Monday, 24 December 2012

Beauty is born

The poet Coventry Patmore once wrote of the Incarnation that it is not merely an event which occurred two thousand years ago, but one that is "renewed in the body of every one who is in the way to the fulfilment of his original destiny" (RRF, "Homo", XIX). In the birth of Christ the revelation of that destiny begins, because the One who is born is the new Adam, the new archetype of humanity. It is like an opening at the centre of the world, just when it seemed that there was no escape. In that opening is a space wider than the world, in which all the possibilities of life and love are set free. Our own humanity is reborn in his, our light rekindled. The beauty that will save us opens his arms to us, and shows us his face.

The Adoration of the Magi, by Lorenzo Monaco, c. 1425.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Revelation as Mystagogy

Much recent scholarship suggests that the Book of Revelation (literally ‘unveiling’) was intended not so much as a prediction of future events at the end of history, but as a mystagogical commentary on the Divine Liturgy or the Mass. As such it was intended to be read aloud to assist the active and conscious participation of the congregation. Scott Hahn gives a detailed liturgical reading to Revelation in The Lamb’s Supper, and more succinctly in the final chapter of his book on the history of the Covenant, A Father Who Keeps His Promises. Austin Farrer had already indicated in the middle of the last century that the pattern of the book is not one of earthly history,
but of celestial liturgy performed by Christ and the angels: the taking and unsealing of a book, the offering of incense, the blowing of trumpets; the opening of a heavenly temple, revealing the Ark of the Covenant and a series of other portents on high; the pouring of libations from angelic bowls. (The Revelation of St John the Divine, p. 23.)
The liturgy portrayed is one that fulfils the purpose of the Jewish Temple and brings it to an end, so that ‘in the world to come there is no sanctuary other than the presence of God and of the Lamb.’

The rhetorical symmetry of the Book of Revelation does seem to reflect the likely structure of the early Christian liturgy. The pattern is threefold: beginning with a rite of preparation and repentance that opens the faithful to the Word, moving on to an exposition of the Scriptures, and ending with a Communion in the Body and Blood of the Lamb, by which the Christian is finally converted into a prophet and agent of his Lord. Then the threefold pattern reverses, and we are taken back to the beginning. Read in this way, the Book of Revelation is intended to have a spiral structure that leads us up to the Eucharist, then back at a higher level to the beginning of the liturgy. Thus an endless cycle of meditation is created, penetrating ever more profoundly into the Word of God and leading us closer to the liturgy of heaven.

I have explored this idea in All Things Made New, and in an article on the New Liturgical Movement website. If it is true, then Revelation makes a fitting conclusion to the Bible, echoing the Book of Genesis with its own sevenfold theme, and providing a key to the reading of the Liturgy that unites heaven with earth as the culmination of the history of the Covenant. Whether it also reflects disasters that will afflict us at the end of time as Judgement draws near is another question.  

Friday, 2 November 2012

A prayer to Our Lady

Mystical Rose, I praise God's glory unfolding in you.
Tower of David, fortress of truth, pray for us.
Tower of Ivory, beautiful as the dawn, pray for us.
House of Gold, tabernacle of sweetness, pray for us.
Ark of the Covenant, tent of divine mercy, pray for us.
Gate of Heaven, entrance to paradise, pray for us.
Morning Star, star of the sea, pray for us.
Immaculate Pilgrim, light beyond hope, pray for us.
Mother of Fairest Love, Mother of divine beauty,
Mother of all graces, Mother of God, pray for us.

Illustration: Mother of Mercy at the Gate of Dawn, Vilnius. For more on this shrine, go here.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Thoughts on the Catechism 2

AUTHORITY. So what authority does the Catechism have? It is issued in the name of the whole (Catholic) Church, under the authority of the Pope, after long consultation with all the world's bishops, and it claims no originality – but simply to be weaving together "an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine, as regards both faith and morals, in the light of the Second Vatican Council and the whole of the Church's Tradition. Its principal sources are the Sacred Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy, and the Church's Magisterium [authority]. It is intended to serve 'as a point of reference for the catechisms or compendia that are composed in the various countries'" [11].

It is an expression, therefore, of the "ordinary" magisterium of the Church. This is not the same as having the irreformability of a Papal "definition" of a particular dogma, since the text can be revised if better formulations are devised, or to adjust to changing circumstances and avoid ambiguities. In fact there have been several such revisions since the first English edition was published in 1994. Nor

Friday, 26 October 2012

Thoughts on the Catechism 1

In this Year of Faith, it seems a good thing to work through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and ponder some of the key themes and ideas. Alternatively, one might go through the spin-offs, YouCat, or the Compendium of the Catechism. If your interest is social teaching, there is also the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. I am finding the Magnificat Year of Faith Companion tremendously helpful. It contains daily reading for this year and any year on the nature of faith, profiles of key figures of salvation history, poems, prayers, and meditations on scripture. CTS also have many helpful booklets.

In these very personal notes that follow, I will be dipping in and looking at Faith (below), Authority, God, Creation, Original Sin, and so on, as part of my own spiritual enquiry for the Year of Faith. You are welcome to join me. I don't claim any authority for my statements, which are just one attempt to deepen my appreciation of the Church's teaching and to examine any difficulties that may emerge along the way.

Let's begin with FAITH. I gave some relevant quotes in a previous post, but the idea I want to start from now is a quotation from Pope Benedict in a Litany of quotations selected for the Magnificat Year of Faith Companion: "Faith entails the shift from dependence on the visible and practicable to trust in the invisible." This brings out why exactly it is so seemingly impossible to believe. Trust the invisible?

Thursday, 25 October 2012


There was a striking reading at Mass on 21 October, from the Book of Isaiah (53:10-11). It read:
"The Lord has been pleased to crush his servant with suffering. If he offers his life in atonement, he shall see his heirs, he shall have a long life and through him what the Lord wishes will be done. His soul’s anguish over, he shall see the light and be content. By his sufferings shall my servant justify many, taking their faults on himself."
I have written about "sacrifice" here, here and here, but there is so much more to discover. How do we "offer" something to God – especially suffering? In the case of pain, all one wants to do is to get rid of it, so it is easy to imagine offering it to God to take away. But this is not what is meant.

There is no shame in begging, if it be God's will, for some pain to be taken away. But what if it remains with us? Does it mean that God doesn't care? This is part of the larger question of suffering in the world, including innocent suffering. I would try to answer it in several steps. First, by arguing that there is no suffering greater than the suffering of one man. Second, that Jesus is that one man than whose suffering there is no greater in the world. Third, that the aim of God in becoming incarnate is to incorporate us into his own extended body. Fourth, that he even wants to involve us in the process by which we are incorporated – that is, our own salvation.

