Men and Church

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whoI am a great fan of Chalcedon’s idea of AATW as a kind of lay apostolate but, in truth, in many ways, it always has been. This has always been a place where people, but especially strong willed men have felt free to discuss Christianity. And if you read through our archives, you’ll find that it is different than what you’ll find in church.

Servus Fidelis in one of his very apt comments (here) said:

Catholics, just don’t do Protestantism very well, and though we now have multitudes of clubs and activities for the laymen to get involved, clearly a small number are interested in the least at joining. Those who do try to join everything. They are a small core of folk that develop and are top-heavy in the over 50 crowd. Hard to get the young ones to join anything voluntarily and even more unusual that they are truly enthusiastic.

I would add that most of us Protestants don’t do Protestantism very well either, we have all the same problems. Why is that? I think there are several reasons.

Someplace I read that Jesus preached to women and children but, he tested men. Men are competitive creatures, we are quite willing to fight for our beliefs, even as Jacob wrestled with God himself. I suspect many of the older guys here relate quite well to that phrase, I surely do. We like to win, or at worst lose honorably. We do it here, forcefully, and yet without rancor. Usually we find that we mostly believe the same thing in different words, anyway.

But, something else I’ve noticed about almost all of us is that we are not all that enthused with our church’s physical worship experience. I am certainly amongst them. Frankly, I find little in my worship service that brings me in, other than certain things, like the Eucharist, that are necessary to my faith. But even this, I find in a degraded state, in the last few years.

Could it be that over the centuries, our churches have become the province of women, yes, some of our denominations restrict the ministry to men but, behind the scenes almost all is done by women, and the church has become a reflection of that. Sort of a softer, gentler Christianity. In an article on Church for Men it said

Every Sunday, without even realizing it, we send subtle signals to guys: you are in feminine territory.

The signals start in Sunday school. Think of the pictures of Jesus you saw as a child. Didn’t they suggest a tender, sweet man in a shining white dress? As our boys grow up, whom will they choose as a role model: gentle Jesus, meek and mild, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action hero? The irony here is that the real Jesus is the ultimate hero, bold and courageous as any man alive, but we’ve turned him into a wimp.

There are signals in the sanctuary. Let’s say a common working stiff named Nick visits your church. What’s the first thing Nick sees? Fresh flowers on the altar. Soft, cushiony pews with boxes of Kleenex underneath. Neutral carpet abutting lavender walls, adorned with quilted banners (or worse: Thomas Kinkade paintings). Honestly, how do we expect Nick to connect with God in a space that feels so feminine?

Nick looks around at the men. Some are obviously there against their will, dragged by a wife or mother. Others are softies. Research finds that men who are interested in Christianity are less masculine than average; seminarians also exhibit more feminine characteristics than the typical male. Even the vocabulary of churchgoing men is softer. Christian men use terms such as precious, share, and relationship, words you’d never hear on the lips of a typical man.

and

The signals keep coming during the service. Nick may be asked to hold hands with his neighbor. He may be asked to sing a love song to Christ, such as, “Lord, You’re Beautiful,” or “Jesus, I am so in love with You.” Someone may weep. Then Nick will have his male attention span put to the test by a monologue sermon. When this torture test is finally over, Nick is invited to have a personal relationship with Jesus.

Let’s spend a moment on that last one: a personal relationship with Jesus. That phrase never appears in the Bible. Yet in the past 50 years it’s become the number one way the evangelical church describes the Christian walk. It’s turned the gospel into a puzzle for men, because most guys don’t think in terms of relationships. Let’s say Lenny approaches Nick and says, “Nick, would you like to have a personal relationship with me?” Yuck! Men don’t talk or think like this, yet we’ve wrapped the gospel in this man-repellent package.

I think most of us guys see Jesus more as a guy who we would like to sit down and have a whisky and a cigar (or a beer) with and figure it out. Because, He was a real man, and one heck of a leader, who has many lessons to teach us. Anybody who thinks St. Peter thought about singing “Shine, Jesus, Shine” is simply delusional, although I can see him chiming in on a chorus of “Onward, Christian Soldiers”. Can’t you?

Somebody said that church is for ‘little old ladies, of both genders”. But that drives away the forceful men, as well as the young ones. That doesn’t leave much for us does it?

I suspect we’ll continue this discussion after the holidays.

O Adonai

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O Adonai and Ruler of the House of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and on Mount Sinai gave him your law.  Come, and with outstretched arm redeem us.

