Thursday, 11 December 2014

Mercy in Person



More from The Portal, this time for Advent...

Christ 'with clouds descending', from the Doom painting
at Wenhaston, Suffolk
Tremendous, tiny, powerful, feeble,
cheeks fair of colour,
wealthy and needy, Father and Brother, 
maker of brothers,
this, sure, is Jesus, whom we should we welcome
as Lord of rulers,
lofty and lowly, Emmanuel,
honey to think on.
(Madawg ap Gwallter, 13th century Welsh Franciscan friar)


A group of Christian leaders recently met in an African country (I won’t say which) to put together a response to the threat of Ebola. The outcome included a statement that this terrifying illness was likely to be a punishment from God for their people’s immoral behaviour (again I won’t go into details. You can probably guess.)  So, is this the God, Emmanuel, whom we prepare to welcome - for whose sake we’re buying gifts for each other and untangling last year’s fairy lights? The punitive judge? (who, one might add, seems not to make a very good job of it: one of the horrors of Ebola is the apparently indiscriminate way it strikes.)

Well, it is indeed Advent, when we think of the Four Last Things; and they include Judgment. Perhaps the question is rather, who is the judge? How are we judged? There is a clue in the Gospel: we will look into the eyes of our Father and Brother and realise where we have, and have not, encountered him in the hungry, the naked and imprisoned. And he will often have been in less attractive guises than the baby in the manger.

‘Where is God?’ is the question that has resounded from hospital wards, concentration camps and the silence of broken hearts over the years. Enthroned impassively on high, or here in the mess? We meet Emmanuel in the outcast, the scapegoat; the African child’s body drenched in disinfectant and thrown into a hastily-dug grave; the person too weak to live the life of heroism seemingly demanded of them, and the one who in loneliness and hidden grief strives to live by the Church’s teaching and sometimes fails. Emmanuel, who even in great mediaeval Doom paintings ‘comes with clouds descending’, yet naked and wounded: human. In some ways, because of that, an even more fearful judge… ‘Lord, when did we see you?’

How then does this vulnerable and broken Emmanuel save us from all for which we fear being judged? What’s the Good News? I teach a class on Patristic spirituality, and what I long for most is that the students will catch some of the excitement, the life-or-death power, the saving wonder of those early declarations of faith. For example, the Council of Chalcedon: ‘one and the same is truly Son of God and truly son of man… A lowly cradle manifests the infancy of the child; angels’ voices announce the greatness of the Most High.’ Life-giving paradoxes echoed in the Welsh poem above. Christ is, in the words of St Leo the Great, ‘totus in suis, totus in nostris’ (complete in what is his, complete in what is ours). We find him in suffering, our own and others’, and he knows even more clearly than we do what the depths of human despair can be; and in that suffering he overcomes, redeems, raises us with him to new life and to share in his divinity. Only he can save; only he can judge - thank God.

As the then Cardinal Ratzinger preached at the start of the Conclave which was to elect him Pope: ‘Jesus Christ is divine mercy in person: to encounter Christ is to encounter the mercy of God.’ Honey to think on.



Saturday, 29 November 2014

Perfection?

Before we leave November behind and enter Advent, here's another Portal piece, beginning with a poem by Ann Lewin...

God’s work of art.
That’s me?
Then beauty must lie
In the eye of the beholder.
I feel more like one of those statues
Michelangelo left
Half emerging from the marble block;
Full of potential, on the verge of life,
But prisoned still by
circumstance and fear.
Yet part of me is free -
And you are still creating,
Bringing to life  the promise that is there.

Sometimes by hammer blows
Which jar my being,
Sometimes by tender strokes half felt
Which waken me to life.

Go on, Lord, love me into wholeness.
Set me free to share with you
In your creative joy; to laugh for you
At your delight in me,
Your work of art.



'Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.' (Matthew 5:48). Two people sat with me in the space of a a week; both spoke about this text. The first was a new Christian. She was full of despondency after hearing this Gospel read in church: as the first enthusiasm of her conversion evaporated she felt she could never live up to what seemed to be demanded of her.  The second was a man about to retire after long years of ministry. 'If I'd translated that passage,' he said with a wry laugh. 'I wouldn't have used the word perfect: it's haunted me all my life.'

The word in question is teleios. It doesn't mean quite what we mean by 'perfect'. It means 'finished' in the sense of having completed all the stages necessary for growth or development. It has, of course, the same root as Jesus' cry from the cross of tetelestai - 'it is finished'. The blood and darkness of crucifixion don't look very much like perfection.