The first point was well put by the philosopher Wittgenstein. Suffering does not accumulate. Each of us suffers only what we are given to suffer, and no more. I may sympathize with my neighbour, and that sympathy may add to my own

Sunday, 21 October 2012


A "novena" is a Catholic devotion involving nine consecutive days of prayer or spiritual preparation. I am immensely grateful for all those who prayed a novena recently for my health, at my family's request. That novena was addressed to God on behalf of Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St Therese of Lisieux (shown in this icon of the Martin family). Whatever the results in terms of my own health, I know those who prayed for me will be richly blessed for doing so, for God is the beginning and end of prayer, and all prayer brings us closer to him.

But why nine days? It is often said to derive from the nine months that Jesus prepared in the womb of Mary before coming into the world, or the nine days the Apostles prayed in the Upper Room following the instructions of Jesus, before the Holy Spirit descended on them at Pentecost. The Greeks and Romans also had novenas long before the Christians did. In Norse mythology, Odin hung upon the World Tree for nine days and nights before achieving a knowledge of the Mysteries and of the resurrection. All Things Made New and Beauty for Truth's Sake talk about the importance of number symbolism in all religious traditions.

In one tradition that is deeply entangled with our own, nine is one short of ten, the sacred number of the Pythagoreans which is also equivalent to the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God; so that the nine days of prayer can be said to take us to the end of human striving, leaving us open us to the grace we need to compete our journey to heaven. The nine days also represent the nine hierarchies of angels according to St Denys the Areopagite, so that each day brings us one step closer to the Father of Lights. May it be so for all of us.

Thursday, 18 October 2012


Magnificat, the monthly prayer guide and daily Missal, has partly inspired a similar monthly publication for Eastern or Byzantine-rite Catholics, which many Westerners may also be interested to read, called THEOSIS (the Greek word for "divinization"). It has more substantial articles than Magnificat, and is focused less on the daily Mass than on the daily Office, in accordance with the Eastern rite. The doctrine of theosis is expressed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church in para 460, based on patristic teaching: "The Son of God became man so that we might become God."

Saturday, 13 October 2012

What IS faith, anyway?

This is the "Year of Faith" in the Catholic Church. I assembled a number of reflections on faith in the "Christianity" (apologetics) section of our main site. Here are some of them:

"The instinct of faith is an uplifting of the heart and a reaching over and above everything that happens" (Caussade).

"Blessed are those who have believed in the invisible world which compels no belief in itself" (Nicholas Berdyaev).

"Fear (not doubt) is the opposite of faith" (Paul Ostreicher).

Faith cannot arise from a sense of duty: it is not even a settled state of intellectual conviction. Faith is an act of the heart, and only love can really move the heart. Faith therefore cannot be compelled, because love requires freedom. Faith is a free act, and a creative one.

"When I say, ‘God is’, or ‘Man is immortal’, I effect a creative act" (Nicholas Berdyaev).

"True freedom does not consist in manipulating possibilities but in creating them" (Raimundo Panikkar).

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Williams on de Lubac

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke in Rome recently very beautifully about contemplation and evangelization. The full text is here. In the course of a remarkable address, he mentions not just Henri de Lubac and St Edith Stein, but even Jacob Needleman's Lost Christianity. He says, “contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.”

Friday, 5 October 2012

Door of Faith

11 October sees the beginning of a Year of Faith in the Catholic Church, announced in the Pope's document Door of Faith (Porta Fidei). I wrote on 8 September about Doorways. Well, faith is the doorway through which we enter the life of the Church, the opening to an experience that leads from death to eternal life. In a very real sense, the symbol and model of this "saving faith" is the Blessed Virgin Mary, as this image painted on the two halves of a door in an Italian church suggests. Mary is, according to one of her titles in the Litany of Loreto, the GATE OF HEAVEN. Here is an image of the Annunciation, the moment when the angel appears to her and she accepts his word in faith that she will be the Mother of God's Son – and thus the cause of our salvation, being the way the fullness of divine grace enters the world. She conceives the Word in her womb by accepting the word in her heart.

Even her name is a doorway. In the Jesus Prayer, and whenever we use the Holy Name of Jesus, our attention is drawn to him who is both God and Man. When we use the Holy Name of Mary, for example in the Hail Mary or the Miraculous Medal prayer, we turn our minds from the world to its central point where the Lord enters in, which is the Virgin herself. In the first half of the Hail Mary, which repeats the words of the angel, we adopt the contemplative attitude of the angel as he gazes at the Seat of Wisdom, and in the second half, which repeats the words of Elizabeth, we invoke the prayers of the Mother of God, so that her prayer in a sense will flow around and into us "now and at the hour of our death". St Louis de Montfort calls the Hail Mary "a heavenly dew which waters the earth of our soul and makes it bear its fruit in due season." It causes the Word of God to take root in our soul as it did in Mary's, because it opens us in faith to receive the divine gift.

There are many wonderful resources for the Year of Faith, to help you live it more intensely. I am particularly looking forward to getting into the Magnificat Year of Faith Companion, which as you might expect if you already know MAGNIFICAT contains an incredible feast of spiritual readings for each day, prayers and devotions, and essays by a range of the very best writers and teachers, old and new (over 400 pocket-sized pages, beautifully bound). The Companion can be read on its own, or used as a supplement to the monthly Magnificat you may already subscribe to or see in church.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Sign of the Cross

The Cross is everywhere. The symbol of Christianity was based on a Roman instrument of torture, but the geometry of the Cross is so simple and universal that it speaks to everyone.

The figure of a human being with arms outstretched conjures the idea that the human person is the expression and reflection of the whole world – a microcosm. The cosmos is marked with a cross. The two lines meeting at right angles are the simplest way to locate a point, to fix a coordinate. The two dimensions of the plane surface receive from the cross a central point, or emanate from it. Stand it vertically and it represents the intersection of our reality with the hierarchy of others above and below us. 

All of this is going on when Christ carries the wood of the Cross to Calvary, where it is assembled and raised up to make the paradoxical throne from which he reigns in the midst of our darkness and pain. With him upon it, and his blood running down it, this simple wooden gibbet becomes the Tree of Life that ends our exile from Eden’s garden.

But we have to go through it, as one might go through a doorway. Christ dies on the Cross not so that we don’t have to, but so that he can be with us when we die. Because he dies like us, we don’t have to let go of his hand in death – or if we do he will hold us, to bring us back to life. He accompanies us, goes ahead of us, follows us, to rescue us. Death is a baptism; it is an Epiphany. The blood and water that pours from the Lord’s side into the chalice of the world is the sacred river of life, the river that runs through the heavenly city in the Book of Revelation.

The Pleiades, shown here, are the seven daughters of the Titan Atlas, changed into stars by Zeus. The idea of making people immortal by changing them into stars is a powerful one. There is a sense in which our destiny lies in the heavens, and these bright points of light, shining so far above this vale of tears, represent something we aspire to, but can only become if we are touched and elevated by divine grace. The Cross, where heaven and earth meet, is the sign of that contact and elevation.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Prayer in Revelation

Since All Things Made New is largely on this topic, I'll just mention that the Pope gave some interesting talks on Prayer in the Book of Revelation at his General Audience earlier in September. Here is Part One, and Part Two.

