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Wednesday, 28 September 2016

SOME INTELLIGENT WISDOM

Faith, Charity, and Hope


This morning, the French Prions en église collection showed, as the collect for today’s Mass, something I recognised. It was a French version of the Collect Anglicans know as Trinity 12, from the Leonine Sacramentary, revised in the Gelasian; of which the original, 1549 Book of Common Prayer version is this:

Almighty and everlasting God, which art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve; Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving unto us that that our prayer dare not presume to ask, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

It’s one I’ve always loved; and the commentary on it in Frederick Barbee and Paul Zahl’s The Collects of Thomas Cranmer is so good I thought I’d reproduce it here:

This Collect is a treasure chest, truly overflowing, of uplifting insights drawn from our religion:

·       God is more ready to hear than we are to pray. We pray too little, too timorously, and too pallidly. We seldom pray for what we really need and while we are unceasingly preoccupied with our perceived needs, we simply pray too seldom! God is a listening ear, waiting for communications which too infrequently arrive. God is the more active dialogue-partner in the “I-Thou” conversation.
·       God wills to give us more than we want and certainly more than we deserve. Can we for one second comprehend that? God does not work on the principle of distributive justice, i.e. “we get what we deserve”. On the one hand, He wants to do more for us, in our impoverished frangibility, than we can conceive. On the other hand, He wants to do good to us rather than judge us according to our deservings. If He gave us what we deserve, who could stand? His grace is neither Aristotelian and distributive, nor quixotic and mercurial. He blesses – with abundance – and does not curse.
·       We ask Him to forgive us the things that weigh on our conscience and cause us to fear to look Him in the eye. Even what seems to us, humanly speaking, unforgivable, can be forgiven by God. The reach of His mercy is further than our insight at its most layered and Freudian.

·       We ask Him to give us what we cannot even imagine asking Him to give us. Again the Collect presents the overwhelming idea that God is able and desires to give us things that we cannot fathom even suggesting: such as change within an unchanging character fault, love when we have long given up hope of it, opportunity which we have stopped even seeking, and open doors when every door has slammed shut.



Friday, 23 September 2016

OH SAY, CAN YOU SEE?





It is an old, a classic, and indeed even on occasion a Biblical saying that God is invisible. But maybe He fixed all that.

First of all, He sent His only-begotten Son among us in the form – indeed in the fleshly reality – of an ordinary bloke, Josh the carpenter from Slough. Who gradually became known to more an more people as Josh the Preacher, as Josh the Healer, as Josh the Holy Man, and finally as the Son of God. So in him, God had made Himself visible, touchable, talkable-to. (As a fine Canadian Jewish poet once said to me over dinner, “Come on, Roger, Jesus is my brother. But God??? My brother farts. Does God fart?” And I said, “Yup.”)

But then, He went a stage further. This same Jesus said, on several occasions, “Whatever you do to, or for, any of these people, you do to, or for, me.” The Samaritan did it for the traveller: he did it for Jesus. And Jesus is (the Son of) God. The second Person of the Trinity. So here is the new syllogism: Premise 1 – Whatever you do for a person in need, you do for Jesus. Premise 2 – Jesus is God. Conclusion – every human being, at least in the mode of need, is Jesus, i.e. (the Son of) God.

The mode of need is the key. On the lowest level, it means that those in the greatest need, those suffering most, have priority. The stockbroker down the street doesn’t need my fifty Euros: the old woman who can’t pay her electricity bill and shivers, does.

But there are other levels, and simultaneously. The stockbroker may be well off financially, but he may have just learned that he, or his beloved wife, has cancer. As he drives distractedly to work, in a dense fog of misery, he too is in the mode of need; he too, for you or me, is Jesus, i.e. (the Son of) God.

There are harder levels still. The stockbroker may be a shit. He may behave vilely to others, he may be odious politically, he may be a homophobic anti-Semite who insults Africans (or a gay African Jew who defends ISIS), he may beat his wife and cheat his clients. What made him that way? Is he beyond hope? Perhaps he is; perhaps he has built for his own soul the Hell it will spend eternity in. God (as we say) knows. But do we? Do we know for certain that there is not a corner of his miserable being that is in raging need-mode? If there is, that tiny corner of him is Jesus, i.e. (the Son of) God.

