Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Last thoughts on 2014

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (St. John 1:5)

One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. (Carl Gustav Jung)

My year begins in my mind at the fag-end of 2013, in those intermediate days of wind and rain between Christmas and New Year. For us they were particularly limbo-like last year, as our daughter was due to be born on Christmas day, but showed no signs of coming. So we were waiting around...

And then we were waiting no longer. Lisa was being wheeled into the operating theatre for an emergency caesarean, as the baby showed signs of being in distress. When they took her out there was no crying, and they called for a doctor. The room, the instruments, the people, became intensely real; there seemed to be a gaping chasm within me which was going to pull me in. I heard a cry and they called me over. They were sucking fluid out of Lucia's lungs, and warming her under a heater. the doctor said she hadn't breathed for about 90 seconds, but she was fine now. He said new born babies can go for 5 minutes or longer without breathing and be fine. This was actually the least worrying of all the things which had happened.

Later the doctor who had done the surgery explained to us that she hadn't been able to take Lucia out the normal way - she was positioned strangely, and had got her shoulder stuck when they tried to pull her out - they had broken her collar bone. But not only that, they had had to make not one incision but two in the shape of a T, in Lisa's abdomen, to remove Lucia, and so had to cut into the upper uterus, which is rather dangerous, and Lisa had lost a lot of blood. She might have to go back in to the operating theatre if the bleeding didn't stop.

This is where things got a bit too much for me! It seemed like they had only just escaped something fateful. Were we through the worst, or was there more to come? This question is one I have asked myself a lot recently, but last winter, in that relentless pounding of the elements, it felt like we were really under siege by malevolent forces.

Lucia's collar bone healed, Lisa's painful incisions healed; time, the great healer, did his work. And within that chaos and darkness and suffering, a beautiful light was cast by our child, our joy.

And that might have been all there was to say, but three weeks later we got the news that Lucia had Cystic Fibrosis, a life-shortening genetic disease. Coming to terms with this has really been part of what has made this year so challenging, but in a strange way, I feel that we have come out of it with so much more. Time will not heal this particular cross that Lucia will have to bear. It will be hard for her and for us. But that is somehow inseparable from, and does nothing to subtract from, the joy - unutterable and sublime - that is to get to know Lucia as she grows.  How blessed we are!

So we thank God for the year, and look with hope to the future - I wish readers a happy and blessed new year!

I remembered a few other things that happened in 2014: I went part-time at work and my book got published! Take a look here

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Dare To Step Forward

Sooner or later it becomes alarmingly clear: Yes, I am Israel. I am the ox that does not know its owner. And when, appalled, we get down from the pedestal of our pride, we find, as the Psalmist says, that our soul lifts itself up; it rises, and God's hidden presence penetrates ever deeper into our tangled lives. Advent is not a miracle out of the blue such as is offered by the preachers of revolution and the heralds of new ways of salvation. God acts in an entirely human way with us, leading us step by step and waiting for us. The days of Advent are like a quiet knocking at the door of our smothered souls, inviting us to undertake the risk of stepping forward toward God's mysterious presence, which alone can make us free.

From 'Seek That Which Is Above' by Joseph Ratzinger

Friday, 15 August 2014


"The one remains; the many change and pass;
Heaven's light for ever shines; earth's shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity,
Until death tramples it to fragments."

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

On Fairy Stories

In this short dialogue between Aragorn and a rider of Rohan from Lord of the Rings is the essence of the argument Tolkien puts forward in his essay 'On Fairy Stories':

(Rider): 'Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children's tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?'

'A man may do both,' said Aragorn. For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!'

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Gardening, Suffering and Evil

I look at my Mary Garden which I started back in early spring, and it is nothing like I intended it to be:

This is certainly the most challenging thing about gardening for me: not being able to control how it turns out. I mean, there is a massive element of being an amateur involved, which means I make simple mistakes like planting too close together and so on. But I think even the most expert of gardeners experiences this kind of dance between what they plan and what happens. After all, this is the essence of a garden - the harmony between nature and civilisation - the balance between the jungle and the city. In fact Valentin Tomberg puts it well:

