Archive for March, 2008

Christ II

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Thinking again about Christ in the context of Easter – which, I suppose, is the only context in which he makes sense – we need to keep the three parts of this event together: the Last Super Eucharist, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Only then will we begin to understand. This is what the texts indicate. The disciples on the way to Emmaus only come to understand the meaning of the Resurrection in the act of breaking bread. Thomas can only begin to believe the reality of the Resurrection in the context of the experience of the Crucifixion. The Easter triple event is a chiasma, a cross over point, where Jesus of Nazareth becomes the Christ. Jesus’ life, his teaching, the training of disciples, his interactions with others, healings, his arguments and controversies with opponents, all lead up to this point – his death, or his glorification, as St. John insisted on calling it. He intimated that he was the Christ, the Messiah, and while for some Jews this would signal the beginning of the end of time, for Jesus this was never so. He pointed to a beyond, a time when he would not be present with his followers in the flesh, a new time when they would be guided by his Spirit.

We inhabit our bodies. Through them we express ourselves and communicate with others. No body, no communication. This is vividly brought home to us when we come across those who suffer from the locked-in syndrome, those whose body, either through accident or disease, is completely paralysed. No body, no habitation, no communication. At the cena on the evening before his death Jesus made a little ceremony, offering bread and wine as his body and blood. Perhaps it seemed a bit strange to his disciples, their reaction is not recorded, and I don’t suppose they understood what he was on about then. As a human being Jesus would have died one day anyway. As it was the forces he had provoked by his teaching, and simply by being the sort of person he was, could not tolerate his continued presence among them. He was going to be executed, and Jesus knew this. Hence the little ceremony at the cena. Understanding would come later. He was preparing them for the Resurrection.

The crucifixion on Calvary was a devastating event. The sudden and violent death of one so loved, in whom so much hope was invested, was so traumatic that his disciples retreated into themselves, withdrew and hid. Perhaps they would be next. They were not prepared for that. Then came Easter morning and everything changed.

Whether Jesus’ human body disappeared from the tomb and appeared to the disciples over the next few weeks is not the main point. The texts describing these experiences are obviously catechetical documents designed to elicit faith in new disciples. The important point is that now the disciples became aware of the bodily presence of Christ in the broken bread of the Eucharist – a presence so powerful that it did what the human presence of Jesus prior to his death never did – it transformed them.


Saturday, March 29th, 2008

The thought that bothers me is that while I believe that Christ is the key, both to the mystery of what it means to be a person and to the question of the meaning and purpose of existence, to the majority in this country he is at best an irrelevance. I would like to be able to explain clearly and simply why I believe Christ is the key. The annoying thing is that I cannot, for all sorts of reasons. For starters there are at least five ‘aspects’ to Christ – the Jesus of history; the Christ of faith, crucified and risen; the Eucharistic Christ; the Christ whose body is the Church; and the Son, second person of the Blessed Trinity. There is also the Jesus in whom we live and move and have our being. How they relate to each other, how they relate to the other persons of the Trinity and how they relate to me is, to say the least, not clear. 

It is tempting to simplify things by saying that there are really only two aspects – the historical Jesus, God made man, and the Son, second person of the Trinity, but relating to these is not at all straightforward. The historical Jesus is not only 2000 years in the past but he is irrevocably obscured by the spin put on him by the Gospels. They are not, were never meant to be, neutral and objective accounts of his life. In spite of this much of the real man comes through and there is no doubt that he was quite an extraordinary person and, if you believe that he was who it is claimed he was, tells us much about God. What the Gospels and the letters of Paul do is shine a light on the impact Jesus made on those who, either directly or indirectly, came in contact with him, or with his early followers. From these documents emerges a mysterious and enigmatic figure who evoked total dedication and commitment from some, lethal hostility from others and indifference from the majority. Looking back at this historical person today one has to ask – OK, what does he mean for me now? An exemplar, an admirable person, a misguided though well-meaning prophet, the Son of God? If you see him merely as a historical person – of limited relevance to today, on a par with the Buddha, and people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King – coming to ‘believe he was who it is claimed he was’ is going to be difficult, not only because of the historical perspective, but also because it requires getting past the contemporary prejudice against religion in general, and Christianity in particular; it requires a sympathetic, or at least a curious, attitude towards the Christian story and the acquiring of some hermeneutic and exegetical skills. Above all, I would suggest, it requires exposure to those who reflect Christ in their lives. What does ‘reflecting Christ’ mean? Here we are not only back to the problem of ‘which Christ?’, we also have to take account of the particular worldview of the individual, of his/her relevant knowledge and experience. To say, for example, that Gandhi was a Christ-like person will be received very differently by Hindus, fundamentalist Christians and open-minded agnostics. While Gandhi was manifestly not a Christian, he shared many qualities with the historical Christ both in his attitude to others, especially the poor and marginalised, and in his attitude to God. Each had a profound awareness of a transcendent dimension to existence which was reflected in their utter selflessness and in their concern for others. It is precisely here, at this intersection of awareness of the Transcendent and loving concern for others, that we touch on the mystery of Christ.

