Monday, 30 May 2011

Giving it "up"

A scene from Leonie Caldecott's "The Quality of Mercy"
One of the main difficulties people have with Catholic belief is the notion of sacrifice. Actually, sacrifice is central in every religion, but very little is done to explain to young people what it means and why it is necessary. Here is one way of doing it.

We sacrifice something good, or enjoyable – we give it up – not as a punishment for sin, and not merely to demonstrate our obedience, but in order to obtain something better. Or rather, to make room in ourselves for something better that we hope for. Why get rid of something? To make room for something else. We give up food, or sleep, or sex, for the sake of something better – a sense of divine presence, or a more intimate union with God. We give up bad company in order to find good company. Naturally, as soon as we stop believing in that better thing, or its possibility, sacrifice will stop making sense to us.

It should be easy enough to explain, because this principle works in everyday life without any reference to religion at all. I give up snacks for the sake of slimming, I give up a lazy afternoon in order to exercise, I give up my favourite TV programme in order to spend time with someone who needs me. This implies that there are some goods and pleasures – feeling healthy, seeing a friend – that are qualitatively better, “higher”, than others. Extend the principle to include goods that are better yet, and types of happiness even more powerful and refined, and the notion of religious sacrifice suddenly makes perfect sense.

As we kneel at Mass, giving ourselves to God by identifying with the bread and wine that the priest is about to offer on the altar, we are emptying ourselves in order to receive a new self, the life of Christ which he pours out for us on the Cross and in the sacraments.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Liturgical changes

The ongoing "reform of the reform" of the Catholic liturgy seems to be leading towards an interesting goal. As readers may know, the Old Rite has in the last few years been made once again widely available, and the New Rite promulgated by Paul VI after Vatican II is receiving a facelift, in the form of the new English translation of the Missal to be phased in from September. But Cardinal Kurt Koch recently let slip that “The Pope’s long-term aim is not simply to allow the old and new rites to co-exist, but to move toward a ‘common rite’ that is shaped by the mutual enrichment of the two Mass forms.” This did seem to be the implication of Cardinal Ratzinger's comments years ago at a conference I attended in Fontgombault. My own paper from that conference is available here.

Meanwhile, back to the facelift. We are running a series of articles on this in Magnificat (US and UK editions have different articles), and of course the new Mass texts will be available each month in Magnificat as needed. Elsewhere I recently ventured some thoughts of my own on one of the changes. The words by which the bread is consecrated remain pretty much the same as before: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you.” But the words spoken over the wine are changed. They were previously: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.” Those are the familiar words, but now they read, in the revised translation: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.”

In the new version, the words “for many” replace “for all”. This is done on the grounds that

Sunday, 15 May 2011


When I was briefly with a Tibetan teacher, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, I was shown a form of Dzogchen meditation that involved allowing thoughts and feelings and images in the soul to come and go. The essential thing was to allow them to flow without following them, without identifying with them as we normally do. In this way we penetrate to a deeper level of the self – Buddhists might say beyond the self altogether. Our usual state is one in which we identify with the flow of our thoughts, and create a false self that is mightily invested in things that don’t last. Let go of that, and you can allow yourself just to “be” without knowing who or what you are (a “feather on the breath of God”, as Hildegard says). After all – from a Christian point of view – only God knows us anyway.

Christians often criticize Buddhists for being turned inward on themselves, introverted, passive in the face of evil and suffering. Buddhists reciprocate by seeing Christians in flight from interiority, losing themselves in outward show and a well-intentioned activism (rooted in the false self and its judgments) that only makes the world a worse place. Yet the inward and the outward, contemplation and action, are not necessarily in opposition. The Buddhist is seeking a reality that lies beyond the false self. The Christian believes we become our true selves by doing what God gives us to do. Buddhist detachment closely resembles complete abandonment to God and his providence.

The statements of many Christian and Buddhist mystics can sound very much alike. Of course, Christians refer to God, whereas Buddhists do not. But, again, the “God” that Buddhists deny is a false God, just as the self they deny is a false self. In each case it is an idol we have fashioned for ourselves. “We will know God to the extent that we are set free from ourselves.” That was said by Pope Benedict XVI (see Magnificat, August 2011, p. 384). And Catherine of Siena (cited on p. 44 of the same issue of Magnificat) writes: “We rejoice and are content with whatever God permits: sickness or poverty, insult or abuse, intolerable or unreasonable commands. We rejoice and are glad in everything, and we see that God permits these things for our profit and perfection. I’m not surprised that we are, then, free from suffering, since we have shed the cause of suffering – I mean self-will grounded in self-centredness – and have put on God’s will grounded in charity.”

Catherine would probably say the Buddhist has “shed the cause of suffering” but has not yet “put on God’s will grounded in charity”. Pity and compassion, which Buddhism possesses in abundance, are not the same as love, which is directed towards the affirmation of the true self, not the dissolution of the false. Henri de Lubac SJ, in his excellent study, Aspects of Buddhism (1953), writes that without the fullness of charity, no one will ever realize the "void" of detachment. Buddhism lacks this fullness; it can take you only half way. But this should not cause the Christian feel superior to the Buddhist. Smugness would be a sign that the Christian has not yet achieved even the first half of his journey. And can we really say the second half is only open to those who possess the relevant conceptual apparatus?

