Monday, 30 December 2013

Mystery of two natures

The mystery of the Presentation, when Jesus is recognized by Simeon and the elderly prophetess Anna, "really brings together in the Temple all that was living and true in the Old Testament. This mystery shows us how the union of the Old and the New Testaments is found in Mary, how in and through her the Old Testament is assumed by the New without being abolished: the Old Testament is completely transformed" (M.-D. Philippe OP). The Mystery betokens the union of human and divine natures in Christ – the assumption of a human nature through a divine personality. The Old Testament is human nature brought by God to its highest point in Mary. It has been built up through the ages to reach the point represented by Mary sitting in her room with the Scriptures open on her lap, ready to receive the Word of God. She receives, and those Scriptures are raised to a higher level in Christ, a human nature assumed and therefore transformed by a divine Person. Anna and Simeon recognize what has happened. Among the last prophets of the Old Testament, they see the dawning of the New.

The quotation from Fr Philippe is taken from Magnificat, December 2013, p. 453. The Icon is by the hand of Father Vladimir.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Holy Family

A family like others – that is to say, unique. Of course, while many families have God at the centre, this one has God made flesh. On the road, confused, hungry, uncomfortable. What will happen next? So many children killed because of him! How much time do we have to do what God wants? The road marked out by angels leads to Egypt, the land of pagan mysteries and secret initiations. This is the land where the first Joseph was taken by slavers, where he became a master of dreams and a prince, able to offer bread in the midst of famine. Now Joseph is bringing the Bread of Angels into Egypt. How long must they stay, and what must they do there until the angels speak again, calling them home? What did they see, and what did they learn? The Bible only tells us what we need to know.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013


The birth of a child is not a completely new beginning but it changes everything. It is a revelation that transforms us. The baby existed before, but now we can see its face. In this case, the unique case of Jesus, it is the face that God turns towards us, and also the face that we turn towards God – the mystery of two natures.

When Jesus comes into the world, all things turn towards him. The star representing the heavens leads wise men towards the baby. The peoples of the earth flock towards the stable where he shows his face. Everyone wants to gaze into those eyes. Mary and Joseph are the privileged ones. They live in his presence, surrounded by his aura, full of his joy.

The child begins to cry. He needs us, as we need him. He gives a voice to the cry of the ages, the cry of the world itself – the people, the animals, the rivers, the mountains. He gives a voice to the cry of God, who calls us to return to him, across such a great distance, over which there is now a bridge. The cry of God has never been heard before. The long ages have been silent. The bridge begins with a cry of need, and it will end with a cry of rejoicing, as the peoples of the world enter their Holy City.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Moses and Joseph

Saint Joseph, image of the Father, may also be seen in this image of Moses approaching the Burning Bush by Nicholas Froment. The Bush is Mary, Joseph's spouse. On her lap is the Logos, the I AM that she gives to the world. She is surrounded with flames that will descend again at Pentecost. Moses takes off his shoes, he hears the angels in the flames speaking for God. He takes his people to the threshold of Promised Land. As for Joseph, he cherishes his spouse, he listens to the angels, he leads his people into Egypt like the first Joseph, and back again. Mary is an Ark of the Covenant that contains the new Law—Mary containing Jesus, or holding him in her arms. In Jesus who is the Law, the divine Presence is saving the People of God. The whole painting is like an Annunciation because of the presence of the Angel (perhaps Gabriel) on the left. It is like the Annunciation to Joseph, when he is told about the divine conception of Jesus. It is then he sees Mary for the first time as the Ark and the Temple and the Seat of Wisdom. Or perhaps he knew this already – but now his own place in the story is revealed. The fulfillment of the divine promises is entrusted to him of all people. It is he, the unworthy, a mere creature, who must step into the place of the Invisible.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Advent devotion

Mother of God, thou heart of light,
Mother of God, heart of the world,
Mother of God, thou heart most pure,
Mother of God, heart of the Word,
We come to thee full of shame and weak of soul,
With body bowed down and bending the knee,
For, because of our ignorance,
Our hearts have greatly grown dark.
The Lord has let us wander in the paths of our spirit,
But now it is to thee that we come,
O Mother of Jesus;
Receive us as souls thirsting
For the joys of the unwaning morning,
And deign to renew in us a pure heart,
So that we may chant unto thee:

Rejoice, Ark of the Covenant with my soul!
Rejoice, Sealed Chest containing the Name of God!
Rejoice, Living Ship afloat on creation's mysteries!
Rejoice, Bridal Gift staining none with earthly vanities!
Rejoice, Throne whereon Life itself reposes!
Rejoice, living Resonance wherein chants a ray of uncreated Light!
Rejoice, interior Treasury of the riches of Grace!
Rejoice, mystic Tabernacle on the holy altar!
Rejoice, heavenly Temple whose liturgist is the Spirit!
Rejoice, Church ardently longing for espousal to Christ!
Rejoice, O Bride, Mother of continual prayer!

Part of an Akathist by the Romanian poet, Santu Tudor.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Untier of Knots

It is a 17th-century devotion that Jorge Mario Bergoglio discovered in Augsburg in 1986, a devotion to Our Lady the Untier of Knots – especially the "knots" of sin and twisted relationships that afflict families and destroy marriages. He brought it back to Argentina with him and promoted it there. The devotion is connected with the image of our Lady the Virgin of the Snows, which helps to explain his visit to Santa Maria Maggiore in his first day of office in Rome. CTS have published a book by Miguel Cuartero Samperi on this topic, and it is touched upon in this article from which the illustration was borrowed.

Cuarto writes: "The devotion to Mary Untier of Knots has been, since its origin, closely connected to marriage and the family, as it was to save the indissoluble bond between two spouses that the Virgin Mary desired to manifest her closeness and the efficacy of her intercession. Mary Untier of Knots is therefore invoked above all for family problems: marital crises, incomprehension, infidelity, separations and divisions between spouses, problems of every kind with the children, disputes between siblings, risky pregnancies, violence in the family, illnesses, work problems and other kinds of difficult situations that, like small and large knots to be untied, make family life a cluster of tangles."

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Answering Descartes

Descartes sought for an indisputable first principle on which to base his philosophy, and concluded that “the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.” I think therefore I am. But where does the “I” come from, and to what does it refer? Thinking is certainly taking place, but all that is proven here is that thinking exists.

The foundation of thought is not “I am”—that is too specific, too hasty—but “something is” or “being is”. Being is that in which there can as yet be no distinction between what it is and the fact that it is—essence and existence. It is that whose nature is to exist. Everything else exists against the background of that necessity, a Presence or Principle which contains every possibility. And all human knowledge is rooted in the intuitive apprehension of being through a

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A new way of reading

The Radiance of Being draws upon an eclectic range of sources, not just authorities respected by Catholics and Orthodox. I tried to demonstrate in the book a new way of reading. Most orthodox writers try to defend Catholic truth by exposing the limitations and contradictions in heretical or marginal writers. I feel we should look for whatever may be true in those marginal writers and locate a place for it within the bigger system. Quite often the obstacle to understanding and appreciating them is our assumption that they are writing rationally, when they are writing imaginatively.