The ‘Son of God’ bit is even more difficult. There is an enormous hiatus between all that is implied by God, divinity, and the ordinary liturgical life of the Church. I cannot help feeling that in this respect it is easier for the Orthodox, for whom the doctrine of theosis (God became man so that man might become God – Athanasius) is at the centre and with their view of the Liturgy as a reflection here of the heavenly liturgy, than for us Catholics. Which underlines, once again, the importance of an individual’s worldview. But more on this another time.

Black frost

Friday, March 28th, 2008

Prayer remains very difficult. This question of the intersection of human awareness and reality continues to bother me. It seems that lately I am trapped within myself. There is no beyond, or other, or transcendence. Which makes it very difficult when all I want is to let self go, get rid of it (if that is not too much of an oxymoron). Such an attitude is possible when one is, however dimly, aware of transcendence, aware of a sense of presence, of the Other. It becomes impossible, perverse even, when the only reality is that which is mediated by the self. Anything else is a memory, an academic conjecture, something to be believed. Suddenly I understand what blind faith is. There is no support, not emotional, not intellectual, not experiential. There is only the will, a will that flickers and gutters like the stub of  candle, feeble in the face of adversity and the centripetal effect of suffering, stronger when wellbeing supports it. This is darkness, of what variety I don’t know. 

I came across this poem by R. S. Thomas. I am always surprised when I come across a reading which seems utterly appropriate at the time and which opens out and widens the horizon from the constricted view of the self.

I have seen it standing up grey,

Gaunt, as though no sunlight

Could ever thaw out the music

Of the great bell, terrible

In its own way, for religion

is like that. There are times

When a black frost is upon

One’s whole being, and the heart

In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

But who is to know? Always, 

Even in winter, in the cold

Of a stone church, on his knees

Someone is praying, whose prayers fall

Steadily, through the hard spell 

Of weather that is between God

And himself. Perhaps they are warm rain

That brings the sun and afterwards flowers

On the raw graves and the throbbing of bells.


Thursday, March 27th, 2008

I keep coming back to the significance of the present moment. Way back I came across the ‘Sacrament of the Present Moment’. De Caussade, I think, put forward the idea. The idea is to try and live each moment sub specie aeternitate, i.e. aware of God’s presence in and through everything. At the time I took this simply as a device to help the individual to be recollected and extend his prayer into everyday activities.  God is always present and the idea is to try and stay connected to Him during the mundane daily routine. This is not quite what I have in mind now. 

Is there an ontological significance in the intersection of human awareness and objective reality? We have all had times when we became aware of a moment of heightened significance. This is the feeling that this moment being lived through is of supreme importance, that one is in touch with, if not Ultimate Reality, then with something of cosmic significance. Natural mystical experiences and numinous experiences come into this category, as do a whole host of other non-mystical experiences which can sometimes act as a trigger – a moment in a relationship, taking hold of a child’s hand, the sight  of a bee nuzzling a flower. What I am wondering is – is each moment of our human lives charged with ontological significance or only those moments of which we are aware? Do our actions reverberate throughout the cosmos? My feeling is yes. Each person, like a jewel in Indra’s net, reflects and is reflected by the myriads of other jewels/persons*. But I have no evidence and there can be no empirical evidence. Most of us seem to go through life wrapped in our self-preoccupations. If we are aware of a wider influence on others it is through direct action and the media rather than a spiritual, or cosmic interconnectedness. But there is an interconnectedness, of that I am quite sure.

