Saturday, 19 December 2015

Of Hell and Hell Fire, a Mystic Reflection

Fathers and teachers, I ponder, "what is hell?" I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. Once in infinite existence, immeasurable in time and space, a spiritual creature was given on his coming to earth the power of saying, "I am and I am love." Once, only once, there was given him a moment of active living love, and for that was earthly life given him, and with it times and seasons. And that happy creature rejected the priceless gift, prized it and loved it not, scorned it and remained callous. Such a one having left the earth, sees Abraham's bosom and talks with Abraham as we are told in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and beholds heaven and can go up to the Lord. But that is just his torment, to rise up to the Lord without ever having loved, to be brought close to those who have loved when he has despised their love. For he sees clearly and says to himself, "Now I have understanding, and though I now thirst to love, there will be nothing great, no sacrifice in my love, for my earthly life is over, and Abraham will not come even with a drop of living water (that is the gift of earthly active life) to cool the fiery thirst of spiritual love which burns in me now, though I despised it on earth: there is no more life for me and will be no more time! Even though I would gladly give my life for others, it can never be, for that life is passed which can be sacrificed for love, and now there is a gulf fixed between that life and this existence."
From 'The Russian Monk'; Book VI of the Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A friend of mine recently told me of the deep sense of gratitude he experienced in relation to the actions of doctors and nurses who cared for his daughter when she had an illness. When he reflected on this he realised that it was possible to experience greater depths of thankfulness than he had previously imagined, or perhaps it was something in the nature of the gratitude he felt which seemed an almost numinous response to a gift he was powerless to give himself. After all the word gratitude stems from gratis, free.

In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien mentions that one of the purposes of fantasy is refreshment, to remake the world anew, so that it can offer itself back to you as the gift that it is, freed from the shackles of your own weariness of perception.

And thus fantasy, in essence myth, has a great moral element - it can enable us to see the world as gift and thus put us in right relation to the giver. And if we are also of the giver then we must be gift also, for others. A great sense of gratitude can pervade us when we really understand this, and also a great zeal to pour ourselves out for others, to be like the giver ourselves. If, like the rich man, we go through life not understanding this, how great a sadness that will be.

Of Maps Old and New Part Two

Charles Salvo posts that it is not possible for moderns to be naively and unconsciously 'Traditional', comparing the retro tastes of the modern hipster who opts for vinyl, pipe and formalwear to our own predicament:

"The millenial is acting ironically. He makes a conscious decision to reject the contemporary option; it is not a habit, but rather an acquired taste.

We are in an analogous position. The world of our fathers no longer exists, so we can't absorb that worldview automatically without thinking about it much. Quite the contrary, we are faced with a choice since the worldview of the modern world totally surrounds us. Hence, we can no longer be naive, but rather we need to know exactly why we adopt one worldview while rejecting its alternatives.

For the innocent man, the will follows the intellect which was formed by family, society and church. The man of experience needs to consciously create."

In my last post, I tried to articulate some of the issues surrounding the choice of worldviews, or maps, but only hinted at why someone might reject the modern map (or maps), and adopt an alternative 'traditional' one. Of course the classic study on this is A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, in which he brings out the character of some of the different versions of these worldviews.

I mentioned the book The Gentle Traditionalist by Roger Buck, which articulates the argument for the orthodox Catholic worldview beautifully. But one major stumbling block that some may have with this is just that problem discussed above - that people like myself and Roger Buck are really just 'spiritual hipsters', choosing an outdated and retrogressive worldview just because it goes against the mainstream - we're just trying to be cool!

The 'turn inwards' is the problem here. In declaring the world dangerous and pagan, and advocating a return to a monasticism and asceticism in Catholic communities which homeschool etc., the Benedict Option could tend towards a world-denying gnosticism, which would be to ignore the fact that, as the article above says, being Catholic is always a 'being-for-the-world'. 

So the spectre of the gnostic heresy still haunts the Christian - it is the subtlest error to fall into. The only way to guard against it is to remember Christ's injunction to take up your cross and follow Him. And He will always lead you out of yourself and towards the other. That's when you realise your cross is also the cross of others.

Edit: Roger Buck has pointed out that whilst the Christian life should be oriented towards the other, some are called to live apart from the world, and even those who work in the world need solitude in order to pray. The exemplar here is Christ who went away into the lonely places in order to pray, but the monastic element of Christianity has been fundamental to it. Valentin Tomberg said "Just as a fish needs water to breathe, so the monk needs the solitude of the cell".

Equally, the image on my post perhaps shows the absurdity of thinking you can change a culture from within; being in the world but not of it is the phrase that is usually used to describe the attitude I would want to emulate.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Old and New Maps

The map is not the terrain.

But, the map is essential to negotiate the terrain. Given that no map can include everything, or it wouldn't be a map, some judgement would have to be made about what should go on it and what should be left off.

That judgement can often be to a large extent determined by the largely unconscious attitudes of the culture within which it is made.

F E Schumacher, in A Guide for the Perplexed, recounts the experience when in Leningrad, of looking for churches which he could see in front of him, but were not on his map. The authorities did not include 'living churches' on the map, only ones which had become museums. He likens this to the maps of life and knowledge given him at school and university which had virtually nothing on them of the things that seemed to him of the greatest importance to the conduct of his life. He began to suspect the soundness of the maps. 

The claim (is it even that? More an assumption) that all the maps made post-1968, or 1917, or 1789 are better by virtue of being more complete, or more faithful representations of reality, or having fewer errors than the old maps, is so widespread and accepted as to be a truism. But this could only be true if it were possible for maps to completely correspond to reality at some future point. But this is never possible; we have already seen that every map relies on a judgement of what should and should not be included. 

So no map just is the terrain, all maps are a symbolic way of describing the terrain, which will vary depending on what you want to achieve in that terrain. If you just want to get across it in as quick a time as possible, then your map is going to look very different from someone who wanted to spend time walking and enjoying scenic spots in it.

It is possible here to say: Yes, these maps do rely on judgements, but our judgements are more rational, they have greater warrant than the judgements that created the old maps. At this point we have come to a metaphysical claim, because such judgements can never be based solely on empirical observation. They are obviously prior to such observation.

If this point can be admitted by the modern 'secular' mind (which I have found it very rarely able to do), then usually the move is made to point to the peculiarly effective predictive power and usefulness of the modern map. And there is little doubt that many of the advances in material conditions of life for millions around the world, in medicine and in fairer conditions of living can fairly be said to be based on the effectiveness of the modern map.

But actually this tells us nothing about whether the judgement, the frame of reference within which the facts are embedded, is coherent or superior to the older frame of reference. All it tells us is that we have devised a map which, by narrowing its focus, and excluding many things which once were thought necessary to be included, and by a general process of flattening, has brought a kind of intense ability to predict and alter material conditions.

Indeed, the key feature of such a map is that its very effectiveness in this material direction creates a kind of inability on the part of the map-reader to perceive that they are actually using a map, and a belief that they are just negotiating reality 'as it is', neutrally, with no need for anything else.  