The Inklings did a great job vindicating mythopoesis. They believed that truth can be expressed imaginatively, poetically, mythologically. Can we apply this insight to these marginal theological writers and mystics? To do so we must be able to appreciate the voice of the imagination.

This does not mean accepting it as authoritative. Quite often the imagination addresses us with a magisterial tone, as if to say, "I have seen this for myself: therefore it is true." The Gnostics provide a handy example of what I mean, and

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The second death

Watching the news, reading the papers, even the most sheltered of us may come to believe in the existence of real evil – of people who consciously and consistently reject God. The comic-book super-villain (such as Thanos, the arch-enemy of the Avengers, shown in this picture) is a symbol of such types. In real life, when the unrepentant sinner comes to die, what justice will he find? Eternal torment? And if so, will the punishment be made to fit the crime, as in the myths of old and Dante's Inferno? No one can deny that such an outcome seems appropriate. But why must this torment go on for ever, as it does in Christian doctrine, following a literal interpretation of Scripture (Matthew 25:46; Rev. 14:11). Why will a merciful God not not simply annihilate those who reject him?

The answer seems to be that he cannot. Even the Omnipotent cannot do what is by definition impossible. What makes this difficult to see is the meaning of time and its relation to eternity. To live even for a day is to exist eternally. That is to

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Christian Taoism

The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the heresy of Quietism as follows:
"Quietism (Latin quies, quietus, passivity) in the broadest sense is the doctrine which declares that man's highest perfection consists in a sort of psychical self-annihilation and a consequent absorption of the soul into the Divine Essence even during the present life. In the state of "quietude" the mind is wholly inactive; it no longer thinks or wills on its own account, but remains passive while God acts within it.... In its essential features Quietism is a characteristic of the religions of India. Both Pantheistic Brahmanism and Buddhism aim at a sort of self-annihilation, a state of indifference in which the soul enjoys an imperturbable tranquillity. And the means of bringing this about is the recognition of one's identity with Brahma, the all-god, or, for the Buddhist, the quenching of desire and the consequent attainment of Nirvana, incompletely in the present life, but completely after death. Among the Greeks the Quietistic tendency is represented by the Stoics."
The Sacrament of the Present Moment or Abandonment to Divine Providence, a spiritual classic ascribed to Jean-Pierre de Caussade SJ, teaches a doctrine very close to Quietism. How does it differ? I suspect the difference may be found in that between "passivity" and "receptivity" – Abandonment teaches receptivity before God, not the pure passivity which would imply dissolution of the individual personality. (The difference between these concepts is not always clear, and in theology has only been explored properly in modern times by writers such as David L. Schindler and others in the Communio school, where it forms an important theme. I have tried to summarize it in my chapter on the Trinity in The Radiance of Being.)

Caussade seeks "a free and active co-operation which is, at the same time, infused and mystical". It is an active co-operation because a merely passive one would leave the human person unchanged and imperfect, unrepentant and unhappy. For Caussade, God loves the human person and brings us to perfection through grace, with which we must cooperate perfectly by the time we reach

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Lectio with the Psalms

I am more and more drawn to the Psalms, and to reading them slowly, using the method of Lectio Divina. At the heart of the Bible, they reflect the whole of Scripture in the form of prayer to God. Part of the Wisdom Books that divide the Historical Books from the Prophets, they form a vital stage in the movement from the first Covenant to the last, that of Jesus.

The Pentateuch or five Books of Moses open the Bible with the first Covenant – the creation itself, then Noah, Abraham, Moses. Then the Historical Books trace the Covenant through David and his descendants, through the emergence of Israel. Then the Wisdom Books reveal the meaning, the inner meaning, of this unfolding Covenant, to the individual soul as well as the People of God. The Book of Job flattens the soul on its face before

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

I Am Therefore What?

For Descartes, the very fact that I am thinking – or that I can doubt that I am thinking – is proof of my existence, and for Augustine, too, fallor, sum ("If I am mistaken, I am") (XI, 26). But the relationship between consciousness (thought) and being (existence) goes much deeper, as we read in the Book of Exodus, when Moses is told that God’s proper name is “I AM”. “This is what you must say to the sons of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14). This sacred name of God then echoes throughout the Old Testament (YHVH) and the New (ego eimi). In John 8:58, Jesus tells the Jews, “Before Abraham was, I am.”

The Name is sacred and unpronounceable because it is a name that only God himself can utter, since he is the Self in question. Anyone who is not the “I” to which the Name refers is usurping the Name. And so the Name is not merely a label attached to one person by another, but an expression of who God is. It is the self-expression of God, the beginning of the revelation that becomes

Saturday, 2 November 2013


The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Mt 26:41)

It is easy to speculate about the purpose of suffering when one is feeling well, but in the midst of pain most of us find speculation impossible.  And yet as Elisabeth Leseur says (in the February 2014 issue of Magnificat), "Suffering is the great law of the spiritual world. God’s chosen ones escape it less than others; they pay the ransom for others, sometimes at a very high price. We will know only later the work accomplished by our suffering and our sacrifices. It all goes to the heart of God, and there, joined to the redemptive treasure, it expands in souls in the form of grace. We can convert, sanctify, console without going out of our home or out of ourselves."

Suffering is often the "price" we pay in advance for a grace that will come later. If that seems crude, remember that the law of exchange, justice, and balance is rooted in the very depths of divine justice. Not everything can be mercy. The pattern is established on the Cross, where our suffering is not merely imaged, but incorporated and integrated. The Cross is both Mercy and Justice. It is Justice because sin has destroyed order, and the restoration of order requires nothing less than the sacrifice of a perfect man, a sacrifice that makes up for everything that had been lost. It is Mercy, because the perfect man is also God, and therefore the payment does not merely make up what was lost, but infinitely more. Mercy is the gift of God's own self, his love. "It is love which not only creates the good but also grants participation in the very life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For he who loves desires to give himself" (Dives in Misericordia, n. 7). Thus the balance between Mercy and Justice is established on the basis of the Hypostatic Union, the union of divine and human natures.

If we must learn to die to our false self to live in Christ, then suffering is the best way. The old self wants anything but suffering and pain. The new self, the true self, wants only the will of God.

Illustration: St Francis receives the Stigmata of Christ, by Giotto.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Throne vision

"Throne vision is a mode of vision as wonder that attunes every faculty to revelation of glory through the creative imagination.

"This should on no account be confused with fantasy, since creative imagination is a mode of uncreated creativity. Uncreated imaginal creativity is the inspiration behind all the liturgical arts, including sacred chant and iconography....

"Throne vision is wisdom's answer to the impoverishment of the imagination in our time. It is the desert's answer to the Inklings. It purifies the heart for wisdom."

Quotation from Priest-Monk Silouan, Wisdom and Wonder, p. 157. 