“The dawn of humanity did not take place either in a desert where nothing happens, or even in a jungle where everything sprouts forth and grows without the regulating and directing control of the Spirit or, lastly, in the conditions of a city or town where nothing sprouts forth and grows but where everything is caused and is done through the regulation and direction of the Spirit. A “garden” is thus a state of the world where there is cooperation and equilibrium between Spirit and Nature, whilst a “desert” is a state of immobile passivity both of Nature and Spirit, a “jungle” is the state of activity of Nature alone, and a “town”, lastly, is that of activity of Spirit alone….one then understands that is not necessary either to do, or to leave alone; either to build systems of thought, or to let all thought pass through the head without control”

In a garden then, we have a metaphor for the Great Work which we must perform, of bringing our nature, unruly as it is, into harmony with the activity of the spirit - this is done through prayer and work. We do not want to eradicate our nature and let only spirit be present - this results in a kind of quietism, or false humility. Neither do we want to only allow our desires to flourish, forgetting about all else. This results in rottenness and vice. We want to say yes to God with our whole being, which raises our created nature, flawed as it is, into the light of Grace, where our soul is illumined with this light which overflows into our bodies, transforming them into bodies of light - this is the source of the doctrine of the resurrection, and it is why the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary was stated officially in 1950 (although it had been believed in tradition). Mary, being the first of God's creatures to say a wholehearted 'Yes!' to God, was then 'Full of Grace', and taken in body, soul and spirit with God.

It is not necessary, then, to do, or to leave alone. You must do both! Be attendant. In that top picture the leaves of the hollyhocks can be seen to be eaten away by slugs and snails. The bottom picture shows weeds growing rampant, and the lavender overgrown. Some dead growth has been cut away, and new plants have been allowed to spring up.

I think you could also say to be vigilant is important. To stay awake in the spirit, which needs work, or else the tares grow amongst the wheat; well that is really to mix metaphors, as we all know in the parable, the tares grew anyway. The real point is more subtle - the tares look very similar to the wheat, so it is only by being vigilant that we can tell them apart - evil often looks very much like the good thing to do - as it is usually more pleasurable in the short term and less hard work than virtue. And given that the parable tells us that the tares will be with the wheat in the fields till harvest time, then we know that the seeds of evil and suffering are growing in the fields of time and space, parasitic on the goodness of creation, we really have to keep awake, be attendant, be vigilant, but be at peace also, knowing God's saving work is being done, and carried out in the fullness of time, as Julian of Norwich says:

"And thus pain, it is something, as to my sight, for a time; for it purgeth, and maketh us to know ourselves and to ask mercy. For the Passion of our Lord is comfort to us against all this, and so is His blessed will. And for the tender love that our good Lord hath to all that shall be saved, He comforteth readily and sweetly, signifying thus: It is sooth that sin is cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. These words were said full tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any that shall be saved. Then were it a great unkindness to blame or wonder on God for my sin, since He blameth not me for sin. And in these words I saw a marvellous high mystery hid in God, which mystery He shall openly make known to us in Heaven: in which knowing we shall verily see the cause why He suffered sin to come. In which sight we shall endlessly joy in our Lord God."

These reflections come after a difficult week in which my wife and I were told that our daughter who has cystic fibrosis, is culturing a bacteria called pseudomonas in her lungs, and is going to need hospital visits, nebulised antibiotics, and more. This just brought me up against the reality of evil and suffering going on invisibly amongst the joys of our life. In her lungs, something is trying to colonise them which will lead to damage if not caught, and it was going on without our awareness, which is so scary. It is very easy in this state to give in to the fear and anxiety which can surround you like a cloud and paralyse you, but you must, I will say it again, stay awake in the spirit, trusting in God, which brings the peace and clarity necessary for strength and kindness.

So if fear and suffering and pain come to you remember, be vigilant, be awake - pray, and work. And remember the words of J R R Tolkien:

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Tradition and the future

I was in conversation with someone at my church recently and we were talking about something our Priest mentioned in his homily. He said that many of those who were ordained in the 60s and 70s will come to retirement in the next few years, and he sees something of a problem for the Church. Because of low numbers of vocations there isn't really a strong new generation of priests coming into the church. Therefore there will be fewer and fewer priests as the older ones retire and die out. This problem has been talked about a lot recently, with some speculation that married men will be able to become priests for these pragmatic reasons. Our priest thinks that one solution is to expand the role of the laity, so that they can effectively play a much larger role in the Mass. The lady I talked to seemed to think that this was a very good idea. I am not so sure. I will try and explain why here.