Actually, that 'neutral' map-that-is-no-map is aimed at getting us to some fairly specific places quickly. As such, it can say with Laplace: "God? We have no need of that hypothesis." 

Which brings me to the story told in Roger Buck's book, The Gentle Traditionalist. The book is a dialogue between two people with different maps, and as such is an excellent imaginative exposition of what I have been trying to say here, as well as so much more. 

In the book, we are shown the poverty and incoherence of much of the 'Enlightenment' map, and given a tour of the richness of the traditional map. We are treated to some great moments, one of my favourites being a visit from Rigid Dorkins, and his encounter with the Gentle Traditionalist, who ends up reciting 'St. Patrick's Breastplate' (a prayer for spiritual protection) to heal a 'breach' resulting from the visit!

It really is through stories like this that justice can be done to the truth of the old maps. Tolkien, Belloc and Chesterton knew this, so does Roger Buck!

I'll finish with a quick story of my own - I am teaching the topic Myth and Symbol to my A Level class and I was trying to explain that whilst myth did not necessarily convey facts, it still conveyed 'truths' at some level. I explained that poetry and prose did something similar, and that great truths could be learnt about human nature through the study of literature. I had thought this uncontroversial, but some students thought I was wrong, and that no 'truth' could be conveyed in this way. They were not to be persuaded through much argument. This alone should be evidence enough of the power of the modern map-that-is-no-map.

Edit: I perhaps should say that the student thought that stories, myths and poetry could be meaningful, but unless they contained facts they could not convey truths! I could say many things to this but I think this image is eloquent:

Monday, 7 December 2015

Stepping out of the Night

What is Advent? Many answers can be given. We can grumble and say that it is nothing but a pretext for hectic activity and commercialism, prettified with sentimental cliches in which people stopped believing ages ago. In many cases this may be true, but it is not the whole picture. 
We can say the reverse, that Advent is a time when, in the midst of an unbelieving world, something of the luminous quality of this lost faith is still perceptible, like a visual echo. Just as stars are visible long after they have become extinct, since their erstwhile light is still on its way to us, so this mystery frequently offers some warmth and hope even to those who are no longer able to believe in it.
We can say that Advent is a time when old customs live again, for instance, in the singing of carols that takes place all over the country. In the melodies and words of these carols, something of the simplicity, imagination and glad strength of the faith of our forefathers makes itself heard in our age, bringing consolation and encouraging us to have another go at that faith which could make people so glad in such hard times.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Seek That Which Is Above

One evening last week I went to the local supermarket with my family. As we walked in we could hear the sound of carol singers, the local Rotary Club, who do it every year. My daughter pulled me over to them, intrigued by the singing. We sat down at a table to listen, and I was handed a pamphlet by one of the singers and invited to join in as they sang Hark The Herald Angels Sing.

As we sang I became aware of the song as something wonderfully, unapologetically subversive and incongruous in those surroundings. The lyrics lay it on thick:

Christ, by highest heav'n adored:
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the favoured one.
Veil'd in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail, th'incarnate Deity

and later

Hail! the heav'n born Prince of peace!
Hail! the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

The 'glad strength of the faith of our forefathers' came through to me as I sang, and I allowed the full cognitive dissonance of the situation to hit home - the scandal of God made flesh, the unveiled theophany of the Godhead, on a Tuesday evening in a Waitrose in Surrey.

When another, deeper reality breaks through into the transience and paleness of this world, it brings consolation and awakens the memory of the heart which looks to the star of hope. This advent, it is good to clear away extraneous things, so that you may listen more clearly with the ears of the heart.

Friday, 30 October 2015

All Saints

All Saints

The paired feasts of All Saints and All Souls begin the month of November during which the Church encourages us to meditate on the fact that here on earth we have no abiding city. Which is a posh way of saying that our life here on earth is rather like a railway waiting room: sufficient, I suppose, for a while, but growing increasingly uncomfortable as the time goes on, what with old age, arthritis &c. This is for the very good reason that a waiting room is for waitng in, not for living in. And if we set about making ourselves too much at home here (to stretch the analogy stll further), we might well fnd that when the train comes, we will be so hampered by the baggage we have accumulated that we end up missing the train.
The point I want to make is that this world is not our home, and it is a good idea to keep our bags packed and not make ourselves too comfortable. We keep before our minds the fact that we are only here in order to catch the train—if we get the train, we have achieved the point of being here. If not, then not.
Saints and Holy Souls are there to remind us of those who have gone before us. Saints represent those who have already reached the fnal destnation, of whom we may have known many who have never been formally canonized, and Holy Souls represent those who are firmly on the train, assured of their arrival, but have not yet got there, having too much of the waitng-room still around them.
Now clearly Purgatory is, somewhat like the train, only an analogy. There is no ‘place’ as such, but it is what we call a ‘state’. What we mean is that we retain all our individuality and personality after death, and that individuality and personality carries an awful lot of baggage, as every one of us knows. There must be few who die as saints; our excess weight is going to have to be exercised off (changing analogy again) before we can be reckoned as saints. Which is why I find the analogy of a gym quite useful: going to a gym is a good and fruitul exercise which we can entirely see the point of since it makes us better and happier, even if people say ‘no pain, no gain’. I think Purgatory must be like that: Newman wrote of the purifcaton of Purgatory as a pain that the Holy Souls ‘joy to undergo’. And if we are prepared to undergo the unpleasantness of Ryanair to get to our holiday destnation, we might possibly begin to see something of the point of Purgatory.

Fr. Sean Finnegan

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Seed of Our Glorified Bodies

"This thing is the strongest of all powers, the force of all forces, for it overcometh every subtle thing and doth penetrate every solid substance"
The Emerald Table

"Now it is easy to say that "eating of the flesh of Christ," is a figurative way of describing faith in Christ. But such a method of dealing with the words of Holy Scripture is really to empty them of their divine force. This spiritual eating, this feeding upon Christ, is the best result of faith, the highest energy of faith, but it is not faith itself. To eat is to take that into ourselves which we can assimilate as the support of of life. The phrase "to eat the flesh of Christ" expresses therefore, as perhaps no other language could express, the great truth that Christians are made partakers of the human nature of their Lord, which is united in one person to the divine nature, that He imparts to us now, and that we can receive into our own manhood, something of His manhood, which may be the seed, so to speak, of the glorified bodies in which we shall hereafter behold Him. Faith, if I may so express it, in its more general sense, leaves us outside Christ trusting in Him; but the crowning act of faith incorporates us into Christ."
Bishop Westcott, Revelation of the Father.

The central action of the Mass - the crowning point - is the sacrifice of Christ re-presented in the Eucharist. We are taken up into the salvific action of Christ by partaking in this.

The feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, coming as it does in mid-August, is associated in this country (pre-Reformation, obviously) with the harvest. Indeed, in some of the Marian shrines, for instance in Sudbury, Suffolk there was in medieval times a procession on this feast with Mary called Our Lady of the Harvest. It started at the Benedictine priory of St. Bartholomew, from there the statue of Our Lady was carried through the town, surrounded by flags and banners, and accompanied by crowds bearing sheaves of corn. It was an event of great importance.

This procession and others like it embody the intimate connection between Our Lady and Christ. They point to the mystical significance of Our Lady seen in her title as Ark of the Covenant, in that she is the Sacred Vessel in which Christ is carried. She must then be also in some sense there wherever the Church is, given its Sacramental nature.

In partaking of the Eucharist, we become that which we consume - the Eastern Church calls this Theosis - a becoming like God. As Bishop Westcott has it "we can receive into our own manhood, something of His manhood, which may be the seed, so to speak, of the glorified bodies in which we shall hereafter behold Him". These glorified bodies must be in some sense the same as that in which Mary was assumed into Heaven, the difference being that she, being the Immaculate Conception, received that body before birth, whereas we will receive it after death. As this website has it:

"While Mary was “full of grace” from the beginning, we are likewise called to be full of grace; this is theosis. This is confirmed in Mary as the Queen of Heaven. For us, it is something to be achieved. For that she is our model."

So Mary's assumption is in one sense a foretaste of our own future glory.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose feast it is today, had this to say about Mary
"The Father gave her his Son, the Son came down into her virginal womb to become her child; in her the Holy Spirit miraculously fashioned the body of Jesus and made her soul his own dwelling place, penetrating her whole being such an ineffable manner that the expression “Spouse of the Holy Spirit” is far from adequate to express the life of the Spirit in her and through her. In Jesus there are two natures, divine and human, but one single Person who is God; here on the contrary we have two natures and two persons, the Holy Spirit and the Immaculata, but united in a union that defies all human expression."

In us too, there can be two persons; ourselves and the Holy Spirit reflected in us - that is what theosis is. This occurs through a process of purification of will through prayer and penance: we too can give birth to the logos in our own soul. As Tomberg says this occurs through perception of that which is above and reaction to that which is perceived ('childbirth'). My soul must become polished as a mirror without a single flaw, so that it can adequately reflect the heavenly glory. The process by which this is done is called by various names, but they all are essentially a way of purgation, of dying to self.

I now reproduce here the words of Valentin Tomberg regarding Hermeticism and Our Lady, as it has a bearing on our topic. (Hermeticism guards the communal soul of all true culture - Hermeticists listen to the beating heart of the spiritual life of humanity):

"One meets the Blessed Virgin inevitably when one attains a certain intensity of spiritual aspiration, when this aspiration is authentic and pure. The very fact of having attained a spiritual sphere which comprises a certain degree of intensity and purity of intention puts you in the presence of the Blessed Virgin. This meeting belongs to a certain "sphere"—i.e. to a certain degree of intensity and purity of spiritual aspiration —of spiritual experience, just as the experience of having a mother belongs naturally to human family life on earth. It is therefore as "natural" for the spiritual domain as the fact of having a mother is natural in the domain of one's terrestrial family. The difference is that on earth one can certainly be motherless, whilst in the realm of the spiritual this can never happen.
Therefore, the thesis that I am advancing with one hundred per cent conviction is that every Hermeticist who truly seeks authentic spiritual reality will sooner or later meet the Blessed Virgin. This meeting signifies, apart from the illumination and consolation that it comprises, protection against a very serious spiritual danger. For he who advances in the sense of depth and height in the "domain of the invisible" one day arrives at the sphere known by esotericists as the "sphere of mirages" or the "zone of illusion". This zone surrounds the earth as a belt of illusory mirages. It is this zone which the prophets and the Apocalypse designate "Babylon". The soul and the queen of this zone is in fact Babylon, the great prostitute, who is the adversary of the Virgin. Now, one cannot pass by this zone without being enveloped by perfect purity. One cannot traverse it without the protection of the "mantle of the Blessed Virgin"— the mantle which was an object of worship and of a special cult in Russia (Pokrov Presvyatyya Bogoroditsy —"Mantle of the Very Holy Mother of God"). It
is therefore the protection of this "mantle" which is absolutely necessary in order to be able to traverse the "sphere of mirages" without falling prey to the influence of its illusions."

Here are two tales about the precious veil of Our Lady kept in Chartres cathedral. Let us pray for the protection of the mantle of the Blessed Virgin.

Now the mantle or the veil represents the capacity to separate oneself from the cacophony of moods, prejudices and desires surrounding you, in order to listen to and understand the hierarchical harmony of the spheres. Without this capacity, there would be no ability to worship at all.

Last Sunday I heard two sermons. One was in church. It was a powerful exposition on the sanctity of the Eucharist, explaining that in the Real Presence of Christ in the tabernacle we approach heaven - the church is a liminal place - we must metaphorically take off our shoes when we enter. We must metaphorically (or even literally!) put on our veil so that we can adequately hear and understand the heavenly hierarchy.

I heard another sermon, or perhaps mission statement, when I got home. We had Frozen (the Disney film) on DVD, and it had got to the famous scene with Elsa singing Let It Go. She sang out bitterly in a kind of desperate parody of true joy to not worry about what others say, don't worry about tradition, do what you want, be free, let it go. Have a look at some of the lyrics:

Don't let them in,
don't let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don't feel,
don't let them know
Well now they know

It's time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me,
I'm free!

 I'm never going back, the past is in the past

Let it go, let it go
And I'll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone

Flattened, horizontal, anti-traditional (supposedly) clear-eyed, but really cynical, egotistic, amoral - do I need to go on? The reverse of the model held up to us in the figure of Our Lady.

The progressive, secular world vision gets hammered in at an early age. But don't worry - the Woman clothed with the Sun will crush the Serpent's head under her heel.

Values in a Time of Upheaval

The following is an excerpt from Values in a Time of Upheaval, a collection of essays by (as he was then) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. I think the section on politics and morality is fascinating, as it illuminates some of the discussions I have seen recently on the conflict between tradition and liberal progressive ideals. 




Politicians of all parties take it for granted today that they must promise changes—naturally, changes for the better. The once mythical radiance of the word “revolution” has faded in our days, but far-reaching reforms are demanded and promised all the more insistently. This must surely mean that there exists in modern society a deep and prevailing sense of dissatisfaction precisely in those places where prosperity and freedom have attained hitherto unknown heights. The world is experienced as hard to bear. It must become better. And it seems that the task of politics is to bring this about. So since the general consensus is that the essential task of politics is to improve the world, indeed to usher in a new world, it is easy to understand why the word “conservative” has become disreputable and why scarcely anyone views lightly the prospect of being called conservative, for it appears that what we must do is not preserve the status quo but overcome it.


This fundamental orientation in the modern conception of politics (indeed, of life in general) is in clear contrast to the views of earlier periods, which considered the great task of political activity to be precisely the preservation and defense of the existing order, warding off threats against it. Here, a small linguistic observation may shed light on this matter.

