Saturday, 18 August 2018

Week 19 Saturday (Year 2)

Readings: Ezekiel 18:1-10, 13, 30-32; Psalm 50; Matthew 19:13-15

The English Catholic writer G.K.Chesterton is supposed to have said that the purpose of life is ‘to get from first childhood to second childhood without being too damaged by the intervening adult stage’. Telling this to one of the Irish friars he replied that the problem was that some of the brethren went from first childhood to second childhood without any intervening adult stage!

The theme of spiritual childhood runs through the New Testament and the readings today invite us to think about it. The Ezekiel reading is about being adult: no longer will we blame others for our sins but each person will accept responsibility for whatever they do. That seems fine: we must be grown up and not blame others. I cannot say my teeth are on edge because my grandfather ate sour grapes. There is great dignity in acknowledging what we have done even when it has been mistaken or wrong: to say ‘I did it, I’m sorry’, or ‘I misunderstood but I accept responsibility’: whatever way we put it there is a nobility and a maturity in accepting responsibility in that way.

Jesus is not going back on that. He is not suggesting that we become childish again but rather that we be childlike for it is to such that the kingdom of heaven belongs. It cannot mean that we must never grow up but rather that when we do we become adults who have not lost the capacity for what makes childhood wonderful: the sense of wonder itself, of freedom and spontaneity, of openness to new things, a readiness for surprises, and so on. The adult who has not forgotten how to be a child is an attractive figure. We probably know people who have become a bit too adult, in whom wonder and spontaneity have been lost, as a result of difficulties they have encountered, but it is always sad to see it.

There is a human and psychological wisdom in saying that the adult must remain childlike and try to retain the blessings that go with that stage of human development. It means integrating childhood within our maturing rather than leaving it behind. But there is also a theological foundation for this. Jesus is the ‘child’ of God. In early Christian texts we get this description of him, as the ‘child’ of the Father. We are then ‘children in the Child’ as St Paul says, made to be members of the family of God, so that we too can call God ‘Abba’. This is ‘Daddy’, the child’s name for her father, and we become entitled to use it of God because we live now from the Spirit of the Father and the Child, Jesus.

Let me finish with another Chesterton quote. Etienne Gilson, a great historian of medieval philosophy, said that Chesterton had understood Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy better than anybody else in the 20th century. And Chesterton had the gift of presenting that philosophy in perfectly simple and yet profound ways. Here for example is an argument for the existence of God that will appeal to the child in us. ‘If you see one elephant you will say ‘how extraordinary’. If you see a second elephant you will say ‘what a coincidence’. If you see a third elephant you will begin to suspect a plot.’

Friday, 17 August 2018

Week 19 Friday (Year 2)

Readings: Ezekiel 16:1-15, 60, 63; Psalm 12; Matthew 19:3-12

Jesus speaks of marriage past, present and future. How it was meant to be 'from the beginning' is his first response to the Pharisees' question about divorce. In the intention of the Creator divorce is not envisaged, but rather that a man and his wife should be together in an inseparable union. In the intention of any couple getting married, unless there is some deception being perpretated, divorce is not envisaged, but rather that the couple, from the significant beginning of their relationship which we call 'falling in love', will be together in an inseparable union. That intention and that union are blessed in the Catholic Church to become a sacrament, a sign and a realisation of the presence of the Kingdom of God.

But experience shows .... is the next comment from the Pharisees, not in so many words but in effect. Moses allowed men (sic) to divorce their wives. He did, Jesus replied, because of the hardness of heart that can creep in to destroy relationships and break marriages. But that is not how God intended it. There should not be divorce, Jesus says, it is equivalent to adultery.

Now it is the disciples' turn to appeal to experience. If you take that line, they say to Jesus, not in so many words but in effect, then it is not expedient to marry. As the Pharisees present Jesus with past experience, the disciples present him with present experience, and together they say something like 'human nature being what it is, your ideal is not going to work in some cases'.

Jesus echoes his own radicalisation of the law in the Sermon on the Mount: 'I say to you'. And the requirements of God's law become more difficult, more demanding, because what is asked must come from within, from the heart, arising from love of the good and not from fear of consequences. This is the ethic of the kingdom, the future reality which Jesus is inaugurating in the present. There are those who can already live according to these demands, he says, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. But they are those whom love, the Spirit of God who is love, has made able to receive this teaching.

What if our morality is not something we can generate out of our own natural resources but a gift to be received? And what if we live between the past of which the Pharisees speak, the present of which the disciples speak, and the future of which Jesus speaks? It would make faithful marriage also an eschatological sign, a sacrament making present in the Church, the life of the world to come.

Hardness of heart is a permanent threat, always lurking at our door, ready to poison and distort our commitments and our relationships. It is only the Spirit of God, the Spirit of love, who will soften our hearts and keep them gentle. And so keep them capable of faithful love. Not all can accept this word, Jesus says, his teaching about marriage, and for some it is actually better that they not marry. But whoever can accept this ought to accept it.

