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Wednesday, 5 July 2017


“To reach the Creator, I must make myself a creator – at least in so far as my dispositions are concerned. I must break all the moulds in which I constantly fashion myself, for they are invariably restrictive; I must reject all securities, all familiar words, all riches, so as to offer myself utterly poor and virginal to the breath of the Spirit. In this way is the only creativity that counts made possible: the creativity that forms Christ in us, that gives birth to the Son, the creativity which forms ourselves, not just some object, into a poem of love to God, a poem that is completely unique.
Sometimes the Spirit gives me my being through solemn words of love, sometimes through words of joy. There are very mundane words, like bread, or water; there are words of humiliation, of suffering, even of sin. It is necessary to let ourselves be formed, through these various words, so that the glory of God may be sung. 
If I am the poet of the poem which is my life, I am also the priest. The word which is given to me – as a Christian*  and, in a particular way, as a priest – has the power to transform all things into the body of Christ. This is my body, this is my blood, given for you. Just as  God creates, by his Word, at every moment, so he recreates us, takes us up again in all our humanity, with the whole of creation, into the eternal offering of the love of Christ to the Father, into the heart of which we are immersed by the sacrifice of the Mass.” (The Wound of Love, 162-3)

*The priesthood of the faithful is a genuine participation in the priesthood of Christ, and gives us from the start the power of offering ourselves and all things in Christ, with the ordained priest. This dignity conferred in baptism is all too often forgotten.

This is from a chapter on Conversion, called “To Create is to Forget”. At first glance, it seems as remote from our lives as the life of the Carthusian monk who spoke it and those who heard it. This is hardly the Christianity wich we learnt (if we learnt any at all) in a local parish church, in the odd Christmas sermon, or the Christianity we read about and decided was only for those who had the magical gift of faith which we, like most people, just didn’t happen to get. 
When I first read this and other texts in the volume, my reaction was, “Why didn’t anyone ever talk to me about the Christian religion like this?” I felt like the weekend rock climber I once was, coming face to face with El Capitan and those who made its first ascent (3,000 feet of smooth vertical or overhanging granite).
Now, having read it a number of times and thought about it, I realise that while it is the word of a contemplative monk and a priest – and thus of someone who can and must devote all his time and energy to this alone – we others are not necssarily excluded from it. If we absorb this, say, in our morning prayer at the beginning of the day, and keep its essence (as St Francis de Sales said) as a “posy” or buttonhole bouquet to sniff at periodically in the intervals of work or play –- when we are driving, or bicycling, or walking; while we are doing the dishes or cooking –, then the breaking of moulds, the emptying out, the opening of inner doors and shutters, followed by the delicate reshaping of our inwardness to become a line, or a stanza, of that poem becomes not only possible but an entirely natural step to take. 
(The third paragraph, of course, goes quite far, and is a challenge. Even for the Carthusian priest, saying that all things can become the body of Christ might be questioned by his superiors as being dangerously Teilhardian; but his insistence on the priesthood of all believers, conferred by baptism, is currently very much echoed even by our local parish priest. More about that in a future post.)

El Capitan, Yosemite, California

Friday, 30 June 2017


"Ecce Panis Angelorum" (Behold the Bread of Angels), engraving by F.M.S. (probably Swiss) 1887.

This is something we aren’t used to. Prayer, most of us instinctively believe, is asking for something: either simple petition (for ourselves) or intercession (for someone else). But adoration? It conjures up images of people from another age kneeling for hours before a monstrance, a crucifix, or an icon, with a kind of rapt attention that could not be further from our own tendency to the quick coffee-break tweet or text. There seems to be a huge distance between them and us.

In what way is it accessible to us? If we are contemplative monks or nuns, it is part of our world quite naturally – though it may still be hard to achieve. If we are among the very devout – I know a woman who was a Carmelite novice for 6 years, and even after that went to Mass daily for at least 5 more – the liturgical and devotional rhythm of the Church will at the least suggest it on certain occasions, such as yesterday’s Feast of the Sacred Heart, and somewhere in our ecclesiastical world there will be introductions to it .

But for the rest of us, devout without always inhaling, stumbling along what is often a rocky path, busy with countless details of what a friend of mine calls the Humdrumlies – what of us? The Prayer of Adoration seems almost like an unattainable luxury. “If we had time….” we murmur. And even those of us who have learnt from time to time to take an hour for Francis de Sales’ meditation find the thought of Adoration as a form of prayer, well, extreme.