Friday, 11 October 2013

4. First light

A thought worth pursuing from the discussion of kenosis. What is it to be a person? For the theologians, the term is theological not psychological, and indeed derives from the theological controversies surrounding the definition of the Trinity and the meaning of the Incarnation in the early councils culminating in Chalcedon. A person, theologically, is simply a relation of origin – so that the Father is unoriginate, the Son is begotten by the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son (if you accept the filioque).

The relationships are reciprocal and circular, so that the Son and the Spirit "return to" the Father also. A relationship has two poles. But this is all. In every other respect the Persons are simply the divine Essence, from which they do not differ and from which they cannot be separated. They do not divide it nor do they multiply it. They differ only with respect to each other.

This is the clue to the answer about human persons too. We are individuals, each with our own share in human nature, but we are called to become persons in a theological sense. We are called to be "hypostatized"; that is, to become persons – relations of origin. There is no particle in us that is not called to be "from" and "to" others. To become a person is to be poured out, to be given, and so to become relation by being poured out and given. Everything that is in us must be given, nothing held back, if we are to become entirely person. (This is the opposite of becoming a personality in the sense of a "celebrity", a focus of attention that requires to be constantly fed by the attention and admiration of others.)

Causality, too, can be understood in terms of kenosis or self-gift. It is simply a form of self-sharing, self-diffusion of the Good. It is the same act we call love, and Trinity, and Being, from another point of view. Completely fulfilled within itself as Trinity, it also "overflows" into creation by a perfectly free choice that creates not only the thing, but the possibility of the thing, which is therefore entirely from nothing, ex nihilo, in the deepest sense. (See Radiance of Being.)

In the beginning (Arche = Principle) when God created light, it was first of all the spiritual light, an imitation of Uncreated Light, that he made. This diffuses itself instantly and is everywhere present without casting any shadows. It is the form of things or the source of their form. The second light only arrives when God separates the light from the darkness. The first light is the light of angelic consciousness, the light the angels transmit between them, that is their life. It is this light that is the dawn of God's glory, the beginning of the eternal Day of creation.

Monday, 7 October 2013

3. Balthasar on Kenosis

The following passage from the Bible contains the key to the doctrine of kenosis or self-giving. “Have this mind among yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, though he subsisted in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8). The self-giving of Christ is traced back to the Trinity, via analogy, to the relationship of Father and Son. This act of self-revelation is the very Essence of God (it even means that creation becomes an act of love within the Unknowable God Himself). We may recall it during the most profound moment of the Mass, the consecration of the wine and offering of the blood of Christ.

Hans Urs von Balthasar's theology was very largely a reflection on this dynamic, and he was always coming at it from different angles, the truth being

Friday, 4 October 2013

2. Wisdom and the Senses

The Bible contains a section of "Wisdom" literature, in which the figure of Wisdom (a feminine word rendered into Greek as Sophia and Latin as Sapientia) emerges as a kind of image and confirmation of God's infinite Beauty. More than an allegorical figure, I think, since she has appeared "in person" to visionaries such as Vladimir Solovyev, Sophia is one of the topics of The Radiance of Being, and here I want to add some notes and further thoughts to accompany the book.

Wisdom is not to be identified with – though she is closely associated with – the Logos, the Son of God, or the Holy Spirit. The Bible tells us she was created, but created before all else, and a participant in the creation of the world as a whole. "The Lord himself created Wisdom in the Holy Spirit; he saw her and apportioned her, he poured her out upon all his works. She dwells with all flesh according to his gift, and he supplied her to those who love him" (Sirach 1:9-10). "I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, the first-born before all creatures. I ordained that an unfailing light should arise in the heavens, and I covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in high places, and my throne was a pillar of cloud" (Sirach 24:3-4).

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

1. The beauty of God

How can an invisible entity be beautiful? There is much we would call beautiful in the world (along with the ugly), but at least we can see it. And yet people speak of "seeing God," one day. Will he then become visible? Can we in this life only "take it on trust" that he must be beautiful, and hope to have it confirmed in the distant, unimaginable future? And yet from time to time we hear of contemplatives who gaze in wonder at the beauty of God that has been revealed to them in this life, or on the Cross, or in the Eucharist.

If God (being infinite), were visible, someone once said, we would see nothing else. His "withdrawal" is what makes the world possible. Nevertheless, there are ways we can say we do see him and his beauty. We see him spiritually and intellectually, for example – we know that he is the only possible source of all beauty, which is in some way modelled on him or expresses him, and so we can contemplate "him" in the

Monday, 30 September 2013

Be the hinge

In "On Detachment", Meister Eckhart discusses the problem of suffering, including the suffering of Christ and our Lady. And he makes a very helpful distinction.
"Now you should know that the outward man may be undergoing trials, although the inward man is quite free from them and immovable. Even in Christ there were an outward man and an inward man, and also in our Lady. Whatever Christ and our Lady ever said of outward things was spoken by the outer man, and the inner man dwelt in immovable detachment. It was thus that Christ said: 'My heart is sorrowful even unto death.' And however much our Lady lamented and whatever other things she said, she was always in her inmost heart in immovable detachment."
This is explained, a little, in The Radiance of Being where I talk about the inner spark of the soul, or spirit, that connects us each to God. But Eckhart makes it very practical when he uses another analogy: that of a door and its hinge.
"A door opens and shuts on a hinge. Now if I compare the outer boards of the door with the outward man, I can compare the hinge with the inner man. When the door opens and closes the outer boards move to and fro, but the hinge remains immovable in one place and it is not changes at all as a result."
To find in ourselves this detachment, even in the midst of suffering, is not merely a trick for escaping pain for a few minutes – into the eye of the storm, so to speak. It is to become open to God's will, to allow God to work in us, so that we can be one with God and – yes – ultimately share his eternal bliss. But God cannot work in us "unless he finds readiness or creates it". And mostly we are busily giving the powers of our soul over to the outward man and the five senses. "Know then that God expects every religious man to love him with all the powers of his soul. Hence he said: 'Love thy God with all thy heart.'" This is another way of reading the First Commandment, and Matthew 22:37. One way of getting started is described here.

Quotations are from Meister Eckhart, Selected Treatises and Sermons. The illustration shows the Eckhart door in Erfurt Cathedral.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

No judgement

"Do not judge, and you will not be judged" (Luke 6:37). Judging is a trap, for both parties. Have you ever felt stifled in the presence of another person, unable to be yourself, to be free, to act spontaneously, to love? Then you have felt what it is like to be inside the trap. As for the one who put you there, they may not feel it at all – just a sense of self-satisfaction, perhaps, of confidence or superiority, maybe contempt. Easy to dismiss or justify such feelings, since they don't hurt. Sometimes people keep their friends, enemies, and family members in such cages for many years.

This is a basic fact about the Christian life. We are not here to judge, and if we do we will suffer the same fate our own judgments create for others. How so? By judging others we are at the same time judging ourselves, or putting ourselves in a category – usually the category of the righteous, although there are many variations: we may be trying to drag the other person down to what we think is our level, to keep us company or else avoid confronting feelings of guilt.

