Thursday, January 31, 2008

Stone Houses

 

Some people live without anything and have everything. The example that always comes to mind for me is in Africa. This little old black African man and I prayed together after a long session. He prayed with such tenderness, saying, "O Lord, help us never to move into stone houses." And everybody echoed, "Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord."
Afterward I asked the missionaries what he had meant. "Well," a priest said, "look at the villages. They're all door-less thatch huts. And so as long as you live a simple life in a thatch hut with no doors, you don't know where your family ends and where the next family begins. You move in and out of one another's lives, and it's all really one family. And there's no possessing, there's no mine and thine; it's ours. It's a world of community." "Once the first stone hut is built in a village," the missionary continued, "very quickly a door and locks are put on it. Immediately the world of mine and thine is created. The entire social worldview, the entire understanding of self, changes but… I'd say you can't see God very well if you spend too much time inside your stone house.

Richard Rohr A Spirituality of Subtraction

Courtesy of CatholicIreland.net

Hat tip to Veritas for this - see comment on my previous post!

Stumbling into grace...

The smallest of events can teach us everything, if we learn Who is doing them with us, through us and for us. But have no doubt: That is the total goal. We want law for the sake of order, obedience and "moral purity"; God and Paul want law for the sake of channeling us toward a realization of divine union, to force the honest person to stumble (see Romans 7:7-13—that's really what it says!), and then "fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrew 10:31). Juridically, law is an end in itself, absolutely good and necessary for social order.

Spiritually, though, law is a means, not an end at all.

Why did Paul come to this so clearly? Because Paul himself was a man of the law. As he tells us in Philippians (3:6-8), he was a perfect Pharisee. "As far as the Law can make you perfect, I was faultless," he says. Yet in the next line he admits that he was a mass-murderer. "How could such perfect religious observance still create hateful and violent men like me?" That was his transformative question, and for him it worked. This still needs to be the question for many religious groups today.

Then what is the law really for? It's not to make God love you. That issue is already solved once and forever, and you are powerless to change it one direction or the other. The purpose of spiritual law is simply to sharpen our awareness about who we are and who God is, so that we can name our own insufficiency and, in that same movement, find God’s fullness.

Richard Rohr, from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality

I remember struggling with that passage in Romans 7 on a train from Durham to London 25 years ago - I was actually sweating as I tried to make sense of it. I wish I'd had a copy of Rohr's book to hand then!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Rose

If you want to feel the aroma of Christianity, you must copy the rose. The rose irresistibly draws people to itself, and the scent remains with them. Even so, the aroma of Christianity is imparted in an even quicker and more imperceptible manner, if possible. (Mahatma Gandhi)

The rose is in fact beautiful. It gives off a lovely fragrance. It doesn't have to prove itself or convert you to its side. It knows it is a rose. It acts as a rose.

If we Christians could accept the value of who we are (members of God’s family through our Baptism), what we possess in our following of Jesus Christ, the love God has for us, then the world would say, "I hear you. Stop shouting." All without our saying a word.

How? By the way we live. How we act towards one another, especially the least appealing; how we stand up for values of all sorts; how we challenge the world’s standards and values; how we worship. Basically, how we talk and act.

Marist Young Adult Ministry, New Zealand
- hat tip to Discombobula for the Gandhi quote which led me to this!

St. Francis is reported as having said, "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words... It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching."

It is by our love for our neighbours, and all our sisters and brothers, that we draw close to Christ; and in drawing close, we draw those around us closer too.

Brother Juniper

St. Francis once described the perfect friar by citing "the patience of Brother Juniper, who attained the state of perfect patience because he kept the truth of his low estate constantly in mind, whose supreme desire was to follow Christ on the way of the cross." St. Francis held Juniper in such high regard he once said, "Would to God, my brothers, I had a whole forest of such Junipers."

From the Wikipedia entry on Juniper

Identity transplant...

All of the Bible is trying to illustrate through various stories humanity’s objective unity with God.

What the biblical revelation is achieving is basically a very different consciousness, a recreated self, an "identity transplant" - just as today we talk about kidney and heart transplants. The text is inviting us slowly, little by little, into a very, very different sense of who we are.

We are not our own! Or as I tell the men at the initiation rites, "Your life is not about you." We move from the lesser self to the Great Self.

Saint Paul knew this well. He says, "I live now not my own life, but the life of Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). In the spiritual journey you come to the day where you know you’re not just living your own life. You realize that Someone Else is living in you and through you, that you are part of a much Bigger Mystery. You realize that you're a mere drop in a Bigger Ocean, and what's happening in the ocean is happening in you.

There is only one thing you must definitely know: "Who am I?" Or, restated, "Where do I abide?" If you can get that right, the rest largely takes care of itself. Paul answers it directly: "You are hidden with Christ in God, and he is your life" (Colossians 3:3-4).

Richard Rohr, from Things Hidden

I have to confess I think the NRSV translation of these two verses from Colossians (3.3-4) nails it for me. Quoting them in full: "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."

Monday, January 28, 2008

God is not squeamish...

This marvelous anthology of books and letters called the Bible is all for the sake of astonishment! It's for divine transformation (theosis), not intellectual or "small self" coziness.

The genius of the biblical revelation is that we will come to God through what I’m going to call the "actual," the here and now, or quite simply what is.

God is always given, incarnate in every moment and present to those who know how to be present themselves.

Let's state it clearly: One great idea of the biblical revelation is that God is manifest in the ordinary, in the actual, in the daily, in the now, in the concrete incarnations of life. That's opposed to God holding out for the pure, the spiritual, the right idea or the ideal anything. This is why Jesus stands religion on its head!

That is why I say it is our experiences that transform us if we are willing to experience our experiences all the way through.

"God comes disguised as our Life" (a wonderful line I learned from my dear friend and colleague, Paul D'Arcy).

Richard Rohr, from Things Hidden

God is not squeamish. We may be, but "God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature ... He likes matter. He invented it." (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity) He also invented emotions, reason, intuition, and all the other wonderful bits and pieces that go to make up being human - not to mention all the marvelous components, mental, physical and spiritual, of being feline, bovine, canine, helminthic, arborescent, or just plain mineral. He's seriously into stuff - he created the lot, and he saw that it was good. The fact that much of it got screwed up somewhere down the line doesn't alter the way he feels about it - us - all, and to prove that, the wonderful intricacy that is Trinity somehow in some unimaginable way slotted deity into the wonderful intricacy of human sexual reproduction, and was born of a Virgin. A real, warm, human, flesh and blood Virgin, whose love and perfect trust opened the door to God in her own body, and he was born as man. It was as man that he lived, taught, loved, healed and died, and it was as man that he was raised, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. (That is the point of that extraordinary jetpack scene in Acts 1.) Christ reigns, and will reign in glory, but he hasn't disincarnated in order to do that.