These are extrapolations, of course. But Jesus started it: he it was who originally made the equivalence. And in doing so, he invited us to make it also.

And he didn’t tell us at what level, if any, to stop. Look at his own behaviour. The look of infinite sadness he gave Judas as Judas got up from the dinner table and made for the door. The look of profound, if ironic, sympathy he gave Pontius Pilate, standing before him in a ridiculous bloodstained cape with a circle of thorns on his head. And the prayer he made for the bored, tired and depressed soldiers hammering nails through his hands and feet. (“Another day, another cross. Get me out of this horrible country. Get me out of the army.”) He doesn’t seem to have acknowledged limits.


An Internet meme I’ve shared says, “Every stranger you meet is going through a terrible battle you know nothing about.” That seems to sum it up. Paradoxically, the mode of need is what makes God visible. Every day. On the bus. In the shop. Waiting to be clothed, fed, helped, respected, loved. What a curious faith we Christians have.


Monday, 19 September 2016

FROM CATS TO SLAVES: WARMTH AND WISDOM





One of the great joys this year has brought me is a small book written by a nonagenarian: Ronald Blythe's The Circling Year: Perspectives from a Country Parish (Norwich: the Canterbury Press, 2001, repr. 2006). Blythe, a writer and essayist who will be 94 on November 6, made a name for himself with Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village in 1969. Apart from a number of delightful books, he has for many years written a column in the English Church Times, titled 'Word from Wormingford'; he is a Reader in the Church of England and a lay Canon of St Edmundsbury Cathedral.

The Circling Year loosely follows the liturgical year from Advent to Advent in a series of brief chapters that could almost be (and may in fact have been) homilies at Matins or Evensong. Some of the titles: 'The Women in the Lord's Life', 'The Passport to the Kingdom' (on childhood), 'The Brother Slave' (on Philemon), 'The Frightened Walkers' (on the road to Emmaus), 'Holy Cats' (on the parish cat, Christopher Smart, and Julian of Norwich's cat), and 'The Singer of Sad Songs' (on Jeremiah). Blythe writes with complete and unostentatious charm, not only about faith but about Suffolk and its flat, windy and watery countryside where he has spent most of his life and where he still lives in an Elizabethan farmhouse left to him by the painter John Nash whom he had nursed through his final illness.

From 'About Not Forgetting' (at Epiphany): "It is the common experience to have running together side by side religious conventions and personal religious beliefs which are far from conventional, and it is the mixing of the two which makes each of us what we are. An honest memory is the only asset we have which can show us the self that God recognizes. It is the Epiphany when Christ is shown to us in a full light and when we approach him feeling rather exposed by the pure illumination of these winter days. The collect asks God to look upon our infirmities -- and how unhidable they are!" And later, when the leper presents himself, "Christ touches him and says, 'Be clean.' The one-time leper would never forget what he had been, so ill, so outcast. And in Christ's memory too there would have remained a sight of an unhealed and healed man.
     A popular inscription for a sundial is, 'I tell only the sunny hours'. Being a sundial, that is all it can do. Given half a chance our memory would do the same, for it is human to seek oblivion for some of the happenings in our lives. But at the altar we remember our wickedness before we remember our goodness in Christ."

This, as one review put it, "is a book to be given to a friend who has a discriminating ear and an affection for things local." It accompanies you through the year like a wise and unpretentious acquaintance whom it is a privilege to know.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

SEX, TERSE, AND NONES

The New York Times's Nicholas Kristof published a column on Sept. 4 titled "What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?" After noting that great religions often migrate far from the idea(l)s of their founders, and pointing out the staggering religious illiteracy among Americans who call themselves Christians, the column unsurprisingly moved to defending action above doctrine.

And in the age of Pope Francis -- who nevertheless, at the beginning of his pontificate, stressed that the Church's mission is not to become a religiously-tinted NGO -- this seems to be the way even the Catholic Church is tending. The Anglican church, of course, has been churning steadily in this direction for decades. Meanwhile, not only is church attendance falling but, as Kristof notes, the percentage of "nones", those who when asked their religion answer "none", is growing by leaps and bounds. In the very religious USA, it is now at 25% and among millennials at one-third; in Once-Catholic France it is not far from 50%.