The opposite attitude is Mercy, and this is the Christian attitude. Pope Francis is very conscious of this, and in 2001 as Archbishop Bergoglio wrote: “Christian morality is not a titanic effort of the will, the effort of someone who decides to be consistent and succeeds, a solitary challenge in the face of the world. No. Christian morality is simply a response. It is the heartfelt response to a surprising, unforeseeable, ‘unjust’ mercy... The surprising, unforeseeable, ‘unjust’ mercy... of one who knows me, knows my betrayals and loves me just the same, appreciates me, embraces me, calls me again, hopes in me, and expects from me. This is why the Christian conception of morality is a revolution; it is not a never falling down but an always getting up again.”

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Knowing not just thinking

Pope Francis also said some words in a recent homily that I want to remember and live.
“Yes, you have to come to know Jesus in the Catechism – but it is not enough to know Him with the mind: it is a step. However, it is necessary to get to know Jesus in dialogue with Him, talking with Him in prayer, kneeling. If you do not pray, if you do not talk with Jesus, you do not know Him. You know things about Jesus, but you do not go with that knowledge, which He gives your heart in prayer.
There is also a third way to know Jesus: it is by following Him. "Go with Him, walk with Him."
“One cannot know Jesus without getting oneself involved with Him, without betting your life [on] Him. When so many people – including us – pose this question: ‘But, who is He?’, The Word of God responds, ‘You want to know who He is? Read what the Church tells you about Him, talk to Him in prayer and walk the street with him. Thus, will you know who this man is.’
And in a homily specifically to catechists that is well worth reading, he added: "God is the centre, but he always gives the gift of himself, he is a relationship, he is life which is passed on … This is what we become if we stay united with Christ; He draws us into this vortex of love. When Christ is truly present in one’s life, a person opens up to others, they come out of themselves and reach out to others in the name of Christ.”

It is, of course, easy to think we are doing this when things are going fairly well for us. But what is implied here without being spoken is that life is shot through with suffering – both our own, and that of others to whom we are called to reach out. It is hard to pray when in pain. That is why the Cross, and images of the Cross are so important in our lives, to remind us, to fix our gaze on him, to remind us of how to connect our suffering with his.

This was the real reason for having crucifixes as jewellery, in hospitals, in schools, in public places (even on street corners). So much will be lost in a secular society when those images are taken away – though the question has to be asked, did we appreciate, did we make use of them, did they stir us to prayer?

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Simple, profound, radiant (Spadaro interview)

In his wonderful interview with Antonio Spadaro SJ, the best comment on which can be found here, Pope Francis said,
"The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.... A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives."
The heart of the Good News is that God is love (=Trinity), that Jesus is God as well as Man, that he allowed himself to be killed horribly in order to save us from oblivion (that is, out of his love for us individually and collectively) and that he returned to life and ascended to heaven so that we could follow. But people tend to react by saying, well OK, but not so fast. Once I know what you want me to do and not do in this life, as a result of believing this nice story, then I'll think about it.

The Pope doesn't want us to play that game. The love of God comes first. The "story" comes first. We can only make sense of our lives using stories. All of us tell them, all of us believe them. They may be stories we have made up, or stories that have been imposed upon us. We reinforce their strength in our lives by an interior monologue or conversation that hardly ever stops. We may cast ourselves as hero or villain or victim, but it is based on a selective choice of material and doesn't correspond to the full reality, which only God knows. The story God tells is more complete, and it can't be disproved, though many have tried. If we want meaning, then this one has it all.

The "moral and religious imperatives" Francis speaks of are a consequence only in the sense that we will accept them as a way of defending the meaning of the story. If the story is "true" – if it conveys the greatest possible meaning to our lives, and therefore if it is is "simple, profound, radiant" – then we will want to live that way. Better that way than any other. Then we might at last try to stop that interior conversation, or change it. The Jesus Prayer is one way.

Illustration courtesy of via Wikipedia.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

No regrets

What does one do with regret? Most of us have the experience of having made some huge mistakes during our lives. The longer we live the more more likely it is that we do. These feel like mistakes that set us on a wrong track, huge decisions or reactions we would undo if we could. But we forget, perhaps, all the factors that played into those decisions at the time. Without knowing the outcome, how could we – the people we were then, with what we knew, in those circumstances – have done better? Even if we feel we could and should have, a Christian might take consolation from the following thought. We are not here to lead perfect lives, to make our lives like a work of art. We are God's work of art (Eph. 2:10). We are here to be shaped, changed, transformed; and we are shaped very largely by our mistakes. The things that have gone horribly wrong, the things we have done

Monday, 23 September 2013

Circle of life

Daniel Mitsui's artwork is amazing. Check out his website for more. This is an image used on the cover of my book All Things Made New. (Click here to get a clearer view.) But it doesn't much look like a circle. Or does it? It struck me that the image of Mary and John at the foot of the Cross is a circle of giving and receiving, each to the others. This followed on from reading the Meditation of the day from yesterday's Magnificat, by John Tauler. It included these words, referring to those who follow the Spirit and are lifted above time. "From God they accept instinctively all that happens to them, and in the same spirit they offer up all to him again, and so they abide in sweet tranquility of mind." It is a circle that we need. We receive everything from him, and we give everything that we have to him. That is why our burden is light. Most often, though, there is a blockage along the way, either in the receiving or the giving, and then grace doesn't flow. We are holding on to things.

The other interesting thing that Tauler goes on to say immediately afterwards is this. "And this is true of them even while their outward man is much disturbed and sorely pained." So we may look as if we are in pain, we probably even feel it, but inwardly (and many people have not yet discovered the "inward" he is talking about) we feel joy not suffering, hope not despair. May God help us to reach this state and dwell there.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Faith to faith

I have become convinced that what is largely missing from the Catholic scene is a serious engagement with other religions and spiritualities in the name of an uncompromising quest for the greatest possible truth. Such an endeavor is risky but necessary. I attempted such an engagement in The Radiance of Being, published by Angelico Press in May 2013. Some readers will be disturbed by the book – especially by the sympathy with which it treats Islam, not to mention problematic Christian thinkers such as Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, Valentin Tomberg, and the Russian Sophiologists. I wrestle with many of the questions I know are of great concern to others of the present generation – many of them still outside the Catholic Church, and unwilling even to consider its claims as long as these questions remain unaddressed.

The methodology is somewhat unusual for an orthodox Catholic. Whilst firmly believing that Catholic Christianity is true, I also perceive other traditions to be rich in elements of goodness, beauty, and truth. I believe that wherever

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Mary Prayer

Today being the Memorial of the Most Holy Name of Mary, it is appropriate to reflect on the Marian prayer that complements the Jesus Prayer, and is based around the name of Mary, though it contains both. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. The following thoughts are based on the section on the Rosary in my book All Things Made New.

Every time we repeat the words of this prayer we are trying to approach Jesus through Mary. The first words of the Hail Mary are those that were spoken by the Angel Gabriel when he appeared to her to announce the imminent conception of Christ. The words "the Lord is with thee" recall the Prologue to the Gospel of John: "the Word was with God, and the word was God." In the second sentence of this Trinitarian prayer the name of Jesus is invoked directly, so that the Mary Prayer can be said to enfold the Jesus Prayer in something like the way the Christ Child is borne in the arms of his Mother in the most familiar icons of Madonna and Child. Thus you could say the icon is a visual translation of the Hail Mary. In the third sentence, Mary's motherhood is invoked, and along with it the entire Church whose soul is the Holy Spirit.