Over the last year our parish has had talks by various groups on the future of the church and the role of the laity. The most controversial one was by a group called ACTA - A Call To Action. They are a 'group of Catholics brought together by our love for Christ's church and our anxiety about its future'. In general they express an unhappiness with Church teaching such as the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which coming after the 'opening up to the world' represented by Vatican II seemed to them a step backwards. Thus they believe the Church needs to be more in step with current thinking on homosexuality, contraception, gender equality, and many more 'hot button' issues. I know that someone who spoke at one of their meetings, Tom O'Loughlin, has expressed the view that there is no 'hermeneutic of continuity', a phrase coined by Pope Benedict XVI to describe an interpretation of the teaching of the Church pre and post Vatican II. The hermeneutic of continuity is an interpretation of Vatican II that sees a continuity before and after this council, whereas a 'hermeneutics of rupture' sees an essential break post Vatican II with the past.

So clearly there is general discussion about the future of the church in the light of decreased vocations, with a vocal progressive lobby who want to see greater involvement of the laity in line with what they see as the 'Spirit of Vatican II'.

I want to say why even though I'm not a 'rad trad', I can't agree with these ideas. Please excuse me if this seems a rather long-winded way of approaching this, but it is of such importance that to me that I need to go into some personal history. I grew up with a church which seemed to me a dull outdated place. I did not really question going to church, however, until I began to read more widely. I had always had a love of fantasy stories, especially ones involving mythological subject matter, and in particular what is known as 'The Matter of Britain' - ie. Celtic and Arthurian stories. My appetite for this was fed by Tolkien and Lewis, as well as more modern fantasy writers such as Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Pat O'Shea, Ursula Le Guin. A strange blend of Christian and Pagan ideas often suffused these stories, and I was fascinated by the idea of magic and enchantment. All in all, a very normal 12 year old boy!

I never connected any of this with my faith, or church attendance. I remember a Canon at Great Bardfield church who had a talent for bringing alive the symbolism within the Christian faith, but in general, the symbolism in the Mass was never alive for me in the same way. There was a sermon I remember liking chiefly because it was about the soul's quest and its labyrinthine turns, which echoed one of the things I had been reading about in my book of Celtic Tree Magic which I had recently bought! But only isolated moments like this stand out amongst my experience of faith being lived.

As I am writing this, however, I feel that I am perhaps misrepresenting my perception of my own faith. It is not that I ever really rejected what might be called a theistic worldview for a non-theistic one. If I'm honest, I would say that I was like many teenagers searching for something 'alternative' which they can use to form an identity distinct from their parents.

 But it is also true that I was searching for something with depth - something beautiful, good and true, but I often found it obscured in my own faith by a misguided attempt to be 'relevant' to young people, which is of course the one thing that will put off any young person! It was like the church was embarrassed about the great treasury of wisdom it possessed in the Saints and the Sacraments, and was attempting to be a protestant sect. Many people who are brought up Catholic get the impression that their faith is just being really nice to people. But this kind of empty moralism is a flattened, deracinated faith. Even so, I believe a move towards it has been made in the church since the 60s as a kind of concession to the secular world, a way of keeping people on board. Perhaps it was also a reaction to the sort of rote-learning from the penny catechism that has so much fallen into disfavour in modern times. As an RS teacher, I can understand the need to connect with the lived reality of the young people being brought up in the faith, but we should not underestimate the human spirit's longing for the depths and the mystery of the faith, and neither should we expect that children are not capable of intellectual acuity, or coming to know their own faith in a rigorous way.

To come back to the danger of turning away from the difficult parts of our faith, in order to make it palatable, I heard recently that the Anglican Synod will soon vote on whether to keep in the part of the baptism ceremony about rejecting Satan and all his works. It struck me that although Catholic Church is unlikely ever to get rid of this phrase, there are people in the church who would like to gloss over the reality of evil. During the baptism of our daughter, when it came to the part of the ceremony where the devil is rejected, our priest made light of it and joked about the film The Exorcist! Now this may just have been his manner (he can be quite the comedian!), but this seems to me an example of the flattening process of accommodation to the modern world which I have been talking about.