Some clergy insist that this is not a problem. What is falling away, they say, is merely the churchgoing, and the adherence, out of habit; what is left is the core of true believers, real disciples, who are the essence of the church (and who, some though not many still claim, will some day change and convince the world by their faith and action). Others do see it as a crisis but persist in believing that the solution lies in "reaching out" ever more to the young and the unbelievers by "updating" the church, its doctrines and practices, and putting it "in tune" with contemporary life. Their explanation for the emptying of pews and the growth of the "nones" is that the church is old-fashioned, bourgeois, stick-in-the-mud, reactionary and unable to cope with the issues that really concern thinking people in our time.

As an Anglo-Catholic living in ever-more-aggressively-secularist France among Vatican-II-raised Roman Catholics, I have ample time, occasion and reason to ponder these issues. And over the years (because I am now numbered definitively among the Elderly if not the Elders) I have come to a few conclusions which contradict both the positions described above.

To the "thank goodness we are now left just with the core of true disciples" clergy I say the following: if bad habits can eventually ruin us, as we all know, why may good habits not eventually save us? I am convinced that those who went habitually to church every Sunday morning, slept through mediocre sermons delivered without microphones, were rarely offered, and rarely took, Communion, but knew the texts of Matins, Evensong and a number of Psalms by heart, were extremely fortunate. Because when a crisis struck their mind, body or estate, they were surrounded and held up, if not by a small group of active well-wishers, certainly by a deeply-integrated body of words and doctrine become habit, by a parish that still observed feasts and fasts, and suprisingly often by a good and compassionate vicar or Rector. What, now, in like situations sustains the 3/4 of  their children become Nones? The 1/4 who have become True Disciples have prayer, fasting, and helping Syrian refugees to sustain them, as well as the knowledge that their church approves; but the others are foolish virgins at best, no oil in their lamps, no wedding-garment on a Monday. Who, moreover, are made to feel that the church doesn't really want them, not as they are anyway. In any case, the new/alternative/common-worship services they might go to are all geared to touch them to the heart and call them to action in everyday language, not recognising the fact that they might prefer to be left in peace in their pews with the comfort of age-old glorious English and their own quietly but urgently recited prayers.

Which leads me to the second class of clerical opinion: that the church must be in tune with the times, holding (as the current Archbishop of Canterbury put it) "the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other". Each church service must be attuned to the casual None passer-by, to draw her in with instantly-comprehensible language and gestures, with clearly-expressed involvement in current public issues, with catchy music, and with well-organised child-care. In the first place, this ignores the fact that a congregation, a parish, is a group of baptised and confirmed adults (with their families, if any) that meets as a body to meet its Maker and Saviour, and that its "family" meetings are not necessarily Mission services. No family organises its every family birthday, Christmas or Sunday dinner in view of the first casual passer-by. Secondly, this view ignores, and so by implication contemns, those whose ecclesiastical needs are expressed in a mood of collective reverence and awe that best incarnates itself in great ancient music and texts, in visual beauty and in much stillness. At best such people, in the Anglican Church, are given the sop of a spare and minimal 8 a.m. BCP service; in the RC church they are mostly given nothing at all.

Beer comes to mind. Many years ago Carlsberg, with Tuborg a fine Danish lager much prized by connoisseurs, proudly announced to Canadian beer-lovers that it would henceforth be brewed under licence in Canada and thus be much more, and more cheaply, available. We then found that Canadian-brewed Carlsberg had a quite different taste and had become simply another Canadian beer, like Molson's. When I mentioned this to a brewery executive, he smiled and said: "The original Carlsberg had maybe 25,000 customers in Canada. The new Carlsberg has a million and a half. Why should they care about the original 25,000?" Why should the modern Church care about what they think is the minority to whom faith is expressed in awe and reverence and ancient beauty?