There comes a time in the life of many Christians when the Hail Mary, brief as it is, suddenly expands until it encompasses the whole of life. It becomes possible to meditate upon it constantly. Each phrase contains a mystery that we never grow tired of gazing at. 

Hail Mary – we address her from out of our darkness; or is it that we are called by the Angel’s words into her presence? 

Full of grace – Mary’s title: she is what all of us should be, a creature brimful of her Creator.

The Lord is with thee – He is always with her, and in this "with" are the secrets of what it is to be a person.

Blessed art thou among women – a blessedness that marks her out, yet brings all other women along with her. 

Blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus – the hub of the mysteries, the Creator encompassed by the creature, the tree bearing fruit that contains the seed of all things.

Holy Mary, Mother of God – God has become a single cell, growing to be a child, and wakes in her arms.

Pray for us sinners now – for we are sinners now, lost in the woods, and we need her to find us.

And at the hour of our death – since death approaches all of us, and we will struggle to be born from the womb of the world.

Illustration: "Salus Populi Romani" from the Basilica of St Mary Major. See here.

Friday, 6 September 2013


Important notes and thoughts on fasting in connection with the Pope's call to pray and fast for Syria on Saturday 7 September here.

Monday, 26 August 2013

The Jesus Prayer

What we normally mean by “prayer” is talking to God (albeit silently) about things we need or things that worry us – or praising him and thanking him for this and that. Much of that kind of prayer involves thinking, imagining, conceptualizing. It is takes place in a mind full of echoes and mumblings of conversation, memories of things that have happened or fears of what may be about to, or simply random words rattling around in our head – traces of thoughts that have not quite died away. Prayer in that context often feels a bit like writing a message in a bottle, and consigning it to the sea addressed to the God we hope will find it. God’s actual presence is at best assumed, but it is hardly tangible.

The aim of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, constantly repeated) is to lead our constantly changing thoughts and feelings into a single conduit. The clearing of the mind is the result of a long struggle that the Fathers describe in the Philokalia. It doesn’t come easily to anyone: we have to keep trying. “External things and the content of thought, with one word objects, stop the subject from returning to itself; they draw it to everything except itself. Only with great effort, by discipline, does the subject become capable of getting loose for a few moments in succession, from the slavery of contents, which hold it far from home and constrict it as much as they can” (Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality, p. 286, my emphasis).

If we achieve it, this state of emptiness or purity reveals God to us, or makes the mind transparent to God, like a mirror that, once cleaned, reflects the light of the sun (ibid., p. 287). We stand astonished in front of an abyss, the infinite but personal presence of the supreme Subject that transcends us utterly and on which we depend, before which we can only submit and offer adoration in humility. The Fathers refer to this as a state of “prayer beyond prayer” (ibid., p. 296).

Then it is the Spirit who prays in us (Rom. 8:26-8). “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15-16). Through our prayer in the Spirit – that is, through in a sense our becoming prayer, becoming a “word” carried by the Spirit – we enter into eternal life. Already in this life we enter into the “we” of God by becoming Church.

“Now the world is totally transfigured into God; its totality rests within the inner realm of God’s totality, its unity encounters the primordial unity. The radiance of God’s glory streams over it, as the splendour of the sun overpowers the light of the stars” (Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy, p. 353).

Monday, 19 August 2013

Prayer and the secret room

Our Lord, when he gives the disciples instruction in prayer, tells them to first go into their “secret room,” and then to address the Father. He gives them words, which we call the Lord’s Prayer. We tend to pay a lot of attention to these words, and rightly. They are the seven requests that the Holy Spirit can carry for us into the presence of the Father. (Incorporated within them, of course, are all the little and specific things we care about.) But we pass over the secret room. Where is it? How do we open and close the door? Religious people talk blithely about our “spiritual” nature, describing us as animals who possess a spiritual soul. But what does that mean?

In a way it is quite simple. To be a spirit is to be a self. To be a self is to be self-conscious. It is to be able to say “I am”, and to be aware of myself in the act of being myself, in relation to all other things that are not myself. We assume, but

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Masculine and feminine

In his famous press conference on the plane coming back from Rio, Pope Francis called for a more profound theology of woman – he even used the word "mystical". For what he might mean, see "Sincere Gift", and also Paul Evdokimov's Woman and the Salvation of the World: A Christian Anthropology on the Charisms of Women.

One of the most difficult question that arises in any such discussion is whether there is such a thing as "masculinity" and "femininity". Clearly at a physical level, male and female characteristics are not too difficult to define. There are also clusters of psychological characteristics that we commonly associate with these terms. However, in the latter case it is much harder to reach agreement. This is partly due to the fact that women rightly object to being caricatured, or imprisoned by a definition.

As with all our knowledge of the world, we can only base ourselves on what the senses reveal to us. Within those images we glimpse Forms or "archetypes" (by abstraction, according to St Thomas). These Forms are real, and without them neither our knowledge of things nor the things themselves would exist. Another

Friday, 2 August 2013

The seven mysteries

The following text from St Bernard of Clairvaux summarizes the correlation I described in The Seven Sacraments between the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. See the book for more correlations based on tradition, and the reasons for them.

Thus the Holy Spirit through his sevenfold grace destroys the sevenfold misery in the human soul. In its place he builds within the soul a sevenfold blessedness:
Through the spirit of fear he makes the blessed poor in spirit.
Through the spirit of piety he makes them meek.
Through the spirit of knowledge he makes them mournful.
Through the spirit of fortitude he makes them hunger and thirst for justice.
Through the spirit of counsel he makes them merciful.
Through the spirit of understanding he makes them pure of heart.
Through the spirit of wisdom he makes them peacemakers, since wisdom conquers wickedness. The peace of God, “which surpasses all understanding”, rises up in their hearts. This represents the perfection of God’s servants. 

How one who has fallen rises again and moves forward.
We have been made in the image of God.
We cling to the Father through the power of memory,
to the Son by means of our reason or understanding,
and to the Holy Spirit through our will.

Cited in Magnificat August 2013, p. 290-291.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Man and woman

To what extent are the differences between man and woman rooted in the soul, rather than just the body? If the soul is the "form" of the body, one might assume that masculinity and femininity are characteristics of the soul before they are of the body. Yet the tradition of patristic and medieval commentary on Scripture suggests otherwise. The difficulty was partly how to reconcile the teaching of Genesis that man and woman together were made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and that of St Paul that man is the "image and glory of God", whereas woman is (only?) "the glory of man" (1 Cor. 11:7), having been made from man. Most agreed that woman, being taken from the side of man rather than his foot or his head, was intended to be his equal and rather than his slave or his master. Furthermore it was accepted that women were at least as capable as men of receiving grace and becoming saints. But some concluded that "woman" and "man" are sometimes used in Scripture as symbolic terms representing the lower and higher intellect respectively – woman being the lower, more engaged with the physical world. Man, however, has a certain superiority in ruling, according to these writers. To a modern person, such arguments are less than persuasive.