The Jews did not use the name of God, they preferred to use honorifics – so here we have ‘O Lord’ – the God who is the ruler of Israel. Just as the Lord led the people of Israel from the bondage of Egypt, so, too, does Jesus lead us from the slavery of sin; but in both cases, the people have to follow the lead they are given.

In every Age that has been hard, but perhaps seldom harder than in our era, where everyone has an opinion, and where the possession of it matters more than the quality of though or research that went into holding it. Our own Bosco, whilst free with vast quantities of anti-Catholic information gleaned from the Internet, seems unwilling to read relatively small chunks of text which contest what he thinks; quite how such a one-sided approach encourages anything save conflict is unclear. As we are all capable of reading the same stuff and making up our own minds, the purpose of posting links to it is equally unclear – unless its aim is to make us realise on how poor an ‘evidence’ base some people proceed. But it is symptomatic of a modern approach – all opinion is equally valid.

That is a perversion of a good principle, and one which, let it be admitted, the Church has not always followed – which is that everyone should be free to express an opinion. The reason it is a good principle is that it is only when opinions are subjected to a real test that we can measure their worth. But what test can we apply to the view that Christ is Lord?

In the end, all ‘tests’ are faith-based, but we can all feel what Paul says in Romans 7 about willing ourselves to do things and failing; there is no answer to that outside of Christ. We can apply the rules of historical evidence to the Gospel accounts and pronounce them plausible  – not least because of the inconsistencies which some imagine does the opposite; no historian familiar with evidence would expect anything else. But this is beside the point, except as suggesting that there are reasons for the faith that is in us. God requires faith from us, and it is that faith that love lies; as Jesus said to Thomas, those who had seen were blessed, but how much more so those who had not.

Love is not love, if it is forced; it be can only be offered and given back, and that process, it grows, and so it us with the Lord and with us. Moses saw the Lord in the fire, we see Him in the love of Calvary and the tempy tomb.

 

O Come quickly?

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Today we begin the series of antiphons known as the O Antiphons. These date from about the eight century, and the link will tell those interested more about them. They lead us more deeply into the Advent, as we pray fervently for His coming. But we know, of course, that when He does come again, in glory, it will be the judge the living and the dead. If you listen to the Antiphons (which you can on the link) you will be struck by the sonorous beauty, as of a candle in the darkness, which flickers a brief while and then fades; each antiphon does that until the feast of the Nativity. It was the Western Church, in about the fourth century, which first established that feast as a special occasion, so it came somewhat later than the Paschal celebrations, which we have records of from at least the second century.

We know, from Scripture, that the disciples expected Jesus to return in their lifetimes – indeed Luke 21:32-33 says as much, although both Mark and Matthew make it clear that no man knows that time; as St Peter tells us in his second letter, a thousand years is like a day in the sight of God, and those who scoff will one day be confounded. As we are actually told remarkably little about the Second Coming, it is not altogether surprising that people have spun from the Book of the Apocalypse, fanciful prophecies. The Church, and by that I mean both the Catholic and the Orthodox Church, has sensibly refrained from getting itself involved in some of the things which so exercise some Protestants, amongst whom ‘pre-Trib’ and ‘post-Trib’ seem to be matters of great moment. The man who tells you what the Book of the Revelation definitively means is to be avoided, for he says what is given to man to know – the hour and date of the time.

The invocation of the O Antiphons each year remind us of the limits of our knowledge and are a call to humility. Our soul may be demanded of us this very night, so how can it profit us to know when the hour is coming? We should be in daily expectation that a reckoning will be required from us, and if we live that way, then we should have no fear of death. What would it profit us to know when the hour is coming? Would we then be able to put off until tomorrow the amendment of life necessary now? How would that help us?

Everything the Lord does works for our good, and there is huge wisdom in not allowing us the excuse for backsliding which would come from our knowing when a reckoning will be required of us. So, as Advent intensifies, let us endeavour to prepare ourselves for what is to come.

Into the quietness.

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At the heart of so many of our woes is an inability to bear silence. Prayer is thereby rendered a trial for so many of us; but all the greater reason to persevere. Can we not be quiet and watch even for an hour with him? Our corporate worship becomes shorter, noisier and more uniform. A Mass of 45 minutes seems about as much as we are supposed to be able to take, and that with plenty of noise in the pews in advance, and afterwards; anything other than a Mass is now, at least hereabouts, a rare creature. The old services of Mattins and Evensong are, at least here, pretty rare phenomena; it is as though we’re saying we’ll turn up for Communion, but we’re rather too busy for anything else.