I'm told the word teleios was used by the Greeks in connection with sculpture, to refer to a piece of stone which had been hammered, chiselled, chipped and polished until - at last - the beauty the artist had first seen within it was completely revealed. A long and painful process which, as Ann Lewin's poem suggests, is still unfinished in us.

We begin November by celebrating All Saints, and so often the saints are held up to us as examples of perfection - all too impossible to follow. But look at their earthly lives... for example St Augustine, who deserted the woman he loved - and their child; St Catherine of Siena, who defied her confessor in the severity of her fasting, and starved herself to death. Imperfect, flawed human beings, 'half emerging from the marble block'. They were not yet saints on earth. Surely it is the saints' imperfection in this life which fuelled the compassion with which they now pray for us, and with which they still encourage us: 'Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire,' said St Catherine.

The long and difficult passage in Matthew which ends with 'be perfect' begins with the words 'blessed are the poor in spirit' (sometimes translated as 'who know their need of God'). Richard Rohr comments on these words: 'This is what the saints mean by our emptiness, our poverty and our nothingness... God alone can sustain me in knowing and accepting that I am not a saint, not at all perfect, not very loving at all—and in that very recognition I can fall into the perfect love of God.'

You see, the Greek doesn't actually say 'be perfect'. The verb isn't an imperative. Esesthe teleioi means 'you will be perfect'; 'you will be fashioned into who you are meant to be'. It's a promise for the future. How wonderful that we are all still in the Artist's hands.


Saturday, 1 November 2014

Hallowe'en for some


For Catholics, of course, it's Hallowe'en tonight since we're keeping All Saints' Day tomorrow, because 1 November is a Saturday this year and Hallowe'en is of course All Hallows' Eve (I hope you're taking notes at the back there - there'll be questions later. And if you know the answers, please tell me. In words of one syllable, preferably). 

We've all got different thoughts about Hallowe'en, I suspect. For some good thoughts on keeping it all in proportion, see The Beaker Folk; for a consideration of some of the real dangers, see iBenedictines    

In a previous parish, we had Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction on Hallowe'en night, and prayed for all the streets of the parish by name, for protection and peace. Some of the local children saw the church lights on while out trick-or-treating, and came in. They sat quietly with us for a while in their witch and ghost costumes. Some people of a fastidious or traditionalist bent might have demurred, but I thought it was rather lovely; of course it meant too that I could explain to them what the occasion was really all about in the Christian calendar. 

Have a glorious All Saints' Day, and may we enjoy the prayers and friendship of all the saints. 

Monday, 20 October 2014

Unity and Community


Back in September the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham held a series of events under  the banner of Called To Be One - open invitations to anyone interested to come and find out what the Ordinariate is all about.  I was invited to give a reflection at Evensong at the end of the event we held in our parish. I thought I'd share it here...

Poor old Ahaz, in our first reading (Isaiah 7). He demurs from asking God for a sign: perhaps he thinks he’s being humble or pious, or maybe he prefers to be self-sufficient. How do you discover what God is asking of you? Do you struggle on your own to work out an answer, or do you sit back and wait for divine revelation? A good discernment will alway, I think, be a mixture of both. Many of us here who have made the journey into the Catholic Church have done so after a time of agonising deliberation; not a few of us, I suspect, will have come to the point where we could only say to God, ‘your will be done. Show me…’

The sign that Ahaz is promised (despite his avowed independence!) is the sign of Emmanuel: God with us. Literally the word means with-us-God. Not ‘me and my God’; God with us… plural. One of Pope Benedict’s favourite words is gemeinschaft. It’s often translated as ‘community’, but that is an inadequate word. Gemeinschaft describes a group of people where togetherness itself is the goal, where values, ideas and faith are shared. Not like a group of people on a bus: they may have a common destination but each one is going there for his or her individual needs. There are rules on the bus - no smoking, no spitting, no speaking to the driver - which are largely obeyed; the passengers may form a community of sorts, but they are separate individuals: each one the centre of their own little universe.

The sign of Emmanuel has been part of the discernment of everybody here today. Among those who have joined the Catholic Church some made the discernment as a community; others of us have had to grow into one. What we have tried to do today is share a little bit of what that means to us, and how we have experienced gemeinschaft in the Ordinariate. All of us here right now, though, are here because of the gemeinschaft we share already: ‘all who have been baptised have put on Christ’: we are ‘all one in Christ Jesus’.