It seems to me that not enough attention was given to the fact that in Genesis 3:16 man's ruling over woman is identified as a consequence of the Fall, rather than as part of the original order of things. As for the allegorical identification with the higher and lower intellect, this is interesting in that it suggests a complexity

Friday, 12 July 2013


"So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:13). I had not until recently noticed that faith and hope are both destined to remain for eternity. I had assumed that faith would give way to knowledge of God – we would not need to have faith, once we had direct vision, just as we would not need the sacraments, once we had God himself. But St Paul suggests otherwise, and this implies that faith is more than a substitute for knowledge. It is actually a kind of knowledge, the perfect form of which is distinct from love and hope, and inferior to love in some sense, but equally eternal.

This makes sense if we think of faith as equivalent to trust. We place our trust in someone, or in their word. Similarly, the infused virtue of faith is an act of trust we perform – we place our trust in God and in his Word and in the Church who brings him to us. In heaven we will still trust God, and we will still hope eternally in him, but we shall also know fully the One we trust, because perfect love unites us with him, and love "believes all things" and "hopes all things" (13:7).

The encyclical on faith, Lumen Fidei, is full of important insights. One of them takes the above argument a lot further. "This fullness which Jesus brings to faith has another decisive aspect. In faith, Christ is not simply the one in whom we believe, the supreme manifestation of God's love; he is also the one with whom we are united precisely in order to believe. Faith does not merely gaze at Jesus, but sees things as Jesus himself sees them, with his own eyes: it is a participation in his way of seeing" (n. 18; cf. 21).

Other interesting themes include faith as light, remembrance of the future (9), deep memory and relativism (11, 25, 40), the spiritual senses of sight, hearing and touch (30-31), importance of Greek philosophy (32), relation of truth and love (29-31), theology as a participation in God's knowledge (36), the "we" of the Church (39), the sacramental structure of faith (40), faith as the common good (51), why marriage must be between man and woman (52), the rediscovery of brotherhood (54), the grammar of creation and ecology (55), union in suffering and death as a call to faith (56-57), and much else.

Read James Schall SJ on the encyclical.
And Carl E. Olson.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Finding Wisdom

This is a book I wish I'd found some time ago. Wisdom Songs is a remarkable outpouring of Orthodox Christian wisdom, published in 2011 by Father Silouan, an English priest-monk from the Monastery of St Antony and St Cuthbert, a hermitage within the Romanian jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church, high up in the South-west Shropshire hills. Situated at 1,273 ft, under the Shepherd’s Rock, on the eastern slopes of the Stiperstones. Two sequels, Wisdom and Wonder, and Wisdom, Prophecy and Prayer, are also available – equally wonderful. Father Silouan lives alone, in what was once a miner’s cottage and small holding of twenty acres of pasture and woodland. His life of prayer, silence, liturgy and work is in the tradition of Orthodox monasticism. Priest-monk Silouan began his monastic life in the summer of 1990, in the monastery of St John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights in Essex, established in 1959 by the late Archimandrite Sophrony, disciple of St Silouan the Athonite. Like St Silouan, Fr Sophrony was a monk of the Monastery of St Panteleiomon on Mt Athos in Greece.

The book is wonderful – metaphysically precise, spiritually pellucid, intellectually rich, poetic (if a bit idiosyncratic in style at times) and uplifting. I thought the style a bit too idiosyncratic at first, but then I got used to it.

It is arranged in five "centuries", or series of 100 meditations, on the themes of the Song of Songs, the Holy Name, Holy Wisdom, Mysteries of Glory, and the Wisdom of Stillness. 526 pages. Here is a little taste:
"He is the axis in the midst of of subtle whirling wheels within. His are the sparkling rainbow rings that surround us within. His is the single eye at centre in the inmost heart of all hearts. It is his wisdom that surrounds us like a boundless expanse, for his glory is our firmament. Clear like crystal, translucent and bright, his glory shines through us as light from his throne in the midst. Wheels whirl like winds, all light and winged, resounding through all subtle centres and circles of our being."

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Power of Four

In The Seven Sacraments, All Things Made New, and even Beauty for Truth's Sake, I have written about the importance of the number FOUR in Christian cosmology. Patterns of four are found everywhere, including the four cardinal virtues, the four rivers of paradise, and so on. Over on the Beauty in Education site I have been writing about the four senses of scripture. Now Angelico Press has published a brilliant study by Eduardo P. Olaguer, Jr called The Power of Four: Keys to the Hidden Treasures of the Gospels.

Though brief, the book goes much deeper and more brilliantly into the question of "why four gospels?" than I have ever been able to do. In his Introduction to the book, biblical scholar Gregory Glazov explains that Olaguer "takes as his principal goal the unlocking of the Four Gospels to explain Jesus' identity and mission... by identifying four types of symbolic patterns or keys... that unblock the spiritual treasures contained in the Gospels."

It is much more than the usual association of the Gospels with the four faces of the Cherubim (Lion, Ox, Eagle, Man or Angel). That is only the first key. Another is the correspondence of the Gospels with the four parts of the Old Testament (as understood by Christian writers). A third is a set of four "maps" or rhetorical structures used by the Evangelists to organize their writing (chiasmus, diptych, inclusio, and parataxis). The fourth involves four sets of seven, one for each Gospel: seven mountains (Matthew), seven remembrances (Mark), seven Temple visits (Luke), and seven Signs (John).

This book, and Olaguer's other scripture commentaries, show how much richer the field of exegesis could be if scholarship took the text and the authors of the Bible more seriously. Highly recommended.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Trinity in man

In church yesterday for Trinity Sunday, we saw a bright beam of light from a high window shining over the congregation, a bit like the image on my previous post. A metaphor for the Trinity, of course – if the church represents the world, then the Sun is the Father, the Window is the Son (who shows us the Father), and the Light is the Holy Spirit – the light of grace that comes into the world from the Father through the Son.

In my book Radiance of Being I write about "tripartite anthropology" or the idea of Trinitarian Man in the chapter on Nature and Grace. David Clayton summarizes some of this in his own exposition here. There are several ways of seeing the divine Trinity as it were reflected in the constitution of man, beginning with St Paul and St Augustine. Thomists sometimes object, preferring the dualism of body plus soul to the dualism of soul plus spirit, but it is easy to reconcile the two traditions by regarding the spirit as simply the inner face of the soul – the face it turns towards God.

In his fine book On Liturgical Asceticism, David Fagerberg explains that Christianity inherited the concept of soul as the animating force of a body (animals have souls) from the Greek tradition, and the concept of spirit as the immortal intellectual principle that knows God from the Hebrew. In man, unlike the angels, the spirit functions as the form of the material organism – so we can say either that the soul is the spirit functioning as animating form, or that the spirit is the soul functioning as intellectual principle.