Except that there is no million of new customers, and the Nones flourish. So my conclusion is this: is the thought not at least envisageable to those in charge of Church doctrine, education and worship that the Church has been driving away as many people as, if not more people than, it attracts? I personally know a number of Roman Catholics who have been alienated from their Church, and consequently from their faith, by an unfortunate remark by a trusted priest. I also know a number of both Roman and Anglican Catholics who no longer feel at home in modern liturgies and resent being pushed into early-morning corners. And I know several of both kinds who need their faith, and who need their church, without necessarily wanting to be lectured to, at every turn, on the absolute cost of, yet the imperative need for, True Discipleship.

Christ had twelve disciples. But He touched and healed many -- dozens, hundreds, thousands. What happened to them? They saw and treated, I'm sure, their troublesome neighbour a different way. They prayed with more thanksgiving when they woke up and went to bed. It was perhaps for them that St Bernard wrote, "Whoever loves God even a little, and loves his neighbour even a little, is united to God." It seems a shame to let them drift off into Nonehood.

Finally, the answer to doctrinal illiteracy is not, surely, to ignore it as long as there is enough admirable social action. Christ spent much of His time teaching. He taught in synagogues, He taught on beaches, He taught on the slopes of green hills. He taught over lunch with tax-collectors and over dinner with Pharisees. Should the Church now renounce its teaching function because doctrine is difficult and sometimes breeds discomfort? No, an epistle is not a female apostle. No, Joan of Arc was not Adam's wife. Yes, the Eucharist is a stupendous mystery but not therefore impossible to comprehend. Not all teaching is or should be about sex. If there have been different theologies of the Holy Spirit, that does not mean it's better not to bother with Him at all. And as for Good Works, let us remember the title, as well as the content, of Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical: Caritas in Veritate -- Charity, in Truth.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

PATRON OF CHEFS AND BARBECUES





St Lawrence is thought to have been born in Huesca, a town in the region of Aragon in Spain. He encountered the future Pope Sixtus II, who was of Greek origin, and eventually, both left Spain for Rome. When Sixtus became the Pope in 257, he ordained St Lawrence as a deacon, and though Lawrence was still young appointed him first among the seven deacons who served in the patriarchal church. He is therefore called "archdeacon of Rome", a position of great trust that included the care of the treasury and riches of the church and the distribution of alms among the poor.
Roman authorities had established a norm according to which all Christians who had been denounced must be executed and their goods confiscated by the Imperial treasury. At the beginning of August 258, the Emperor Valerian issued an edict that all bishops, priests, and deacons should immediately be put to death. Sixtus was captured on August 6, 258 at the cemetery of St Callixtus while celebrating the liturgy and executed forthwith.
After the death of Sixtus, the prefect of Rome demanded that St Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church. Lawrence asked for three days to gather together the wealth. He worked swiftly to distribute as much Church property to the poor as possible, so as to prevent its being seized by the prefect. On the third day, at the head of a small delegation, he presented himself to the prefect, and when ordered to give up the treasures of the Church he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering, and said these were the true treasures of the Church. One account records him declaring to the prefect, "The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor." The prefect was so angry that he had a great gridiron prepared, with coals beneath it, and had Lawrence's body placed on it (hence St Lawrence's association with the gridiron). After the martyr had suffered the pain for a long time, the legend concludes, he made his famous cheerful remark, "I'm well done. Turn me over!" From this derives his patronage of cooks and chefs. He was martyred on August 10, 258.
St Lawrence is one of the most widely venerated saints of the Roman Catholic Church. Legendary details of his death were known to Saints Ambrose and Augustine. The church built over his tomb, San Lorenzo fuori le Mure, became one of the seven principal churches in Rome and a favorite place for Roman pilgrimages. Devotion to him was widespread by the fourth century. Since the Perseid meteor shower typically occurs every year in mid-August on or near his feast day, some refer to the shower as the "Tears of St Lawrence."

The image above is a detail from Fra Angelico's "Lawrence before Valerianus."
Thanks, as always to St Matthias' Church, Somerset NJ.