CS Lewis again: "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship..." (The Weight of Glory)

Never ever let us loathe what we have been made - we are the flesh and blood of Adam, whom God saw to be very good. Christ lives in us. We have been created a little lower than the angels.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Hidden Things...

I would love to make you love Scripture, and go there for yourself, to find both your own inner experience named, and some outer validation of the same.

Only when the two come together, inner and outer authority, do we have true spiritual wisdom. We have for too long insisted on outer authority alone, without any teaching of prayer, inner journey and maturing consciousness. The results for the world and for religion have been disastrous.

I am increasingly convinced that the word prayer, which has become a functional and pious thing for believers to do, is, in fact a descriptor for inner experience. That is why all spiritual teachers mandate prayer so much. They are saying, "Go inside and know for yourself!"

I offer these reflections to again unite what should never have been separated: Sacred Scripture and Christian spirituality.

Richard Rohr, from Things Hidden

We need to keep these words in mind, I think, when challenges arise from either side of this wonderful unity - both from those who from the evangelical side fear the contemplative way, and from those who from the other seem to say that there is no practical difference between one religion and another when it comes to the interior way. Contemplative prayer is Christian prayer, and it can only be so if it is deeply rooted both in Scripture and in community.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Sin and Grace

Sin and grace are related. In a certain sense the only way we really understand salvation, grace, and freedom, is by understanding their opposites. That's why the great saints are, invariably, converted sinners.

When you finally have to eat and taste your own hard-heartedness, your own emptiness, selfishness and all the rest, then you open up to grace. That is the pattern in all our lives. That's why it was such a grace in my hermitage year when I was able, at last - even as a male and a German - to weep over my sins and to feel tremendous sadness at my own silliness and stupidity.

I think all of us have to confront ourselves as poor people in that way. And that's why many of our greatest moments of grace follow upon, sometimes, our greatest sins. We are hard-hearted and closed-minded for years, then comes the moment of vulnerability and mercy. We break down and break through.

Richard Rohr, from Letting Go: A Spirituality of Subtraction (CD)

It's interesting that Rohr mentions finding this grace of penitence - for that's what it surely is - in his hermitage year. This connects so clearly with the experience of Peter Owen-Jones in his borrowed desert cave, and with what Henri Nouwen calls "the garden for our hearts."

I know that for myself, Rohr's words ring so clear and true when he speaks of confronting our own poverty in solitude. "Blessed are the poor in spirit," said Jesus in the Beatitudes, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." And this is paradox: I know of few less heavenly things than looking at my own sinfulness; yet there is truly heaven in being exactly who I am before God. The Jesus Prayer is, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." And he does!

Sometimes I think that if we are called to this way of prayer and penitence there is no greater gift than solitude, and no work more important for us to learn than to find solitude in our own lives, among those we find ourselves in community with. For some of us, this may mean, as it did for Brother Ramon, or for Father Lazarus, who guided Peter Owen-Jones, seeking the love and support of our community to live the hermit life in geographical isolation. For others - and this lies at the heart of the Franciscan Third Order charism as most people seem to receive it - it means carving out times of solitude within the life of marriage, work, and day-to-day service in our own parishes. But one way or another, we must find that well-watered garden of solitude, or we will dry up and blow away on the world's winds.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sin and Mercy

We don't think ourselves into a new way of living; we live ourselves into a new way of thinking. The journeys around the edges of sin lead us to long for a deeper life at the center of ourselves.

Ruthless ambition can lead one to the very failure and emptiness that is the point of conversion. Is the ambition, therefore, good or is it evil? Do we really have to sin to know salvation? Call me a "sin mystic," but that is exactly what I see happening in all my pastoral experience: Darkness leads us to light.

That does not mean that we should set out intentionally to sin. We only see the pattern after the fact. Blessed Julian of Norwich put it perfectly: "Commonly, first we fall and later we see it - and both are the Mercy of God." How did we ever lose that? It got hidden away in that least celebrated but absolutely central Easter Vigil service when the deacon sings to the Church about a felix culpa, the happy fault that precedes and necessitates the eternal Christ. Like all great mysteries of faith, it is hidden except to those who keep vigil and listen.

Richard Rohr from Radical Grace, "Center and Circumference"

It's easy to see why the wonderful truth of this should have led to misunderstandings among Christians right from the earliest years of the church. Paul said:

If, because of the one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification* leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

(Romans 5.17-6.4)

The mercy of God is far beyond anything we could anticipate or imagine, and his compassion is over all that he has made. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1.8-9)

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner... and have mercy on all my sisters and brothers, human and otherwise - those whom I know and love, and those of whom I've never even heard, but whom, in you, I love as well.

Solitude always strengthens community...

Solitude greeting solitude, that's what community is all about. Community is not the place where we are no longer alone but the place where we respect, protect, and reverently greet one another's aloneness. When we allow our aloneness to lead us into solitude, our solitude will enable us to rejoice in the solitude of others. Our solitude roots us in our own hearts. Instead of making us yearn for company that will offer us immediate satisfaction, solitude makes us claim our center and empowers us to call others to claim theirs. Our various solitudes are like strong, straight pillars that hold up the roof of our communal house. Thus, solitude always strengthens community.

(With thanks to the Henri Nouwen Society)

There are some who are suspicious of the call to the solitary life. I believe a few religious communities still suffer from this blind spot, and certainly many socially-minded evangelicals are very nervous of the idea. I think what is at stake very often is a fear that solitaries are solipsistic, inward-looking self-improvers, with little real care for God's people, or for those who have not yet found him. They are seen as hiding themselves away, not caring for society and its struggles, or for the dominical mandate to "make disciples of all nations..." (Matthew 28.19)

Nouwen's words provide the antidote to this way of thinking: "Solitude always strengthens community." In their life of prayer, in their preparedness to give themselves, and their hopes, ambitions and desires, up to the Lord for the sake of their sisters and brothers, for the sake of all creation, solitaries bless community, church, the world and all its creatures with their life of prayer.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Facing the enemy

Conversion, the movement toward the Lord, is a process of disenchantment with the ego, recognizing how truly afraid and poor it is. The only way people can ever be freed from their fears is to be freed from themselves. There is almost a complete correlation between the amount of fear in our lives and the amount of attachment we have to ourselves. The person who is beyond fear has given up the need to control or possess. That one says, I am who I am in God's eyes - nothing more, nothing less. I don't need to impress you because I am who I am, and not who you think I am - or who I think I am.

