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.