Beauty, Truth and Goodness are often derided. I remember being mocked by philosophy students at university when I tried to talk about them. "Truth is beauty? The truth is ugly!" They laughed. But I knew that everyone is searching for these three things whether they know it or not. I remember obtaining a catalogue for the shop at Prinknash Abbey and ordering frankincense and a cassette tape of latin plainchant one Christmas. I would sit in my room and amongst clouds of incense burnt on the back of a spoon with the monks chanting, and probably my parents were thinking 'what a strange child we have!'. It seems obvious to me now that I did look within my own heritage as a Catholic for the depths of truth, and the spirit of enchantment and the soul of beauty, and was of course able to find it, but only piecemeal, and not set out as a whole coherent system, so of course when other coherent systems were presented to me, I was more drawn to them.

As I became a teenager, my thirst for magic and enchantment acquired a more intellectual edge. I began looking in the new age, mind body and spirit sections of bookshops for books on magic. I found there the systems and philosophies which I had longed for, and which began to shape my beliefs. I found the Beat poets, and especially Allen Ginsberg, whose Blakean visions in Manhattan appealed to me. I found Aleister Crowley at thirteen (!). I read his book Magick in Theory and Practice. It affected me. This was real magic - invocation and spirits and so on. I became fascinated by Dr. John Dee and the occult, got a set of Tarot cards, became interested in astrology, and fed all this with an intellectual framework provided by Jung. I was exploring a rich and secret world, closest in its syncretism to Gnosticism, which I had learned about through Jung. I found here a belief in a dualist God, a God of dark and light, which seemed to fit more with the world as I saw it. I could not believe in an all-good God in the face of evil and suffering.

Most Catholics will see all this talk of the occult and magic as very dangerous and heretical. And of course, they are heresies, and are dangerous because they lead one into error. But I felt intellectually justified in my beliefs - the faith of my upbringing did not seem to provide me with coherent enough challenges to these Gnostic wanderings (of course, it had always had answers, I just didn't know where to find them). A moment stands out in my memory. I had some interest in the Book of Revelation, with its complex symbolism and prophetic imagery (of course these things appealed to me!). I asked my RE teacher about it at school. He dismissed the book of Revelation as "Hollywood" - not worthy of serious study, just a lot of pretty pictures. Even then at the age of fifteen I was pretty sure there must be allegorical and symbolic meaning to it - we had been taught that the Bible was the Word of God anyway, so why include this book in the Bible if it was no more than tinsel? He clearly had no understanding of it, and was afraid to look into it in any depth. His stance reminds me of an attitude amongst the Pharisees, to whom Jesus says: "But woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men, for you yourselves do not enter in; and those that are going in, you suffer not to enter."

I now have the excellent book All Things Made New by Stratford Caldecott, about the Christian Mysteries and the book of Revelation, so I am thankfully able to understand in more depth this fascinating piece of scripture.

I floated around for many years trying a pick and mix approach to spiritualities. The usual New Age stuff. It was a search for light amongst shadows, a wandering in the dark woods following various will o' the wisps. All leading further into the briars, and it was not entirely unpleasant there. I am reminded of Old Man Willow in The Fellowship of the Ring, whose song sends Frodo and the hobbits to sleep by the river until Tom Bombadil comes along and releases them with his own song. There are different kinds of song, and some imprison, whilst others free.

As Catholics we need to be aware of the richness of our faith and not be afraid to enter into its mysteries. These are not secrets hidden from most, known only to an educated elite. Neither is there a need for some special initiation, or the search for some guru. There is now only one Master - Christ. There is now only one initiation - Baptism. What is needed is a guide for those who have been baptised, but who now need to enter more fully into their faith. This used to be called mystagogy. Many parishes have mystagogical programmes designed to do this.

I want to just finish with the final piece of the puzzle. Why did I turn around and come back to Mother Church? One book did it. It was called Meditations on the Tarot - a journey into Christian Hermeticism. Published anonymously (but widely known to be Valentin Tomberg), it has gained a massive following. I know there are many Catholics who will not go near this book, simply because it has the word Tarot on the cover. That is a shame, but in a way it doesn't really matter. This is not a book about the Tarot, but uses the images on the cards as a jumping-off point to explore the Christian and Hermetic traditions. This book should be read by everyone who finds their Christian faith somehow deficient, and is seeking answers in new-age spirituality, eastern religions and so on.