That's what the Pauline theology of Baptism is saying: You have died, you're dead (Romans 6:3-5). In Christ you don't need the false self. You have faced the enemy once and for all and, guess what? It's you!

Richard Rohr, from Letting Go: A Spirituality of Subtraction

There is in solitude a kind of death, too. Our "attachment to ourselves" isn't usually so much that, as an attachment to our reflection in the eyes of others. We need to experience approval, affection, being needed. Even being feared or hated is better than nothing, as we see tragically in the lives of violent people.

And yet solitude is nothing. There is no reflection. No approval, no acceptance, from others or from ourselves. There is only God, and to begin with, he isn't playing. God will not give us what we want, what we are so sure we need. That would only distract us from what he does have to give us, which is the gift of ourselves as we truly are. Only when we have faced that face in the mirror, those shocking and naked needs that are so much of us, those entirely real demons that lurk unnoticed at our shoulders as we go about our daily lives, will we be in any fit state to meet God.

In the BBC2 mini-series 'Extreme Pilgrim' which I wrote about the other day, Father Lazarus is speaking to Peter Owen-Jones, the Anglican priest who is the eponymous pilgrim, before his solitary retreat in the mountain cave; he asks, "I hope you don't mind, but it is necessary to ask this: how conscious are you of your sin?" Peter replies, "Very!" Lazarus: "Good! Only so will you have any benefit from three weeks on the mountain."

God can do nothing with us till we see ourselves as we actually are; only then can we receive the mercy that is Christ.

Necessary solitude

Solitude is the garden for our hearts, which yearn for love. It is the place where our aloneness can bear fruit. It is the home for our restless bodies and anxious minds. Solitude, whether it is connected with a physical space or not, is essential for our spiritual lives. It is not an easy place to be, since we are so insecure and fearful that we are easily distracted by whatever promises immediate satisfaction. Solitude is not immediately satisfying, because in solitude we meet our demons, our addictions, our feelings of lust and anger, and our immense need for recognition and approval. But if we do not run away, we will meet there also the One who says, "Do not be afraid. I am with you, and I will guide you through the valley of darkness."
Let's keep returning to our solitude.
(With thanks to the Henri Nouwen Society)

This follows on from what I wrote in the last post about the rigours of solitude. We desperately need solitude, even those of us who are not called, temporarily or permanently, to the solitary life. And yet, as Nouwen says - with masterly understatement - "It is not an easy place to be..."

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven..." (Matthew 5.3) And what is solitude, except a way to make our poverty of spirit real to us, to remove the distractions of immediate satisfaction, the solace of company and smalltalk, the refuges which we have established during a lifetime? Even Jesus, close as he was to his Father, conscious as he was of the immense need of the people he walked among, frequently "withdrew... to a deserted place by himself... to pray." (Matthew 14.13,23)

God grant us holy cunning in searching out solitude, and an honest hunger for the desert places of God.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

"Where prayer has been valid..."

Last night I watched the final part of the BBC2 mini-series 'Extreme Pilgrim', where Peter Owen-Jones visits the Monastery of St. Anthony, in the Egyptian Desert, and spends three weeks alone in a mountain cave, under the watchful eye of Father Lazarus, who lives as a hermit on the mountain above the monastery.

Peter, an Anglican priest, says in the introduction to the programme that he feels sometimes as if, as a Church of England vicar, he is more a civil servant than a servant of Christ. Part of the reason for his pilgrimage is to discover if he truly can serve his parish as a servant of Christ, or if his role is compromised beyond recall.

It is fascinating enough to watch Father Peter as he grapples with these matters, and with the intense isolation of his borrowed cave cell, and comes in the end face to face with the living God. The programme was very well-made, and the usual pretence of soliloquy before an all-too-obviously present cameraman was replaced by Peter's being given a video camera to record his thoughts, sometimes with lip-biting honesty.

The person who caught my attention, though, was Father Lazarus, a man of great humour and erudition, and a gentle but immense spiritual presence. What he must have been like to meet in person I can only imagine - on TV he was unforgettable! He spoke at some length to Peter about what he would have to face, alone on the mountain, and how the enemy would try everything to drive him away, or failing that, to render him incapable of prayer and self-recollection. It was on prayer that Father Lazarus spoke most tellingly. He explained to Peter that, when one prays "beyond lists and intentions," repeating the Jesus Prayer, or the Kyrie, alone in the silence, one is praying as a representative of the whole human race; coming into the very presence of God with, in a sense, all of humanity hard-coded into the very cells of one's being. Our prayer then is for Christ's mercy on all of humanity, all of creation really; we are literally interceding, standing between God and all that he has made, out there on the bare mountain.

I have rarely if ever been so moved by a television programme. It was wonderful to watch Peter come from fear, through doubt and torment, into joy and peace, to see the deep affection between him and Lazarus, even though they had not spoken since that initial interview, and to witness his glad acceptance of all that God had called him into, leaving for home sure now of his vocation to his own parish. It was, for me, perhaps almost more wonderful to know that all I have felt so deeply about prayer for so many years is being lived out, had, as I suspected, been being lived out in exactly that form since St. Anthony's time, at the very beginnings of monasticism itself, by the Desert Fathers and Mothers and their successors. Father Lazarus' words resonated with all that I feel most deeply, and his advice to Peter I heard somehow as if it were addressed to me, in the little desert of my own rule. I don't know that I shall ever see it in the same way again.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

On not knowing much at all...

As long as we think that we alone have to save the world, we become arrogant in our methods, impatient in our attitudes and quick in our solutions. We instead must seek the patience and peace of God. The man and woman of God are content simply to lay down their lives for some little bit of unity. Wherever you are, let God create unity. I believe that's what God's doing on earth. I know one sister who sees her primary call as bestowing "benevolent smiles" on everybody she meets. What a threat she must be to disunity!