Saturday, 8 September 2012


What is it about doorways that fascinates people? It isn't too hard to work it out. Everything that exists is in some degree a symbol, a message, a word. It speaks of something else. Poetry brings out and capitalizes upon that eloquence of things, that magical web of analogy. Jacques Maritain's book Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry is all about that. A doorway is a particularly potent symbol, because it represents the transition between two places, or two states of being. (I find it surprising there is not more about doors in Rene Guenon's Symbols of Sacred Science.)

A closed door confronts us with mystery, a locked door with a secret. A door is designed for a human being to pass through, so the change of state or the mystery is something pertaining to the person as a whole. Doorways humanize a building by showing the point of entry, accommodating the building to the human form and to human use. Traditionally they are decorated and framed and embellished in ways that emphasize their symbolic function – steps leading up to the threshold, an arch or frieze above, pillars or statues on either side, these are not merely functional, or rather they refer to the symbolic and spiritual function of the door, which is to lead us towards our destiny. Death is a doorway; so is the birth canal. We may guess what lies on the other side, but we won't know for sure until we pass through.

Illustrations show the old door to the School of Metaphysics at the Bodleian Library, and the Romanesque entrance to St Mary's Church in Iffley, near Oxford. For more doors see here.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Understanding Revelation

I want to direct your attention to a wonderful series of commentaries on a Dominican blog where the Book of Revelation is unpacked and explored in easy stages and in great depth. OPENING THE BOOK OF REVELATION by Leo Checkai OP contains enough material for reflection and meditation to carry you right through Advent to Christmas.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Secret of the blackberry

This is the nearby riverside where I pick blackberries. The river is the Thames running through Oxford, where we call it "Isis", a name redolent of ancient mystery. But the blackberry has mysteries of its own.

In long-ago days my brother and I would climb the fence and reach into our neighbour's garden for the fat blackberries that grew there, which (I suppose we imagined) she had no use for. Sometimes we would even venture to place a foot to the ground, thus technically trespassing in her little paradise with its round brick-walled pond containing huge goldfish, under the spreading pear trees that, as in our garden, were the remains of an ancient orchard, and which in springtime became towering clouds of white blossom.

"I am black but beautiful"
The blackberry is bold. Amongst all the other flowers and fruit competing for attention with a riot of colour, she does the opposite and decides to be completely black. (Ironically the old lady who lived next door was a Mrs DuSoir.) Making herself black by absorbing all the colours of the rainbow, she transmutes them within herself and gives them back to us in the form of flavour. A flavour that for me, like that of fresh strawberries or peas raw from the pod, evokes the wonder of being a child in a world that has been newly made and beckons to be explored. It is a flavour, now, that heals and consoles. And the danger of the prickles does nothing but make it more enticing. The blackberry cannot be taken easily but must be won, at great personal risk.

There are sacred numbers at play in the blackberry. The leaflets number five, seven, or three; the petals five. (Pythagoras would get my drift.) But then, there are sacred numbers everywhere in nature – they are just the way she works. Any yet the blackberry is despised, for growing, all too quickly, by the roadside and in gardens where she is not wanted – gardens where the gardener thinks all must be soft and gentle to the touch. The blackberry is by her nature wild, and therefore she is a revelation of nature's heart, of Sophia, of the beauty that calls to us from the end of the world.

As I wander along river paths lined with wildflowers and watch the swans drifting idly under the drooping willows, as I pick the abundant blackberries that others ignore, I feel like Dante in Canto XXX of the Paradiso: "The loveliness I saw surpassed not only/ our human measure – and I think that, surely,/ only its Maker can enjoy it fully."

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The ground of the soul

In her final book, The Science of the Cross, completed just before she was taken to be killed by the Nazis, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – the philosopher Edith Stein – whose feast is celebrated today, described the human spirit as the inmost region of the soul, St Teresa of Avila’s “seventh dwelling place”, where God lives “all alone” as long as the soul has not reached the perfect union of love.

At this depth the life of the soul “precedes all splitting into different faculties”. “There the soul lives precisely as she is in herself, beyond all that will be called forth in her through created beings. Although this most interior region is the dwelling of God and the place where the soul is united to God, her own life flows out of here before the life of union; and this is so, even in cases where such a union never occurs. For every soul has an inmost region and its being is life.”

This life in the spirit is hidden even from the soul herself, and often our “I” dwells outside it, having been drawn out from this ground of the soul to a more

Monday, 6 August 2012

Spiritual warfare: 4

"For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." (Heb. 4: 12)

Do we see Holy Scripture as a "sword"? More often we treat it as a blanket.

The remark is by David Hicks, speaking about the way the Church Father read the Bible. But the author of Hebrews continues: "And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account." Thus the Sword of the Spirit is not an "it" but a "him", it is the Lord himself. The sword we must pick up is not merely the words of the Bible, which are marks on paper, but something "living and active". The Sword is able to pierce to the very heart, to the spirit within the soul, to the "marrow" in the bones.

The quotation comes from the end of a passage where the author is talking about the Sabbath rest of God, the seventh day, the day when God and his people cease from their labours. But what is the connection with spiritual warfare? The Sword is the warrior's weapon. It brings an end to the fight, in victory. It does so by bringing our energy and will to a point. It does so through enabling the ultimate discernment. Cutting away everything worldly, including the soul and the joints and the hypocrisy under which we hide our true intentions, it leaves us "naked and exposed" before God. But this is the only way to enter his rest, to be with him in his glory.

Prayers for a New Chivalry

This is the last of a series of extracts from my notes for a future book. For more on spiritual warfare right away, read the CTS booklet by Vivian Boland OP, which in turn recommends the classic Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scupoli. See also the Angelic Warfare Confraternity of the Dominican Order, and the Knights of Our Lady for a contemporary manifestation of spiritual chivalry.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Spiritual warfare: 3

A warrior is never too busy to pray. God creates time for those who pray. And the substance of prayer is attention.

"The Fathers define prayer as a spiritual weapon. Unless we are armed with it we cannot engage in warfare, but are carried off as prisoners to the enemy's country. Nor can we acquire pure prayer unless we cleave to God with an upright heart. For it is God who gives prayer to him who prays, and who teaches man spiritual knowledge." (Philokalia, 2, p. 15)

"God never refuses the first grace which gives us the courage to overcome ourselves. If the soul corresponds with that grace, she finds herself immediately in the light. The heart is strengthened and she goes from victory to victory." (St Therese of Lisieux)

"I bind to myself this day
The power of Heaven,
The brightness of the Sun,
The whiteness of Snow,
The splendour of Fire,
The speed of Lightning,
The swiftness of Wind,
The depth of the Sea,
The stability of the Earth,
The firmness of Rock."
         (St Patrick's Breastplate)

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication." (Eph. 6: 10-18, ESV)

NEXT: The Sword of the Spirit.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Spiritual warfare: 2

This is a guide to the arts of spiritual warfare, to the training and conduct of the Warrior.

From the outset, the reader should know that this war is different from every war of man against man. We have no human enemy. The most evil human being you can imagine, however cruel and dangerous, is merely a victim. There are no warriors for evil, merely men and women who fail to be warriors for good.