Perhaps one way in is the prayer of thanksgiving. This at least releases us from the asking mode, and is still something we intuitively understand. The other day I – well into my seventies, far from willowy and reasonably arthritic – slipped and fell in the shower. As I got up with no more than a slightly bruised feeling, I instinctively said, “Wow, thank you, Lord – this is how many of us wrinklies die.” Whatever we intelligently believe about the way God does or does not micromanage the world, when we have a narrow escape or win the lottery or find that someone we have adored from afar actually returns our feelings, it is a common human reaction to give thanks.

If we think about this, and go beyond the immediate, we feel thankful about so many things; and going to a level deeper than that, we can relate our thanksgiving to the fact that we have faith, that we believe, that we have been baptised, that we feel fulfilled about going to church; and if our discernment is very sharpened, we can give thanks for the gift given to us on the Cross.

Now think of the Eucharist. It moves from penitence (housecleaning, as our priest says: wiping the mud off your shoes as you come in) to glorifying the God that forgives us, to learning Scripture in readings, to being helped to understand what we’ve learnt, in a homily, to summing it up in a Creed. Then it moves on to prayer. First the prayer of intercession, moving us out of ourselves in asking God’a mercy on the world; then the prayer of consecration.

And it is within that – at the moment of consecration, when one can at least imagine (as a Zwinglian might) and at most know (as a Catholic does) that the Son of God (and thus the Trinity) is truly, really and actually present here in front of us – that we can perhaps glimpse the Prayer of Adoration. As the priest lifts up the consecrated Elements, we kneel (or some of us do) and fix them with our gaze, and feel in a new and very specific and present way the Presence of Christ – and thus the here-and-now reality of the gift of God’s love. And so, for a brief moment (because modern Eucharists are much too fast), we sense something beyond thanksgiving: the Prayer of Adoration. Just being there and worshipping that Presence, that cosmic Glory making itself small enough to fit into the palm of my crossed hands.

After that, there are further stages, other elements to Adore. If you were brought up Protestant, the Sacred Heart is harder; but when you learn to think in symbols, not to translate them but to let their physicality continue to be even as you understand and feel the inward meaning (which is, after all, what you do with the Eucharist: a sacrament is “the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” but the point is, it’s both) – well, then you’ve at least set a wobbly foot on the path of Adoration. A long road, but we know where it ends: read Revelations. It ends in Joy.

Hat Tip: Ian Jackson reminds me that F.M.S. was the usual signature of the Marist Fathers: Fratres Maristae a Scholis. And this engraving, like others in the same style that can be found on the Web, came (I believe) from a Swiss Marist Missal. 

Thursday, 15 June 2017


"Spirituality is not to be learned by flight from the world, or by running away from things, or by turning solitary and going apart from the world. Rather, we must learn an inner solitude wherever or with whomsoever we may be. We must learn to penetrate things and find God there....Some people prefer solitude. They say their peace of mind depends on this. Others say they would be better off in church. If you do well, you do well wherever you are. If you fail, you fail wherever you are. Your surroundings don't matter. God is with you everywhere - in the market place as well as in seclusion or in the church. If you look for nothing but God, nothing or no one can disturb you. God is not distracted by a multitude of things. Nor can we be." 

Meister Eckhart, alias Eckhart von Hochheim (ca. 1260-1328), Dominican theologian, mystic and monastic supervisor from Thuringia.

Hat tip: "Mid-Week from St Matthias", St Matthias's RC Church, Somerset, NJ.

Sunday, 11 June 2017


Andrei Rublev, "The Holy Trinity" (icon, 1400-1425).

The Trinity is a world, not of definition, but of prayer.

You can see how it began. In those years when Yeshua walked the earth, he tirelessly taught everyone who would listen about the Father. Our Father. Not just the Great God who made the universe; not just the jealous God who chided Israel; not just the just God who would one day judge the earth; but a God who was, is, and always will be our Father, our loving Father who may get justly irritated with his children but whose love for them will neither falter nor fail. He even taught us the words to address our Father.

