Friday, 25 November 2011

The Ascent to God

St Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum or The Soul’s Journey Into God is based around the image of the six-winged Seraph seen by St Francis on the slopes of Mount Alverna; a vision that imprinted on him the living seal of the Stigmata. According to Isaiah, “each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew” (6:2). This image may be considered a private revelation to Francis by one of the Seraphim, who presents him with an image of the Crucified that is also an intimation of the divinized form of Man, of Francis himself as the saint he will one day become, transformed by God’s grace.

According to Bonaventure’s interpretation, the two lower wings of the figure correspond to the human body, the second pair to the soul, and the third to the spirit. In several prophetic visions of the seraphim, their wings are covered in eyes to signify consciousness. Thus they represent three types of consciousness – as

Sunday, 20 November 2011

How "Made New"?

"Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17).

As I argue in All Things Made New, this is perhaps the key insight of Christianity – that the coming of Christ changes everything – which the Book of Revelation expresses in rich imaginative language, and the prayers of the Rosary celebrate and penetrate through repeated meditation. The "new" is not yet fully revealed. It is visible to the eyes of faith, and it walked the earth in the days before the Ascension of our Lord into heaven. It is the Resurrection, the world of matter and time made over again by the Creator, purified through death, losing nothing that is of value, and raised into the spiritual world.

Our life is hidden in Christ – that is, our new life, which grows in us as the old continues to pass away, until we find ourselves caught up in the flow of love between the Persons of the Trinity. But how do we know this to be so? People today are reluctant to believe things on "faith", but that is because they oppose faith to experience. "Give me experience and I will believe (if I choose)." In Hebrews 11:1, on the other hand, faith is defined as the "reality" or "substance" (hupostasis, meaning something or someone to be relied upon) of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen. Faith may operate in the dark, but when we do find ourselves in the dark we rely on other senses than sight, particularly hearing and touch. This is perhaps the best analogy. Faith is a supernatural gift akin to the opening of a new sense, enabling us to hold on to a truth that our bodily eyes are simply not yet suited to grasp.

The Book of Revelation is a translation into visual images and symbolic language of the truths grasped by faith. John knows that creation in its entirety has always been ordered towards the Incarnation. Its order and intelligibility are due not to its being a pale imitation of the One, but to the presence within it of the God-Man. This presence is brought about by an action, by God’s willing to give himself both in eternity and in time – and the latter intention necessitates the creation. The universe is grounded in the freedom of love. The wellspring of this Johnannine tradition, that flows down through the Letters and Revelation through to mystical writers such as Dionysius and Eriugena, is to be found in the Prologue to John's Gospel and the Farewell Discourses, where Jesus speaks of the overcoming of the world and his own glorification, the indwelling of the Son in the Father and of the believers in the Trinity.

John Scotus Eriugena describes faith using another metaphor, based on Jesus's words in Scripture. Faith is a seed, like a mustard seed, "a certain principle from which knowledge of the Creator begins to emerge in rational nature." Faith is not an alternative to knowledge, but the beginning of a certain mystical knowledge or experience of God, which leads to him as it matures. It is the awakening of the supernatural life of the soul, the seed of the fruit of the Word. See his commentary on the Prologue in The Voice of the Eagle.

(Readers may also be interested in the very fine philosophical and textual commentary The Beginning of the Gospel of John by James R. Mensch, which is available online minus the Greek.)

Friday, 18 November 2011

Lectio Divina

One of the greatest gifts of St Benedict to our civilization was the daily practice of lectio divina or "spiritual reading", which has now spread from the monasteries to enrich the whole Church. The basic steps are outlined in Verbum DominiLectio divina is an attentive and reflective pondering of sacred scripture, so that it becomes prayer (CCC, 1177). It enables the believer to “hear God’s Word as it speaks to us, ever personally, here and now” (Pope Benedict). Magnificat has been running a series of lectio meditations each month, and the following example is taken from the November 2011 issue. It is a reflection on Matthew 25: 14-30.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Mysteries of the Rosary

The second half of All Things Made New reflects on the mysteries of Christ through the eyes of Mary, and borrows its structure from the prayers and meditations of the Holy Rosary: that is, from the Creed which affirms the whole apostolic faith of the Church (traditionally understood to be composed of twelve parts corresponding to the twelve Apostles), the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, and the Way of the Cross (an expansion of the Sorrowful Mysteries). Whether or not, as legend has it, the Rosary was revealed to St Dominic by Our Lady herself in a vision from heaven, it certainly reflects and evokes a "Marian spirit" of prayer, which is the inner attitude of wonder, gratitude, awe, and love – of seeking to know and to do the will of God "on earth as it is in heaven" and in every moment. Mary is a bridge between earth and heaven, an immaculate or heavenly garden while on earth, raised to heaven in her body as the beginning of the new creation in her Son.