Friday, 5 August 2016

OF MARTYRS, MOTHERS, MUSLIMS, AND MASS



Muslims attending Mass at St Ouen, North of Paris, after the murder of Fr Hamel
(NB: white is the Muslim colour of mourning)

I was asked the other day why on this blog I hadn’t written anything about the murder of Fr Jacques Hamel, the old French priest stabbed to death at the altar by two ISIS-encouraged 19-year-olds. I thought about it, then answered that I wasn’t sure what sensible things I could say that hadn’t been said already a hundred times by the media, social or otherwise. Outrage, horror, grief. One Facebook meme had his picture with the overlay “MARTYR DE FRANCE”. I wasn’t happy with that: “martyr for Christ” would have been nearer the mark. However, two things happened – one big, one small – that persuaded me to write something here, if only to give them wider and encouraging publicity.

In the first place – and this is big, really big --, on the following Sunday when Masses were said in his memory, thousands of Muslims all over France spontaneously went to the Catholic churches to attend the service, many if not most of them for the first time. It was an extraordinary deed of solidarity and should have been given far more coverage. All those who were interviewed said that they had come to support their Christian neighbours and to show the world how appalled they were at what these young thugs had done. Many added that they were impressed with the closeness of the two faiths, and convinced that we serve the same God.

I find this, as we say nowadays, beyond decent; a genuinely noble gesture that I hope will be amply repaid by Christians. A few more visits to mosques during prayers might be a good beginning.

The small thing that I found extremely encouraging was that at a small local talk-plus-prayer-service I heard the visiting priest – and to me this was a first, I’ve written about it – praying, and urging us to pray, for the murderers and their families. I’m not sure how much this will directly touch the brainwashed, but in the context of my last post more intensive intercessory prayer for our enemies is urgently needed.

I remember, only a few years ago, reading a number of Collects and Psalm texts about “the assaults of our enemies” and thinking that nowadays, mercifully, we should perhaps learn to take them as part of a spiritual war. But no: the enemies are back, they are real, they are armed, they are intelligent, and they hate us. We can start rereading a lot of those texts (taking some care to apply Jesus’ teaching to some of the more vindictive Psalms), and looking at the ways they teach us to react. Note, for instance, that in the case of the Anglican Church’s Second Collect at Matins at no time do we pray to God to take away our enemies and their attacks: “defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries.” And in the Second Collect for Evensong: “that we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness.” What we ask God to do is take away our fear. Perhaps, if he does that, we can become like St Stephen who, as he was being stoned, prayed that God might forgive his murderers. And pray at once for the soul of Fr Hamel and for the souls of Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean; for  their families and for their neighbours who have done us the honour of attending Mass.


PS: I have been reminded that the Muslim attendance at Mass was in response to a call by the CFCM, the French Council of Muslims; so not technically spontaneous -- but the response was huge, and deeply moving.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

PRAYING FOR ANASTASIA, OR, FISH-HOOKS REVISITED


"Human freedom is an essential, aspect of God's creation and as such [J.R.] Lucas argues that there must be an infinity of possible plans. He likens God's providence to the Persian rugmakers who start at one end of a carpet while their children start at the other: the skill of the father is able to accommodate the children's work to create a rug of great beauty." (James Wood, "The Theology of Prayer and Intercession")