But there was more. We are all the Father’s children, but as time went by and the Cross approached, Yeshua increasingly spoke about his own place in the scheme of things. Presumably trusting the disciples to be a little less thick now than they had been before, he began to tell them, in more than just parables, about the place of the Son in relation to the Father. Not just a pretty face; not just a guy. Not just a man. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Whoa! “All that is the Father’s is the Son’s; and all that is the Son’s is the Father’s.” “You will see the Son of Man [a term from Ezekiel] coming in clouds of glory.”

And then, when he came back to visit them in their loneliness, after the Resurrection when at first they often didn’t recognise him, he spoke of someone else still. “If I don’t leave you, the Comforter cannot come to you.” “I will send you an Advocate.” And he breathed on them, and they received the Spirit – the ruach, the pneuma, the very breath, wind, or spirit that after the Creation brooded over the waters like a gigantic bird. The heilige Geist in German, the Holy Ghost in the original Germanic English, now fallen out of use.

And so, when he had left finally to go back to his (and our) Father, and when the Geist had come upon the motley crowd of Pentecost – the Spirit taking up residence, as it were, in the ecclesia, in the Church, the collective of Christians, and not just in some individuals – one can imagine them sitting around for a few hundred years trying to make sense of all this, even as they prayed. After all, they had to explain it to new converts and interested strangers who wandered in from, say, Hellenistic civilisation where there were lots of gods, and who might say, “Oh, so you have only three gods? Interesting!” No, no, no. Not three gods. One God. “Right,” would say a Jew coming by. “But then what is all this nonsense about three Persons? God is one Person, and one Person only.” No, no, no. Three Persons. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And even the most benevolent would end up saying How does this work?

When I first got to know the Book of Common Prayer, one text I shied away from was the Quicunque Vult, or Athanasian Creed. It always seemed cross and minatory, as well as interminable. Yet reading it again today, on Trinity Sunday, I realised that it is a desperate attempt to understand just that difficult concept, 500 years on. Of course, it also contains anathemas against those who do not believe these essentials to salvation, which were what used to put me off. But it is fascinating in its dogged pursuit of the inexplicable.

The Trinity is a world, not of definition, but of prayer. It is a world of meditation and contemplation. Quicunque, whoever, pursues it in that manner will find a huge glory opening, and welcoming. It is a circle, a dynamic circle, a vast and stately whirl of love. Of a love in relation to which the Universe as we are coming to know it is a mustard-seed.

And Trinity Sunday? My American study of the BCP Collects notes that Trinity Sunday is the border between the season of Christianity’s great Truths and the season of Christianity’s activity and duty in the world. From now on, the liturgical colour is green, as are the fields and the hills beyond my window. Ora et labora: pray and plough. 

And for those who want to be reminded of the hard-edged content of our faith, here is the (pseudo-) Athanasian Creed itself:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance [Essence] of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.

Monday, 5 June 2017


To be read aloud, with strong accents:

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;                                     
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;       
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

                                     Gerard Manley Hopkins, "God's Grandeur"


In a column in the French daily Le Figaro Matthieu Rougé, professor at Notre Dame (Paris) and rector of St-Ferdinand-des-Ternes, discusses the meaning of Whitsun/Pentecost, in the context of a new and influential book by the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. I have made one change throughout the article: he writes of “Catholics” but in France this usually means “Christians” as opposed not to Protestants but to atheists. So I have used “Christians” instead. 


What is the state of mind of Christians in France, this Pentecost? Some think of them as discouraged, weakened, disunited. However, at the end of an election year in which Christians have been both singularly denigrated and courted, the great philosopher Jean-Luc Marion has published a Brief Apologia for a Catholic Moment. A specialist in the works of Descartes and Heidegger (the fathers, one might say, of our modernity and our postmodernity respectively), Marion at the French Academy has the chair of Cardinal Lustiger. On August 5th of this year it will be ten years since the “Jewish Cardinal” (as Maurice Druon acclaimed him at his almost-state funeral in Notre Dame) passed on. There will be celebrations and conferences to mark this anniversary in the coming autumn. Like his illustrious and charismatic predecessor, Jean-Luc Marion refuses the suggestion, and the temptation, of a Christian withdrawal.

Christians should not harden their hearts but help the people of our time go beyond “clichés and slogans: as if Christians were divided into potential unbelievers (good) and identity-hugging fundamentalists (bad), into uncertain humanists (acceptable) and enthusiasts for an alternative society (intolerable!).” In fact “they have a rock-hard belief that it is better to give than to receive . . .; that death can lead to life in fullness. They believe it because they already see it in their own experience and especially because they have seen it, in a certain sense, in the person of Christ.”