When Christians in the Roman world were looking for a word that could express succinctly and comprehensibly what Jesus Christ meant to them, they discounted the phrase conservator mundi (“conserver of the world”), used in Rome to indicate the essential task and highest service performed in human society. The Christians could not apply this exact title to their Redeemer, nor did they wish to do so, since it was inappropriate as a translation of the words “Messiah / Christ” or as a designation of the Savior of the world. From the perspective of the Roman Empire, the preservation of the ordered structure of the empire against all dangers from within and without had to necessarily be regarded as the most important task of all, because this empire embodied a sphere of peace and law in which it was possible for people to live in security and dignity. And, as a matter of fact, Christians—even as early as the apostolic generation—were aware of the high value of this guarantee of law and peace that the Roman Empire gave them. In view of the looming chaos heralded by the mass migration of peoples, the Church Fathers too were most certainly interested in the survival of the empire, its legal guarantees, and its, peaceful order.

Nevertheless, Christians could not simply want everything to remain exactly as it was. The book of Revelation, which certainly stands on the periphery of the New Testament with its view of the empire, nevertheless made it clear to everyone that there were things that must not be preserved, things that had to be changed. When Christ was called salvator rather than conservator, this had nothing to do with revolutionary political ideas. Yet it did point to the limitations of a mere praxis of preservation and showed a dimension of human existence that went beyond the political functions of maintaining peace and social order.

Let us attempt to move from this snapshot of one way of understanding the essential task of politics onto a rather more fundamental level. Behind the alternative that we have glimpsed somewhat unclearly in the antithesis between the titles conservator and salvator, we can in fact discern two different visions of what political and ethical conduct can and ought to do. Here it is not only the relationship between politics and morality that is viewed differently but also the interlocking of politics, religion, and morality.

On the one hand, we have the static vision that aims to conserve. It is seen perhaps most clearly in the Chinese understanding of the universe: the ordering of heaven, which always remains the same, prescribes the standards for behavior on earth too. This is the Tao, the law of existence and reality that human beings must recognize and that must govern their conduct. The Tao is both a cosmic and an ethical law. It guarantees the harmony between heaven and earth and, thus, also harmony in political and social life. Disorder, the disturbance of peace, and chaos arise where people resist the Tao, living in disregard of it or even opposition to it. In response to such disturbances and destructions of societal life, the Tao must be reestablished so that the world can once again be livable. The vital issue is to remain aware of the constant ordering of things or to return to it if it has been abandoned.

The Indian concept of dharma expresses something similar. This term designates cosmic as well as ethical and social ordering to which human beings must adapt if life is to be led aright. Buddhism relativized this vision—which is at the same time cosmic, political, and religious—by declaring the entire world to be a cycle of suffering; salvation is not to be sought in the cosmos but by departing from it. But Buddhism did not create any new political vision, since the endeavor to attain salvation is nonworldly, orientated to nirvana. No new models are proposed for the world as such.

The faith of Israel takes a different path. In the covenant with Noah it does indeed recognize something akin to a cosmic ordering and the promise that this will be maintained. But for the faith of Israel itself, the orientation to the future becomes ever clearer. It is not that which abides perpetually, a “today” that is always the same, that is seen as the sphere of salvation, but rather a “tomorrow,” the future that has not yet arrived. The book of Daniel, probably written in the course of the second century before Christ, presents two great theological visions of history that were to play a very significant role in the further development of political and religious thinking. In the second chapter, we have the vision of the statue that is part gold, part silver, part iron, and, finally, part clay. These four elements symbolize a succession of four kingdoms, all of which are ultimately crushed by a stone that, untouched by human hands, breaks off from a mountain and grinds everything completely to dust so that the wind carries off all that remains, and no trace of the kingdoms can be found. The stone now becomes a high mountain and fills all the earth—the symbol of a kingdom that the God of heaven and earth will establish and that will never pass away (2:44). In the seventh chapter of the same book, the sequence of the kingdoms is depicted in a perhaps even more impressive image as the succession of four animals who are finally judged by God, portrayed as the “Ancient of Days.” The four animals—the four mighty empires of world history—had emerged from the sea, which is a metaphor for the power of death to pose a forceful threat to life. But after the judgment comes the human being (the “son of man”) from heaven, to whom all peoples, nations, and languages will be handed over to form a kingdom that is eternal and imperishable, never to pass.

While the eternal orderings of the cosmos play a role in the conceptions of the Tao and dharma, the idea of “history” is wholly absent. In the here and now, however, “history” is perceived as a genuine reality that is not reducible to the cosmos. With this anthropological and dynamic reality, which had never been glimpsed in an earlier period, “history” offers a completely different vision. It is clear that such an idea of a historical sequence of kingdoms as gluttonous animals in more and more terrible forms could not have developed in one of the dominant peoples. Rather, it presupposes for its sociological driving force a people that is itself threatened by the greed of these animals and that has also experienced a succession of powers that called into question its very right to existence. This vision belongs to the oppressed, who are on the lookout for a turning point in history and cannot have any desire for the preservation of the status quo. In Daniel’s vision, the turning point of history is not the work of political or military activity, for the quite simple reason that the human forces necessary for the task do not exist. It is only through God’s intervention that things are changed: the stone that destroys the kingdoms is detached from a mountain “by no human hand” (2:34). The Church Fathers read this as a mysterious prediction of the birth of Jesus from the Virgin, which was the work of God’s power alone. In Christ they see the stone that ultimately becomes a mountain and fills the whole earth.

The cosmic visions simply see the Tao or dharma as the power of the divine, as the “divine” itself. But the new element now is not only the appearance of the reality of a “history” that is not reducible to the cosmos, but also this third element—which is also the first, namely, an active God in whom the oppressed put their hope. We see as early as the books of Maccabees, roughly datable to the same period as Daniel’s visions, that the human person must also take God’s cause into his own hand by means of political and military action. In parts of the Qumran literature the merging of theological hope and human action becomes even clearer. Later on, the struggle of Bar Kochba signifies an unambiguous politicization of messianism: to bring about the turning point in history, God makes use of a “messiah” whom he commissions and empowers to bring in the new order of things by means of active political and military conduct. The “sacred empire” of the Christians, in both its Byzantine and its Latin variants, could not adopt such ideas, nor did it wish to do so. Rather, the primary aim was, again, the preservation of the order of the world, now explained in Christian terms. At the same time, they believed that they were now living in the sixth age of the world, its old age, and that one day the other world would come. This, God’s eighth day, was already running alongside history and would one day definitively replace it.