If Jesus is to be risen among us, we must each individually and in groups together surrender to a love and mystery that is greater than our hearts. We must humbly admit that we really don't know much at all. We have few right answers, it seems to me, and even fewer conclusions. All we can be is what Jesus was: present and enfleshed. In the end it seems to me there's only one gospel: Jesus incarnate, Jesus crucified, Jesus resurrected. Solidarity in suffering and in ecstasy is God's gift to the world.

To be in the Church is to be willing to be part of the rhythm and create little bits of unity wherever we can.

Richard Rohr, from The Spiritual Family and the Natural Family

A correspondent challenged me recently that she didn't find enough of (presumably my own personal encounter with) Jesus in my blog. What she wrote made me think. Now I know that I am a terrible one for books, and for their electronic equivalent, and much of my blog is taken up with quotes and snippets and links from and to other people's work. Of course in one sense that's what this blog was always supposed to be: "An online diary, notepad and general scrapbook," as it says in the blog header.

Sometimes I look at the raw honesty of some other bloggers, and think, why aren't I like that? Well, I can only be me, perhaps; and anyway the things I quote from other people I (usually!) quote because they've moved me, because I've seen Christ through the words of someone else, or encountered his hand print in what they write of their own life.

I will think and pray about this, though. I am aware of the danger of a blog's turning into nothing more than some kind of a palimpsest, or a noticeboard with torn pages pinned up. Perhaps there should be more of Jesus in these posts; and yet, being only human, and a fallen human at that, I can only show him - if at all - reflected in my own eyes. And I am at least as aware of the danger of a blog's turning into gallery of self-portraits, a running autobiography of the most self-regarding kind. And even if I am trying to look away from myself, and to look always towards our Lord, there is always the risk of an autobiography turning into an auto-hagiography; and there lies the deepest pitfall of the lot, spiritual pride.

I love to look at, and wonder at, what the Lord has done and is doing in the dear lives of my own sisters and brothers, whether those who are sitting at their PCs or their Macs this very evening, or those whose bones were left in the dust of the Egyptian Desert 1,700 years ago. I find them far more interesting than myself, and I don't think I shall be able to resist showing you Jesus through their words altogether. But I shall listen to my correspondent, who knows rather more than a bit about this life of faith we are all trying to live, and I shall try to share a little more about what happens to me as I try to live, as Father Richard says in the quote above, present to the suffering and ecstasy of the world I find myself in.

A word for us bloggers...?

The stuff Jesus warned us to beware of, the yeast of the Pharisees, is so infectious today in the camps of both liberals and conservatives. Conservatives stand up and thank God that they're not like the homosexuals, the Muslims, the liberals. Liberals stand up and thank God that they are not like the war makers, the yuppies, the conservatives. It is a similar self-righteousness just with different definitions of evildoing. It can paralyze us in judgment and guilt and rob us of life.

Shane Claiborne, Irresistible Revolution, Zondervan 2006 - quoted by Rowland Croucher

Stability of Life

Our glory and our hope - We are the Body of Christ. Christ loves us and espouses us as His own flesh. Isn't that enough for us? But we do not really believe it. No! Be content, be content. We are the Body of Christ. We have found Him, He has found us. We are in Him, He is in us. There is nothing further to look for except for the deepening of this life we already possess. Be content.

Thomas Merton. A Search for Solitude. Edited by Lawrence S. Cunningham (Harper San Francisco, 1996) p. 70

I know there are some who would say that Merton would have done better had he followed his own advice! Be that as it may, it is good advice, and necessary, for living the contemplative life on any level. There are few things so destructive of prayer as discontent and restlessness. The Benedictine concept of "stability of life" has always moved me, even when - not living in community - I have not been able always to follow it for myself.

St. Anthony of Egypt (251-356)

The life of Anthony will remind many people of St. Francis of Assisi. At 20, Anthony was so moved by the Gospel message, "Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor" (Mark 10:21b), that he actually did just that with his large inheritance. He is different from Francis in that most of Anthony's life was spent in solitude. He saw the world completely covered with snares, and gave the Church and the world the witness of solitary asceticism, great personal mortification and prayer. But no saint is antisocial, and Anthony drew many people to himself for spiritual healing and guidance.

At 54, he responded to many requests and founded a sort of monastery of scattered cells. Again like Francis, he had great fear of "stately buildings and well-laden tables."

At 60, he hoped to be a martyr in the renewed Roman persecution of 311, fearlessly exposing himself to danger while giving moral and material support to those in prison. At 88, he was fighting the Arian heresy, that massive trauma from which it took the Church centuries to recover. "The mule kicking over the altar" denied the divinity of Christ.

Anthony is associated in art with a T-shaped cross, a pig and a book. The pig and the cross are symbols of his valiant warfare with the devil - the cross his constant means of power over evil spirits, the pig a symbol of the devil himself. The book recalls his preference for "the book of nature" over the printed word. Anthony died in solitude at 105.

In an age that smiles at the notion of devils and angels, a person known for having power over evil spirits must at least make us pause. And in a day when people speak of life as a "rat race," one who devotes a whole life to solitude and prayer points to an essential of the Christian life in all ages. Anthony's hermit life reminds us of the absoluteness of our break with sin and the totality of our commitment to Christ. Even in God's good world, there is another world whose false values constantly tempt us.

With thanks to Saint of the Day.

I find the parallels with St. Francis fascinating - I hadn't noticed before just how close they were...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Desert Hospitality

The desert fathers withdrew from ordinary society and sought the solitude of the desert. This was the first step in their 'spirituality'. Then they placed themselves under spiritual fathers. After that, the daily life was their prayer, and it was a radically simple life: a stone hut with a roof of branches, a reed mat for a bed, a sheep-skin, a lamp, a vessel for water or oil. It was enough.

The aim of the monks' lives was not asceticism, but God, and the way to God was charity. The gentle charity of the desert was the pivot of all their work and the test of their way of life. Charity was to be total and complete. Antony the Great said, 'My life is with my brother', and he himself returned to the city twice, once to relieve those dying of plague, and once to defend the faith against heresy. The old men of the desert received guests as Christ would receive them. They might live austerely themselves, but when visitors came they hid their austerity and welcomed them. A brother said, 'Forgive me, father, for I have made you break your rule', but the old man said, 'My rule is to receive you with hospitality and send you on your way in peace.'

From The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers by Sister Benedicta Ward SLG (SLG Press, 1975).