Our Enemy attacks us by exploiting human weakness and sin, both in others and in ourselves. He sends against us not human enemies but demons from hell: the battle is lost whenever we judge a fellow human being to belong to the Enemy. Against such tactics, only two weapons will suffice: the shield of Detachment and the sword of Love. the only arms we can safely bear are those the Enemy cannot grasp.
"To redeem the created world, the saint makes war on all its fabric with the naked weapons of truth and love. That war begins in the deepest and most hidden recesses of the soul and of his desires, and will end in the coming of a new earth and a new heaven, when all the powers of this world will be brought low and what is now despised will be exalted" (Jaques Maritain, cited in Communio, Fall 1993, p. 555).
The following prayer is from the Carmina Gadelica.

Thou Michael the victorious,
I make my circuit under thy shield,
Thou Michael of the white steed,
And of the bright brilliant blades,
Conqueror of the dragon,
Be thou at my back,
Thou ranger of the heavens,
Thou warrior of the King of all,
O Michael the victorious,
My pride and my guide,
O Michael the victorious,
The Glory of mine eye.

Illustration: St Michael, Japanese style, by Daniel Mitsui (from

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Spiritual warfare: 1

The books of Carlos Castaneda were among the first to popularize the concept of the "Warrior Way" in the 1960s. Many modern readers and cinema-goers have also been fascinated by the spirituality of the Japanese Samurai, and the martial arts generally (bushido). George Lucas tried to capture this in his notion of "the Force" in Star Wars. Christianity has its own teachings on spiritual combat, developed most explicitly perhaps in the library of Eastern Christian writings assembled under the title Philokalia ("love of beauty").

The chivalric romances, especially the Grail legends that inspired Francis of Assisi, largely concern the preparation and conduct of the true Knight of the Spirit in the tradition of Western Christendom. Hans Urs von Balthasar dedicated his book Tragedy Under Grace to the "secular institutes" which he regarded as the modern manifestation of Christian knighthood.

Some years ago I prepared a book proposal that never got anywhere. It was for A Little Book of Spiritual Warfare. It was designed for the pocket of the spiritual warrior, and intended to be of practical use as a tool of recollection, for one of the greatest enemies on the Path of the Warrior is distraction or forgetfulness. After a brief introduction to the concept of the book and the history of spiritual combat, each page would have contained a quotation or recollection to recall the Warrior to his or her mission, or to encapsulate one of the lessons to be learnt on the Way.

Spiritual combat takes place in the midst of everyday life. It is a war to defend our interior freedom and personal integrity. We are each fighting for our immortal soul, for the True Self that we have the potential to become, and for the protection of the souls of others. From another point of view, the "war" is a Quest, and the "enemies" we face are the obstacles, challenges, and trials that lie on the path, especially the Monster or Shadow that guards the Self. After sections on the Warrior's arms and training, and on the tactics of the Enemy, the book would focus on the Mission or Quest, concluding with guidance on how to remain faithful to this teaching in everyday life.

The book was not completed, but some notes and fragments may be worth putting on record, and I intend to do this in later posts. It may be regarded as supplementary to the material on Christian spirituality in All Things Made New.

Illustration: Toshiro Mifune as Yojimbo in the movie of that name by Akira Kurosawa.

Friday, 20 July 2012


While in Italy recently, in the town of Ascoli Piceno I saw this lovely "sea-horse" fountain in a public square. The Roman father-god of horses is, surprisingly perhaps, Neptune, who was at first a land-god but later (after his conquest of Amphitrite of the golden spindle, mistress of the ocean) the god of the sea. He is associated with horses because of their fluid movements and great strength. In general horses can be taken to represent the energies of the human organism, but also – with wings in the case of Pegasus, or fishes' tails in the case of the hippocampi – they are the forces that bear us between worlds or states of being, or the three worlds of sea, land, and sky, which we may perhaps take as roughly the waking state surrounded by the powers of the unconscious (the sea) and the superconscious (the sky).

As for the middle region, the centaur (for example, in the figure of Sagittarius) with the torso of a horse and the shoulders and head of a man represents the human being as a unity of body and soul. The fact that Sagittarius is an archer emphasizes the creature's mobility in the middle region, over land in other words, and also contains the idea of aiming at a target, which for the human person (body-soul unity, in Christian terms) can be none other than Beatitude – the "mark" for which we were fashioned, and from which we fall short by sin. In a Christian reading of the symbol, the arrow, which is itself made of wood, flies to the wood of the Cross.

When the horse is ridden by a man and winged, as in the case of Pegasus (sired by Poseidon/Neptune), it represents the active power of the spirit that enables the soul to have direct contact with the gods on Olympus. In C.S. Lewis's tale The Magician's Nephew it is a winged horse called Fledge, created and called by Aslan, who carries the boy Digory to the earthly paradise in order to bring back an apple of life for his dying mother. This is a detail from the "Narnia Window" in Holy Trinity Church, Headington, where Lewis used to sit in the congregation, close to the site of his grave.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012


The mathematician George Cantor (d. 1918) uses the word infinite to refer to a number defined as being greater than any finite number. In this sense of the word, the number of whole integers and the number of rational fractions are both “infinite” in the same degree. This is because for every fraction, no matter how many there may be of them, a new integer can always be assigned to it without ever running out of integers, and vice versa. In other words, you can use whole integers to number each item in a series of fractions.

The irrational numbers are rather different. Both integers and rational fractions of integers possess an inherent “graininess” because they are essentially definite, i.e. discontinuous with each other. Irrational numbers, on the other hand, occupy the spaces between each of the rationals, and fill them up continuously. The number of irrationals always exceeds that of the rationals, and therefore, according to Cantor, the “infinity” of the irrationals is of a different order.

The discovery of orders of infinity is highly significant for us. In fact Cantor’s set theory proves that there is an infinite series of infinities, each of a higher order than the last, right up to an “absolute” infinite, which he seems to have identified with God. As he wrote: “The fear of infinity is a form of myopia that destroys the possibility of seeing the actual infinite, even though it in its highest form has created and sustains us, and in its secondary transfinite forms occurs all around us and even inhabits our minds.”

Monday, 16 July 2012


In modern physics, there is no such thing as complete “nothingness”. Even a complete vacuum said to be is permeated by “fields of force” (electromagnetic, gravitational, etc.), or perhaps a “dark energy”, shaping the space-time continuum. Put this together with the Uncertainty Principle, which means that the value or intensity of the field and its direction cannot both be fixed, and it follows that quantum field activity can never be reduced to zero but is always subject to random fluctuation.

In fact the energy in a “complete vacuum” is potentially infinite – assuming that space is a continuum and that all the variations in this fluctuating field cancel each other out overall. The existence of such “zero-point energy” in a vacuum has even been experimentally demonstrated (the Casimir effect). According to the inflationary universe model, the birth of the cosmos is based on such a quantum fluctuation in the field-value of nothingness.