 I don't have space here to explain fully the scope of the book. I can say what it did for me. It showed me that we didn't have to reject Pagan wisdom completely if we are Christian. It showed me in fact how indebted Christian theology is to those great Pagan Philosophers Plato and Aristotle. More even than this, it seemed to be attempting a kind of Baptism of the esoteric elements of many religions. In fact the author Valentin Tomberg wants to show that pre-Christian esoteric traditions only have meaning if they end in Christ, and that the only true magic is the Mass.

This is a grand project, and it is very much a task for the modern era. In fact, I think it may have been called for by Pope John XXIII. Let me explain. In the video below Father Joseph Kramer describes Pope John XXIII's opening speech of the second Vatican Council in which he talks about finding a new language to better engage the modern world. Father Kramer asks the question "Have we found a new language that does engage the modern world?"

This search for a new language in which to express the eternal truths has had some dead ends. We cannot go back to an age when faith in anything but the Christian God was unthinkable, nor do we want to repeat some of the more rigid dogmatic processes of neo-Thomism. Equally, we cannot embrace the modern age with some of the abandonment of the progressives. There is room for a nuanced view of the relationship between Catholicism and other faiths. I think we have been given one key to this project in the method of Christian Hermeticism of Valentin Tomberg who said "Why do most Christians not remember the past? Because they do not love the past. One has to love the pagan past."

If we have young Catholics who know their faith and its relationship to other faiths in this depth, we will have a generation who are far more likely to hear vocations and follow them. But more importantly we need new artists and story tellers, who are able to do justice to the richness of the Christian story in an age when it is in danger of being misheard.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Of Trojan Horses and Faith Schools - the Core of Catholic Education

What is the core of Catholic Education? Stratford Caldecott encapsulates it here:

"The fundamental idea, drawn from the tradition of the liberal arts that goes back to ancient Greece, is that schooling is not primarily designed to churn out efficient components of an economic machine, able to “compete in a global economy,” but to nurture human beings and to free the soul from the forces that hold it enslaved. Not to impose faith, but to liberate the mind in such a way that it becomes able to make an objective judgment about faith for itself—not one dictated by the newspapers or social media, for example.

The three fundamental elements of the liberal tradition of schooling are Memory, Thought, and Speech (corresponding to Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric). Once these three elements are fully developed, a Christian ethos will be present in the school, because the ethos depends on belonging to the tradition of faith (Memory), on thinking intelligently about faith (Thought) and on forming a community in which this faith is lived and transmitted “heart to heart” (Speech)."

"To free the soul from the forces that hold it enslaved": is there a greater statement about why the core of Catholic education is really the core of all education? This vision, which holds that there is a truth knowable to the reason, discoverable in nature, the mark of the mind of a creator God in which all truth beauty and goodness have their source, has its origins in Christendom. It is worth remembering that the modern secular West could never have come about without this fertile soil in which to grow. Pope Benedict XVI talks eloquently about it here.

And yet how many people now view faith education in this way? Since the 'Trojan Horse' scandal in Birmingham, I can sense a hardening of many people's view towards faith schools, as if what they had already suspected had now been confirmed definitively: that they are hotbeds of religious indoctrination. This is an example of just such a viewpoint.

Of course the other problem is the reality on the ground of many Catholic schools is very different from the ideal liberal tradition set out above. I work in a Catholic school that is one of the top achieving comprehensives in the country, and the effort to maintain the 'outstanding' tag given by Ofsted is relentless. This drive to academic achievement unfortunately sidelines in my view the 'nurturing of the human being' that should be at the heart of faith schools, because everyone, staff and students, is in a race to constantly show that progress has been made. That is not to say that there aren't excellent staff in the school, doing all they can to nurture and liberate the souls of those in their care, but their efforts inevitably are drops in the ocean, because the examination machine is always there waiting, the hard utilitarian reality beneath the romantic ideal. In a way this is a balance that has to be struck, and I think my school tries its hardest to keep it balanced, but I do sometimes wonder why we have to swallow all the latest Ofsted advice and so on.

The current debates about education, the multitude of proposals for what constitutes the best method of education, or even what constitutes education, all reflect a deeper cultural change that has been taking place over the last 15 years or so. This is represented by a deep confusion about what education is for.