Thanks to Vicki K Black for this lovely quote!

The mercy that covers the earth...

SaltSister has a wonderful post, The Life of a Dreamer, which I'd really encourage you to go over and read for yourself. The last two paragraphs just choked me up completely, and I'll quote them here. You will only see the true ground of experience in which they are rooted, though, if you read the whole thing.

It is said that God's children sometimes hear the cries of souls outside their houses. It is true, but only because He has heard them first and lent us His ears that we may understand. The blind eyes and the deaf ears of the inner man are opened. Some look to the physical manifestation of healing as the ultimate proof of the power of God. If the concrete world is a temporal reality, then it must be far more difficult to commit fakery in the permanent unseen world. For the millisecond that our spirit is loosed to behold Him, our righteous indignation sloughs off and we are left in fellowship with His broken heart. We see the mercy that covers the earth because of His work of redemption, yet not all have received the grace to reach out for that mercy. How is it that all have a measure of faith, yet not all seek or ask or knock?

Outward evidence suggests that life continues as it always has. Nothing changes, but in a flash when the eyes close, there He is again - always encouraging, always strengthening us in our afflictions. His worth is incomparable like precious stones that are seldom seen. In our affliction and weakness - not our strength - we overcome all things in Him.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Loving the Church

Nothing in this world is an end in itself, including Church, pastors, priests, bishops, popes, laws, Bible - nothing! Only God is an end; everything else is a means. Only God can save us, not the Church.

I say that out of a great love for the Church. God saves, and the Church is that beautiful gift given by God to preach that word which will set us free. But when we preach "Church" and raise up "Church," we are not necessarily proclaiming the Lord. We often are preaching ourselves. Jesus never preached Israel, he preached Yahweh. He preached the absolute transcendence of Yahweh and fidelity and obedience to Yahweh.

At the same time Jesus never put Israel down. He loved Israel. Insofar as Israel was true to the covenant and true to the prophets, Jesus was obedient to Israel, obedient to the priests, obedient to "the Church." But he wasn't afraid to keep knocking on the door. He kept inviting Israel to be true to itself. Jesus taught us to love the unlovely, exactly as it was.

If we simply love that which is worthy of love, we will never love at all. The Lord loved "the Church," Israel, exactly as it was. You cannot love the Church as it was fifty years ago. That's a cop-out. The only Church you must love is the Church today.

Richard Rohr, from The Great Themes of Scripture, New Testament

This seems to be a necessary antiseptic for us all in these troubled times!

Mercy according to Cynthia Bourgeault

A wonderful post from Jan at Yearning for God:

"Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other,"(Psalm 85:10).
"So when we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional--always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being. Just like that little fish swimming desperately in search of water, we too--in the words of Psalm 103--'swim in mercy as in an endless sea.' Mercy is God's innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love." (25)
Cynthia Bourgeault Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God (Cloister Books)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

"Beloved!"

Many voices ask for our attention. There is a voice that says, "Prove that you are a good person." Another voice says, "You'd better be ashamed of yourself." There also is a voice that says, "Nobody really cares about you," and one that says, "Be sure to become successful, popular, and powerful." But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still, small voice that says, "You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you." That's the voice we need most of all to hear. To hear that voice, however, requires special effort; it requires solitude, silence, and a strong determination to listen.

That's what prayer is. It is listening to the voice that calls us "my Beloved."

(With thanks to the Henri Nouwen Society)

And this is what much of prayer is about; even when that prayer is for another, or for the world, it is to that voice calling, "Beloved," that we dare to pour out all that is on our hearts - the grief, fear, wonder, joy, doubt - in the certain knowledge that we will never, ever go unheard.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Remembering...

And this, too, is surely part of the work of penitence:

To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives-the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections-that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for.

Let's not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.

(With thanks to the Henri Nouwen Society)

Just as humility is the work of becoming aware of who we are, so penitence surely is becoming aware of our condition as sinners - part, inextricably, of a fallen Creation - yet capable of doing and experiencing good and wonder as well as evil and despair. The openness to the awareness of both conditions, in our lives as well as in the existence in which we find ourselves, that "hard spiritual work," is penitence - or at least it is when it is lived consciously in the presence of God, in his and for him: that self-emptying that is Christ's death alive in us. (Philippians 2.2-12; Colossians 3.3-4; The Principles of the Third Order (Day 30))

An Order of Penitents?

Yesterday I posted a quote from Henri Nouwen, on the dangers of what he calls "self-rejection." I think God must be in this, because just today I read a wonderful homily from A Minor Friar, in which he says:

The Lord meets us in the suffering we bring upon ourselves and our world with our sins. That's the message of having himself baptized for repentance. It's not Jesus who is a sinner, but me. And that's where the humanity of Christ meets my humanity in this baptism.

You know, sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking we aren't good enough for God, that God couldn't want us because we are so messed up and attached to our sins. But the message of today is that the truth is the opposite. It is precisely in our condition as sinners in need of healing and repentance that God comes to meet us. It is exactly in that state of noticing how depressed and miserable we make ourselves with our sins, that God comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Think of what we say right before receiving Holy Communion. Echoing the centurion from Matthew’s gospel we say, "Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed." That's where God meets us. And this healing word that we beg for before accepting Communion has been spoken! It is the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. He is the Word God speaks to the world, and this Word is God saying, "I am coming to meet where you are, in your vulnerability, in your depression, in your anxiety. And by coming down and joining my divine Life to your humanity, I will heal you of your sins and your hurt."

At our local Franciscan Third Order meeting today we touched on this kind of thing, too (this was before I had read Br. Charles' homily), and I thought, not for nothing were we first called the Order of Penitents of St Francis!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Listen!

One of the greatest dangers in the spiritual life is self-rejection. When we say, "If people really knew me, they wouldn't love me," we choose the road toward darkness. Often we are made to believe that self-deprecation is a virtue, called humility. But humility is in reality the opposite of self-deprecation. It is the grateful recognition that we are precious in God's eyes and that all we are is pure gift. To grow beyond self-rejection we must have the courage to listen to the voice calling us God's beloved sons and daughters, and the determination always to live our lives according to this truth.

(With thanks to the Henri Nouwen Society)

Don't we so often need to hear this? I think sometimes the fact that people who are drawn to the contemplative side of the spiritual life tend to be introspective (INFP, if you will allow Myers Briggs typology), quiet sorts of people makes us more prone to this kind of corrosive internal negativity. Let us be grateful instead - God made us a bit weird, so let's listen to his call to happily accept, even celebrate, the way we are!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Tommy - the pictures!