*[In the heavenly abode of the great Indian god, Indra, there is hung a wonderful net that stretches out in all directions. The net’s clever weaver has strung a single jewel in each eye, and since the net is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. If we look at a single jewel, we discover that its polished surface reflects every other jewel. Not only that, the infinity of jewels reflected in the one we are looking at simultaneously reflects all the other jewels, so that there occurs an infinite reflecting process.]


Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

Much of Eckhart’s rhetoric is beyond me and bears no relation to anything I have experienced or can imagine, but he has a couple of points that seem to me to be of supreme importance. The foremost of these is the birth of Christ in the soul. The purpose of life is to allow God to be God in us. At present prayer for me has become a clearing away of all the stuff, ideas, preoccupations, fears, desires, emotions, etc. that impose themselves between my attention and God. It is a seeking to arrive at an emptiness and silence and hold myself there in the (believed in but) unseen and unfelt presence of God. It is not always possible to achieve this silence but when it is there is an intangible sense of presence. So it was very interesting when I came across a paper on Prayer of the Heart by a Carthusian the other day.( la prière du cœur) He had some very sound things to say about asceticism, but it is what he had to say about silence that particularly struck me, especially since I have been so influenced by Buddhist meditation for so long.

He makes the point that there are many types of silence and that not all are good. The first temptation, he says, is de faire du silence un agir, to make a performance, a ‘something to be done, something to be achieved’ of the silence. With mind and feelings at rest one thinks that one has arrived at a true silence de l’être. In fact, the silence is the result of willpower, a subtle and, he says, pernicious action because, instead of being open to God we are, in fact, in a self-supported state. In the case of someone with a strong will this can be a major obstacle to their being open to the prompting of the Spirit. While the silence may be profound it is inward-looking and self-maintained. Allied to this is the temptation to make silence itself the goal, to think that the raison d’être of the contemplative life, of prayer, is silence. In so doing one comes to a stop at a material, a natural state of being. One does not go on to the encounter with God, with the Son, with the Spirit. It is this state of silence that matters, he thinks, rather than the  loving relationship with God. This is not prayer but the contemplation of oneself.

Analogous to this is the temptation of make of silence a reality in itself. Silence alone matters. From the moment the noises of the senses, the mind and imagination cease we begin to experience a profound state of joy and peace. That becomes all that matters. We look for nothing more. Anything that intrudes into this silence, even if it comes from God, is regarded as an obstacle and rejected.

In spite of all this silence is extremely important and cannot be valued too highly. But if one wants to enter the authentic silence one has to renounce silence. This is not to say that one avoids it, or refuses to seek it, but that one does not make of it the goal of ones striving. One often thinks that silence is simply the result of a state of peace in the mental and emotional faculties. This is partly it but it is also necessary that there be silence in the depths where heart and will are united. Rather than the will being self-centred it becomes open to God, pure availability, attentiveness and welcome. He concludes – Dieu seul suffit : tout le reste est néant. This is when, as Eckhart puts it, Christ is born in the soul.

The new mysticism

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

Reading William Johnston’s Letters to Contemplatives.*  He talks about a new mysticism.  It is coming to birth, he says, as a result of a dialogue with Eastern religions.  It has five characteristics.

  1. It appeals to the laity and not just to monks and nuns, although the gurus and teachers still tend, in the main, to be celibate religious.  Contemplation is not just the preserve of the few.
  2. It speaks a different language.  It does not use the abstract terminology of the scholastic theologians.  It is holistic and person centred.  It is aware of the distinction between the ego and the self; it is filled with awe and wonder, not just of God, but also of the mystery of the self; it is aware that the person is multidimensional and of the complexity of consciousness in the process of development and transformation; it is aware of the flow of energy within and without.
  3. It emphasises the importance of posture and breathing.
  4. It stresses the importance of faith – a radical faith which sustains in the darkness and the nothingness.  (I am not sure that this is something new.)
  5. There is emphasis on enlightenment.  Mysticism has a goal – the experience of God.