I think we need to recover a sense of the importance of the souls of those in our care. If we truly had at the basis of everything we do, a focus on the aim of freeing the soul from the forces that hold it enslaved, we would see our teaching in a heroic light, which is to give it a solemnity it sometimes lacks. This is not to create a fake pomposity or egocentricity in teachers, but really to always help teachers to understand how important they are.

We can do this by focusing on creating critical thinkers, who don't see themselves as consumers of facts, but who would be capable of holding their own in any subject, because they can evaluate and analyse independently.

One very good way of doing this is P4C, or Philosophy for Children - the website is here. I put the link to this because allowing more of a spirit of questioning and developing of critical skills is really at the heart of a liberal education, but so is the ability to make links and respond to the ideas of others, which P4C does really well.

Of course, a school truly founded around the principles that Stratford Caldecott outlines in his books will go way beyond this, but it is somewhere everyone can start.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Mary Garden Part Two

So the Marigolds are getting eaten by the slugs and snails as predicted, but the Briar Roses look beautiful, and that lily at the back should be flowering soon. Overall, I am happy with my Mary Garden.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Mary Garden

"My sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up.
The fountain of gardens: the well of living waters, which run with a strong stream from Libanus. Arise, O north wind, and come, O south wind, blow through my garden, and let the aromatical spices thereof flow."
The Song of Songs 4:12

"Hortus conclusus....similitudinem habet Matris Domini, matris et Virginis."
St. Jerome

Today I got started on my Mary Garden. This is something I have been planning for a while since I saw the idea on the internet. I bid on a vintage chalkware statue of Mary on ebay, which I got for £21, cleared some ground and planted some plants and flowers associated with Our Lady.

In medieval England many flowers and plants were associated with Mary. There are some obvious ones such as the Lily and the Rose, ones like the Marigold, which become obvious as soon as you think about the name, and then lesser-known ones like the Forget-Me-Not, which is also known as Mary's Eyes - blue with yellow in the centre.

The fact there are very many plants and flowers associated with her is testimony to the power of popular piety and the folk imagination in weaving the everyday world into religious stories. Perhaps it also reflects the fact that England was called Mary's dowry, and seen as sacred to Mary from as long ago as the reign of Richard II. In fact a painting called the Wilton Dyptich depicts this idea:

The flowers beneath her feet are recognisably Marigolds, Roses and Irises I believe. For me there is a deep connection between my native soil and the figure of Our Lady. Anciently this land was called the Enclosure, or Prydein, and being an island, could properly be said to be enclosed. The climate, and temperament of the people, have also made it a land of gardens. It seems that the title 'Enclosed Garden' applies equally to Mary and England.

From my teenage years I was obsessed with the Glastonbury legends that tell of a voyage of Mary to these isles after Christ's death with Joseph of Arimathea. Supposedly a very early church of wattle and daub was set up there and dedicated to the Blessed Mother.

Of course, reading of Lorien and Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings with these things in mind will help many to see that these things were probably a part of Tolkien's vision! Lorien in particular is a kind of 'enclosed garden' which is impossible to get to in any normal way, and which doesn't seem affected by time and seasons in the same way as the rest of Middle Earth.

Although the idea of having flowers in gardens named after Mary goes back originally to monasteries, it seems that typically, it's the Americans who have properly got to take credit for the Mary Garden as we currently know it. John Stokes, a Quaker who had a sudden conversion to Catholicism in a garden, became inspired to create one after reading an article about a garden created by a lady called Frances Crane Lillie, and subsequently the idea spread.

Here is an excerpt from that article:
During her travels in Europe Mrs. Lillie had learned that English monastery gardens once included flowers with names associated with Our Lady. She wanted to create a garden in the "tradition of Mary Gardens throughout the world" and asked a friend, Winifred Jelliffe Emerson, to search early plant literature for plants with religious and Mary names. Mrs. Lillie's original plan for the twenty foot square garden included sixty-one plants. Of these 33 were "Her Flowers," seven "Flowers of the Saints," and 21 "Other Religious Flowers," many of them English wildflowers. This 1932 list was modified as some plants thrived and others fared poorly in the wind and rain-swept site; the 1937 final plan contained 48 plants. Prominent were roses, lilies and irises, all emblems of Mary.