S2020009    S2020011    S2020012

          Tommy                                Proud Granddad                         Proud Grandma

Carly's not feeling up to portraiture yet - when she and Andy have recovered somewhat, I'll put that right!

I'm a Granddad!

Tommy Michael Rees Houlden - 8lbs 4ozs - his mother's eyes and his father's nose!

Mother and baby are just fine - now I just have to wait for poor tired Grandma to get home...

God is good. God is very good.

Amen.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Psalm 119 and all that...

Often we want to be able to see into the future. We say, "How will next year be for me? Where will I be five or ten years from now?" There are no answers to these questions. Mostly we have just enough light to see the next step: what we have to do in the coming hour or the following day. The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go. Let's rejoice in the little light we carry and not ask for the great beam that would take all shadows away.

(With thanks to the Henri Nouwen Society)

Following on from yesterday's thoughts about Psalm 119, here's an impossibly apposite quote from Henri Nouwen!

No news from the hospital this morning - late last night all was serene; they were going to look at Carly and baby again in the morning.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Mystery and mystery...

"Come, Lord Jesus." The Christian Bible ends with this great invitation for Jesus to be with us, the acknowledgment that what is coming is not fully here (Revelation 22:17). "Come, Lord Jesus" means that all of Christian history has to live out of a kind of chosen non-fulfillment.

Yet we demand that our anxiety be taken away. We say, Why didn't you do that for me? We tend to get disappointed because reality does not fulfill our expectations - or, more likely, somebody doesn't: our spouse, our children, our community. We're refusing to say, "Come, Lord Jesus."

So we refuse to live with openness, with freedom, with surrender. We demand of ourselves, and one another, what the Word of God told us not to demand and not even to expect.

To demand total life now is not to live in hope or faith. The only life promised to us in this world is the "mystery of faith" - which is life and death all mixed together, the paschal mystery: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will always come again.

from Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr


This I need to hear... I am one of the worst people for wanting God to give me an Ordnance Survey map, when all he has promised is to let his Word be a lamp to my feet and a light for my path (Psalm 119.105)

I need all the openness and preparedness to trust I can get this evening. Jan and Andy have gone in to the hospital with Carly - our first grandchild is on the way! If things aren't moving fast enough, they'll begin inducing her later this evening.

New life is such a mystery - and the process of getting there is scary...

Prayers please, for the little one, for Carly, for Andy, for Jan, and for me - especially as I'm the one sitting here with the phone and the email, waiting!

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Waiting

Life is painful
because of the ones who have died.

Joy is painful
because of the ones who are crying.

Love is painful
because of the ones who hate.

And while I am loving, laughing and crying,
I am waiting for you, my Lord.

                                              Julia Esquivel

 

(With many thanks to Jane Redmont for introducing me to this wonderful Guatemalan poet...)

Friday, January 04, 2008

Mercy and the Bottom Line

I know I seem to be quoting a lot from Richard Rohr lately, but this is so striking that I couldn't help but post it here. What Rohr says about American individualists might not have been so true when I was a boy, and the old social order still had some importance in English people's thinking, but increasingly it is now true of this country...

Jesus used the image of the Kingdom; Paul, the image of the body of Christ; John, the vine and the branches. But it's all the same sense of mystical union: that, first, we are one; secondly, we became separate.

I don't suppose that most of us can think that way. I want to think that way, and I try to let the Lord convert me, but I'm still an American individualist. I wish I were not. Such an exaggerated sense of the private self breeds competition: your good becomes a threat to my good.

Do you know what the Greeks called a private person? They called someone who had no sense of the common good an idiot. The original meaning of idiot is one who simply thinks of himself and has no sense of the city-state.

Paul said the Spirit is given "for the sake of the common good" (1 Corinthians 12:7). We cannot make any claim to being people of the Spirit if we do not have that profound commitment to the common good first.

from Why Be Catholic?

"Your good becomes a threat to my good." What more startling indictment of the philosophy of the free market, that has now so deeply infected the UK Labour Party, under the name of New Labour, and which has caused such deep damage to that immense monument to mercy, the National Health Service? Back in 1948 - the year I was born - the (old!) Labour Health Minister Aneurin Bevan unveiled the NHS and stated, "We now have the moral leadership of the world." We long ago lost that leadership, and lost the dream that went with it, of a just and open society where ethics and consensus would always triumph over greed, profit and expediency.

The capitalist romantics are idiots, and their dreams of free-market forces and private-sector efficiencies reforming public health and education have surely by now been shown to be the fantasies of idiots. Even on their own terms, healthcare in say the United States is vastly more expensive, and fails to deliver better, if as good, health care as the NHS, and the "lower" sector of poorly-paid, disabled and unemployed people have far worse health than the equivalent people in the UK. (See Wikipedia here, and here.)

We need as Christians to be looking, surely, at the moral results of political and economic decisions, not at the theories claimed to underpin them. I am nothing like an old-fashioned post-war Socialist, but I look at the results of their policies, and I see Christ's mercy reflected more clearly than I do in the shiny black paintwork of any corporate limousine.

Pray without ceasing...

"We must pray literally without ceasing - without ceasing - in every occurrence and employment of our lives... that prayer of the heart which is independent of place or situation, or which is rather a habit of lifting up the heart to God as in a constant communication with Him." St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

The Fruits of Prayer

There is a great difference between successfulness and fruitfulness. Success comes from strength, control, and respectability. A successful person has the energy to create something, to keep control over its development, and to make it available in large quantities. Success brings many rewards and often fame. Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability. And fruits are unique. A child is the fruit conceived in vulnerability, community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows through touching one another's wounds. Let's remind one another that what brings us true joy is not successfulness but fruitfulness.

(With thanks to the Henri Nouwen Society)

I think there is a degree sometimes of confusion in our minds about prayer and success. I have noticed this particularly clearly in some evangelical/charismatic churches and prayer groups ("taking the land for Jesus," "claiming the victory of Christ over..." etc.) but we are all vulnerable to this kind of thinking if we are not sufficiently self-aware.

The pattern is that we identify a need for prayer, formulate (liturgically or on-the-fly) a prayer for that need to be met - implicitly or explicitly, we also formulate the terms in which we will recognise that it has been met - and we then evaluate the "success" or otherwise of the prayer in terms of whether these terms have been fulfilled. Whether we have been praying for healing for a minor ailment, or for the evangelisation of a sub-continent, the pattern is broadly similar.

