Sunday, 31 January 2016


I heard someone say recently that they were going to try and give up worry for Lent. I think that's admirable but doubt it's possible. If you are by nature a worrier like myself then you will know how insidious worry can be, how it can creep up on you at 4am, how it's always really there. I'm sure I'm not alone in developing certain techniques as a worrier to try and minimise it, such as making sure I get physical outdoor exercise everyday, having a daily prayer routine (eg. saying the rosary), having creative work to throw yourself into, trying to avoid spending time on any absorbing media which might add to the worry (eg. reading certain newspapers), trying to be organised and developing a pragmatic attitude - get on with the things you can do, and forget about the things you have no control over.

I think that last one is really key, and that is where faith comes in and can make a difference to worry. Really, many worries boil down to an experience of complete helplessness in the face of events or life-situations over which we have no control. Worry is like a kind of superstition - we think if we worry about something we can exert some kind of indirect influence over it. But as Christ said:

"Which of you, by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?"

In fact the whole passage in the Sermon on the Mount on worry is one of the most beautiful passages in scripture in my opinion. We cannot help worrying I think, but we can minimise it by being open to receiving the grace of God's help in prayer, by being open to sharing in others' good fortune even if our own lives seem dark and full of trouble.

Do Not Worry
25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?

28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Paolo and Francesca

I'm posting here a fairly lengthy section of Charles Williams book on Dante, The Figure of Beatrice. It is an extremely perceptive account of how the soul first begins the downward steps to sin, based on the first circles of hell from Dante's Inferno.

The Year of Mercy called by the Pope which began on 8th Dec 2015 has the admirable aim of bringing more of us back into the loving embrace of God's forgiveness. There has been much talk of 'journeying' with the sinner, of pastoral outreach, and penitential pathways. I think we are also invited this year to take a clear look at the circumstances of sin, for it is sin that ultimately can put the supreme obstacle between us and God's mercy. If this were not the case there would be no need for Christ's salvific action, for the Sacraments, or the Church.

Here we are introduced to the first choice that the soul makes in hell, which is a choice of the imagination. We are invited to see how gradual and excusable the path to sin seems, how innocently and blamelessly we might be tempted to see ourselves as we start on a path that will lead to our damnation. How important it is to be awake in the spirit, understanding that we are constantly making choices between good and evil, even just in small lazinesses and through the thoughts and desires that we entertain, and those we reject. A solid education in the human condition, in how flawed and wretched we are or can be, is not something the Church should flinch from, knowing how little the modern world likes to hear such things. It is the supremely merciful thing to do to confront the soul with the reality of its choices, and where those choices will lead.

If anyone is qualified to talk about the way Dante describes the dalliance of the soul with 'lussuria' or indulgence, sexual infidelity etc, it is Charles Williams. By all accounts an odd, charismatic man, he was a fine theologian, and his understanding of Dante impressed many, including Dorothy Sayers, who translated and annotated the Inferno. But his personal life was highly unusual to say the least, and whilst married, he carried on many romantic liaisons with women. I won't go into that here, but I believe the passage I have reproduced is evidence of the way in which:

Williams, as his interest in Dante grew and as he began to publish on the great poet, began to present him as he had “very seldom” been understood before: “as a poet among poets, creating . . . ‘an accurate image of actual experience.’” (from this excellent blog post)

From the Figure of Beatrice, by Charles Williams:

"they come to the circle where the lecherous are tossed on a storm. This is the place of what is probably the most famous episode in the whole Commedia, the episode of Paolo and Francesca - which is always quoted as an example of Dante's tenderness. So, no doubt, it is, but it is not here for that reason, nor even for the more important reason of poetically lightening the monotonous gloom of hell. It has a much more important place; it presents the first tender, passionate, and half-excusable consent of the soul to sin.

