Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Animals in heaven

Will there be animals in heaven? There certainly are. The Book of Revelation (4:7) tells us that around the Throne of God, on each side of it, there are four living creatures "full of eyes" in front and behind: "the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle".

The symbolism is ancient, and I discuss it in All Things Made New. John himself is echoing Ezekiel's vision during the time of the Babylonian exile (1:10), and the image recalls the Babylonian sphinxes or composite creatures known as "cherubims". They also represent the four fixed signs of the Zodiac; that is, the four corners of the celestial cosmos: Aquarius the winged

Sunday, 25 December 2011

"On earth as it is in heaven"

The Lord's Prayer itself is composed of eight elements, the first of which invokes the Father, the remainder consisting of seven petitions. The first three elements in fact invoke all three persons of the Holy Trinity, as St Maximus explains:
"The words of the Lord's Prayer point out the Father, the Father's name, and the Father's kingdom to help us learn from the source himself to honour, to invoke, and to adore the one Trinity. For the name of God the Father is the only-begotten Son, and the kingdom of God the Father is the Holy Spirit."
If the "name" is the Son, then when the Lord tells Moses (Numbers 6: 22-7) to "call down my name on the sons of Israel" and bless them with the words, "May the Lord let his face shine on you and be gracious to you", he is instructing them

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

"Formed by divine teaching, we dare to say..."

In the new translation of the Roman Missal, the Lord's Prayer is introduced with the words, "At the Saviour's command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say..." The prayer itself is so familiar to us that we often forget that it was given to the disciples in the context of a series of instructions about how to pray it. What is this teaching in which we have been "formed"?

In Matthew 6: 5-15 the Prayer is taught in the context of the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5, 6, and 7), which concerns the various dimensions of the living of the Christian life, beginning with the Beatitudes which form the portrait of the perfect Christian. Immediately before the teaching on prayer, he speaks of the love of enemies and of almsgiving in secret. This leads him naturally to go on: "when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." This is the lead-in to the Lord's Prayer itself (6: 9-15), and it is paralleled by a passage at the end where he speaks of fasting: "when

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Dawn of the Real

We tend to think of "the Eucharist" as a "thing", a particular sacrament, albeit a very important one because it contains the Real Presence of Christ. We think of the Mass as an anamnesis, a living memorial or making present, of the Last Supper and of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. This is all true, but an Orthodox theologian, Fr Alexander Schmemann (d. 1983), opens up another perspective in his books Liturgy and Tradition and For the Life of the World.

Schmemann tells us that the Eucharist is first of all a state of existence. "Eucharist, thanksgiving, is the state of the innocent man, the state of paradise. Before sin, man's life was eucharistic, for 'eucharist' is the only relationship between God and man which transcends and transforms man's created condition" (Liturgy and Tradition, p. 111). "Eucharist", therefore, is a state of being, a state of complete dependence lived as "love, thanksgiving, adoration", and this is true innocence and freedom.

Original sin, he goes on, was "the loss of that eucharistic state", of the blissfully real life we had in love and communion with God. The Old Testament is a record of failed attempts to recover this eucharistic state. In the end, of course, it was restored to us in Christ. "His whole life, and he himself, was a perfect Eucharist, a full and perfect offering to God. Thus the Eucharist was restored to man."

Friday, 16 December 2011

Seeking the face of God

The Genesis account of the Creation and Fall, poetic and metaphysical, takes place in an archetypal landscape that lies behind our world and shapes it from within. In that sense, while we are conscious of the state of fallen nature, into which we have been exiled – it is evident in the facts of death and suffering and the weakness of our will – the archetypal landscape of Genesis is not entirely inaccessible. Chesterton speculated that the garden of Eden lies all around us still, only our eyes have changed so we cannot see it. There are some of the English mystics who have "cleansed their eyes" and seen paradise: Thomas Traherne, William Blake, and Samuel Palmer were among them. Traherne wrote: "Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake

Monday, 12 December 2011

The eyes of faith

The first volume of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord lays the foundation for a recovery of the lost art of reading "objective symbolism" and thus the deeper meanings of Scripture. In it the history of the tradition of the spiritual senses – faith as a "theological act of perception" – is thoroughly explored, and the importance of its recovery for our time is explained. The weakness of Christianity after the Enlightenment is due very largely to the distortions induced by rationalism, sentimentalism, moralism, and voluntarism. Balthasar writes (p. 140) that the integration of the act of perception back into our understanding of faith
"is not only of theological and theoretical interest; it is a vital question for Christianity today, which can only commend itself to the surrounding world if it first regards itself as being worthy of belief. And it will only do this if faith, for Christians, does not first and last mean 'holding certain propositions to be true' which are incomprehensible to human reason and must be accepted only out of obedience to authority." 
For a generation unwilling to accept the truths of faith on the authority of tradition or of the Church, there has to be an act of seeing into the words of Scripture and the events of history, which reveals not merely the logical consistency of a Creed,

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The language of the heart

If we read the works of the Church Fathers, especially the Alexandrians, one of the things we find is a gift of imaginative penetration into the language of symbolism. “Symbolism” here includes not just the humanly constructed symbols of art and poetry and liturgy, but the natural symbols of earth, air, fire and water, and all the forces and dimensions of nature. This tradition within Christianity did not cease with the Patristic Age. It flows down through all the great mystics and doctors of the Church to our own day. It is clearly manifest in the construction of the great cathedrals of Christendom.

If this intuitive vision or “depth-perception” has been neglected, if we are living only on the surface of our faith, if we have not been listening enough to our poets and visionaries, we will find, as we are finding now, that the faith our ancestors professed is easily dislodged as tumbleweed. It has no deep root in us, for we have not grasped its significance as the key to understanding the world – even

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Sacred Signs

The little book Sacred Signs by Romano Guardini is a model for a kind of mystagogical catechesis that is sorely lacking in today's Church. In order to appreciate the sacraments and sacramentals, we need to see that they employ a symbolic language that has much wider applications. This can help us see the whole world in a different way, as linked together not just by the causality investigated by modern science, but by analogies and resemblances that add other layers of meaning, and which speak of the "vertical causation" by which God reveals himself in creation. The translator of the book, Grace Branham, in her excellent Preface writes:
'Guardini's "Sacred Signs" was designed to begin our reeducation. It assumes that correspondence between man and nature, matter and meaning, which is the basis of the Sacramental System and made possible the Incarnation. Man, body and soul together, is made in the image and likeness of God. His hand, like God's, is an instrument of power. In the Bible "hand" means power. Man's feet stand for

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The three stages of Christian life

As I said at the end of The Seven Sacraments, "mystagogy" is the stage of exploratory catechesis that comes after apologetics, after evangelization, and after the so-called "sacraments of initiation" (Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation) have been received. Baptism and Confirmation may be given only once. Christian initiation, however, is a continuing adventure, since the grace of these sacraments is the source of a new life of prayer that must continue to grow, if it is not to wither and die.

One of the greatest of Christian masters of mystagogy, who wrote under a pseudonym around five hundred years after the birth of Christ, is Dionysius the Areopagite, sometimes called Saint Denys. His influence on Christian mysticism, art, and architecture (through, for example, the school of Chartres in eleventh century France) has been immeasurable, his orthodoxy assured by such admirers and interpreters as Maximus the Confessor in the East and Thomas Aquinas in the West.

Dionysius divided the Christian Way into three phases, which he called purification, illumination and union, and linked these to the three hierarchies of angels, who were thought to assist in each of these three phases—to put it