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Meister Eckhart

The German mystic Meister Eckhart is often viewed with suspicion by orthodox Catholics, and cited with approval by those who think he overcame the limitations of Christian dogma and made common cause with his fellow mystics in other religions.

The reason why Eckhart often reads like a heretic is that he was concerned to express not our own knowledge as individual creatures, but the divine knowledge itself, basing himself in the “ground” of the soul. As he says, “only in the ground of the soul is God known as he is,” for there “the intellect knows as it were within the Trinity and without otherness”. This possibility of knowing God “as God knows God” is opened to man by the Hypostatic Union of divine and human natures in Christ. C.F. Kelley’s Meister Eckhart on Divine Knowledge (Yale University Press, 1977) is a masterly study of exactly this point. As Kelley explains:
“A genuine understanding of the principial mode, which is constituted as it were within Godhead, is an understanding of truth that is beyond the potentiality of human cognition, restricted as that cognition is to individuality. Insight into this truth is a possibility only by way of transcendent act, never by way of potentiality. Yet the revelation of the Word is that transcendent act as assented to by the intellect when moved by the detached will to know.” 
When the perennialist Alvin Moore Jr reviewed Kelley’s book some years ago in Studies in Comparative Religion, he noted with stern disapproval the fact that Kelley (in Eckhart’s name) “equates the Godhead with the Trinity, sachchidananda with nirguna Brahman.” This goes to the heart of the matter. Kelley refuses, in his interpretation of Eckhart, to follow Schuon’s distinction between Being and Beyond-Being (that is, between the “relatively” Absolute and the “absolute” Absolute, thus relegating the Trinity to a subordinate status), or the related distinction between form and substance in the religions which underpins The Transcendent Unity of Religions.

Kelley’s exposition hinges instead on esse or Being, which he translates as isness, the “act or isness of pure knowledge itself, or Godhead”, the “all-inclusive Reality” (p. 42). He even cites Dionysius in support of Eckhart: “We apply the titles of ‘Trinity’ and ‘Unity’ to that which is beyond all titles, designating under the form of Being that which is beyond Being” (p. 30). Kelley means by all this that the Trinity is not, as Schuon would say, simply the “prefiguration of Manifestation in the Principle”, or the relatively Absolute which stands at the summit of Maya, but is itself the unconditioned Absolute about which “nothing can be said” – save what God authorizes us to say. I have written further about this in "Trinity and Creation: An Eckhartian Perspective".

Also recommended is Cyprian Smith OSB, The Way of Paradox (DLT) and Commentaries on Meister Eckhart Sermons by Sylvester Houedard OSB.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Christian non-dualism

Two men and a bird...? Images of the Trinity are not uncommon in Christian art, but they have all to be taken with a pinch of salt.

The Trinity is one of the distinctive doctrines of Christianity. It goes hand in hand with the doctrine of the Incarnation, since if Jesus Christ was God, and at the same time the Son of God, there must be a distinction between God and God. The implications were worked out several centuries after the resurrection and ascension of Christ, giving Unitarians the opportunity to argue that the doctrine was a mere human invention. I think it can be shown that Scripture does imply and even teach the Christian Trinity. But does the doctrine make sense, metaphysically? As I wrote previously, the Sufi author of The Transcendent Unity of Religions, Frithjof Schuon, does not think so.

Schuon writes in Christianity/Islam (p. 97): “what Islam blames Christianity (not the Gospels) for is not that it should admit of a Trinity within God, but that it should place this Trinity on the same level as the divine Unity; not that it should attribute to God a ternary aspect, but that it should define God as triune, which amounts to saying either that the Absolute is triple or else that God is not the Absolute.”

But if this is what Islam thinks, then Islam blames Christianity for a sin it does not commit. The Church teaches that the Absolute is both One and Three, but not in the numerical sense, not “triple”, as if one could place the three Persons side by side and count them. As Meister Eckhart writes in his Commentary on Exodus, “God is one, outside and beyond number, and is not counted with anything”, and adds that in the Godhead “the same essence and the same act of existence which is the Paternity is the Sonship: the Father is what the Son is. Nevertheless, the Father himself is not the Person who is the Son, nor is the Paternity the Sonship.” Eckhart’s teaching is implied in this simple statement by St Augustine, cited by Joseph Ratzinger in his classic Introduction to Christianity (p. 183): “He is not called Father with reference to himself but only in relation to the Son; seen by himself he is simply God.” The Trinity is not a view of God from the outside – despite its symbolic depiction in Christian art – but is a secret of his interior life, of his relations with himself.

Islam’s inability to grasp all this is, of course, perfectly understandable. It cannot be grasped. We cannot “know” the Trinity, for the Trinity itself is something we can only accept in faith as Eckhart did, by assenting to the revelation of the Word. If a Muslim assented to that revelation, he would become a Christian. We can never get “outside” the Trinity in order to grasp it as an object. It is within the Trinity that we ourselves are grasped and understood, and “then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor. 13:12), but not otherwise.

If you like, read my "Face to Face: The Difference Between Christian and Hindu Non-Dualism".

Illustration: Holy Trinity, by Luca Rossetti da Orta, 1738-9, from Wikimedia.