When the body dies, the presence of the soul is withdrawn, and so the soul withdraws into the spirit. This is the same as the confrontation with God – the removal of the veil between creature and Creator. This is also the Judgment, because time is one of those veils now removed, and all our actions in life are seen at once, and their meaning revealed. All that is not compatible with the love of God will be burned away. And when the new body, the new earth, and the new heavens are created (Rev. 21:1), the body will express the spirit (1 Cor. 15:35-57) – instead of somewhat obscuring it, as it does in this life. The Holy Spirit will then shine through it like sunlight through a clear window.

Photo by Lawrence Lew OP.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Gift of the Spirit

In honour of Pentecost, here is a taste of John Paul II's encyclical on the Holy Spirit, Dominum et Vivificantem.
34. "The Spirit of God," who according to the biblical description of creation "was moving over the face of the water,"signifies the same "Spirit who searches the depths of God"; searches the depths of the Father and of the Word-Son in the mystery of creation. Not only is he the direct witness of their mutual love from which creation derives, but he himself is this love.
He himself, as love, is the eternal uncreated gift. In him is the source and the beginning of every giving of gifts to creatures. The witness concerning the beginning, which we find in the whole of Revelation, beginning with the Book of Genesis, is unanimous on this point. To create means to call into existence from nothing: therefore, to create means to give existence. And if the visible world is created for man, therefore the world is given to man.
And at the same time that same man in his own humanity receives as a gift a special "image and likeness" to God. This means not only rationality and freedom as constitutive properties of human nature, but also, from the very beginning, the capacity of having a personal relationship with God, as "I" and "you," and therefore the capacity of having a covenant, which will take place in God's salvific communication with man.
Against the background of the "image and likeness" of God, "the gift of the Spirit" ultimately means a call to friendship, in which the transcendent "depths of God" become in some way opened to participation on the part of man. The Second Vatican Council teaches: "The invisible God out of the abundance of his love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that he may invite and take them into fellowship with himself."

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Radiance of Being

The Radiance of Being is about Christian cosmology. It is both a reflection on nature (the nature of the world, of God, and of humanity) and a search for Sophia, divine Wisdom. Reconnecting the natural sciences to theology by way of metaphysics, it explores the relationship between different religious traditions, and ventures some conclusions on the meaning of our existence. In his Foreword, Adrian Walker summarizes it as follows: "Being is radiant because it is a gift, not only from the Trinity, but also within the Trinity itself. In its Infinite Source, in the fathomless abyss of Deity, being is already always one with (triune) love." There are recommendations from Catherine Pickstock, John Milbank, Wolfgang Smith, and Conor Cunningham, as well as David L. Schindler and Tracey Rowland. I very much doubt the book lives up to them, but I hope you will enjoy it anyway. It is available now on Amazon US and Amazon UK, and there is also a dedicated Facebook page.

Here is a list of the Contents:
Let There Be Light —A Science of the Real — Vertical Evolution —Being Alive —Saving the Planet
One in Three —The Mystery of Islam — Aspects of Buddhism —Non-Dualism — Divine Knowledge —Creator
Nature and Grace —God in Man, Man in God —Time, Eternity, Hell —Visions of Sophia

My other books are listed here. Some unusual aspects of the book are discussed here.

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Trinity revealed

It struck me today at Mass that the Annunciation was the first revelation of the Trinity. Mary said to the angel, 'But how can this come about, since I am a virgin?' 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you,' the angel answered, 'and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God.' (Luke 1:34-5.) Mary was puzzled. Not surprisingly, because she would have assumed a child would come about in the normal way. But the answer to her puzzlement is nothing less than the doctrine of the Trinity: the Father – the Holy Spirit – the Son of God. It is a doctrine that changes everything.

Illustration: Paolo de Matteis, 1712.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

On the way to resurrection

And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad; even my body shall rest in safety. For you will not leave my soul among the dead, nor let your beloved know decay. (Psalm 15:9-10)

Washing of the Feet

In the Mass of the Last Supper, Pope Francis broke with tradition by washing the feet of both men and women, at least one of them not even Christian. Traditionalists object that the Last Supper was for the apostles, the first bishops, and no women (let alone Muslims) were present. The foot-washing, according to some, must therefore represent an aspect of ordination and should be reserved to men, since the priesthood is for men only and the Last Supper was the beginning of the priesthood. But Francis has given this act a different interpretation.

In fact, he has done so in strict continuity with Pope Benedict, in his book Jesus of Nazareth. There Benedict makes it clear that the foot-washing represents the "descent", the humility, of Christ – his service to all mankind – and not the institution of the priesthood (although on another level the gesture also looks forward to the sacrament of confession that priests will one day offer to the baptized).The priesthood begins not with this act but with the words of institution and the birth of the Church and the Eucharist, when the bread and wine are offered.

The Twelve are not just apostles (priests) but also disciples, and they are disciples before they are priests. Christ descends to the lowest place to serve anyone who will receive him. For Francis, it is clear that Christ came to serve all, to offer salvation to all, even Muslim women. They will not necessarily understand what he does for them now, but one day they will understand (John 13:7). Nothing here is an opening to the ordination of women. Francis is simply giving this gesture its most universal meaning, consistent with the symbolism of Scripture.

Se also "The Mandatum Issue: Beware of Superficial Judgement" by Jeff Mirus.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Stations of the Cross

As we enter Holy Week, here are some meditations on the Way of the Cross, taken from All Things Made New. (Click on the link.) And here are Malcolm Guite's superb sonnets for the Stations taken from his book Sounding the Seasons. The painting on the right is by Velazquez. Please read also the following lovely prayer of St Ephraim, with commentary:

O Lord and Master of my life,
Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

But bestow upon me, Thy servant,
the spirit of chastity,
of meekness,
of patience,
and of love.

Yea, O Lord and King,
grant that I may perceive
my own transgressions,
and judge not my brother,
for blessed art Thou
unto ages of ages.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Second Spring

Don't miss out on the most recent issue of our journal of faith and culture, Second Spring. The current issue is devoted to the theme of Sacred Vessels – including the Holy Grail featured in this tapestry by the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones. Leonie Caldecott opens with an article on Mary, the Church, and the Holy Face. Duncan Stroik looks at the history of the Tabernacle. The Orthodox writer Vladimir Zelinsky looks at the meanings of the human heart and Michael Martin at the writings of Solovyev, Dame Margaret Truran at the musical setting of the Psalms, Sr Margaret Atkins at Gerard Manley Hopkins, Fr Jerome Bertram at the chalice used in the Mass, and Keith Lemna at the essence of human freedom. In addition to this we have our usual poetry, book reviews, and reports, while Stratford and Leonie Caldecott sum up twenty years' experience of the "evangelization of culture." Voted (by us) the best journal of its kind in the world, Second Spring is available through Thomas More College in the United States or by credit card, or directly from the Oxford office. Join us if you need encouragement and inspiration!