Up to this point (Inf. V) the Imagination has been in suspense; it has not chosen- whether from a shameful shrinking from choice into a spiritual cosiness, or from its not being confronted with this religious choice. It is now shown as choosing, and the choice is made as plausible as it possibly can be, Francesca's description of how she and Paolo read together, how in that reading their eyes sometimes met and their colour changed, how they came to the moment when Lancelot kissed Guinevere; how
questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,
la bocca mi bacio tutto tremante-

'he who shall never be divided from me kissed my mouth all trembling; the book was a pander, and he who wrote it; that day we read no more': Francesca's description of Love itself, with a certain reminiscence of Dante's own poem, 'Love and the gentle heart', for she says : 'Love, which quickly knows itself in the gentle heart....Love which excuses no loved one from loving....Love does not yet abandon me'- all this heightens comprehension until Dante himself sighs to think 'how many sweet thoughts, how great a desire, brought them to this dolorous state'. 

What indeed was the sin? It was a forbidden love? yes, but Dante (in the place he gives it in the Commedia) does not leave it at that. He so manages the very description, he so heightens the excuse, that the excuse reveals itself precisely as the sin. [italics mine]. The old name for lechery was luxuria; lussuria is the word Virgil uses of this circle, and it is lussuria, luxury, indulgence, self-yielding, which is the sin, and the opening out of hell. The persistent parleying with the occasion of sin, the sweet prolonged laziness of love, is the first surrender of the soul to hell - small but certain. The formal sin here is the adultery of the two lovers; the poetic sin is their shrinking from the adult love demanded of them, and their refusal of the opportunity of glory. Hell, in Dante, is in the shape of a funnel, and a funnel is exactly what hell is; and this moment of the lovers' yielding is the imagination swept around the inner edge of the funnel. Here all is still good except the very good itself; all is still valuable except value itself; 'il ben dell' intelletto' quivers and a little disintegrates. 

The adultery here is only the outer mark; the sin is a sin possible to all lovers, married or unmarried, adulterous or marital. It is a sin especially dangerous to Romantics, so much so that its essence has often been taken to be a mark of Romanticism. But this, if we allow Dante and Wordsworth to be true Romantics, it hardly is; it is much more the sign of the pseudo-Romantic- in life even more than in letters. At the Francescan moment the delay and the deceit have only begun; therefore their punishment- say their choice- has in it all the good they chose as well as all the evil. Their love is as changeless as the storm. A consolation lingers with them through the infinite 'forever'. So in the poem; and could the soft delaying indulgence of the soul so delay perpetually, the imagination and the will might also be content to lose heaven for that.

It cannot; it has entered hell. It has, as the two poets, following their own way of discovery, so well see, to lose gradually what good was still left to it. In the Francescan moment each of the lovers had delight in the image of the other, and both of them had a mutual delight in their love. Their mutual lussuria indulged this. But lussuria cannot in fast stop there; the mutual indulgence is bound too soon to become two separate single indulgences. It is true that lussuria is to be distinguished from the sollagia of the Convivio. Sollagia, with all the rest of Pleasantness, is a moral duty - to oneself as to the other; eros itself is in that sense not only permissible but must be enjoined. It is part of our 'honourable estate' - of nobility - to amuse and be amused; the Convivio is in that sense a commentary on the words used in the marriage rite according to the use of the Church of England. But when the sollagia dominate, they become lussuria; they set up in the human organism a hunger for them which , from being mutual, becomes single. An appetite for the use of this Image prevails; this is Gluttony and this is the next circle of hell (VI).

 The souls lie there under a foul and heavy rain, and below the claws of an Organism of hell, Cerberus, who deafeningly barks and sharply tears them for ever. They lie turning restlessly from side to side to shield themselves as they may. The stinking earth is more difficult lying than Francesca's bed, though if anyone were to discern a sexual interpretation in this circle, I do not know that he need be contradicted. Dante was writing about sex as well as all the rest. This is the result of prolonged incontinence, incontinence of mind as well as body; gluttony of delicacies as of vulgarities, of quality as well as quantity. The fatal development of sin in the soul might all be read in terms of gluttony as well as lechery. Over-indulgence, culpable delay, the beginning of perversion, is the same with whatever kind of flesh. Or mind or spirit.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Divination and Catholicism

One thing we can learn from the story of the three magi (Remembered and celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany) is that astrology can lead to Christ, which was eloquently pointed out in my parish priest, Fr. Sean Finnegan's sermon on Sunday. He explained that we can see what are called types of the dying and rising god in mythologies across the world. These 'types' are prefigurings of Christ, who as C S Lewis said was the 'true myth' - all the other dying and rising gods had never claimed to inhabit actual historical time and space, the world of the mundane.