The Rosary is a very "metaphysical" prayer. Mary is like the primordial waters lying open before the life-giving action of God at the beginning of the world. By praying we are trying to become like her, receptive to the will of God. Mary’s fiat ("Let it be to me according to your word") echoes God’s fiat ("Let there be light") in the very beginning of creation, and her Son’s fiat ("Let not my will but thine be done") in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22: 42).

The five Joyful, five Sorrowful and five Glorious mysteries describe the life of human childhood, the adult life and the supernatural life. Taken as applying to the individual soul they describe, first, the life of the soul as it opens itself to grace, second as it struggles to follow Christ, and finally as it experiences the transformation wrought by grace. Blessed John Paul II introduced a further set of five "Luminous" mysteries to be prayed between the Joyful and the Sorrowful. These summarize Christ’s public ministry between his Baptism and his Passion (the Baptism in the Jordan, the Miracle at Cana, the Preaching of the Kingdom, the Transfiguration, and the Eucharist).

Ancient and medieval thinkers found symbolic significance in numerical patterns. The Apostles’ Creed through which one enters the Rosary has twelve sections, like the gates of the New Jerusalem. The Lord’s Prayer which begins each sequence has seven, like the seven sacraments or the seven days of creation. The Glory Be with which each sequence ends is Trinitarian. Each sequence of beads is made up of ten Hail Marys, ten being the sum of seven and three, itself symbolic of the expansion of the totality of numbers contained in One. A Rosary contains five mysteries, five being the number of life and growth, found especially in flowers and leaves. (Five is also closely related to the Golden Ratio and thus to many aspects of beauty in nature.)

By the addition of the five Luminous Mysteries, bringing the number of rosaries to four, Pope John Paul II seems to have brought the ancient tradition to its completion. The fourfold structure of the Mysteries recalls the fourfold Gospels, and each of the four sets of Mysteries corresponds to one of the Gospels in a special way. The Joyful Mysteries correspond to the Gospel of Matthew, whose symbol is a Man and who emphasizes the titles “Son of Man”, “Son of Abraham”, “Son of David”. The Sorrowful correspond to Luke, whose symbol is the Ox and whose Gospel emphasizes the role of Jesus as sacrificial victim. The Luminous would then correspond with Mark, whose symbol is the Lion, and who proclaims the divine power of the Lord. Finally the Glorious Mysteries can be associated with John, whose symbol is the Eagle, and who teaches us the most about the intimate relationship between the Son and his heavenly Father.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

How to read the Bible

As longs the deer for running streams,
So longs my soul for Christ, the Well:
From him, the living waters flow
Through wastes where withered spirits dwell.

These lines from a popular hymn evoke the picture in the title of this blog, which is a detail from the ceiling above the shrine of Our Lady of Oxford. They express the yearning for living waters that we feel as we approach Sacred Scripture. A rich discussion by Adrian Walker of Scripture as "living water" especially in the thought of Benedict XVI was published in Second Spring and Communio and may be found online here.

In All Things Made New I provide a summary of the current state of Biblical scholarship, which is in the process of outgrowing an obsession with historical-critical interpretation. In the Middle Ages it was commonplace to speak of the four

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Unveiling

The Apocalypse ("Unveiling") has long been a challenge to exegetes. In fact it is one of the most mysterious works of the inspired imagination known to humanity. It is more than a vision of the End Times, with the great battles and judgments depicted in paintings throughout the Middle Ages. It is a vision of the underlying structures of the cosmos, and the reality of the spiritual life. The City that descends out of heaven in the final chapters of that great book is the City of the human soul, redeemed and purified, and of the community of eternals – a human and angelic society that is the goal and fulfilment of history. Permeated with

John and Mary

In the next few posts, I want to reflect on some elements in the book All Things Made New. I have already situated it in the context of mystagogy, or the attempt to penetrate more deeply into the richness of Christian teachings for the sake of truer conversion. The blurb explains that "The shattering impact of the Incarnation was felt first by the Mother of Jesus and by his closest disciples. Its meaning was best understood by Mary as she pondered these things in her heart, and the beloved disciple, John, who took her into his home. Mary and John at the foot of the Cross are witnesses and teachers of the mystery of God’s love." Thus

Is Christianity Esoteric?