Apocalypticism—with its refusal to accept the dominant powers of the world and its hope for healing through the overthrow of those powers—never disappeared completely. It reemerged, independent from religion or in opposition to it, from the eighteenth century onward. We encounter its radical form in Marxism, which can be said to follow Daniel to the extent that it offers a negative evaluation of all previous history as a story of oppression and presupposes as its sociological subjects the class of the exploited, both the industrial workers who long enjoyed very few rights and the dependent agricultural laborers. In a remarkable transposition, the reasons for which have not yet been sufficiently reflected on, Marxism became increasingly the religion of the intellectuals, while reforms gave the workers rights that made revolution—that great breaking away from the contemporary form of history—irrelevant. Workers no longer needed the stone that would destroy the kingdoms; they set their hopes rather on Daniel’s other image, that of the lion that was set upright on its feet like a human being and received a human heart (7:4). Reform replaced revolution: if the lion has been given a human heart and has laid aside its feral character, then one can live with it. In the world of the intellectuals, most of whom were well off, the rejection of reform became all the louder, and revolution increasingly took on a divine quality. They demanded something completely new; reality as it was evoked a strange feeling of surfeit (and here too we might profitably reflect on the reasons for this feeling).

After all the disappointments prompted in recent years by the collapse of “real socialism,” positivism and relativism have now undeniably gained the upper hand. In place of Utopian dreams and ideals, today we find a pragmatism that is determined to extract from the world the maximum satisfaction possible. This, however, does not make it pointless to consider once again the characteristics of the secular messianism that appeared on the world stage in Marxism, because it still leads a ghostly existence deep in the souls of many people, and it has the potential to emerge again and again in new forms.

The foundation of this new conception of history rests, on the one hand, on the doctrine of evolution, transferred to the historical sphere, and, on the other hand (linked with that), on a Hegelian belief in progress. The connection to the doctrine of evolution means that history is seen in biologic, indeed in materialistic and deterministic terms: it has its laws and its course, which can be resisted but not ultimately thwarted. Evolution has replaced God here. “God” now means development, progress. But this progress—here Hegel makes his appearance—is realized in dialectical changes; in the last analysis, it too is understood in deterministic terms. The final dialectical move is the leap from the history of oppression into the definitive history of salvation—to employ Daniel’s language, we might call this the step from the animals to the “son of man.”

The kingdom of the “son of man” is now called the “classless society.” Although the dialectical leaps occur of necessity, like events in nature, they are made concrete through political means. The political equivalent to the dialectical leap is revolution, which is a concept antithetical to that of reform. One must reject the idea of reform, because it suggests that the animal has been given a human heart, and one need no longer fight against it. Reforms destroy revolutionary enthusiasm, and this is why they are opposed to the inherent logic of history. They are “involution” instead of evolution and, hence, ultimately the enemies of progress. Revolution and Utopia—the anticipation that reaches out to grasp the perfect world—belong together. They are the concrete form taken by this new political and secular messianism. The future is an idol that devours the present; revolution is an idol that obstructs all rational political activity aimed at the genuine amelioration of the world. The theological vision of Daniel, indeed of apocalypticism in general, has been transmuted into something at once secular and mythical, since these two fundamental political ideas—revolution and Utopia—present a thoroughly antirational myth when they are combined with evolution and dialectics. Demythologization is urgently needed so that politics can carry on its business in a genuinely rational way.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Cystic Fibrosis Strawfie

I posted this because my daughter Lucia has CF, which causes mucus to build up in the lungs and other organs . It is a life-shortening genetic disease, but your donation could make such a difference, as therapies are being developed all the time.

When I did it I could only manage about 10 seconds before I started panicking for lack of air. I felt upset and worried that Lucia might one day feel like that. It really made me feel grateful for just breathing normally.

I would love it if you could donate, even without doing a #strawfie , although I'd love to see that too!

The action of breathing through a straw, while pinching your nose, emulates the daily struggle to breathe experienced by people living with cystic fibrosis.

Take a selfie of yourself breathing through a straw with your nose pinched (a Strawfie) and post online (Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/blogs) with a comment about how it made you feel....
Donations: Text BWCF64 £3 (or other amount) to 70070 or visit

Nominate 3 friends to try the Strawfie Challenge in aid of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Teachers in Space

Pope Benedict claims that it is not intellect that separates us from the animals, because we share that in some sense, but rather Tradition, the possibility of passing on to others the product of the intellect, and thus augmenting it and enriching it as it is preserved from generation to generation. He says:

“Tradition is the precondition for our humanity, and whoever destroys tradition, destroys humanitas – he is like a traveller in space who himself destroys the possibility of ground control, of contact with earth….”

 He is talking about the Church, but could be talking about schools – schools play an important role in the transmission of culture from one generation to the next. Remember teachers you have a noble calling – you are not primarily trainers of people for the job market – that may be a secondary aspect of your profession – but foremost you are passing on culture, augmenting it and enriching it certainly, but keeping as your central concern what humankind has always considered most worthy of communication down the generations.

And if we don't maintain that connection to Tradition, of learning free from utilitarian considerations and economic calculations, we are liable to drift off into the meaninglessness of results tables, constant assessment and hoop-jumping which some in government, in the absence of any positive idea about what education is for, seem content to make it all about.

Sunday, 5 July 2015


What follows is a blogpost by a young person I know who wants to remain anonymous.

The boasting of tolerance is the biggest lie I have seen to date.

On Friday, we saw the US Supreme Court legalise same-sex marriage in all states. On the same day, I logged into WordPress to find a rainbow banner across the top of my screen, put there without asking my permission. On Facebook, there is a rainbow filter you can put on your profile picture to show your support for the ruling. That’s one of its purposes anyway.
The other – which they don’t advertise – is to uncover the bigots, haters, “homophobes”, who can be identified by the fact that they have not changed their pictures. It’s to see who is full of backward and prejudiced ideas, who doesn’t believe in progress or in freedom… or in tolerance. There’s the word we’re after.
The campaigning we see so much of nowadays is done in the name of tolerance.
“I want to live in this particular way but it isn’t currently tolerated, and that’s what needs changing. I need the freedom to live as I choose.”
But it’s now gone so much further than that. Tolerance doesn’t – to most people – really mean tolerating something anymore. It is now about conformity. You can’t just put up with what someone else does; you have to approve, applaud as they do it, join in with the celebrations. It’s no longer a case of saying, “let me live my life and I’ll let you live yours.” It’s, “notice me, notice what I’m doing, tell me that you like what I’m doing, even if you have always fundamentally disagreed with it.”
How can a movement so confidently boast tolerance and a greater openness to other people’s opinions, when it shouts down any opposition? It’s an openness to different ideas, yes, but now only to those different ones. Traditional ones are not acceptable.
“We want you to tolerate what we think, but we won’t tolerate what you think.”
Suddenly anyone not in agreement with the new normal idea of what is and what is not alright is “other”. Not only are you wrong in what you believe: you have no place in this modern world; you are too stupid and narrow-minded to get it; you’re a dreadful person; in fact you might as well not be called a person.
You know you’re seeing intolerance when someone doesn’t bother presenting an actual argument, but rather resorts to insults and aggression, or maybe just complete dismissal.
Tolerance is necessary, yes. Even if you don’t like what someone is doing, it doesn’t mean you can elevate yourself to the position of God and decide on a suitable punishment for this person’s immoral way of life. You should never persecute them.
But now the persecuted have become the persecutors, and everyone is clearing a path to allow them to do so. Scared of being called intolerant, everyone joins in with the accusations and abusive name-calling. Behold: the thought police. Having been a victim of oppression is no excuse to become an oppressor. If it were, there would be no justification for lamenting one’s own oppression in the first place.
As I have said time and time again, there is a difference between opposing a deed and hating the person doing it. Society no longer makes this distinction. To criticise what someone does will hurt his or her feelings and apparently that’s not ok. Not agreeing means not validating, and not validating means making those people insecure. The world has become like a child having a tantrum, screaming and shouting until it is allowed its immediate desire.
It’s the screaming and shouting that makes all of this so infantile. People trying to impose their lifestyles on everyone else, through whatever means, reeks of insecurity. If you’re sure of what you’re doing, and you’re allowed to do it, then why do you need everyone else to give you a thumbs up? You don’t; you just get on with it.
With all due respect, my religious beliefs aren’t going to stop any gay people from having sex, or a person from having a sex change. If they cared about what the Catholic Church said about these things, they probably wouldn’t be doing them, would they?
No one’s peaceful opposition is going to stop you having a lifestyle you want, so how about showing a little of the tolerance you claim to be fighting for?