To all this I would add something else.  The new mysticism is not just situated within the structures and rituals of institutions and churches.  Nor is it dependent on particular life-styles such as celibacy, community living, solitude, or daily routines.  The former are important in that they provide continuity and a context within which knowledge can be passed on.  The latter are important if a person wants to explore and develop his experience and achieve enlightenment.  But they are not necessary and there are many, many who live with a deep awareness of the interconnectedness of all that is, and especially, of all life; who are aware of their immersion in and emergence from the One who is at the heart of all that is; for whom the material world, the now world, is translucent – that through the thin membranes which circumscribe our existence shines the love and the joy of a Reality which cannot be expressed.  

This is the new mysticism.  It is a mysticism based on experience and not enculturation, or methodology.  The most interesting thing from the point of view of the Catholic Church is that it does not necessarily arise from the experience of church going, from the liturgy, or from the sacraments – though all of these are milieux where God is encountered by many believers and the result of mystical experience may be a turning to and an increased commitment to the Church for some.  But the important point is that the Church and its liturgy is not the primary source of their encounter with God.  God is experienced in living and this experience of God in the day to day rush, in the routine tasks and chores, in personal encounters and relationships, in the interludes and in the (short) moments of silence, solitude and awareness is often of a heart-stopping intensity.

Another thing about the new mysticism is that it is not terribly conscious of being a way, or a ladder, or a journey towards perfection, or enlightenment, or union.  ‘Professional’ mystics, if one may use that term, monks and nuns and lay people with spiritual advisers, whether Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, are the inheritors of their spiritual traditions and are constantly being reminded of the paucity of their experience in comparison with the giants of the past.  A path and its stages is mapped out for them together with constant warnings of dangers and false trails.

The modern mystic knows none of this, at least, not at first.  All he knows is his experience and, because he has nothing to compare it with, it is appreciated for what it is.  There is a freshness and an innocence and a humility which is not to be found in communities dedicated to spiritual athleticism. An exemplar of all this is Etty Hillesum.


Monday, March 24th, 2008

There is one great big question which has been nagging at me for weeks now, months – what is the point of our existence? That there is a point (in principle) I have no doubt. Speaking generally, I have no doubt as to the existence of God, that he is the author of existence, that I connect to him in some way and that my ultimate destiny lies with Him. That is about as far as my certainty goes.  But it is when I consider humanity in general, all of us, social beings acting and interacting, that my problems arise. Looking at my own life, the lives of others I know and considering the lives of all the billions striving in their various ways, I cannot imagine how we fit into the scheme of things, what grand plan is being worked out through the process of our living, interrelating and dying. I can see struggles at every level, from the individual to the global, between selfishness and greed with compassion and love. The passage of time does not seem to show any change, or even sign of a gradual change, in the relation between the rich and powerful, on the one hand, and the poor and suffering on the other. I got up just now to open the window to let out a fly that was buzzing in vain against the glass.  It will be cold tonight and the fly will probably die. Freeing or killing a fly – what difference does it make in the scheme of things? There are many influential people whose lives have a powerful impact on the lives of others, some for good, others for worse. There are countless more people, unknown to any but a few, just their immediate neighbours and family – how do they fit into the scheme of things? Is their living and dying of as little import as that of a fly? Surely more than that of a fly (our common humanity would have to agree on that) but, to the rich and powerful, the multi-national corporations, the powerful nation states perhaps not much more. But what about at the level of what John Hick calls the Fifth Dimension, at the intersection of each human life with God?  

