the reality of God's presence.

"One needs to be poor to have the space to meet God." I wish I could explain how those words make my heart sing! There is so much to the life of prayer that is hidden, that belongs behind closed doors, or far away from anyone (Matthew 6.6; Matthew 14.23; Luke 6.12, and so on...) and true poverty is like that. Jesus called it a blessed state (Matthew 5.3; Luke 6.20).

Jesus wasn't talking about the poverty of injustice, the grinding famine that so many in the world are facing today, so much as about being "poor in spirit" (Matthew 5.3). Francis and Clare were like that. Their very real physical poverty, being chosen as it was, was an almost sacramental reflection of their spiritual poverty and purity, that known emptiness, emptied-ness, that is the place of God; and that has its holiest parallel in the virgin womb of our Lady, by which "all generations will call [her] blessed" in that she was empty so that she might bear God.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Gardening, and John chapter 4

We've rather neglected our little back garden this year, what with ill-health and heavy rain. In the front it's mostly lawn, and quite dry, so it's easy to keep on top of; whereas the back garden, sloping quite steeply up to the old chalk bank behind, is damp and fertile, and breeds ivy and bindweed and nettles and all manner of rampant things in the most alarming way.

Now we're taking it back.

Jan, as usual, started it, with great plans which, although they can't come to fruition till the autumn, when we can start seriously moving shrubs without too much risk of damage, need at least the resolution of doing something right away. So we've been extending the top patio, and we've moved the water feature off the patio onto its own slab by the drop down to the lower level, beside the steps, where it looks cool and inviting, the water bubbling up over the (imitation) stone sphere and trickling sweetly down into the (imitation) stone basin. It's starting to look nice again, little by little.

Sorry for such an obvious parallel, but that just is how our spiritual lives get sometimes - neglected, and overgrown with rank, nasty things. The way out, though, is not to despair, to call oneself derisive names, to give up on the whole idea of spiritual formation and return to some more nominal kind of Christianity. The only way out is gently, gradually, not trying to clear the whole mess in an afternoon, but being content with one day at a time.

In one of my favourite chapters, John 4, Jesus doesn't try to change the whole of the Samaritan woman's tangled love-life in the course of a single conversation. In fact, he doesn't overtly try and change her life at all: he merely describes it. And, unlike so many of our churches today, Jesus doesn't demand evidence of "fruit in her life" before he'll allow her to preach the Gospel to her own people. That's right: a woman, a foreigner, and a loose-living one at that, preaching the Gospel just as she was, still stained with the life she'd been leading, not even baptised, preaching the Gospel.

We will get things wrong, we will let our lives get overgrown from time to time, but we must just do what we can, what there is right in front of us to do; and not go beating ourselves up over what we have done and what we have failed to do. Surely we at least owe ourselves the grace Jesus showed to this amazing woman, whose faith so far outstripped her righteousness?

A new look

I decided that the poor old Mercy Blog, just two years old now, was looking a bit tired and cluttered. So here's a fresh face, hopefully a bit easier to read, and rather less stuffy-looking.

Hope you like it...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Dominican Lesson

Sherry W, at Intentional Disciples, has an interesting note on St. Dominic:

When St. Dominic went to Rome, presenting a plan for an Order of Preachers to
the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. At first, this was not possible, as the
council had prohibited the formation of any new religious orders. But Dominic
got around that by choosing the Rule of Augustine for his order, and in 1216 the
official sanction came from Honorius III.

On his trip to seek authorization, he reportedly received a personal tour of
the Vatican's treasures by the pope. "Peter can no longer say, 'Silver and gold
have I none,'" said Innocent III, referring to Acts 3:6.

Dominic, now wholly dedicated to his life of poverty, replied, "No, and
neither can he say, 'Rise and walk.'"

Sherry's note:
But St. Dominic could and did. Among other things, he
raised a boy from the dead in the presence of numerous trustworthy witnesses who
testified to that fact after his death.