Monday, 18 March 2013


 Pope Francis is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. At his inauguration on 19 March, the solemnity of St Joseph the Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary and patron of the universal Church, in the presence of the Ecumenical Patriarch, the servers were said to be friars of Mount La Verna, the mountain where St Francis received the stigmata in 1224. Francis lived the Passion through a vision of the seraphim, the angels of God's love. As Bob Moynihan points out, it was this vision and the stigmata that led many to identify St Francis with the Angel in Chapter 7 of the Book of Revelation – and the emphasis in the Pope's homily on "protecting" seems to bear this out. "To 'protect' means to make sure what one protects is not harmed, not hurt. And so this emphasis on 'protecting' seems to recall a passage in the Book of Revelation which focuses on 'not hurting', that is, protecting. In Chapter 7 of Revelation, an angel ascends from the east, bearing 'the seal of the living God' [stigmata?]. This angel cries out in a 'loud voice' to the other 'angels,' who had been 'hurting' the earth." Bonaventure describes Francis in this way in his biography of Francis, the Legenda Major, and he interprets the vision of the seraph in his mystical treatise Itinerarium Mentis in Deo. Mystical times!

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Priority of prayer

Pope Benedict XVI said in his Sunday Angelus address today, "The Lord is calling me 'out to the mountain' to devote more time to prayer and meditation, but this does not mean I'm abandoning the Church." On the contrary, prayer and especially mystical prayer always takes priority over action and administration (it is the old story of Martha and Mary). Amazingly, at this precise moment in history, the Pope is showing us that this even applies to the ministry of the Bishop of Rome. God is calling the Pope to this, and in his drawing closer to God through apparent withdrawal he will not be failing the Church but supporting her more strongly than ever, as Robert Moynihan has pointed out in his "Report". No doubt this defeat for the Enemy will provoke him to stir up what forces he can in opposition, so let us join our prayers to those of the Pope and allow him to lead us deeper into our faith.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Pavel Florensky

Remarkably, in his General Audience on 13 February 2013, soon after announcing his plans to abdicate the papacy, Pope Benedict made the following statement.
“While the Lord continues to raise up examples of radical conversion, like Pavel Florensky, Etty Hillesum and Dorothy Day, he also constantly challenges those who have been raised in the faith to deeper conversion.”
The three figures mentioned are each in their own way extraordinary (and only one is a Catholic), but I want to concentrate on Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), the Russian Orthodox theologian, priest, philosopher, mathematician, physicist, electrical engineer, inventor and Neomartyr. His name crops up just as unexpectedly in the encyclical of Pope John Paul II on philosophy, Fides Et Ratio, where the Pope is talking of a rich tradition of thinkers of East and West who bring philosophy into conversation with scripture. He writes that "attention to the spiritual journey of these masters can only give greater momentum to both the search for truth and the effort to apply the results of that search to the service of humanity."

It is of particular interest to me that Florensky is mentioned by John Paul II in the same breath as Vladimir Solovyev. Both are Sophiologists – exponents of a theology that personalizes the biblical figure of Wisdom (Sophia), and are sometimes regarded as somewhat unorthodox even by the Orthodox. Florensky's greatest book, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, is a rich masterpiece of speculative thought ranging across many disciplines and written in a style reminiscent of Meditations on the Tarot, as a series of "Letters" to an unknown friend.

Pope Benedict mentioned Florensky on Wednesday mainly as an example of a man brought up in a rabidly secular environment "to the point he felt an outright hostility towards religious teachings taught in school," who nonetheless concluded, "No, you can not live without God," and changed his life to the extent of becoming a monk. But surely there is more to it than that. Why mention this particular convert among so many? There must be a hint here – especially coupled with the mention by John Paul II – that Florensky's actual thought, his theology, is worthy of attention.

Not only was Florensky a convert, a martyr, and an adventurous theologian, but he was a scientist. He exemplified in his own life the fact that there need be no gulf between faith and science. As Pope Benedict has stated on many occasions, the Son of God is the "Logos" or ordering principle of the universe – the same principle that science is trying to discern in its own way and at its own level. The two quests cannot fail to converge, although it would be a mistake to jump prematurely into some kind of false synthesis, an over-hasty conclusion.

In drawing attention to this profound unity in the Logos, Pope Benedict is once again hand in glove with his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, who called for a restored harmony between faith and reason, religion and science. There are other reasons why Florensky is worthy of mention – his wonderful ascetic theology, and the Sophiology on which Bulgakov was to build so beautifully – but this is one of them.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Hope in hell?

In The Catholic Herald dated 25 January I published a letter in response to an article by Piers Paul Read, a Catholic novelist I admire very much. The text of the letter follows.

The article by Piers Paul Read drawing attention to a recent book by Ralph Martin (Charterhouse, 18 January) requires a response. He may be right in saying that seriousness of the call to repentance and the need to save have been downplayed in recent Catholic teaching. The result was a faith that challenged no one, and quickly lost its grip on the conscience, destroying the raison d’etre of the missions. Martin blames all this on the teaching of two twentieth-century theologians, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, that God will not in the end let anyone enter a state of eternal damnation. Read concludes, "A riddle remains. Why, if Martin's critique is correct, has the teaching on salvation of Rahner and Balthasar not been condemned by the Church?"

The answer to this riddle is simple. Martin’s critique is not correct. I will focus mainly on Hans Urs von Balthasar, though it is worth noting that Rahner and Balthasar were by no means saying the same thing, and should not be lumped together. Balthasar made a strenuous critique of Rahner’s notion of the “anonymous Christian”.

For his own part, Balthasar definitely does not say that we should assume that no one is in hell. In fact he argues against that position. He does argue – citing an enormous range of supporting texts from the magisterium, the Church fathers, the saints and doctors of the Church – that we must hope for the salvation of all. But this is exactly what the Catechism says. Right after affirming the existence of hell (as Balthasar does), in the words, “Hell’s principle punishment consists of eternal separation from God” (1057), the Catechism adds: “The Church prays that no one should be lost: ‘Lord, let me never be parted from you.’ If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God ‘desires all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:4), and that for him ‘all things are possible’ (Mt 19:26)” (1058).

There are certainly many who are heading towards hell. Many of us experience this in life, and for them the Church offers the hand of salvation. We will not be saved unless we grasp that hand with our own will. But the moment of death is a mysterious thing. Which of us can claim to understand what may happen when time comes to an end and we are gathered up into eternity, seeing for the first time clearly the reality of our sins? Then at the uttermost limits of our own despair, we shall see God crucified by those sins, but we must surely hope that especially then we will be supported by the prayers of the saints – including those who refuse to give up on us just because our name was Genghis Khan or Mrs Thatcher (names proposed by Mr Read)?

Piers Paul Read asks for clear statement on what we must do, or not do, to be saved. Balthasar’s answer fills many heavy tomes, it is true, but it all boils down to the faith of a child – that we must love God with all our strength, and our neighbour as ourselves. As for evangelization, the teaching on hell and the teaching on hope belong together, and to lose one or the other is to dissolve the Gospel.

For those who want to pursue this topic further there were some earlier discussions in our Forum pages, here, here, and here. See also an earlier article by Stratford and Leonie Caldecott called "Balthasar and the Problem of Hell".