That is one picture, the big picture. The little picture is of the individual person, created in the image and likeness of God. It does not matter whether this person is rich or poor, male or female, young, middle-aged, or old, sane, or mad, because in their depths, deep down below any sort of conscious awareness, the being of each person rests in the being of God. This is a great mystery. It is bound up with the mystery of God Himself. Even though this might not be generally acknowledged we all agree that when it comes to dealing with the individual each person is unique and beyond price. Collectively it can often happen that the individuals become merged with the general mass and are thus dehumanised. This happened in Europe with the Jews under Germany, in the States with the blacks and in Vietnam during the war, just to give three examples. As less than human, as other than us, unter menschen, they cease to have human rights, or so it was thought by Nazis, racists and many GI’s. The poor, the dispossessed, street children, refugees and asylum seekers are in that situation today and we, comfortable westerners, because we never relate to them individually, or see their faces, remain indifferent to their fate. The individual gets lost in the collective, becomes invisible and therefore, as far as most of us are concerned, ceases to matter. Like the fly, his, or her predicament, their suffering, their death causes no ripples in the placid stream of our daily lives.

If you focus on the little picture none of this, the big picture perspective, need cause you a problem. Why? Because God is closer to each of us than we are to ourselves and sooner or later, perhaps not until the moment of death, perhaps, for some of us, earlier, we will encounter Him. It could even be argued that in this encounter the poor and suffering will be at an advantage and the rich and powerful at a disadvantage. It is tempting to focus on the life of someone like Etty Hillesum and imagine that what was explicit for her is implicit in the life of each anonymous victim. Her life, a Jewish woman in Nazi occupied Holland, illuminates a terrifying scene of the most appalling brutality and inhumanity. It shows that beneath the dark surface shone bright love and hope, that God was there in the mud and the blood. She touched the lives of many but they were very few compared to the vast majority who experienced black despair and death. One story I remember about an old rabbi who stepped out of the line leading to the gas chamber and, looking upwards, shouted out, ‘God, how can you let them do this to your people?’ For a moment everything stopped, all looking at him. After a few moments, he bowed his head. His shoulders fell. All the life seemed to go out of him and he said, ‘There is no God.’ and shuffled back into the line. The horrifying thing about this story is that not only did the Nazis destroy his body but, before doing so they destroyed his faith as well, his values, everything he had lived his life by. OK, you can say that his theology was deficient. He did not understand how God worked, that evil, suffering and death are built into the nature of things. But, not to worry, because in his dying he would encounter God, his tears would be wiped away and he would enter into eternal bliss. To think thus is to fail to understand the big picture.

Like the story of Job the little picture focuses on the individual. We don’t know why there needs to be evil and suffering, why the wicked prosper while the virtuous are hard done by, why tragedy should strike the best and kindest people, but that’s the way it is so try to be brave and, above all, patient and God will put everything right in the end. The temptation is to concentrate on this and try to forget the big picture. I cannot help thinking, however, that in doing this we are missing something of supreme importance. It ignores that we are above all social beings. In fact our individuality depends on our sociality. It ignores the imperative to love. How can we not love, not be moved by the suffering of others, not want to intervene? It ignores the fact that no man is an island, as Donne put it, that we are all part of the main. Job may have had his wealth restored to him but that restoration does not make good the suffering and death his family endured.

Focusing on the little picture is to focus on a self-constructed God of wishful thinking, a personal God, my God. It fails to recognise God as he is. It ignores the fact the God is love. It is not the case that God is love as far as I am concerned, or that God loves me and that that is all that matters, or that my relationship with God is the most important thing. John, in his first letter, said God is love and ‘because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.’ He didn’t say that everyone who loves God is begotten by God and knows God. He said, ‘everyone who loves’. So in loving others we come to know God. God is in our love for them and in their love for us. Loving is a divine activity. This imperative to love others runs throughout the New Testament and is given much gr
eater emphasis than the imperative to live a moral life,* though today you could be forgiven for thinking that morality is more important than love, or compassion, such is the emphasis of the Church on ethical correctness as defined by itself. It is easier to be ethically correct than to love. Taking a moral stance bolsters the ego. It confers a sense of pride and superiority in achieving a status which weaker, vulnerable and less moral people fail to achieve. Loving exhausts the ego, emptying it of pride and selfishness in the donation of the self to others. Loving is kenotic, self-emptying as Paul explained in Philippians, which is why it is so difficult. The Church knows all this, at least theoretically. The latest exemplar of this, Mother Teresa has been beatified. But because of its institutional and hierarchical set-up, because of the mill-stone of infallibility hanging around its neck which condemns it to live with ancient attitudes and states of mind, because of its refusal to be accountable to its people, it is now in a mess, doing damage to itself and millions of others. God as God is not there in the big picture. He is poured out in countless acts of love.