Traditionally this has been applied in the Church to the vocation to celibacy. But considering the changes concerning marriage that are happening in the world around the Church, it seems that we must find also in these words of Jesus an encouragement of those called to marriage, understood as it has been from the beginning. If we are to receive this teaching, and live in accordance with it, then whatever our particular vocation in the Church, we need the Spirit of love to come to dwell in us. Only by the power of that Spirit will our commitments and promises share the strength and fidelity of the everlasting covenant which the Lord has made with his people, the covenant of which our promises and commitments are sacramental and charismatic signs.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary -- 15 August

Readings: Revelation 11:19; 12:1-6, 10; Ps 44 (45); 1 Corinthians 15:20-26; Luke 1:39-56

Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in fantasy literature, in magic, stories of imagined worlds, other levels of living, other possibilities for human beings. From Harry Potter to science fiction, from Lord of the Rings to The Matrix, from The Chronicles of Narnia to stories about vampires, from Dr Who to many other films, television shows, and novels.

In one sense we can think of the assumption of Mary as nourishing this human desire, this thirst for another level of life that goes above and beyond routine, daily experience, above and beyond what is immediately available to something more mysterious, more interesting.

The first reading, from the Book of Revelation, presents us with a symbolic and dramatic story, apt to nourish the artistic and poetic imagination. The child just born is Christ, his mother is Mary or also the Church, the community of the followers of Christ, destined to travel a difficult road in this world, a road rich with possibility but also dangerous, filled with obstacles. It is a fantasy, certainly, but a true fantasy if we can put it like that. It gives us an accurate diagnosis of the fortunes of the Christian believer in the world. It speaks of the promise which is our treasure as well as the difficulties of the way.

In the second reading Saint Paul teaches us that the new life, the life of the Resurrection, already given to Jesus in the moment of his rising from the dead - that this new creation, this new world, is not just for Christ but has been won by him for us. The great grace of the Christian faith is precisely this: to accept the promise of a level of living, of a possibility, that goes above and beyond even our imagination. Once again it is the assumption of Mary that gives us the guarantee of this, that the new creation is not just for Christ but is also for all who belong to him, in the first place to Mary, but eventually for all his people.

In the gospel we hear the great prayer of Mary, the Magnificat, praising God for his many gifts. Mary, an historical and particular individual, a unique individual, is full of grace. It is also a symbol of the Church, of us also who are with her in the Church. We can say that Mary is the Church in its perfection. She symbolises this perfection and realises it. And she does this not just as an 'idea' or 'symbol' but as the historical, flesh and blood, particular human individual that she was and is.

Already in this world we can see the first signs of this new creation, sparks we might say of the glory that is to come. Wherever there is compassion, or work for justice, care of the poor, unexpected generosity, faithful love, the initiative and creativity of charity - in all of this we see the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Gift of God, the Source of all God's graces.

The clear revelation of all this is yet to come. For now our thirst continues since we must continue our pilgrimage in this world. But we do so in the hope of the Resurrection. We do so strengthened and encouraged by the grace and the prayers of Mary, already assumed into heaven.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Week 19 Sunday (Year B)

Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Ps 33; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

Complaining is one way of feeling alive. Eating the bread God gives is a way of being alive. The first leads eventually to depression, a kind of death. The second is food for the journey and leads eventually, indeed anticipates, eternal life.

It seems that complaining is par for the course when it comes to human beings. We are just like our ancestors in that. One generation of ancestors in particular, those believers whose complaining resulted in losing the promised land. Complaining leads also to us losing the savour of the eternal gifts that are promised and perhaps losing the gifts themselves.

Why such terrible losses as a result of complaining? Because if we persevere in it we lose the capacity to receive what is given to us for what it is, a gift. The original sin means laying hold on the gift as if it is ours by right and so not a gift at all. It means ignoring the Giver to focus on the gift, another way of destroying its character as a gift. Then we receive life with, at best, a bad grace, and, at worst, with no grace at all.

So our ancestors complained and laid hold on the bread they had been given. But, says Jesus, they are dead. It is a salutary warning. The insidious power of consumerism messes with our desires and turns all our relationships into commercial ones. We are not sure any longer of the difference between what we want and what we need. It remains a present challenge, to appreciate the gifts of God for what they are. Even the natural gifts of trees and rain, tigers and weather, bread and wine.

The alternative to the complaining that makes us grasping and depressed and that leads to death is faith: the believer has eternal life, Jesus teaches us. The believer, open to receive, is drawn by the Father to Christ. Being drawn is a very different kind of capacity to grasping but who is to say that it is not actually a great deal stronger - indeed, infinitely so. People made able to be drawn in this way shall all be taught by God, they will hear (another kind of receptiveness) and will learn from the Father.