Pictured above is an altar in the Minster at Hexham in Yorkshire. It dates from the seventh century, about A.D. 680, and is now accessible only down a steep flight of steps; some of the stones there are from Roman temples which stood on the site earlier. To enter it now is to go into a world of crepuscular silence; the flickering candles and the atmosphere of prayer and reverence ensures that even the noisiest tourist is silent. The sense of standing where Christians stood fourteen hundred years ago, mixed with the palpable air of holiness, quietens the mind, making it more receptive to God; that, surely, is something to be recaptured, and may well, I suspect, explain the increased popularity of Cathedral worship in this country. ‘Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth’, as the Psalmist has it.

In the Hebrew original, we capture that sense of surrendering to God, of ceasing to strive, which is at the heart of our relationship with God. Paul tells us not to be conformed to the things of this world and to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Again, as so often, we see here a process at work, one of sanctification, of growth in the Spirit. Our society is particularly prone to the idea of a quick fix. We have an ‘experience’ of God, of ‘being saved’ – but what then? If we simply get on back to the noisiness of life, are we able to be transformed, or are we conformed to the old ways of our familiar routines? If we carry on with the same old sins, then it is hard to see where were are being transformed by God, or how we open ourselves to Him. This is why, instinctively, so many in our times look for ‘retreats'; there, at least, we can find silence and dwell on Him and His will for us.

None of this is to doubt the experience of those who say they are ‘saved’, but it is to suggest to them that if their lives carry on as they did before that event, they might stop to ask what it means to be ‘saved’? A man who says he is saved and continues in his old sinful ways without wrestling with the old Adam, may well be under a delusion. Many are the spirits in this world, and not all are of God – even if they claim to be.

As we come closer to the fourth Sunday in Advent, let us strive to find for ourselves a quiet place where we can remember to thank God for His blessings to us – and pray for each other, for each of us strives as best as he or she can to conform to the will of God as each can discern it.

The Church & the World

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The relationship between the Church and the world has always been a difficult one. We are reminded o St John’s injunction about the things of this world and the lust for them, and how they are passing away, so we should not have undue attachment to them; we are reminded that the kingdom of Jesus is also not of this world. We might, though, bear in mind that this world is here to be redeemed, and of the dualist heresy which distinguishes between things spiritual and things of the flesh. There has always been a tendency for Christians to over-emphasise the things of the Spirit, as though the flesh were unimportant. But The Word became, as St Cyril put it, ‘enfleshed’ so that, adopting our nature, he could redeem it; so, however tempting the eremetical life is, Christians have generally not followed it. We are not, on the whole, called to be hermits, but rather to marry and be given in marriage, and to live as called out people in this world of sin; and that is a hard vocation and not one to be despised as somehow inferior to life in a cloister.

This world is God’s creation, and we are its stewards although, to review our treatment of it you might be pardoned for thinking that we were its owners. Thrown, as we are, on life’s surge, we try to make the best of whatever it is we have been allotted. Because, for most of us, life has its struggles, it is easy to become self-absorbed by and in them – not least given the demands which work makes on most of us. I do not know whether it is just me, but as one who has always volunteered for things in the community of which I am part, I find work encroaching more than it ever used to; the fact that fewer younger people have time for such activities points in the same direction. An atomised society in which work absorbs most of our time is, indeed, one to be avoided – although the how of that is less easy to ascertain.

True religion, St James reminds us, is the care of the orphans and widows. By that he was, if the literalists will pardon me, not simply meaning literal widows and orphans, but all those wounded by the struggle with this world – and that includes each other. Each of us is an image of God, sorely marred by the effects of sin and, without the aid of Grace, lost in the wilderness somewhere beyond Jordan. We can pass by on the other side, but when we do, it is Christ we overlook. How easy it is to focus on ourselves and our needs, and how easy, too, to withdraw from the world and its concerns; but it was for the world and its inhabitants He came and died and rose again.

As we await the feast which marks the Nativity of Christ, we might do well to recall the Orthodox practice, which is to treat the whole season as the Epiphany – a series of revelations of Christ and His coming. What gift to we bring the Christ? The Victorian poet, Christina Rosetti understood what He most wants when in her carol she wrote: “what I have, I give him, give my heart.’