I don't have nearly as many flowers as this. But this is what I have planted so far:

I plan to add:

and many more in the long term!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor

Omnium expetendorum prima est sapientia in qua (perfecti boni) forma consistit

("Of all things to be sought, the first is that Wisdom in which the Form of the Perfect Good stands fixed")

Amongst many other books I'm currently about to read (I'm on the introduction) this one. I first heard about it in Stratford Caldecott's excellent book Beauty For Truth's Sake: On the Re-Enchantment of Education. Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1141) has something to say to educators today about the usefulness (in a higher sense) of the liberal arts.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Mary, Undoer of Knots - The Annunciation and the Destruction of the Ring

March 25th is a date which carries a particularly heavy load in terms of Christian tradition of scriptural events. Aside from being the supposed date of the Annunciation (9 months before Christmas day), it is also the date assigned to the Crucifixion, the creation of Adam, the fall of Lucifer, the passing of Israel through the Red Sea and the immolation of Isaac.

Clearly, these are best seen in a symbolic sense for the light which they cast upon each other, rather than getting caught up in overly literal questions about how we can possibly know when these events happened. But we should be wary of making the opposite error of thinking - that it doesn't matter what the date of the event is. 

In the Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger reminds us that redemption happened within time and space, the great became the small, eternity intersected time, and thus many consequences flow from this. For instance, we talk about the orientation of buildings, which situates and locates them in space in relation to the four directions. But how often do we remember that the word 'orientation' literally means 'easting', which came from the way in which church buildings were built facing east towards the direction of the rising sun as a symbol of salvation. Just as important are the dates of the Church year around which the liturgy is built, and which tell a story of salvation in time.

So dates matter. Tolkien spent a great deal of time making his calendar for the events of the Lord of the Rings accurate, even working out what the phases of the moon would have been. It mattered to him to put the date of the destruction of the Ring as the date of the incarnation/crucifixion.

It matters that the undoing of the knot of sin created by Eve would be undone in time by the free choice of the New Eve just as the undoing of the evil created by Sauron would be effected by (the non-choice of) Frodo. 

Frodo couldn't accomplish the task alone – he needed Sam at times to carry him, but more than this he actively renounces it – he says “I do not choose to do this” – and the deed of destroying the ring is done by the final evil deed of Gollum who bites off the ring and falls into the pit. In Tolkien’s sub-created world situated before the incarnation Frodo is a kind of shadow of Mary.

 Mary's free choice to be the God-bearer undoes the evil created by the original disobedience, which contrasts with Frodo’s non-choice, a final inability to perform the act of destruction, perhaps because of the harm inflicted upon him by the wearing of the Ring. The lesson is clear - Frodo is not the God-man, and thus the power to undo such great evil is not within his ability. However, events themselves conspire to produce the intended result anyway, a clear signal of the way in which fate works in Tolkien. But in a masterful touch evil is destroyed by evil - the final evil grasping act of Gollum cancels out the greater evil of the Ring. 

To me, there seem to be clear echoes of one of the early versions of the doctrine of atonement here, where Christ acts as a kind of bait, taking upon himself evil, drawing evil to him in his powerlessness, and then destroying its power through his sacrifice. Evil is tricked through its own short-sightedness and inability to see beyond its own closed circle. In this way also, Gollum is so enslaved and blinded by his desire for the ring that he cannot see the pit into which he falls.

In the world of primary creation (our world) the knot of sin is undone through a gratuitous act of self-giving; grace freely given and freely accepted is what finally restores paradise.

In my next post I want to contrast this Christian path to redemption with ‘gnostic’ views within which knowledge frees humanity from the slavery of sin and ignorance.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Russians are coming

I was interested to learn that Vladimir Putin appears to have read (and is recommending his regional governors to read) books by Nikolai Berdyaev (The Philosophy of Inequality), Vladimir Solovyov (Justification of the Good), and Ivan Ilyin (Our Tasks). Apparently he has quoted from these in recent speeches.

To put this in context imagine hearing that David Cameron had ordered his ministers to read parts of the Summa Theologiae by Thomas Aquinas, or Hegel, or Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West. This is only meant to give a sense of the heavyweight nature of these philosophers, but I think the point is clear - it would be hard to imagine Cameron, or any western leader doing such a thing.

Commentators have superficially characterised Berdyaev, Solovyov and Ilyin as being concerned with Russian exceptionalism, devotion to the Orthodox Church, and autocracy. Some (who clearly haven't read them) have called their writings lurid and grandiose.