You could say that the whole world – according to this theory – is a product of zero and infinity, in a sense poised between these two extremes. What can be manifested is not the infinite itself, but only the differences in energy between the “virtual particles” (quantum fluctuations) that happen to appear there. This enables scientists to handle the calculations without involving infinite quantities.

The theory bears a strange resemblance to many ancient metaphysical theories that were advanced to explain the world as the result of an interplay between two Principles; such as (in Plato) the One and the Unlimited. The world of Being was the result of Form (the Form of the One or the Good) having been imposed upon Chaos.

In that case, however, the "infinite" principle was the lower one, which seems odd to us because of the notion of "positive infinity" that matured after Aristotle under the impact of Christian thought about God, and which we now take for granted. The concept of divinity as an “infinite oneness” or an “absolute maximum” than which nothing greater can be conceived was developed by Plotinus in the third century, Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth, Augustine and Dionysius in the fifth, Saint Anselm of Bec in the late twelfth, and in the fifteenth Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa. Infinity, applied now to actuality rather than potentiality, was used to express the utter transcendence of God over creation.

For Aquinas, God is the unlimited act of Being (or supra-Being), inexhaustible “isness”, unknowable by us directly until we come in the Beatific Vision to share by grace in God’s knowledge of himself. God is “infinite” in the strict etymological sense, meaning without limits of any kind.

If we wish to reconcile this idea with Plato’s original conception, we might say that the limits we wish to deny God are in this case merely any limitations imposed from without. As pure isness, he does in fact have “limit” in the (Platonic) sense of form – he is “the Form of the Good” or the One. All else, including everything created and everything numerical, is limited in the sense that its existence is “restricted” in relation to the divine plenitude: it participates or shares in one aspect or another of that plenitude but never completely. It may be indefinitely prolonged or extended in one respect or another, making it “indefinite”, but it cannot be said to be infinite in the same sense as God. To the most limited of all we now give the name "zero".

Next in this series: Infinity.

"Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God" (Stephen Barr)

Sunday, 15 July 2012

3. Boehme's myth of the Trinity

Boehme described his great vision of 1600 in the work known as The Aurora (not published until 1656). While not, as I have said, a theological work, it contains the following fine description of the Christian Trinity:
“Now when we speak or write of the three Persons in the deity, you must not conceive that therefore there are three Gods, each reigning and ruling by himself, like temporal kings on earth.
No: such a substance and being is not in God; for the divine being consisteth in power, and not in body or flesh.
The Father is the whole divine power, whence all creatures have proceeded, and hath been always, from eternity: He hath neither beginning nor end.
The Son is in the Father, being the Father’s Heart or light, and the Father generateth the Son continually, from eternity to eternity; and the Son’s power and splendour shine back again in the whole Father, as the sun doth in the whole world.
The Son is also another Person than the Father, but not externally, without or severed from the Father, nor is he any other God than the Father is; his power, splendour, and omnipotence, are no less than the whole Father.
The Holy Ghost proceedeth from the Father and the Son, and is the third self-subsisting Person in the Deity.... he is nothing less or greater than the Father and the Son; his moving power is in the whole Father.”
John Sparrow’s seventeenth-century translation of The Aurora is reproduced in B. Nicolescu, Science, Meaning and Evolution (New York, Parabola Books, 1991).

God’s own nature, according to Boehme, is not the seemingly static perfection implied by medieval scholastic philosophy under the influence of the Greeks. It is a dynamic process, eternally fulfilled and complete in itself without the need of a creation. To create the world, according to Boehme, was therefore an act of divine freedom motivated by love alone. The world is “Magic”: an outbirth of God’s eternal nature formed by the divine Will through the Imagination. The Mirror of Wisdom contains all angels and souls as eternal “possibilities”. God imbues these with actuality through his Word (the Fiat lux: 'Let there be Light").

Boehme is neither a pantheist nor an emanationist: the world is not made out of “nothing”, but yet it is other than God. It is made out of the seven archetypal forces, the “seven spirits of God” that form the Heavenly Sophia; it is made out of Fire and Light woven together by divine Eros (“all things stand in the wisdom in a spiritual form in the attraction of the Fire and Light, in a wrestling sport of Love”).

The first strictly created reality is the Heaven of the Angels. Angelic life is a partial or derived eternity, free of space and time; it is not divided up into a succession of moments or locations but is simultaneous and everywhere present. (Martenson struggles with this idea, but it is simply a rediscovery of the medieval Catholic notion of the Aevum, an intermediary state between God’s eternity and our time.) The freedom of the Angels consists in the ability to choose between nature and grace – or, in Boehme’s terminology, to sacrifice the Wheel of Nature (self-centred existence) in the fourth natural energy for the sake of the Wheel of Light (the life of Love).

The Angel Lucifer “fell” by choosing to dwell in his own nature, and so the Fire was transformed not into Light but into Anguish. The Hell in which he suffers, and into which he drags the rest of creation, is caused not by God but by his own choice. (However, the possibility of Hell lies in the natural imperfection of a created reality, which must be distinct from eternity and therefore cannot be perfect in itself.)

Boehme believes that the Fall of Lucifer affected his entire subordinate kingdom, which happens to be the world of our own Earth, reducing this to a fiercely burning Chaos. It was the Fall that initiated the war of Light against Darkness that we call time and space. God’s merciful reaction to this first Fall was to submerge the Earth in water and begin a new creation. The process (recapitulated later in the story of the Flood) is described in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis – the account not of the first or Angelic creation but the re-creation from Chaos, and specifically the attempt to establish a new harmony based on Man.

Adam is made in God’s image, tripartite. He is body, soul and spirit; his body drawn from that created world that is a copy of Uncreated Heaven, his soul and spirit reflecting respectively the Father (Fire) and Son (Light). Even the human soul is tripartite, in that it can turn towards one or other of the three primordial worlds of the Ternary. Indeed, Man was created with a view to his becoming (in Christ) the Consummator of the creation and Mediator between heaven and earth. But to be made imperishable in blessedness and to bring the Light out of the Fire in himself he must first overcome temptation. This, as we know, he did not do. Time as we understand it – let us call it “entropic time”, meaning time that is measured by decay and death – began with the Fall of Man, as a secondary cycle of reparation and restoration centred on the Cross.

1. Jacob Boehme.
2. Boehme and the birth of God.

Friday, 13 July 2012

2. Boehme and the birth of God

Jacob Boehme’s visionary writings are not understood correctly when they are confused with philosophy or theology. He is making theological use of mythological and poetic speech. In his account of creation, he is describing structural elements that lie deep within the visible world, below the surface of nature; but he presents these as story, applying temporal categories to eternity and inventing mythical events within the life of God in a way that remains extremely hard to disentangle. Nor should we assume that Boehme, just because he may have been vouchsafed a vision of these things, was always correct either in what he saw or in the way he interpreted and expressed it. His work is a stylistic mess, and full of real or apparent self-contradictions. He was, after all, a cobbler not a trained theologian or writer. Yet his influence on subsequent thought was immense (see previous piece).