Prayer though, it seems to me, is above all about fruits rather than success, to use Nouwen's definition. Prayer is vulnerability to God, not the aggressive claiming of our rights. To use Nouwen's example, a child is to be conceived in the act of making love, not in an act of marital rape.

Prayer is sharing our brokenness with God and, if praying with another or in a group, with each other. Prayer is an act of appalling intimacy, not a demonstration of expertise or of bravado.

The joy of prayer is in growing closer to God through sharing his love, his desires, his longings for holiness, justice, mercy. It is not to be found in any imagined bending of God's will to our own.

As Paul said, we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us "with sighs too deep for words." (Romans 8.26) We truly must not imagine we know how to pray, or what to pray for, specifically. It seems to me that this is a dangerous second-guessing of God's will, a superimposition of our own agenda, or at least our own interpretation of God's agenda, upon what he actually wills, or desires, for us or for any situation.

When Jesus said, "Ask, and it will be given to you" (Matthew 7.7)  I have found I have to read this in the context of Matthew 22.37-39, where Jesus affirms the two greatest commandments as love for God and love for our neighbour, and in the context of the prayers of Bartimaeus (Mark 10.46ff) and the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15.22) and all those similar prayers to Jesus in the Gospels. The cry for love, and for mercy, will never go unanswered; and if God does want us to clarify to ourselves what it is we are really longing for, he can always say then, as Jesus did to Bartimaeus, "What do you want me to do for you?"

This is a hard lesson, only learnt in pain and failure. But it holds the potential for such joy, and the real bearing of fruit.

Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word...

It was good for me to be afflicted
so that I might learn your decrees.

                     (Psalm 119.67, 71 NIV)

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Holy Name...

IHS

Devotion to the holy Name of Jesus was particularly encouraged by Sts. Bernard of Clairvaux, Bernadine of Siena and John Capistran, but the principle goes back much earlier. Paul in Philippians 2.9-11 wrote,

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

and Fr. Steven Peter Tsichlis writes:

The Jesus Prayer is rooted in the Name of the Lord. In the Scriptures, the power and glory of God are present in his Name. In the Old Testament to deliberately and attentively invoke God's Name was to place oneself in his Presence. Jesus, whose name in Hebrew means God saves, is the living Word addressed to humanity. Jesus is the final Name of God. Jesus is "the Name which is above all other names" and it is written that "all beings should bend the knee at the Name of Jesus" (Phil. 2:9-10). In this Name devils are cast out (Luke 10:17), prayers are answered (John 14:13 14) and the lame are healed (Acts 3:6-7). The Name of Jesus is unbridled spiritual power.

The Jesus Prayer of course dates back at least to the 4th or 5th century AD, where it arose in the Egyptian desert among the people we now know as the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

Today we celebrate the naming of Jesus with the Name which was given to his mother Mary by the angel Gabriel. Truly this is the Name above all names - let us worship him in whose Name we are saved!

And the greatest of these...

In her latest Almost Daily eMo, Barbara Crafton says:

Late afternoon, and the sun is still out. But it will be cold tonight, they say, and I am feeling the need of something against the encroachment of the dark. So I tuck another couple of sticks into the fire, down under the bigger logs where it will do some good, and soon I have a merry blaze. Then I make a nice pot of tea and settle myself on the couch. Let the cold and dark settle on us, let the wind rip through the stalwart hedge out along the drive: I now have hot tea and a fire.

And of course, I have my new seed catalogues. They arrive between Christmas and New Year's Day, seven or eight bright books of gorgeous flowers and perfect vegetables. Last year, I had to put myself on a seed fast -- I bought hardly any seeds or plants, instead starting new plants from cuttings of old ones. This year will be the same: we saved seeds and brought in plants to keep through the winter, so that we can make cuttings in spring and set them out again for another growing season. So I won't be buying much from the catalogues.

But I can look at other flowers and love them. I can imagine gardens that need never come into actual being. I can dream of roses I may never actually plant and grow. Sometimes - often, really - it is enough to know of a beautiful thing, enough to know that it is in our world. Just because something is beautiful doesn't mean I must own it. It is enough just to know that it exists.

There is more than one kind of love, you know. Erotic love, we keep forgetting, isn't just love involving sex: it's more precisely love involving possession. Other love exists, love content to appreciate, love that need not engulf in order to be satisfied. Love that simply wishes the beloved well, delighting in the very existence of the beloved, is a mighty joyful thing. And - unlike its erotic cousin - that love can be satisfied.

That final paragraph needs reading and re-reading, which is why, to put it in context, I've quoted Barbara's eMo in full. The kind of appreciative, contented love she describes doesn't just set the beloved free, free of the grasping possessiveness of so much of our age, but it sets the lover free. Free of the need always to be clutching tighter, free of envy and jealousy, free to be what God made her or him to be, under a clear sky. There is much here of the freedom of living under vows - the freedom of virginity that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 7.25-35 - we don't often enough these days hear the gentleness and compassion in his voice, "I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord." (v.35)

Dear Paul, we misunderstand him so easily in our present frets and anxieties about the Church and about life. If we read him not as a tyrannical misogynistic taskmaster, but as a loving, often heartbroken pastor, we will get a truer sense, I think, of the man and his teaching...

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Steadfast Love

Love alone of all things is sufficient unto itself. It is its own end, its own merit, its own satisfaction. It seeks no cause beyond itself and needs no fruit outside of itself. Its fruit is its use. I love simply because I am love. That is my deepest identity, what I am created in and for.

For me, to love others "in God" is to love them for their own sake and not for what they do for me or because I am psychologically healed and capable. Our transformed consciousness sees another person as another self, as one who also is loved by Christ with me and not an object separate from myself, on which I generously bestow my Christian favors.

If I have not yet loved or if love wears me out, is it partly because other people are seen as tasks or threats instead of extensions of my own suffering and loneliness? Yet, are they not in truth extensions of the suffering and loneliness of God?

When I live out of this truth, of the love-that-I-am, I will at last begin to live.

Richard Rohr, from "Image and Likeness: The Restoration of the Divine Image"

The suffering and loneliness of God? How can that be? Does such a phrase not go against all we have heard and been taught about the "impassibility of God?"