Most of those of us who can construct the window through which we look out on the world. We do not want to look out onto ugliness, poverty, suffering, or death, onto anything that might remind us of the precarious and temporary nature of our window. Because these things cannot be avoided we arrange the curtains on our window to veil as much as possible. The old and senile are kept out of sight in ‘nursing homes’, the poor out of our middle class suburbs, refugees and asylum seekers out of our country. We cannot escape wars and violence but we insist on television sanitising them so that we see only the dramatic explosions but never the severed limbs, spilled entrails and spurting blood. We enjoy the frisson of fear generated by Hollywood horror but do not want to imagine the numbing dread of life in a police state, or the heart stopping terror of a rampaging mob out to destroy you and your family. There is much in the big picture that is beautiful and there is much that is ugly. The tendency is to focus on the beauty and look there for traces of God reflected in it, while shutting out what we do not want to see, the ugly and revolting. The Psalmist waxed lyrical over the beauty of nature seeing there the handiwork of God. God was very much his god there to shield him from his enemies and to keep ugliness and suffering at bay. This was the god the old rabbi had served all his life. Such a god was powerless against the Nazi machine which exterminated him along with his people. You can say that God is reflected in what is beautiful but not in what is dark and ugly, or that God is there in both the beauty and the ugliness, or that God is not there, neither in the beauty, nor in the ugliness. It depends on your idea of God. None of these options apply to God as He is, though the second two are perhaps nearer to the truth than the first. God is both there and not there and here we begin to approach the Mystery. The trouble is we want God to be great, almighty, all-powerful, awe-inspiring, but none of these adjectives apply. We have an idea of God and it would be nice if He fitted into that idea, but He doesn’t. To say that God is love is not really helpful because we all know what love is, or do we?

* Probably a reaction to the legalism of the Pharisees. Consider Jesus’ attitude to Mary Magdalenethe prostitute, “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; because she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” (Lk 7:47) Paul likewise placed the stress on love as opposed to the law. Cf. Corinthians 13 etc.

Questions without answers

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

The last few days have been pregnant with intimations of mortality. Once again those fundamental questions concerning the meaning and relevance of life and the daily round of activities, which seem so important and meaningful at the time, return and demand answers. None come easily. Abstract concepts, satisfying perhaps to a philosopher, dissipate like wisps of smoke when faced with the painful reality of lived experience. I sometimes think that the idea of life after death, where the good will be rewarded and all injustices put right, is a product of our ego-centric arrogance. We think we are, each of us, the centre of the cosmos, the centre of meaning and we cannot conceive of a reality where we would not be at the centre. If Heaven exists it will be Heaven for me. Such an ego-centric worldview cannot be a true depiction of reality. It is, perhaps, what is meant by maya, what someone called dis-knowledge rather than illusion, a perspective which distorts reality by allowing it to have relevance only in so far as it relates to me. One of the benefits of having an unreliable heart and failing vision is that everything takes on a sharpness, a clarity and, even the most ordinary things, an unassuming beauty. Nothing pushy, nothing brash, garish, or vulgar, simply a quiet presence. Each thing is itself independently of whether I am there or not and will continue to be itself long after I have gone.

Whatever answer we provide for those fundamental questions it cannot be an abstract one. Platitudes, philosophy, or consoling thoughts will not do. The fact that we have to pose these questions means that we have missed our way, that we do not understand. I remember reading Fritz Schumacher a long time ago, his little book, A Guide to the Perplexed. He said that the problem with being human is that we come to life without a manual, without any instructions on how life should be lived. OK, he was speaking in a light-hearted way. Given that we are what we are, nothing so defining and limiting as an instruction manual would be appropriate. But he had a point, and when I look at people wandering more or less aimlessly around shopping centres looking for something to occupy them for a few hours, or indulging in a hedonistic search for pleasure, or pandering to themselves ‘because they’re worth it’, I realise how empty life is for so many. 