I offer here a couple of snippets of Solovyov and Berdyaev's writing (I am not so familiar with Ilyin). I know very little about Putin beyond what gets reported in the western media, and I am not claiming that he is some kind of philosopher-king. If he takes these writers at all seriously (if he has even fully read them) I am sure he would have to endure some kind of cognitive dissonance between them and many of his own policies!

But I think if you look at these writings you get a sense of the way Putin may be thinking about himself. Certainly some recent events have shown that he is styling himself as guardian of tradition against the vacuity of European and American liberalism and relativism.

Here then are a few things I have gathered together. First Berdyaev.

From an article on the American Conservative website: “We must begin to make our Christianity effectively real,” Berdyaev wrote, “by a return to the life of the spirit.” Economic matters, he continued, “must be subordinated to that which is spiritual, [and] politics must be again confined confined within their proper limits.”

And: "One can also see elements of Berdyaev’s mysticism in his claim that the Russian people, while freely choosing “comradeship in AntiChrist,” have now (as of 1917) provided incontrovertible proof of evil in the world and demonstrated what the loss of Christendom really means to the world."

And Solovyov. According to Michael Martin (Second Spring Issue 16) "Solovyov's work is characterized by an interesting blend of ice-cold logic, mysticism warmed by eros, and puckish good humour. His main themes include the failure of positivism, the union of the churches, and the power and reality of Christ's Resurrection."

Michael Martin is impressed by Solovyov's eschatology: "his vision of the end times of the ultimate crisis - God's people succumbing to evil disguised as good. This, in its way, is a quiet eschatology...Christians in unity present the greatest - indeed the only - possible threat to the powers of darkness."

Valentin Tomberg, another Russian author, wrote "Europe is haunted by the shadow of the Emperor. One senses his absence just as vividly as in former times one sensed his presence." Tomberg goes on to show that Napoleon and Hitler attempted to take on this mantle, but by trying to rule with the sword they did not succeed. The Emperor rules by use of the sceptre. Symbol of hierarchy, with the cross of Spirit placed over the sphere of the World. Sacred order is only established through submission to the ultimate authority of God. Solovyov and Berdyaev and Tomberg know this - does Putin?

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Light of Valinor

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

"Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the dark lord."

(Gimli, on leaving Lorien)

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

There are some dangers worse than torment in the dark. When you are wounded by light and joy, that is an agony far keener.

This winter a wild God knocked at our door. We tried to ignore him. It didn't work.

Let me explain. In early December a friend posted a link to a poem called 'Sometimes a Wild God' by Tom Hirons on a social networking site.

The poem is here. I would think it has resonated with many people this wild winter. It certainly has with me.

There were times in some of the storms this winter when the air seemed literally to have turned to water, when the wind didn't sound like wind but the blind nameless roaring of primeval forces of darkness, when black pools of fear and pain seem to have been rising around me, setting all the old dependable things adrift in the chaos of wild weather, inundation with water, the seeming sudden decay of parts of our home, power cuts and floods. In short everything that could go pear-shaped did. All plans were thrown out. We were not in control, the cosmos was shouting it loud and clear.

The first time this really became clear was when Lisa's waters broke at the end of December. The plan for the birth of our child was - home, birthing pool, candles, breathing. Oh wow. What idiots. No contractions for days, and thus, because of the risk of infection, no home birth team. This, as will become clear, was the best thing that could have happened.

 It was a birth which needed the intervention and skill of many people, but from which none of us escaped without wounds. My wife Lisa lost lots of blood during the emergency Caesarean section that she had to have, and little Lucia got stuck, so they broke her collarbone to get her out, but that didn't work, so they had to make another incision in Lisa. Lucia didn't breathe for a minute and a half, and they said that Lisa might have to go back into theatre if the bleeding got worse. The lead up to this was perhaps the worst agony I've had to endure in my life, as we waited listening to Lucia's heartbeat dipping below the 'normal' levels indicating fetal distress.

But she was born, Lucia, a beautiful light in the gathering darkness. A brutal entrance into a brutal world, but in a little circle of light we prayed for protection. We were so thankful! How blessed we are!

We have been pierced through by the joy she has brought us. She reminds us every day of the absolute sheer gift of being, of our profound dependence on this given-ness, of the meaninglessness of all our attempts at hoarding, of our attempts to take hold, to set claims on things. It is a sweet and joyful wound in our hearts.