But the people God created can sin. They can walk away from God, and they can suffer the consequences. As a consequence of the fall, the beings God created, human and otherwise, suffer accidents, illness and decrepitude (Romans 8.18-23). If God loves them, if God is love, will he not grieve for them, will he not miss them? What monstrous kind of love could we conceive that would not feel "suffering and loneliness?"

Of course the doctrine of impassibility, like so many of the ancient doctrines of our faith, is easily misunderstood. My unlettered reading of this is that while it may be impossible for God to be anyone's, or anything's, victim (being all-powerful) his settled choice to love no matter what the consequences - "steadfast love" (Psalm 13.5 etc.) - will by definition involve him in suffering.

This, as I see it, is what Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane (Matthew 26.36ff) is all about. Jesus had come to suffer and die for our salvation - yet he had to make a choice to follow the Father's will. Had he not so chosen, no-one could have forced him to submit to the Cross (Matthew 26.53).

Writing of the Asian Tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 in the Sunday Telegraph, Rowan Williams said:

... the reaction of faith is or should be always one of passionate engagement with the lives that are left, a response that asks not for understanding but for ways of changing the situation in whatever – perhaps very small – ways that are open to us. The odd thing is that those who are most deeply involved – both as sufferers and as helpers – are so often the ones who spend least energy in raging over the lack of explanation. They are likely to shrug off, awkwardly and not very articulately, the great philosophical or religious questions we might want to press. Somehow, they are most aware of two things: a kind of strength and vision just to go on; and a sense of the imperative for practical service and love. Somehow in all of this, God simply emerges for them as a faithful presence. Arguments "for and against" [God's "permitting" such suffering] have to be put in the context of that awkward, stubborn persistence.

God's love is all and in all. All we are called to do is live that love in the lives God has given us to live, in whatever circumstances that we find ourselves in. The ones who can do this, really do it, are the ones we remember - from Paul of Tarsus through Francis of Assisi and Julian of Norwich, through to Mother Teresa of Calcutta - as "the Saints." After all, "saint" only means "made sacred or holy" (Latin sanctus). How else are we to be made holy but to be made into love?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Mary, Mother of God

Theotokos with Christ Child 02

It is the feast of Mary, Mother of God (Theotokos) today, and my heart leaps with the incredulous joy and gratitude I just can't help but feel when I think of that teenage girl who, confronted with the being who identified himself to Zechariah as "...Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news," simply replied, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word," (Luke 1.19,38) and opened the door, in her own flesh, to the salvation of mankind, and all Creation.

Mary symbolizes the people of God, the Church, the symbol of humanity in need of God. The medievals had a great sense of this. They used to picture Mary in their art as the woman with a giant cape. Beneath the cape were all the people of God. She summed up the meaning of their Christianity in her person, in her "yes."

She is the symbol of God's final victory in humanity. In her bodily Assumption, we know that all of our humanity is free, redeemable and of immeasurable dignity. It happened in her in accelerated and perfect fashion so we could look at her and say, "Yes." She is one of us and she is what we will be. We now know that the resurrection Jesus has promised will also be given to us in spirit and in body.

We are redeemed totally. We are not just set free in our spirits; in our bodies, too, we share in the redemption and freedom of the Lord. That is what Marian celebrations are all about.

Richard Rohr, from The Great Themes of Scripture, New Testament

 

Following the holy Fathers we teach with one voice that the Son [of God] and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same [Person], that he is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, very God and very man, of a reasonable soul and [human] body consisting, consubstantial with the Father as touching his Godhead, and consubstantial with us as touching his manhood; made in all things like unto us, sin only excepted; begotten of his Father before the worlds according to his Godhead; but in these last days for us men and for our salvation born [into the world] of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God according to his manhood. This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably [united], and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and subsistence, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, as the Prophets of old time have spoken concerning him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ hath taught us, and as the Creed of the Fathers hath delivered to us.

from The Definition of the Council of Chalcedon, (451AD)

 

It is a curious fact that some seem to have a major problem with the Virgin Mary. It is a problem that goes far beyond theological reason and debate. In some quarters there seems to be a major antipathy, almost hatred, directed at one of the key figures in the story of redemption. In fact a few protestant apologists write of the Mother of the Redeemer almost as if she were the enemy of God. How can this unhealthy state of affairs have come about?

Perhaps it has something to do with the misogynistic tendencies that were evident in many of the Reformers, although most actually maintained Marian doctrines that would surprise their modern-day followers. There is also a great deal of ignorance among modern-day protestants as to the Scriptural and other ancient support for most of the Marian doctrines. It is the fundamentalist move away from Mary that has been the recent aberration. Yet even many Protestant Christians who are not so extreme still believe that Catholic and Orthodox doctrines on the Virgin Mary are unscriptural and are inventions of the Medieval Church, being unknown to the early Christians...

Mary is the Mother of God.

This is quite simply explained. The main puzzle is why any Christian should object to this title. All Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and also IS God, being the 2nd Person of the Trinity, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is also the son of Mary. Now many Protestants are quite prepared to say "Mary, Mother of Jesus," but balk at saying "Mary, Mother of God." Why?

There is probably an element of cultural conditioning here. Giving Mary such a title seems too grand to many protestants. For centuries most protestants have tried to ignore Mary, and have avoided all talk and discussion of her - except perhaps to condemn Catholic "excesses". But this is a serious matter. To call Mary the "Mother of Jesus" and yet refuse to call her "Mother of God" is to diminish Jesus as well as Mary, for it is a denial that Jesus is truly or fully God.

It was this sort of thinking that led to the formal definition of the title Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in 431AD. Patriarch Nestorius had preached that Mary was not Mother of God, being only the mother of Jesus's physical body, which was then indwelt by God the Word. This was condemned as Heresy, since the Gospels tell us that the Word did not unite with man, but was made man. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.." (John 1.14). This is a crucial difference. Jesus was not two persons: the Son of God, and the Son of Mary, but one person, the Son of God and Mary. If this were not so, his death could not have saved us.

S. Booney, from Mary Defended: A Defense of Marian Doctrines

I'd strongly encourage anyone worried about the role of Mary in Christian thought and devotion to click through to Booney's essay. The full text is available, and makes the most compelling reading, especially for anyone who has been exposed to this kind of anxiety in their own church.

New Year's Resolution

"Relying on God has to begin all over again every day, as if nothing had yet been done."

(CS Lewis, Letters to an American Lady)