As ever, no comment fights :)

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Eucatastrophe of Eowyn and Faramir

'Yes, we wait for the stroke of doom,' said Faramir. And they said no more; and it seemed to them as they stood upon the wall that the wind died, and the light failed, and the Sun was bleared, and all sounds in the City or in the lands about were hushed: neither wind, nor voice, nor bird-call, nor rustle of leaf, nor their own breath could be heard; the very beating of their hearts was stilled. Time halted.

And as they stood so, their hands met and clasped, though they did not know it. And still they waited for they knew not what. Then presently it seemed to them that above the ridges of the distant mountains another vast mountain of darkness rose, towering up like a wave that should engulf the world, and about it lightnings flickered; and then a tremor ran through the earth, and they felt the walls of the City quiver. A sound like a sigh went up from all the lands about them; and their hearts beat
suddenly again.

'It reminds me of Númenor,' said Faramir, and wondered to hear himself speak.
'Of Númenor?' said Éowyn.
'Yes,' said Faramir, 'of the land of Westernesse that foundered and of the great dark wave climbing over the green lands and above the hills, and coming on, darkness unescapable. I often dream of it.'
'Then you think that the Darkness is coming?' said Éowyn. 'Darkness Unescapable?' And suddenly she drew close to him.

'No,' said Faramir, looking into her face. 'It was but a picture in the mind. I do not know what is happening. The reason of my waking mind tells me that great evil has befallen and we stand at the end of days. But my heart says nay; and all my limbs are light, and a hope and joy are come to me that no reason can deny. Éowyn, Éowyn, White Lady of Rohan, in this hour I do not believe that any darkness will endure!' And he stooped and kissed her brow.

And so they stood on the walls of the City of Gondor, and a great wind rose and blew, and their hair, raven and golden, streamed out mingling in the air. And the Shadow departed, and the Sun was unveiled, and light leaped forth; and the waters of Anduin shone like silver, and in all the houses of the City men sang for the joy that welled up in their hearts from what source they could not tell.

And before the sun had fallen far from the noon out of the East there came a great Eagle flying, and he bore tidings beyond hope from the Lords of the West, crying:

Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor,
for the realm of Sauron is ended for ever,
and the Dark Tower is thrown down.

Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
for your watch hath not been in vain,
and the Black Gate is broken,
and your King hath passed through,
and he is victorious.

Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again, 
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

And the tree that was withered shall be renewed,
and he shall plant it in the high places,
and the City shall be blessed.

Sing all ye people!

And the people sang in all the ways of the city.

The Return of the King, J R R Tolkien

"I coined the word 'eucatastrophe': the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary 'truth' on the second plane (....) – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest 'eucatastrophe' possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love."" J R R Tolkien - Letter 89

Last night I attended my first Easter Vigil - this is only partly out of lack of motivation to go - I am a cradle Catholic, but my parents never went or took us, and I never really was taught the importance of it or the triduum until I started more consciously and more seriously trying to live my Catholic faith. I actually first became intrigued by a reference to it in Evelyn Waugh's novel Sword of Honour where the soldier mentions the exsultet being sung at that moment around the world. For me it was a deeply moving experience, in which a rite with very ancient origins immerses you in the profoundest mysteries of the faith - without which the suffering and death of Good Friday, nor the joy and glory of Easter Sunday would make sense - Alexander Schmemann says this of Holy Saturday:

The "Great and Holy Sabbath" is the day which connects Good Friday, the commemoration of the Cross, with the day of Christ’s Resurrection. To many the real nature and meaning of this "connection," the very necessity of this "middle day," remains obscure. For a good majority of churchgoers, the "important" days of Holy Week are Friday and Sunday, the Cross and the Resurrection. These two days, however, remain somehow "disconnected." There is a day of sorrow, and then, there is the day of joy. In this sequence, sorrow is simply replaced by joy . . . But according to the teaching of the Church, expressed in her liturgical tradition, the nature of this sequence is not that of a simple replacement. The Church proclaims that Christ has "trampled death by death." It means that even before the Resurrection, an event takes place in which the sorrow is not simply replaced by joy, but is itself transformed into joy. Great Saturday is precisely this day of transformation, the day when victory grows from inside the defeat, when before the Resurrection, we are given to contemplate the death of death itself... all this is expressed, and even more, all this really takes place every year in this marvellous morning service, in this liturgical commemoration which becomes for us a saving and transforming present. (Source here)

So I had spent my life with a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle of Easter, of my faith really. The Easter Vigil - and this is an argument for the central importance of the liturgy if anything ever was - enabled me to more fully enter into the reality of my faith, staving off some of the 'grey veil of doubt' which Ratzinger says has cast its shadow over Christendom.

 Schmemann's explanation of Holy Saturday echoes what Tolkien says about the Eucatastrophe in the quotation above - "Joy and Sorrow at one, reconciled" - in the Easter Vigil sorrow is transformed into joy as Christ 'tramples death by death'. From the readings which talk of the yearning of fallen creation for deliverance, of the types and prefigurements of the saviour in the Old Testament, like scattered sparks of light which find their consummation in the great light of Christ, to the joyous acclamations of 'this blessed night' in the exultet, these all connect you to the great cosmic movement of fall and redemption, which Ratzinger calls in The Spirit of the Liturgy, the exitus and reditus - the going out and coming back - the great overflowing generosity of God as Love.

I have been re-reading the Lord of the Rings, and have fortuitously come upon the great triumphant climax of the story where the ring is cast into the crack of doom and Sauron is defeated and the King returns and vanquishes evil at Eastertime! But the passage above which I read today really struck me as a beautiful and moving portrayal of the way this eucatastrophe feels when mediated through a 'fairy-tale' - the tale of Eowyn and Faramir set against the backdrop of the defeat of Sauron, set against the even more remote backdrop in Tolkien's cosmic drama of the destruction of numenor (essentially a myth of Atlantis story).