Those are words from tonight’s second reading (Galatians 3) where very early on we hear that uncomfortable little word sin. We can’t consider disunity without it. Isaiah’s prophecy of how the sign of Emmanuel will appear - the lion and lamb - is manifestly not fulfilled yet, not because of God’s indifference but because of our fallenness. Neither do we - any of us - live as though there really is ‘neither Jew nor Greek; slave nor free; male nor female.’ We still need the rules on the bus, and to feel the pain of the disunity they bring to us all, but they are not God’s ultimate dream for us.

Pope Francis addressed us all when he said recently, ‘We know well the sins against unity - jealousy, envy, apathy - which come about when we place ourselves at the centre… God’s will, however, is that we grow in our capacity to welcome one another, to forgive and to love, and to resemble Christ. May we all examine our consciences and ask forgiveness… and may our relationships mirror more beautifully and joyfully the unity of Jesus and his Father.’

Wherever the journey takes you, take care to seek the places where you encounter Emmanuel - God with us. To what deeper ‘us’ are you being called?


Thursday, 16 October 2014

What we're called to be


Credible and joy-filled witnesses
...according to Pope Francis at yesterday's General Audience . I don't want - or need, I think - to comment. Isn't that enough? Wouldn't it be more than enough, if that's what we all truly were?

Picture credit: Getty Images. Just because I liked it. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Blood Moon and Blessed JHN


What connects them, other than this being the day after the lunar eclipse and the feast-day of Blessed John Henry Newman?

Perhaps simply my wonder at the fact that the Love and Reason (hallmarks of the power of God, as Pope Benedict loved to remind us) which align the stars and planets could also be the 'kindly light' which led this one man's heart to the place where he found peace, 'like coming into port after a rough sea.'

Newman, theologian and philosopher, made this remarkable statement: 'From the time that I became a Catholic, of course I have no further history of my religious opinions to narrate. In saying this, I do not mean to say that my mind has been idle, or that I have given up thinking on theological subjects; but that I have had no variations to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatever.'

From someone of a lesser mind than Newman's this would sound facile, like laziness or infantilism. And I include myself in that! So dare I say that for me, the goal presented by Newman's statement means above all no longer having to argue,  to seek to prove or defend what I believe in an antagonistic, point-scoring way. It's a challenge to resist being drawn into competitive debates that ultimately get no one anywhere. It's an invitation to see evangelisation differently - and still to be fervent about doing it.

Blessed John Henry, pray for us.


O God, who bestowed on the Priest Blessed John Henry Newman the grace to follow your kindly light and find peace in your Church; graciously grant that, through his intercession and example, we may be led out of shadows and images into the fullness of your truth.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.



Monday, 6 October 2014

Synod on the Family


I'm still naive enough to be shocked now and again by intemperate language. I don't mean rude words: I have a good stock of those myself, and they can be quite useful on the right occasion.  No, I mean the kind of 'witty' remark (usually only so in the ears of its utterer) which is delivered without regard to those present who might be hurt by it.  

There are many opinions, hopes and fears around as the Synod on the Family opens in Rome. For wise reflection, as always, see Digital Nun; and visit the Eastbourne Ordinariate Mission for prayers about the Synod (and add your own petitions).  Not everyone is as thoughtful or prayerful as these bloggers, though.  I was saddened by 'jokes' I heard about 'votes for adulterers', which surely won't help or edify anyone.  So here is Duccio's painting of the woman at the well (John 4:1-42); of course I think also of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11). We don't know the names of either of these women; might we, though, not ask their prayers for an understanding of God's merciful justice as we would of any of the New Testament saints who had a life-changing encounter with Jesus?

There are things on the Synod's agenda which touch my heart - and those of people I care about. I hope we are all able to pray not for what might be good for us as individuals but 'for our good and the good of all His holy Church.'

As Digital Nun says, 'The whole Church, not just the Synod participants, has a particularly important role in praying not only for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Synod’s deliberations but in the acceptance and implementation of its conclusions afterwards.'  Those of us who are still damp after our swim across the Tiber might need to remember that Synod now means something different to us as Catholics from what it might mean from within a 'church run by a debating society'. (I hope those words won't offend anyone; they're not my own. I know, I'm risking being guilty of the very thing I'm describing.)

Today's reading at Morning Prayer was James 2:12-13:

Talk and behave like people who are going to be judged by the law of freedom, because there will be judgement without mercy for those who have not been merciful themselves; but the merciful need have no fear of judgement.

I quote it above all to myself...