According to Boehme, cosmogony recapitulates theogony. That is, creation is preceded by, and echoes, the primordial “birth of God”. In a “beginning before the beginning”, there is only the primal Abyss or chasm of the Ungrund, containing the unoriginated divine Will. This Will generates a Son, and breathes forth its energies as a Holy Spirit. Of these three principles the first (unoriginated Will) is a principle of darkness or mysterious fire in the “Unground” of God’s mystery. The second (the Son) is a principle of light, corresponding to the Will’s apprehension of itself as truth. The third is a reconciling force, in which the previous two are united – the radiation of the fire in the light. Through this third principle, which describes the operation of the Holy Spirit, the fulness or content of the divine nature streams out into the void and (having, one supposes, nowhere to go) is “reflected back” from it as though in a mirror. To this illuminated reflection Boehme gives the name Sophia, Wisdom. At first no more than a dream of the divine Imagination, when clothed by the desire of God in an eternal, imperishable body she becomes “Uncreated Heaven”, the Kingdom of Beauty or Body of God in which his Glory is forever manifested.

Boehme supplies further detail concerning this "eternal construction" of Heaven, which is the model for all subsequent creation. The three divine operations (which we associate with the Ternary of Father, Son, and Spirit) establish a separation between darkness and light within the divine nature itself, whilst reconciling the two in an eternal harmony. As far as I can understand it, the dark or “Nature Will” consists of a dynamic tension of three archetypal forces or energies, which he calls Salt (contraction), Mercury (expansion) and Sulphur (rotation). This is the “Wheel of Life”. A fourth energy called the “Lightning Flash” marks the transition between darkness and light, or the point where divine Love overcomes the darkness of the wheel, transfiguring it into a Light or Spirit Will consisting, again, of three energies (making seven in all). Contraction becomes the vital fluid symbolically called “Water”, expansion becomes “Sound” (vibration or rhythmic motion), and rotation becomes the “Essence” integrating both, for which a better term might be “Music” – music being, as Bishop Martenson suggests in his commentary, the best earthly symbol for the Kingdom of God.

In language that is less alchemical and more theological, one might say that the Trinitarian Will of God has entered into the knowledge of itself by reconciling in Love the otherness of Father and Son. God eternally “becomes” what he eternally already is: a Trinity of Persons enthroned in an Uncreated Heaven full of peace and beauty.
Illustration from Wikipedia Commons: Boehme's Cosmogony, "The Philosophical Sphere or Wonder Eye of Eternity" (1620).

Saturday, 7 July 2012

1. Jacob Boehme

French physicist Basarab Nicolescu has argued in his book Science, Meaning and Evolution that the obscure poetical cosmology of the German cobbler Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) provides us with the basis for restoring the Philosophy of Nature in our time, and hopes for a New Renaissance as the likely result. Catholic physicist Wolfgang Smith in Christian Gnosis: From St Paul to Meister Eckhart seems to concur, or at least sees in Boehme’s writings a Naturphilosophie of the deepest order.

A contemporary of Francis Bacon and follower of Paracelsus, Boehme was a gentle and devout Lutheran. A family man, with little education, around 1600 he received a remarkable illumination which became the basis for his obscure but influential visionary writings. Although he never broke from his church, the Lutheran authorities deemed him unorthodox, and as a result he was forced into an itinerant life. Boehme was an influence not only on William Blake but on Isaac Newton, and on Catholics and Protestants alike, from Franz von Baader and F.C. Oetinger to William Law and Hegel (who took from him the dialectic but appears to have misunderstood the rest), Vladimir Solovyev and Nicolas Berdyaev.

I am writing about Boehme simply because I found some notes on him in my files as I was working on my next book for Angelico Press – but can't quite see where to fit them in yet. They seemed interesting enough to make available online. In future posts I will look at some of Boehme’s key ideas, guided in part by Hans L. Martensen (1808-1884), Bishop of Denmark, who wrote a useful book on the mystic in which he tried to salvage from Boehme whatever could be reconciled with Christian orthodoxy. In fact there is quite a lot, as we shall see. But for Balthasar's critique of Boehme, you'll have to read Theo-Drama II, or wait for my book,

2. Boehme and the birth of God.
3. Boehme's myth of the Trinity.

Illustration: Jacob Böhme's House in Zgorzelec (Poland), by Varp, from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Yesterday was Trinity Sunday. Christians love a God who is Trinity, who was born of Mary, who died on the Cross for us, Muslims a God who is and did none of these things. How then can they be said to worship the same God? Yet the word "Allah" simply means "God", in Arabic. God is the supreme being, the One to whom our service and love is due, who made all things.

It seems clear that someone whom two neighbours know as "Jones", who lives in the house on the hill, is the same person, even if each of them knows different things about him, or knows him differently. Each has a drawer full of letters from

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Called by name

Madeleine L'Engle wrote a sequel to her award-winning story, A Wrinkle in Time, called A Wind in the Door. It is mainly about the power and importance of Naming (a topic I explore in Beauty in the Word in the chapter on Grammar/ Remembering). In L'Engle's story, the universe is threatened with nothingness by the fallen angels, and the only way to save it is by Naming things and people back into reality – and you can only Name things if you love them. 

When something is named we say that it is "called" such-and-such. Would that we paid more attention to the implication of the word! To call is not just to attach a label to something, but to summon it, to invite it. This is an echo of the primordial act of creation, when God calls things out of nothingness by appointing them a place in the cosmos.

Interesting, too, in the first Genesis account of creation, that God creates each living creature "according to its kind". I would like to know more about the Hebrew word translated here as "kind". it seems to me that it must refer to the archetypes of each species, which are forms in God's mind (although a friend assures me that the Septuagint translation gives no hint of this). These forms are causes, but not the kind of cause that science searches for. Archetypal causes are what a thing is supposed to become, or why it exists – the thing it is called to be. (There is an intimate relationship between formal and final cause.)

Of course, it is true that the meanings of words are determined in large part by (as the Oxford philosopher would say) their "use" in the language. We learn words by associating them with the context and the way they are used in our hearing, and they accumulate further associations and connotations as we move through life. Nevertheless there is a faculty of "naming" by which we identify the essence of a thing, and that is evident in poetry and myth. It is the "use" of words according to our own highest nature and purpose – as Adam named the animals. In my book I call it the "first human task".