One way of receiving today's readings then (one among many) is that they give a teaching about desire, and how to approach life as a gift. It is all there, for us: how are we to receive it? By (imagine) imitating God (Ephesians 5:2), by following Christ who is the bread of life (therefore by eating him, the living bread). It means living eucharistically. And more will be unfolded about this as we continue to read through John 6.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Saint Clare -- 11 August

Saint Clare of Assisi (1194 - 1253)

In a letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, written towards the end of her life, St Clare of Assisi uses the image of a mirror to develop her thoughts about following Christ, what Christians call 'the spiritual life'. In the mirror, Clare says, we can see 'blessed poverty, holy humility, inexpressible charity'. Curiously, these are the same three virtues mentioned by St Dominic in his last words to his brothers: 'have charity, serve humility, possess voluntary poverty'.

Clare develops the image of the mirror as follows. The border of the mirror is poverty. It represents the birth of Christ. The surface of the mirror is humility. It represents the labours and burdens Christ endured for the redemption of the whole human race. The depth of the mirror is charity. It represents Christ's suffering on the Cross and his death there.

In the mirror appears Christ on the Cross - this is what we see when we look into its depths. We see ourselves in a mirror - and now we see Christ also. She refers to Wisdom 7:26 which speaks of wisdom as a spotless mirror reflecting God. Look into this mirror and find wisdom.

Clare offers us a progression or programme for the spiritual life, or at least she hints at one. Different terms are used for how we dispose ourselves in relation to the border, the surface and the depth of the mirror. We are to attend to the first, we are to consider the second, and we are to contemplate the third. There is a deepening of our regard in relation to the mirror as we enter more fully into what it has to reveal.

She offers us an alternative to Narcissus. He looked and saw his own reflection and fell in love with that. We are to look and see not just ourselves but Christ. We see ourselves and our Divine Lord. Putting it dramatically we can say that we see the light of goodness and the heart of darkness in that mirror which is the Cross. But the Cross, our mirror, remains our only hope (spes unica), the wisdom and the power of God.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross -- 9 August

Saint Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein, 1891 - 1942)

Today's saint, otherwise known as Edith Stein, was a philosopher. She was a lover - that is a seeker or searcher - after wisdom and truth. Christianity encourages such searching and has always seen in philosophy an ally in the pursuit and proclamation of the truth. The Fourth Eucharistic Prayer includes among its intentions 'all who seek you with a sincere heart', thus blessing the endeavours of the philosophers. John Paul II published an encyclical letter in 1998 that is dedicated to reflecting on the relationship between faith and reason, the two wings by which the human mind rises to truth. The Christian faith is confident that any sincere search for the truth must lead to Christ who is the Truth. Edith Stein is a striking example of this journey in the 20th century. In the 2nd century there is an earlier striking example in St Justin Martyr, another philosopher with a sincere heart who considered all the possible philosophical positions on offer until his mind found its fulfillment in the Christian faith.

Edith Stein was a modern woman, a professional academic, whose lifestyle and situation when she was younger were those of the early 20th century blue-stocking. It was her encounter with the life of another woman, from a very different era, but likewise independent and strong-willed, that led her to the Catholic faith. We are told that she stayed up all night reading the Autobiography of St Teresa of Avila, at the end of which Edith said, 'This is the truth'. It was not the end of her thinking or her searching: these were simply transposed into a different key. Faith does not extinguish reason or drown it: rather does it deepen reason, directing it to new questions, and giving it a depth and a reach that left to itself it would not have.

Thus we find Edith Stein translating the De veritate of St Thomas Aquinas: hers was the first German translation of this great work which considers the life of minds, the mind of God, the mind of angels, and the mind of human beings. Each kind of mind handles truth with a view to goodness, in radically different ways, but in ways that are nevertheless related so that the reality of the human being as 'image of God' is developed at great length.

Another re-orientation of reason that comes about through faith is the invitation to consider sin and evil once again only now in the light of the cross of Jesus. In her last work De scientia crucis she expounds the cross-centred spirituality of St John of the Cross. The work remains unfinished, perhaps interrupted by the arrival of the Gestapo to transport her and her sister to the death camps. The wise person, the true philosopher, knows not only about things, but comes to know things, learning through experience. And so she entered fully into the mystery of the Cross and tasted the bitter glory of martyrdom.

She was, finally, a Jew. Her canonisation was controversial. Did she die because she was a Jew or because she was a Christian? The true answer seems to be 'both'. In herself she recapitulates a complex relationship, complex historically and theologically, beginning with Romans 9-11 from the hands of Paul the Christian Jew and continuing still. We can think of her as patron also of this complex work of reconciliation and understanding between Catholics and Jews. All that she was fits her for this, her intelligence and her sincerity of heart, her knowledge and understanding of philosophy and culture, her faith and devotion and her ever-deepening love for Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life.