In fact I saw in the passage direct echoes of the Easter Vigil - the waiting - the stillness of time coming to a halt - the reality of evil and darkness and then the great joy which no reason can deny. In fact the Eagle's song of joy and exultation could be a paraphrase of the exsultet! (And the reference to the Black Gate being broken and the King passing through is very clearly an echo of Psalm 24 which says:
"Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in"
Ratzinger again says: "...this is the content of the message of Easter. Not only is there a door in, there is also a door out. Death is no longer a house with no exits, a place of no return." Therefore God becomes as we are that we may be as he is.)

More than this, there is an eschatological feel to it - Faramir feels that he is in the end of days and wonders if another great cataclysm is coming like the great wave that swept over Numenor. But the expectation and feeling that no darkness could endure in this hour; this is also part of the Holy Saturday vigil - to quote Schmemann again:

But this life between the Resurrection of Christ and the day of the common resurrection, is it not precisely the life in the Great Saturday? Is not expectation the basic and essential category of Christian experience? We wait in love, hope and faith. And this waiting for "the resurrection and the life of the world to come," this life which is "hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:34), this growth of expectation in love, in certitude; all this is our own "Great Saturday." Little by little everything in this world becomes transparent to the light that comes from there, the "image of this world" passes by and this indestructible life with Christ becomes our supreme and ultimate value.

Every year, on Great Saturday, after this morning service, we wait for the Easter night and the fullness of Paschal joy. We know that they are approaching — and yet, how slow is this approach, how long is this day! But is not the wonderful quiet of Great Saturday the symbol of our very life in this world? Are we not always in this "middle day," waiting for the Pascha of Christ, preparing ourselves for the day without evening of His Kingdom?

Happy Easter to you all.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

On Renunciation, Liberation, Sin, and Death

This follows on from my previous post, which was a simple expression of desire and yearning for liberation in the song Fisherman's Blues by the Waterboys. But liberation from what? What are the chains which hold you fast? It is the big question - and different religions answer in different ways. Religions such as Buddhism usually characterise those chains as ones of ignorance and desire and suffering. In Hinduism the word Moksha expresses the idea of freedom from these marks of reincarnation. In Christianity the emphasis is more moral - the chains are ones of sin and thus death. As often happens, the reading I was doing today was saying a lot about this yearning for liberation, and the entrapment of the human being.

As usual I have been doing one of my favourite things - reading about Tolkien! In particular the excellent 'Tolkien's Sacramental Vision' by Craig Bernthal. I have based much of what I say here on his chapter 'Penance, Reconciliation and Their Refusal' in that book.

For Tolkien evil is something by which we are caught. There is a strong element of addiction in all those who are caught by evil in The Lord of the Rings - not just those who are caught by the Ring, but for instance Pippin with the Palantir etc. This is something especially fresh to me at this moment because in preparation for Lent - and hopefully beyond it - I have decided to try and break my dependence on mobile devices and social media by selling both my smartphone and my tablet.

This may seem extreme - 'haven't I got any self-discipline?', people have said to me; 'just stop checking them so much, there's no need to go that far.' My answer to that is - would you say to an alcoholic 'just have a little glass of whisky - have you no self-control?' Of course they haven't, that's the point, and whilst I don't think my compulsion to check my phone and go on social media is quite that bad yet, I have become aware over the last few months of a rather negative impact of all these things on my life. Quite apart from the fact that I have not really read any actual books for years, when I used to a lot, (no time to - I have twitter to check!) my sleep was cut down because I would be on my phone until the early hours, I found myself forced by Facebook into a projecting a distorted version of myself and recognised rather a lot of ego investment and pride in what I was doing, which sometimes made my interactions with others negative. These are probably just some of the negative effects of having constant access to social media on mobile devices. I'm sure there are limited positive effects, but for me they have been massively outweighed by the downside mentioned above.

I mention all this not to further mire myself in pride - look how abstemious I am! - but to give a practical example of the results of effectively chosen renunciations. I have been more productive, at peace, calmer and happier this week than I have for a long time, all by giving stuff up. It will become more difficult as I realise that I cannot rely on things like Google Maps or Kindle on journeys! But as renunciation goes this has been fairly easy! I'm not quite ready for the hair shirt and bread and water yet!

My point is it is very easy to become caught in the technological age. You find whole hours have gone by just staring at your phone. For many people this is fine. They are happy playing candy crush saga or whatever. But I have too much that I want to do. I don't want to obliterate myself, to numb my awareness. I want to stay awake. I need to stay awake - to be vigilant in a moral sense, but also to create - you cannot create without life making some kind of sharp and shocking splash against your skin every now and again. Those who create, be it art or poetry or whatever, I would guess have found working ways of allowing life to sabotage their carefully planned and controlled creative environments, but not sabotage too much. It's a tightrope walk, creativity.

But once you remove the external traps that are there to catch you, it is not all plain sailing. A subtler form of trap lies in wait within, a tendency which the external technological traps were just there to exploit once it manifested. This is the inner disposition of restlessness. This is a much more difficult trap to renounce. [see Josef Pieper - Leisure; the Basis of Culture]

Returning to the Biblical basis of this, the Old Testament Covenant was a life or death choice. The choice of evil meant you were ensnared by death, and as Bernthal points out St. John says much the same thing: "He that loveth not, abideth in death" (1 John 3:14)

"Death is a condition you enter while alive, and you abide in it - you accept it, you don't struggle, and your conscience grows numb" - The way Bernthal puts it echoes my fear that midway on my life's journey I begin to blunder off the path, being full of sleep:

Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard--so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well

I'll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter
I cannot well say, being so full of sleep
Whatever moment it was I began to blunder

Off the true path.

Dante, Inferno, Canto I

The entrapment, the capture, is a slow process; you don't presumably realise where you have started to go wrong until it's too late. Persistence in sin makes you go spiritually blind, as Feser puts it here (Sex Part II - Aquinas on the daughters of lust), which explains a lot.

That abiding can be turned around - he that loveth, abideth in life, clearly, and this is the 'life to the full' that Jesus speaks of, which comes from drinking of the waters of eternal life that He gives us. Graham Ward says:

"The goal of contemplation is a mutual discerning - to know even as I am known. The knowing is a condition of being, a condition in the Johannine texts that is often described as abiding ('meno' - to stay, to stand, but transitively, to await, to expect.)"

The paradigmatic case in all Tolkien's work of this abiding in death is Smaug. This dragon is possessed by what he possesses: his hoard of gold. He abides with death - a reign of pure quantity as Guenon put it - every last gold piece counted, and unable to rise from the hoard in case something goes missing. He is therefore bound to the tomb of his cave. This grasping or appropriation Tolkien uses as an analog of our epistemological appropriation, our inability to let the known be known without somehow attempting to make the known into an image of ourself, is a reverse case of that 'knowing as we are known' which is abiding in love. We must constantly practise renunciation in order to allow things to be as they are, not what we want them to be.