At this point I should go on to explain what life is, but this is not easy; partly because I have only discovered part of the answer so far, and partly because the answer has to be discovered by each person. It is not like the response to a catechism question. ‘Who made you? God made me.’ Such an answer may be true at one level but it is meaningless unless it comes from lived experience. The problem is how does one acquire the experience which gives rise to the answer? Behind this lies a deeper problem – how does one become aware of the question in the first place? Does this question arise for everyone, or only for the more thoughtful and reflective people? I would guess that it does arise at some time or other for most people.  For many, perhaps, only in what Karl Jaspers called ‘limit situations’, but people respond to it in different ways. It is easier for those brought up in a religious and cultural environment where such questions, and the way they are answered, are part of the common consciousness. The answers might not satisfy everyone but at least the questions are taken seriously. And, within the mainstream religions, there are many who are genuinely holy, who have arrived at answers to these questions and who can guide others. 

For those in materialist and secularist environments the questions will still arise but answers to them are not often apparent. Here, the great danger, that is for those for whom the questions pose themselves,  is that people will either be attracted to the, often exotic, offerings of New Age, and other charlatans, gurus, yogis and messiahs, or dismiss all such questions as meaningless and delusory. There are still genuinely holy people in these environments, people like Etty Hillesum and Madeleine Delbrel who discover the answers for themselves and in the process rediscover their childhood religions, or Simone Weil, a mystic who refused to relinquish her solidarity and engagement with the poor and suffering, or Charles de Foucauld who simply wanted to be a presence among the Tuareg. What is interesting about all of these is that they did not try to evoke an intellectual conversion in others by preaching or argument but were simply a presence to them. They hoped that by some osmosis, in the ordinary interactions of day to day relationships, something of the light they had seen would become apparent to those they loved. That is what the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, and others like them, still do today. These are those we know about. There are also the many, many thousands of unknown people, except to those they love, who offer their lives gratuitously as service to others. Unfortunately people such as these are rare, or unknown to most of us, and there remain so many people who never encounter holiness or an unconditional love which opens them to the transcendent. For these people the questions do not arise, or if they do they are questions with neither meaning nor answers. 

The Power of Evil

Friday, March 21st, 2008

Reading something of Simone Weil’s ideas on suffering.  I was struck by one remark which reminded me of a problem I had when teaching and which I have never really solved. How did Christ by his death on the cross save us? The remark was, ‘The cross is a divine response to evil and a model for ours.’  I wondered what are the other divine responses to evil and in what sense are we saved by the cross and resurrection of Christ. The answer that immediately springs to mind is solidarity. As a human person Christ overcame evil and death. We, as human persons, through our links with him, can also overcome evil and death. How? I don’t know, but I do know, though I cannot explain, that we are all linked in some fashion and that the actions of each have an affect on all – good for good, evil for evil. Hence the importance of prayer and self-sacrifice.

The received answer is that the Father raised him up and that we, through our baptism, are incorporated into Christ’s death and resurrection. This is a Christian articulation of what I said about solidarity. But what exactly does that mean? And why is this procedure necessary in the first place? Why submit to evil? Why not negotiate with it, dialogue, overcome, destroy it, etc. So many options are possible but passive non-resistance is chosen, leading to the destruction of Christ. Evil seems to be built into the scheme of things and a world without it does not seem to have been an option for the Creator. The good, and Christ was the archetypal good man, are always going to be destroyed by the forces of evil. Some struggle and fight against it and this struggle against the forces of entropy, destruction and death, this desire to overcome not only the evil we face but the limitations of our existence, has led to the extraordinary advances of the last five thousand years after tens of thousands of years of (as far as we know) almost imperceptible development.  I was going to say that Christ chose passive non-resistance to the evil forces which opposed him and that this inevitably led to his destruction. Hence the myth, propagated by Nietzsche, of the ineffectiveness and weakness of Christianity. But it is more subtle than this. Christ did not respond to force and violence with force and violence. This does not mean that he was weak. On the contrary. His response was his moral authority, his openness, his transparent goodness, his exposure of lies and misrepresentations. Force and violence do not lead to an increase in the knowledge and understanding of the nature of reality. Christ was a revelation. He made explicit what many already knew implicitly about the power of God to transform people’s lives, about love and goodness, about the futility of violence and the desire for power and wealth. He also made explicit what probably very few knew, or suspected – the presence of God in the here and now, within and among us. Evil could not tolerate such an exposure. It destroyed Christ as it continues to destroy people like him today. It did its worst but its worst was not good enough. There occurred a resurrection in which Christ transcended evil, and also good, in fact this whole dimension of existence. Evil remains with all its destructive power within this domain. The only difference now is that we know its power is not absolute, that the only thing it leads to is death and that removes some of its mystique. Resurrection is now a possibility for us all, especially for those who live by love. The power of God’s love transcends death. 