I think we need to remember, when sometimes we despair of the church we have been called to live and work in, be it Anglican, Roman Catholic, Lutheran or whatever, that corruption or worldliness is no barrier to individual holiness, nor to what God may do through those individuals he has called aside for his work. Look at what St. Francis accomplished, within what must have seemed a most unpromising and compromised church in his day. A struggling church is no excuse not to work within it, for it, with it... it's no excuse either for not loving it, and all the living stones who form it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

How God sees a drop of water...

Suppose a river or a drop of water, an apple or a sand, an ear of corn or an herb. God knows infinite excellencies in it more than we. He sees how it relates to angels and to men, how it proceeds from the most perfect lover to the most perfectly beloved, how it represents all his attributes. And for this cause it cannot be beloved too much. God the author and God the end is to be beloved in it; angels and men are to be beloved in it; and it is highly to be esteemed for all their sakes. O what a treasure is every sand when truly understood! Who can love anything God made too much? His infinite goodness and wisdom and power and glory are in it. What a world would this be, were every thing beloved as it ought to be!

From Centuries by Thomas Traherne, quoted in Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality by Richard H. Schmidt (Eerdmans, 2002).

This, quoted by Vicki K Black for the Feast of the Transfiguration, is not only a perfect example of why I have loved Thomas Traherne for so long, but is as Franciscan a view of Creation as you're likely to want!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Praying together...

'Private prayer is like straw scattered here and there: If you set it on fire it makes a lot of little flames. But gather these straws into a bundle and light them, and you get a mighty fire, rising like a column into the sky; public prayer is like that.'

St. John Vianney (1786-1859)

This is true, undoubtedly; but the private prayers of someone living an active life within their church - above all, being part of the Eucharistic fellowship - are a different matter... That's more like lots of little packets of explosive connected together with fuses, or 'lead-lines,' like the arrangements demolition contractors use for building implosions. Each one is a separate thing, and by itself its explosion would be insignificant; but link them together, and they can bring down the greatest of strongholds.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Limitations (Barbara Crafton)

The following was lifted whole from a post by Lisa at The Episcopal Majority:


The Limitations of Like Minds
by the Rev. Barbara Cawthorne Crafton

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. (Luke 6:22)

Respect for conscience is the great gift of Anglican life together. You are not me, and you never have to become me. You have your own journey, and it is not mine. Together we serve the God who created us both, and we can do so even if we disagree, and even if our disagreement is about very important things. We do not have to be a community of like-minded people. We can just agree to serve.

A community of like-minded people has no internal method of self-correction and self-examination; the most it can do is monitor conformity to unquestioned norms. The friction of argument and the energy it produces is the potent fuel of ideas, in the human community. All our intellectual progress has been accomplished by questioning assumptions.

If an orthodoxy can bear such scrutiny, it remains as it was. If it cannot, it changes. So it has ever been. A questioning mind is not the devil's work. It is one of the fruits of baptism. We pray for it at the font.

That is why we have married priests, why we have women priests. It is why we have restored the ministry of deacons in the Church. It is why the disabled are not barred from serving in ordained ministry. It is why women who have recently given birth are not considered ritually unclean. It is why Christians need not observe the large and complex corpus of Jewish law. It is why the Church is very different in our century from what it was in the 19th. Or in the 16th. Or the 4th.

This is not a betrayal of principle. It is the way human beings live. We live in history as fish swim in water, and history only moves forward. The realm of God to which we look is without time, but the world in which we now live is bound to history. Eyes open, brain in gear and spirit available for instruction, we move with its current.

Don't try to abandon history, for you cannot, not while you are here. Don't try to stop it. Instead, talk to it. Look at it. Listen to it. The human family has many ways of being in the world, and all are instructive in some way. It is the height of hubris to think that we know all there is to know about God's ways because we understand our own. It cuts God out of our story, and makes it a very local story indeed. A story about us alone.

About the Author: Barbara Cawthorne Crafton is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director and author. She was rector of St. Clement's Church in Manhattan's Theatre district. She was also a chaplain on the waterfront of New York, and served both historic Trinity Church, Wall Street and St. John's Church in Greenwich Village. She was a chaplain at Ground Zero during the recovery effort after the WTC bombing. She writes and gardens at The Geranium Farm.