Heidegger takes the moment of death, cutting as it does across all our plans and intentions, as a spiritual opportunity, as it presents us with the possibility of absurdity and therefore invites us to live life authentically. At least, this is what I take him to be saying! Heideggerians correct me if I'm wrong! When life is lived 'as rite not as flight' then we are learning how to die well, which is surely the aim of a good life.

In the Silmarillion, men, when rejecting death, enter into a deeper spiritual death. They lose vibrancy and joy. The mark of being captured by evil is joylessness, lack of merriment or gaiety. How do we avoid this? Interior battle is Tolkien's answer - look at how many battles there are in the Lord of the Rings - but most of them go on in the inner forum of conscience of the characters. We need all the spiritual weapons we can muster for these battles - waybread, the phial of galadriel, the elven rope - all of these gifts which save Frodo and Sam are sacramental or prayer related. We have been given help in the battle.

To go back to Dante, in the Inferno, the negative gravity of sin pulls him into hell - he cannot ascend the hills he has come down, and must go through hell to escape. 'Sin creates a proclivity to sin'. In the Catholic tradition, this is why confession is so important. Herbert McCabe:

"The fire of hell is God. God is terrible and no man can look upon him and live, he is a consuming fire. To be safe in the presence of God you must yourself be sacred, you must share in God's power and life. To have come into the presence of God without this protection is damnation. That is one picture of hell, the fundamental biblical one...

But hell is also the inability to accept death. The damned man is he who does not die in Christ, for whom death is therefore not a means of resurrection to new life. He is not able to make the act of self-sacrifice required of him. He is unable to see why he should. I picture the damned as spending their time continually justifying themselves to themselves, constantly showing how right they were and why they have no need to repent...

All the souls in hell, I think, are quite convinced that they have been damned unjustly. The analogy I find most useful is that of the child who has lost his temper and is sulking. He wants of course, to return to the affection of his friends, but he is blowed if he is going to apologize, his pride keeps him out even though he wants very much to return. Everybody is fully prepared to have him back if he will only make the gesture of returning, but this he finds himself unable to do. He cannot perform the self-abandonment required. He is unable to die.

Anyone in hell who was sorry for his sin would of course instantly be in heaven; the point of hell is that this does not happen."

Monday, 2 February 2015

Church Attendance

Geoffrey Korz: “Church attendance in the West today is not hit by persecution, but by seduction” -

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The Grand Inquisitor; 'Freedom' and Terrorism

"As a good number of commentators have noted in recent years, the opposition, now canonical in the public language of many governments, between the "freedom" of the North Atlantic cultural milieu and the nightmare of terrorism and fundamentalism that exists outside this enclave is more and more vacuous. Freedom as a designation for maximal consumer choice (including the consumerizing of public service and personal care) combined with an economic jeu sans frontieres is an indifferent rallying point for moral conviction, conviction about the goodness or justice rather than simply the comfort of a society. ... Faced with a global ideology of resentment, as wholly modern in its formation as is western secularism, an ideology equally determined to end history in its preferred way for the sake of an absolutely manifest social good, our rhetoric of defending freedom does not make a very persuasive showing.

One of the things that makes Ivan's Inquisitor such a perennially haunting figure is that his voice is clearly audible on both sides of the current global conflict. He is both the manager of a universal market in guaranteed security and comfort for a diminished human soul and the violent enforcer of a system beyond dialogue and change. And we may feel a similar unease at the way in which the profiles of terror are sketched in Devils: the selfless fanatic and the solipsistic libertarian are pushed together, at the mercy of anyone with the material and communicative resources to manipulate them. Repeatedly, he [Dostoevsky] insists to his readers that this is what a world without icons, without presence, will mean."
Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky; Language, Faith and Fiction

The Grand Inquisitor, a famous passage in Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov, presents us with a conflict between heroic freedom and comfortable enslavement. You can read it here (Book 5, Chapter 5; p221 of the pdf)

The Grand Inquisitor throws into stark relief the incoherence of the modern notion of freedom post-Enlightenment. The Islamists know that the West's talk of freedom is empty, based as it is on a system of absolute abasement before the gods of the marketplace. We have chosen comfortable enslavement rather than freedom, or freedom to choose between many different products:

“The world says: "You have needs -- satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don't hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more." This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”
(Karamazov again)

The problem is that freedom in the west today is actually freedom-from, in which case it is a value that is founded on a negative, on a repudiation of something else, and thus, is at the outset a reactive rather than an active quality. The act of liberation that our ideals of freedom are founded on was actually itself a violent and reactive act. It was a tearing-away of state from religion in the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Rather than any more of my own poor rambling, I shall leave here some links to articles which expand on this last point.

This blog post by Artur Rosman on how The ‘Wars of Religion’ were actually ‘Wars of the Birth of the Nation-State.’

Over at Gornahoor, Cologero continues his defence of Tradition with his usual acuity: "One use of intelligence, or rational thought, is to determine how best to achieve a goal. This is instrumental intelligence. True intelligence, however, is to know what goals to aim for."

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

An Office for the Dead

An Office for the Dead

Leave me you workers of iniquity:
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my supplication:
The Lord has received my prayer.

So let all my enemies be ashamed
and very much troubled.
Let them be turned back,
and be ashamed very speedily.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine on them.

First Reading
My dear people, since God has loved us so much, we too should love one another. No-one has ever seen God; but as long as we love one another God will live in us and his love will be complete in us. We can know that we are living in him and he is living in us because he lets us share his Spirit. We ourselves saw and we testify that the Father sent his Son as saviour of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him, and he in God. We ourselves have known and put our faith in God's love towards ourselves. God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him. Love will come to its perfection in us when we can face the day of Judgement without fear; because even in this world we have become as he is. In love there can be no fear, but fear is driven out by perfect love: because to fear is to expect punishment, and anyone who is afraid is still imperfect in love.

V. Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord hear my voice.
R. Remember me O Lord, my life is but a breath.

Let us pray.
O Lord, whose nature it is to have mercy and spare, we humbly beg your mercy on the souls of the faithful departed, that through your mercy and our feeble prayers, they may attain to that glory which they have always desired. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

I Dreamed I Saw Robin Williams

Last night I dreamt that Robin Williams came back to tell me what the afterlife was like. He warned me that I would not escape God's wrath without prayer and good works. He said to pray vigilantly to become emptied of all desire and earthly vanity so that I might be filled with God's grace.

He showed me a place where souls were bound to the earth by the weight of their sin, some of them flattened by it, and the great fire of God's love was blowing on them, but instead of being caught up in ecstasy by it, it was a great torment to them, and they struggled to escape its heat. Robin Williams said that God's wrath was the flipside of his love, exclusively the result of a constant rejection of love both of God and neighbour in this life.

This worried me somewhat, and I awoke in distress, and I put my head against the window and looked out at the cold sad new year's day, and thought about all the worries of the coming years, and wondered what this year and all the years in my future would bring.