The learned, such as the three magi, Persian astrologers, would always have been able to study lore and the wisdom of the heavens (which is the stuff of myth), and been able to get an 'inkling' of this truth - the truth of Christ. Just as the Old Testament prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah, so the pagan wise men would have been able to study the signs which pointed to the cosmos-transforming moment of the incarnation and birth of the Christ child. 

That the study of the stars can lead to knowledge and wisdom is also evident from Psalm 19, which says:

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

In Christian thought the creation is the work of the Logos, or Word of God, by which everything is set into harmony and given order. Indeed the word cosmos implies an ordered harmonious system. The heavens are the clearest place to look for the language of the Word which orders all, being as they are the domain of cyclical and regular movements of planets and stars. A horoscope, or birth chart, is simply a map of the movements of these heavenly bodies from a position on the Earth, or the intersection of time and space in a certain moment.

Whatever the 'star' was which the magi followed, whether it was an exceptionally bright conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn with Regulus, the star of Kings in the constellation of Leo, or some other less predictable phenomenon, doesn't matter too much - what we need to see is that the coming of the Christ not only utterly changed the world from that moment onwards, but also redeemed time past, and with it the cultures that inhabited those past times. That does not mean that any belief of any culture is equally valid or true, but that what truths pre-Christian cultures were able to discern can be 'taken up' into the Christian framework. In other words, it is possible and indeed necessary to 'baptise' what is true in pagan cultures.

In an excellent essay on esoteric Christianity Stratford Caldecott notes:

"A Jesuit contemporary of de Lubac’s puts the case more strongly: "It is partly because contemporary Christianity has failed to recognize the value, both immanent and transcendent, of the great symbols which are so prolific in its tradition and ritual that the human psyche is today possessed by so many demons and tempted to look elsewhere for symbols which can nourish it. It is not betrayal of the affirmations of the faith for the theologian to explore this dimension of religious symbolism, which has been too much neglected hitherto, and to accept in this matter the assistance of mythologists and psychologists."

Why then does the Church condemn astrology? As a system of divination, it is seen as an attempt to take on power that does not belong to one's self, so that one may be like God - ie. the promise of the serpent. In this sense astrology and divination can be tools of the heresy of gnosticism, which is to revel in an endless spiritual search on an intellectual level, thinking that one is possessed of all the answers, to which the common people are not party. It is thus world-denying and body-denying, as well as elitist. Divination can give us this false sense of power over fate, and can stop us from relying on the will of God, but rather helps to build up our own wills.

If astrology does not lead to Christ it leads to the Devil. In the letter The Hanged Man, of Valentin Tomberg's Meditations on the Tarot, he talks about the 'zodiacalised will'. This is the will which has cut off its own inclinations and allowed the will of the heavens to work through it. It is only in this sense that astrology can be baptised. There is a Christian gnosis, as Balthasar writes:

"the gnostic Christian does not outgrow the proclamation of the Church, but in the kerygma he finds, revealing himself, the Logos, who, in the most comprehensive sense, ‘enlightens’ the believer ever more clearly and, indeed, draws him, as John was drawn, to his breast ever more intimately and unites him interiorly with himself.... What is here involved is, therefore, nothing other than the turning of faith to its own interior authenticity, as faith in a proposition (‘belief that Christ’) becomes faith in a person (‘faith in Christ’).... Truly to find the Father in the Son is to open up the sphere of absolute trinitarian truth, and of the knowledge in which we grow more deeply the more we entrust ourselves to the Son in faith and allow ourselves to be drawn into his innermost disposition. Christ turns to men, and says: ‘I give you the Logos, the gnosis of God; I give myself wholly to you. For I am he, and this is what God wills."