 I have written earlier on what to me is the perennial problem of intercessory and petitionary prayer: what can one properly ask for, and what is the meaning of praying for others? The answer to the second question must depend on the way the first is answered; and both, as Lee Rayfield suggests, depend on one’s concept of, and one’s relation to, God. Several theologians have pointed out that early in the Old Testament, petitions to God played out in the language of commerce, of the market-place: the great example is the irresistible story of Abraham’s bargaining with God for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha. (What is sometimes left out is the sequel: even though God acceded to Abraham’s final request to be merciful if even ten just men were found there, the cities did end up being destroyed. Clearly there was no minyan. But more relevant is the fact that Abraham did stop at ten, and did leave the decision up to God.)
            Since the coming of Jesus, however, the language of petition has been the language of love. Jesus taught us to call God Abba, Father: not obvious, when you think of Him as the Creator of the entire universe now revealed by Hubble. He taught us how to pray, how to ask, and suggested we do it as simply as a child asks its father for a bun. He also told us that if and when we ask, and ask insistently, we will receive (though he did not go into detail about what and how we will receive). Moreover, he showed us how he himself prayed: and, as one theologian pointed out, the most relevant of his prayers for this question is in Gethsemane, when he prayed God to let the cup of the Cross pass from him – “yet not as I will but as Thou wilt”.
            Which, of course, leads us to micro-management, and to Huck Finn’s fish-hooks. Does God micro-manage the world? In one sense I don’t think so. Jesus tells us that He sees the fall of every sparrow; but He doesn’t prevent it. Magic may stop the arrow dead in its flight; but God does not. On the other hand, I don’t think God stays aloof from the beautiful watch He has made and wound up. John Polkinghorne, a physicist and theologian, has reminded us that the Deist (and sometimes atheist) view of God is based on a mechanistic universe, and that in a quantum universe, where uncertainty plays a major role, a far more dynamic and subtle view of God is possible.
            We do not, usually, receive fish-hooks if we pray for them, though sometimes we do – which should make us think seriously about the relation between petitionary prayer and thanksgiving. But what interests me more today is prayer of intercession for others. We pray for a sick acquaintance. What do we pray? The simplest version is, “God, heal Anastasia (or Mrs X) and make her well again.” This may or may not happen. If it does, we give thanks, usually without questioning what that implies. If it doesn’t, there are several explanations: our faith wasn’t strong enough; or her healing at this time was not part of God’s will for her. The former, though in some places Jesus seems to sanction it,  almost reduces prayer to magic. The latter is very hard for us, with our love for the patient, to understand.  Some theologians solve the problem by saying that God’s sense of time is not ours; others, that God moves in mysterious ways.
            Yes, well, did we think we would grasp God and His ways? Does the child understand all its father’s circumstances and considerations? We are told that the great theological virtues are Faith, Hope, and Love. So why not apply those to our prayer of intercession? We pray that she may be healed. In that prayer, we do not attempt to bind God’s Will. We do apply Faith – we trust in God’s love, we trust Him to act out of the love He has for her. We do apply hope – the true Hope, which is itself a form of faith, a faith that points to a future, to an outcome. And we do apply Love, for the very fact of our praying for her is a putting into motion of the energy of Love. And that is enough. We cannot do more; we need not do more. As my mother, old and deep into Alzheimer’s, said to me one night before going to sleep, when I asked her what she thought about death and after: “I don’t think we’re meant to know, or to think about that. That’s what faith is for. You go into the dark, trusting.”
            But we have a restless and a questing mind, and some things I think we are allowed, indeed encouraged, to think about. If intercessory prayer “works,” how does it work? If a hundred people pray for Anastasia, what happens? And a couple of things I read recently gave me an idea about that. First, a sermon I heard said that God’s love for us is poured out constantly – not only at certain times of His choosing or our asking. It pours down upon us like the sun’s light. And if it does not efficaciously reach us, it is because we are blocking it. So what we can and should pray for is help to stop blocking God’s love. My second reading was the interview with Jean Vanier, and his insistence that we regard those unregarded by everyone else or the world in general.
            Those two ideas produced, in my mind, a third: that apart from my blocking the flow of God’s love for me, there may be more general and/or objective blocks that prevent that love from reaching me – or you, or Anastasia. And that praying for her, by one person but especially by more persons, may create a metaphysical energy that helps dissipate those blocks. What sort of blocks might they be? Well, as Vanier says, in a class, look at, regard, the kid everyone else makes fun of. Or, he mentions a 40-year-old paraplegic who has always so far been treated like something thrown out with the garbage. So one block might be the world in general, a person’s environment. Or a person’s circumstances. Or, indeed and startlingly often, a person’s own nature and its idiosyncrasies. I know several elderly women living alone, of varying prosperity but none of them poor. All of them have the physical problems that come with age. Three of them live rich, satisfying lives; two are profoundly and enduringly miserable, in spite of intelligence, education and talent. 

            Intercessory prayer for such people may create or fuel and augment an energy, deeply pleasing to a loving God, that helps to remove the screens blocking His love from pouring into their hearts and souls. We can only ever pray that He may lead them to the knowledge and love of Him, and that His will be done; but we are asked to do that often and insistently and also, I believe, smilingly (on His part) allowed to wonder, and ponder, how.