Friday, 11 May 2012

Theological manifesto

A new book by Fr Aidan Nichols is liable to be overlooked because he writes so many, but all are worthwhile, and this one is a kind of theological manifesto, a summary of his metaphysical and theological vision for the renewal of the Church. He explains that it is intended to offer "a fresh approach to the Catholic understanding of the world and human existence in revelation’s light." It ends with words that show where it has been leading us all along: "It is in letting the soul, the microcosm, and the world, the macrocosm, be the receptacle for all the generosity the Trinity pours forth that the Chalice of God fills to the brim." You can read a review here and a sample here. Fr Nichols has written an introduction to the book here.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Jesus prayer

In All Things Made New, I write in detail about the Lord's Prayer and the Rosary, but not the "Jesus Prayer", which is an equally profound expression of Christian spirituality. The prayer is a form of rhythmic invocation using the divine name "Jesus" – at its simplest, the phrase "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me," or in expanded form, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner." Dmitru Staniloe, in his wonderful book Orthodox Spirituality, writes that one may first try to synchronize the words of the prayer with the beats of one's heart, and then – when that rhythm has become established – with a slow inbreath and outbreath ("Lord Jesus Christ" on the inbreath). But if the prayer consisted only of habitual repetition it could become mechanical. This is not the object, for the emphasis must be not on the words but on the "thought of each word" – the repetition of meanings, until "the heart cannot beat without the mind seeing Him" and one can understand the language of all God's creatures as they pray to Him each in their own way.

Icon of Our Lady of the Sign by Solrunn Nes.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Cosmic justice

Paul Claudel, the French mystical poet, writes of the need for justice throughout nature, in a surprising way that illuminates the meaning of the cosmic ecological order:
"It is necessary that the scales be equally balanced between heaven and earth, and that one should return to the other as much as it has received. It is this hunger for justice and confession which grips the bowels of the earth and expresses itself in eruptions and convulsions, those cramps and colics of nature which are represented by mountainous masses. Nothing in nature was made to rest content in itself. There is no living substance which does not struggle to break out of its mould. 'I have declared thy justice in a great church... I have not hid thy justice within my heart' (Ps 39:10-11)."
(The emphasis is mine.) The reference to "not resting content in itself" suggests that the impulse to justice is more than an aspiration for equality and balance: it is ultimately a yearning for union with God, which the creation can only attain through Christ.

The quotation is taken from I Believe in God (section on Judgment, 3).

Thursday, 26 April 2012

A Church imperfect but valid

If the Church is full of the Holy Spirit, if it represents the very presence of Christ in our midst, why is it so shabby and awful so much of the time? The Church is not the kingdom of heaven. The Church is a process leading to the kingdom. It is a place – a community, a structure, evolving in time – in which each new generation of human beings are offered a great gift, and most of them squander it. Still, there are enough saints to keep the Church alive, and the sacraments remain valid even in the hands of unworthy ministers.

You can see the imperfections of the Church in the earliest times of all – reflected in the letters of Christ to the seven churches as set down in the Book of Revelation. This was the apostolic age, within a century of the death and resurrection of Christ, and yet the squabbling that had been evident even among his disciples while he was on earth is very evident.

There has been a lot of controversy recently about the alleged “mistakes” of the Second Vatican Council. Traditionalists claim that the Council of the 1960s was infected with Modernism, not only distorting the Catholic liturgy through its reforms, but even contradicting the infallible teachings of earlier popes by accepting religious freedom and democracy. I don’t want to enter into the details of that controversy here. We know that we can trust the basic teachings of the Church and rely on her sacraments, because the Holy Spirit lives in her. (This assurance is given by Christ, for example at Matthew 16:18 and John 16:13.) We know that she sometimes takes decades, or centuries, to get things right. In the meantime we have to pray, trust, and use our wits. To undermine our confidence in the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, as the traditionalists do, seems to me the work of the devil. Newman was right: doctrines develop, circumstances change, and our understanding evolves. New aspects and applications of the truth reveal themselves.

Vatican II is by no means the first Council after which some Catholics have concluded that the Tradition has been betrayed, nor will it be the last. There are often good reasons, good excuses, for thinking in this way. After the First Vatican Council it was the “Old Catholics” who broke away. The Orthodox believe that the Latin Church went off the rails more than a thousand years ago, and will trust only the first seven Councils. But right at the dawn of the Church, a similar principle was at work among the Jews who refused to accept Christ. And personally I think God respects this kind of loyalty, allowing some of his grace to continue to flow through bodies that have separated themselves from the main stem of the Church out of love for the Tradition they had grown up with.

And yet the fullness of life and truth and grace remains with Peter and his successors, and those who maintain the communion of the Church. We see that fullness revealed from time to time in the saints who continue to appear in the Church of Vatican II – saints like Mother Teresa, and Padre Pio, and many others, whose loyalty remained unbroken despite the turbulence of those years.

Holding the world together

"I wonder if there are twenty men alive in the world now, who see things as they really are. That would mean that there were twenty men who were free, who were not dominated or even influenced by any attachment to any created thing or to their own selves or to any gift of God, even to the highest, the most supernaturally pure of His graces. I don't believe that there are twenty such men alive in the world. But there must be one or two. They are the ones who are holding everything together and keeping the universe from falling apart." – Thomas Merton (Seeds of Contemplation, 1949, p. 124)

Illustration: Procopius the Blessed Prays for the Unknown Travelers (1914), by Nicholas Roerich. On this artist see also here.

Friday, 20 April 2012

The cosmic rhyme

A beautiful new book by Fr Tom Norris, Mary in the Mystery: The Woman in Whom Divinity and Humanity Rhyme (New City Press), is recommended by Fr Paul McPartlan at CUA. Leonie and I have written an Afterword and Foreword respectively. In the Foreword I write: “In poetry, the word rhyme refers to an echo or resemblance between two or more lines of the poem, particularly in the end of the lines – some way in which they sound alike whilst being different. The two natures of Christ, divine and human, are of course radically different. But in the Hypostatic Union the two natures converge on the same ‘end,’ the same ‘Word.’ This is divine poetry. The divine nature comes from heaven, and the human nature comes from Mary, like two kinds of music one above the other; they are ‘united without commingling,’ merging in one sound, one voice, one Gospel, one revelation.” The book is "an exercise in poetic theology, leading us into the mystery of Christ by exploring the wonderful harmony established in and through Mary between the divine and the human."

Please also see this wonderful new booklet on Mary in the Liturgy by David Fagerberg (University of Notre Dame).

Monday, 9 April 2012

Fire and light

The Pope's homily at the Easter Vigil on 7 April 2012 was about fire and light. As a great mystagogical teacher, Pope Benedict was not about to repeat platitudes. There was nothing trite about his exposition in this, surely one of the most striking homilies of his pontificate. "Whoever is close to me is close to the fire," said Jesus, according to Origen. The light of Christ is not a cold light but a warm one, the light of love, only harmful to those who reject it and do not welcome it into their own hearts. Fire is "the force of transformation", the Pope reminds us. For good reason it is associated with baptism, which the ancients called photismos, "illumination". The newly-baptized enter into a new day, a day of "indestructible life", which they see with the eyes of faith opened in them by the grace of God.

The Easter vigil begins at night with a bonfire, with the sanctification of the fire in the name of the God who through his Son "bestowed on the faithful the fire of [his] glory," and with one great candle lit from the same fire to represent Christ, the Light of the World. This is incised with symbols for the beginning, middle, and end of the cosmos, and "wounded" in the shape of a  cross by five grains of incense, before being carried in procession back into the church to stand at the altar throughout the Easter season.