“For He was sent not only to be known but also to remain hidden” – Origen.

The term “esotericism” dates from the nineteenth century (along with “mysticism” and “occultism”). In his book Guenonian Esoterism and Christian MysteryJean Borella describes it as a form of hermeneutic “apt for the opening of our consciousness to the presence of the Spirit hidden in revealed forms and sometimes under the appearance of the most baffling symbols,” developed for an age in which the sense for symbolism and tradition has long been in retreat – relating this also to Saint Paul’s contrast between the letter and the spirit, and the mystagogical catechesis of the Alexandrian Church Fathers.

Strictly speaking, there is no Esoteric Christianity, in the sense of a secret teaching different from that which you will find in the Catechism and known only by a inner ring or elite, because Christianity by its nature dissolves boundaries like that. It is itself a kind of Esoteric Judaism turned inside out and offered to the world. There is something bizarre about this. It is pearls cast before swine, riches trampled in the mire. Jesus talks of this in the parable of the Wedding Banquet, where the Lord in the story drags the hedgerows and street corners for riff-raff to fill his table, the honoured guests having declined to attend.

There is no Esoteric Christianity; there is, however, a Christian Esoterism. (See longer article.) Anyone can pick up a pearl, but only a few know what to do with it. "Even so truly a ‘church of the people’ as the Catholic Church does not abolish genuine esotericism. The secret path of the saints is never denied to one who is really willing to follow it. But who in the crowd troubles himself over such a path?" – Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Jean Borella

“Having set out in search of the secret of Charity, one day I ‘encountered’ Trinitarian theology… I went back to ancient doctrines like a delighted child going from discovery to discovery, from treasure to treasure, from marvel to marvel…. Drinking in the freshness of the ages, I felt my Christian soul revive. Henceforth it was impossible to repudiate the source of our faith, impossible not to offer it to drink.” (Jean Borella, The Secret of the Christian Way, p. 3.)
An important reference-point for today's revival of metaphysical Christianity is the work of Jean Borella, a Catholic Traditionalist who has in recent years distanced himself from Frithjof Schuon, having concluded that both Schuon and Guénon had failed to understand some crucial elements of the Christian tradition (as

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Trinitarian Man

What is man? For Descartes, and for most of us unconsciously, man is a compound of body and soul; that is, a body and various mental states and faculties uneasily stitched together. But the traditional conception of man is rather more sophisticated, and needs to be recovered. We see a reference to it in St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (5:23): “spirit and soul and body”.

Cardinal Henri de Lubac devoted a long essay to the development and subsequent neglect of Pauline tripartite anthropology in the Christian West (it can be found in the volume Theology in History, published by Ignatius Press in 1996).

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Spirit of Assisi

Religious differences as a factor in social violence has become a familiar theme, and one which the New Atheists make much of. In October at Assisi, the Pope invited to a gathering of religious believers a number of agnostics, led by Julia Kristeva – people “people to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God.” He saw that such seekers are the true allies of the faithful. They seek truth and goodness. They are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace.” “They ask questions of both sides,” never giving up hope in “the existence of truth and in the possibility and necessity of living by it.” But they will not settle easily and blindly into faith. They challenge the followers of religions “not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others.” This is the critique we need, for believers have done more harm than good by their attempts to manipulate others into faith. Once again, we see the importance of keeping faith in harmony with reason, because it is unreasonable to trust hypocrites. Unfortunately, physical violence in the name of faith is only the tip of the iceberg: violence begins with judgment and rejection, fear and resentment, anger and pride. The path to peace is the path of prayer and opening to grace, which alone can renew the face of the earth.

For an interesting article on the Pope's approach to inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue, by Gabriel Richi-Alberti of Oasis, go here.

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Lord's Prayer

In my new book (see below) I include a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, and in The Seven Sacraments (on the right) I tried to show how the seven petitions of the Prayer correspond to other patterns of seven in the Christian tradition, and to the needs of the human heart. But there is always more to say about this Prayer, so deceptively simple and yet profound. One of the most fascinating and richest expositions I have ever seen is G. John Champoux’s The Way to Our Heavenly Father, which shows how the whole of Scripture and all the spiritual teachings of the Fathers can be organized and correlated with the various parts of the Prayer, as though before our eyes the entire Christian revelation was flowering and refolding back into the one Prayer. The collection consists not of detailed commentary (although there are