Naked faith

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

I try not to think too much about faith for fear that if it is examined too closely it will be found to be nothing but an illusion, a vague wraith hovering at the periphery of vision which vanishes when looked at squarely. Peter had no problem when he stepped out of the boat onto the water. But when he looked down and saw the impossibility of his situation, he panicked. The trust he had in Jesus vanished when exposed to stark reality. I have no problem with fides quae (that which is believed), with theology, or with the message of scripture. But I do have a problem with fides qua (commitment, trust). It is an eyes-shut-and-hope-for-the-best stance and that is not good enough. It will do fine for a beginning but finds it very difficult coping with naked reality, and sooner or later we all have to cope with naked reality, because sooner or later we are going to be stripped naked and left exposed, eyes wide open, all our pretences and deceptions fluttering away. That’s when we’re really going to need a strong faith but we’ll find that what we had has dissolved leaving us without a rock to stand on, and there won’t be any boat to grab for either, nor will there be Jesus to rescue us. That is when we start to drown and that will be the beginning of salvation. The nasty bit is that drowning is a slow process.

I am more and more convinced that there is much going on beneath the surface of which we are not really aware – although I have this conviction it has no basis that can be seen, nothing you can point to. Above the surface there is the steady erosion of the false masks we wear. We are riven with contradictions which, up till now, have not been apparent, or we have ignored. It is as though I am inhabited by two persons and neither one is real. One is looking for God, for a purpose in living, an actor uncertain of his role looking for the script he has never seen. The other is a self-centred adolescent looking for gratification, a hangover from a past that has never been properly lived through, examined and seen for what it is, and then transcended. Neither is real. Both are constructs. This blindness to these contradictions and failings is in fact only part of the problem and probably not a major part at that. It is merely a sign of something deeper, something pervasive, all the more insidious because it is unrecognised. I have just remembered a dream I had last night. I picked up a fresh juicy apple only to discover with a shock that the underside was rotten, slimy and brown. Perhaps it is a symbol of my unadmitted awareness of a dichotomous self. I am suddenly thrust back to the question of what it means to be a person. I thought I had more or less decided that a person is a nexus of relationships rooted in God. Quite simple really, and the purpose of prayer is to keep open and amplify the channels through which God’s love flows.

Now, it no longer seems so simple. It is so easy to overlook the bits of the jigsaw that don’t fit – selfishness, self-centredness, the evil which dehumanises, depersonalises and has the power to destroy. This stripping away of masks and illusions does not leave a naked core self but simply a hollowness. Perhaps that is why we so desperately needed masks and illusions in the first place, so that this emptiness might be obscured and covered up. The person is like a tangled skein of multi-coloured strands of wool. It looks so solid and substantial but when you untangle the strands, tracing each one back to its origin, you are left with nothing. The analogy cannot be taken too far. All this raises a whole heap of questions and the answers are not to be found by deduction or analysis. The Buddha was so right to insist that there are questions to which there are no answers, or at least, no answers that can be articulated. Pursuing such questions leads to despair. The only thing to be done is to keep clinging to faith, however feeble, however inadequate. In the empty darkness it is something rather than nothing. And then there is the hope that whatever it is that is going on beneath the surface of awareness will become apparent and love will no longer be blind.