The candle's light represents the beginning of the world, made out of nothing, to which the faithful bear witness. "Let there be light." The Prologue of John's Gospel takes up the tale of creation from Genesis. In Christ the world was made; and now in Christ it is made new. But why, in Genesis, are the sun and moon made later than the light? Of course, today we know that electromagnetic radiation (including light) was born billions of years before the sun and moon, but Genesis is not a scientific treatise, and the author was getting at another kind of truth. The Pope explains that by relegating them to the fourth day, the "divine" character of the heavenly bodies was removed and all things subordinated to the true light "through which God’s glory is reflected in the essence of the created being". Light is the revelation of truth, of goodness – the glory of God.
To say that God created light means that God created the world as a space for knowledge and truth, as a space for encounter and freedom, as a space for good and for love. Matter is fundamentally good, being itself is good. And evil does not come from God-made being, rather, it comes into existence through denial. 
After the night of death, the eyes of Jesus open once more upon the world. "Life is stronger than death. Good is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Truth is stronger than lies." The candle "is a light that lives from sacrifice. The candle shines inasmuch as it is burnt up. It gives light, inasmuch as it gives itself." And the light shed by Christ is the self-giving of divinity, of perfect love, which reveals reality as it truly is, in the mind of God.

Illustrations from, and William Blake.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Turning point

A turning point in the history of the universe, when in these three days – Friday, Saturday, Sunday – an innocent victim, more faultless than any who have ever lived, accepts the punishment due for all our sins, which is death. It becomes for him a road to the hearts of those who have justly died, and those who will die yet, and for all of them a road to the Father. "Behold the Victor who steps forth to do battle; see him standing erect on the threshold, the redresser of the universe, the restorer of justice... Here I am! Who could go forth in my place, when it is the very axis of the world that needs righting?" (Paul Claudel)

Monday, 26 March 2012


This blog was set up in order to demonstrate that the Christian faith is a great deal more interesting, mysterious, and beautiful (not to mention true) than many of us grew up thinking. It continues the project I began in The Seven Sacraments and All Things Made New with the aim of contributing to the revival of "mystagogical catechesis". Today in England we celebrate the feast of the Annunciation (displaced by Sunday from the 25th March), following closely on the heels of St Joseph's day. The Annunciation signifies the "announcement" to Mary of God's plan for her – that she should bear the Son of God. The following is extracted from a meditation on the First Mystery of the Rosary in All Things Made New (see Amazon or Angelico Press).

Nothing in her resists the will of God. She is free to oppose it, of course, but why should she? She knows or senses that it is in the will of the creator that the interests of the creature are best defended. Yet the future of the world hangs on her reply to the Angel, for the decision is not mechanical: it is an act she must make her own, a step she must take, which no one can dictate or do for her. Eve was just as free to reject the temptation of the Serpent, yet chose not to do so. The Lord is with thee. In a sense the Angel is the Lord’s presence to her, announcing in these words his arrival and what it means.

In another sense she is the one with whom the Lord is always present. This second meaning is important, for if we lose the Lord, or a sense of his presence, we may find it again by going to Mary. The Rosary is also the story of the Christian soul, and thus Mary’s encounter with the Angel Gabriel may be taken to represent our own encounter with our angelic Guardian. We are thereby approaching that level of our being which Mary represents. We hear the voice of the Angel who is continually in the presence of God, we feel the touch of divine love, the necessary word of guidance. In this meeting with the Angel the purpose of our life is revealed. Our mission is assigned to us, if we will accept it. How will we answer?

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Christians and Muslims

In the light of the Common Word initiative, in which 309 (and counting) Muslim leaders and academics from all branches of Islam agree on the truth that Islam and Christianity share common ground in the love of the One God, and love of neighbour, I thought the following passage from the late Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe's book Wherever He Goes: A Retreat on the Gospel of John (pp. 183-5) might be of interest. Fr Philippe is the founder of the Community of St John, and some years ago made several visits to Oxford.
"Apologetic arguments do not carry much weight today – fortunately. The Lord never did apologetics. He spoke the truth. 'The truth will set you free.' This is to be preferred; it is more evangelical. Apologetic arguments are always somewhat rhetorical and express but a partial truth. Today we are in need of a discovery of the truth in all its fullness. 'Why am I a Catholic and not Buddhist?' There are great Buddhists. I have encountered some. [And] I had a Muslim friend who, from what I could gather, had a mystical life, a

Monday, 19 March 2012

The mystery of Saint Joseph (3)

The late Bernard Orchard OSB, a distinguished biblical scholar, gave an interesting meditation on this topic to the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 2001. He argued that Joseph and Mary approached their marriage just like any other devout Jewish couple, with no intention of celibacy. This is suggested by Mary's surprised response to the angel's message, which Orchard suggests must have taken place very near the end of the normal (one-year) period of betrothal "out of delicate consideration to ensure that no one might suspect that the conception of Jesus had predated the concluding nuptials." Hearing that she was to give birth to the Son of God (he would have to be divine in nature because "his kingship will have no end") she asked, "How shall this be, since I am not knowing a man?" This was not an expression of doubt, and the angel did not take it as such (compare the account of the annunciation of John to Zechariah!), but rather a request for further information. Nor was it, according to Dom Bernard, an indication that Mary and Joseph had already decided to live together as virgins. It referred only to the present moment, being in the present tense,

The mystery of Saint Joseph (2)

"As Son of God, [Jesus] has a Father but no Mother; as Son of Man he has a mother but no father."

In St Joseph in Early Christianity (St Joseph's University Press, 1999), from which this quotation is taken, Joseph T. Lienhard describes the development of two distinct traditions concerning St Joseph. One was that of the Eastern and Orthodox Church, which followed the apocryphal stories about Joseph, designed to make the perpetual virginity of Mary seem more credible, according to which he was an old man, perhaps in his 90s and a grandfather, when he married Mary to be her protector rather than her husband. The Latin tradition followed SS

Saturday, 17 March 2012

The mystery of St Joseph (1)

Just as a scientist can, by using a microscope on some small piece of matter, discover great truths, so the mind of the Church is able to discover great truths in even the tiniest fragment of Scripture (for example, the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and of the Immaculate Conception, which are implied but not directly stated in Scripture). What can we tell from the few precious lines we possess about St Joseph? These few lines tell us he was a "just man", that he at first doubted his role vis a vis Mary and her Child, but that he successfully protected them both, taking instruction from angels in his dreams. On 18 March 2009, Pope Benedict spoke of him in a homily:

Sunday, 4 March 2012

The 40 days of Lent

There is not much about the number 40 in All Things Made New, because although it often crops up in the Bible it doesn't really feature in the Book of Revelation. However, in a recent catechesis for Lent, Pope Benedict VI explored the significance of the number in a way that made clear the importance of number symbolism for the authors of Scripture and the Catholic tradition. He said:
"Forty is in fact the symbolic number in which salient moments of the experience of faith of the People of God are expressed. A figure that expresses the time of waiting, purification, return to the Lord, the awareness that God is faithful to his promises.