Gospel, Gaudete Sunday, Year B

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St John B

John 1:6-8, 19-28

St Augustine tells us that John the Baptist was the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah, the forerunner of the Messiah come in the flesh; John both announced the coming of the Lord, and was blessed to see Him in the flesh; he was both prophet and Apostle. This is a point made also by St Jerome, who reminds us that the Greek word used here is ‘apostolos’, that is one sent forth. The name ‘Ioannes’ means ‘race of the Lord’, for ‘io’ means Lord, and ‘anna’ means grace. So it was that both John the Baptist and John the Evangelist are witnesses sent to testify to us about the coming of the Lord. John the Baptist had already leapt in the womb at the presence of the Lord, and is thys everywhere and for all time a witness.

The Jews from Jerusalem and the Levites know John is one of their own, but they have heard and seen signs and wonder if John is the Messiah. St Augustine reminds us that had he not been a valley to be filled in, but a mountain to be humbled, John could have found here an opportunity to deceive, for they wanted to believe he was the promised one. As Chrysostom tells us, they knew John was of the race of Levites, and that he was a Nazarite who had devoted his life to God from his youth’ by contrast, Jesus was of humble ancestry and the son of a carpenter; could anything good come from Nazareth? But thrice he tells them that he is not the one of whom the prophets speak. They ask if he is Elijah, for the prophets had said that before the Christ came, so would Elijah come again. But once more, John says he is not one so exalted. Yet Jesus will later say that John was Elijah, so how do we explain this? SS Augustine and Gregory the Great explain that in John was the spirit and power of Elijah, even as the angel had foretold, but that we was not Elijah come again in person; so we see here that there is no contradiction. Indeed, when John says he is not a ‘prophet’, he is not denying a prophetic role for himself, for he knows he is more than a prophet – he is an Apostle too.

Christ is the Word, and here John is the voice of the Word. He preaches that time is short and that repentance is urgent, he is the one crying in the wilderness, nay, as Origen says, in the wilderness that is our neglected soul, which is so often far from God; we go in a crooked way, and God will make that straight. St Cyril of Alexandria points out that John is saying that the Lord is at the door; it is as was foretold of old: repent for the kingdom is at hand! Seek ye the face of God whilst He is to be found.

Chrysostom emphasises how, once the Pharisees have tested him and found he is not the Messiah, they reveal their hostile intent towards John by asking him why he baptises. But John does not reply in like manner, but rather explains with gentleness that he washes those defiled by sin for the beginning of repentance so that they may finally be redeemed of their sins; only through the workings of the Holy Spirit are we reborn in Christ Jesus.

John is himself humble, for although the greatest man born of woman, he knows he is unfit to untie the sandals of Jesus; he preaches and practices the same thing; in that he is the forerunner for us all, Augustine teaches.

Though John calls the it ‘Bethany’ he Fathers are unanimous that the name of the place was really ‘Bethabara’, for the former was not in the wilderness but a place near Jerusalem. Bethabara means the house of preparation, Origen tells us.

J the b

Doctrinal Development: Venereal Pleasure

The Church has never denied that natural marital relations are good, nor indeed that the pleasure associated with them is good. However, as in the case of all pleasures, if treated as an end in itself, the pursuit of sexual pleasure for its own sake is disordered and sinful. Outside of marriage, it is a mortal sin; within marriage, it is a venial sin.

The doctrine of St Thomas is that spouses may come together on two grounds, and be free from any stain of sin:

  • The procreation of children.
  • Paying the marriage debt (consenting to intercourse required by the spouse, whose request in turn may be honest – i.e. for the procreation of children – or venially sinful – i.e. for the gratification of the venereal appetite).

“… there are only two ways in which married persons can come together without any sin at all, namely: in order to have offspring and in order to pay the marriage debt; otherwise it is always at least a venial sin.” (Supplement, Q. 49, art. 5)

Substantially, the Thomistic doctrine reaffirms what had been the near-consensus since the time of St Augustine and St Jerome, which views sex primarily in biological and materialistic terms, much on a par with e.g. eating.

However, under the influence of the doctrine of St Alphonsus de Liguori, the common opinion is now that the presence of an explicit intention to procreate – though this indeed must be respected in the manner of copulation, not impeded by any contraceptive artifice – is not necessary for the act to be moral. Furthermore, the understanding of marriage as remedium concupiscentiae is no longer viewed so much negatively in terms of a regrettably tolerated condescension to carnality, but more positively in terms of the active subordination of the (basically good) sexual appetite to the law of Divine Charity, whereby sex – and the pleasure of sex – become instrumental to the salvation of the spouses,  according to their vocation to marriage.

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