That which allows Christians to bear this witness is the gift of the Holy Spirit, celebrated on the feast of Pentecost. The spirit of their current life is less important than its Spirit! Like the Apostles of the first days, today’s disciples have received a Spirit of gentleness and strength, of creativity and unity, of lucidity and hope.

They are not torn between an imperative of goodwill toward all and the vigour of their spiritual and ethical convictions; between the legitimate variety of their choices (especially political) and the unity of their community; between a healthy severity vis-à-vis the ills of our age and a profound optimism concerning the direction of history. While such tensions are very real, the Holy Spirit allows them to conquer them by going deeper: the Spirit of God joins with the human spirit to lead it into a way of truth, of life, and of peace. That is the meaning of Pentecost.

It is more a matter of a force of the Spirit than a state of Spirit. For the Holy Spirit allows the Christian faith to hold to the memory of its roots without enclosing itself in a static conservatism. It is the source of a dynamic that allows us ceaselessly to reinvent – in the original sense of rediscovering – the Gospel logic of the love of truth and the truth of love.

Our country needs to get back the taste for, and the means of, serious and serene discussions, while at the same time rehabilitating the search for truth. We need at once to welcome and respect great diversities and clearly to acknowledge that which makes our unity. We must take care of both our memory and our capacity for invention; open ourselves up to vast new horizons without denying who we are. These paradoxical necessities many consider irreconcileable, but Christians know that they can accept their demanding unity. They know this, not as a source of superiority but rather as a grace and a responsibility.

But if Christians, inspired in the strongest sene of the word, are thus to contribute to the peace and the vitality of our polis, it is necessary that they should not be constantly denigrated. With John Paul II’s famous “Be not afraid!” in mind, Jean-Luc Marion remarks, “One has the impression that nowadays  it’s the French Christians who need to repeat these words to certain non-Christian Frenchmen who fear a return of clericalism.” Our age should not be afraid of Christians: their love of truth constantly in search of further depth, their ethical rigour, their link to the universal, can be salutary for our society.

As for France’s Christians themselves, sometimes “intimidated by their very existence,” they urgently need more intensely to live the Spirit of Pentecost, by strengthening their spiritual, intellectual and charitable commitments. That is the price, and a ridiculously reasonable one, of the hope to which they are to bear witness. Quoting Chateaubriant, the author of The Genius of Christianity in the wake of which he is working, Jean-Luc Marion praises “that Christian hope, the wings of which grow even as everything seems to betray it, a hope longer than time and stronger than misfortune.”   

Friday, 2 June 2017


Recently, a columnist in the NY Times recounted the debt owed, not by Nixon to Roger Ailes but by Ailes to Nixon. It was the President who taught Ailes the value – the commercial, publicity value – of cultural resentment. This phrase has stuck in my mind, as I believe it represents almost the entirety of Donald Trump’s continuing support. None of the voters in the hinterland believe, at this stage, that TrumpCare will improve their health; none, I imagine, believe that their economic prospects will genuinely improve with The Donald in charge. So why do they go on supporting him?

The answer, I believe, is very simple. BECAUSE HE HATES LIBERALS. And he allows us to hate liberals. And to feel, not guilty but good about hating liberals. The answer, my friends, is Cultural Resentment. And it is very close to being the ONLY answer. The whole of the Trump base is about being not for anything,  but against something. Against Hillary: the glee of shouting “LOCK HER UP!” Against the effete Europeans and Asians and All Those Other Guys who believe, against all good common-sense-over-a-beer-in-the-pub, that the planet is heating up bigly. Against all those PC assholes in Massachusetts and California. Against all those smartasses who are so proud of their useless Education and who wave their f*cking Degrees at us, and take away our jobs. Against, against, against, against. Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take it Anymore! Rage, rage, aganst the rising of the light.

Can anything be done against this? I’m not sure. It may just have to sputter and squib itself out, gracelessly, mendaciously, offensively and miserably. To me, it is genuinely sinful, because it exchanges Christ for Trump, love for hatred, discernment for stupidity. The pleasure of hate is a real pleasure, but none the less sinful for that. It corrodes, it rots, it ends in a whirlwind of emptiness. And there, Hell awaits. Lord, have mercy. These are your children. They know not what they do.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Risen Christ