The debt to past Syrian refugees of a Pope called Francis (Part 1)

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The present Pope calls himself Francis but does he know he owes his Franciscan spiritual heritage to 5th century Syrian refugees?

Ten years ago, I became interested in the story of the thousands of Syrian refugees in the 5th and 6th centuries who made their way west to escape persecution. These hermits – for they were largely refugees from Christian desert monastic communities – recreated their religious life on the sacred mountain of Monteluco overlooking Spoleto. In this same valley – a little further east – Benedict of Nursia would begin his monastic Rule that would establish much of Europe’s Christian culture and arguably provide the foundation for the religious humanism of the continent.

Both Saint Benedict and Saint Francis – who lived much later – were profoundly influenced by the flourishing Christian communities of Syrian refugees which gave a hermit tradition to Umbria over several hundred years: possibly until the seventeenth century according to some records.

Monteluco friary near Spoleto. The hermitage founded by St Francis on the site of a Syrian hermitage

St Isaac of Spoleto, a Syrian refugee

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Monteluco friary near Spoleto. The hermitage founded by St Francis on the site of a Syrian hermitage

I gave a lecture on the subject of the Syrian refugee hermits in Monteluco Franciscan friary in Spoleto in 2006. Professor Mario Sensi – the expert on Umbrian eremitism – was in the audience, much to my surprise and great fear! He had been tipped off by the Bishop of Spoleto, whose chaplain I had met over lunch, that an unknown Englishman was delivering a lecture on Syrian eremitical influences.

Saint Isaac of Syria, Bishop of Spoleto and

Saint Isaac was “a man of much mirth” according to Pope Gregory the Great

After my lecture, he asked me some very challenging questions. With proper academic rigour, he unnervingly dismissed two of my sources as flawed.  Finally he said the broad substance of my research was correct and he agreed with my analysis and the connections I had made. He publicly said he wanted to see this published, and he even gave me an electronic copy of his own unpublished work in progress – on the subject of Umbrian eremitism – so I could use his extensive bibliography to help my own future work.

Nothing became of that research: I was going to pursue it while in formation for the Catholic priesthood at the Pontifical Beda College, and hopefully finish it as a doctoral thesis in one of the Catholic university colleges of Rome.  I did not go down that road, for reasons some are familiar with. So the basic ideas and discoveries have not been set out publicly until now.  The current Syrian refugee crisis means that we must begin to understand Syrians as part of our broader history, rather than some alien invasion.

The case I want to outline is that the refugees from Syria in the 5th and 6th centuries – in those days fleeing internal problems within the Church – brought to Umbria a monastic and eremitical culture which brought the desert tradition of monastic life to Europe. The Syrians also established a religious artistic workshop in Spoleto, and out of that eventually came the iconic (a word that is increasingly misused, but is here exactly correct) San Damiano Crucifix: a painted cross which was placed in a little church in Assisi that would become central to the early narrative of the young Saint Francis, who fell under the influence of the Christ who spoke to him from the cross.  It was made by Syrian artists, either in the Spoleto workshop – the home of their exiled desert tradition – or in a nearby workshop of those following the same painting tradition.

Saint Isaac pictured as a shepherd

Saint Isaac – a Syrian refugee of the 5th century who would be part of the culture that inspired the Umbrian Franciscan movement.  (Fresco in Spoleto.)

A full size high quality digital image of the San Damiano Crucifix will be included in this three part series.  It is not available anywhere else on the internet. I had permission from the photographer to share the image (a Franciscan brother in Assisi who long since went to his maker, RIP)  – providing it is not for commercial purposes. It will be made available here in the third part of this series.

Syrian cross: detail from San Damiano Crucifix

Syrian cross: detail from San Damiano Crucifix

In the next part I will refer to Saint Isaac of Spoleto, a Syrian hermit and bishop and a man who came to Umbria as a refugee from Syria.  A man who would eventually be mentioned by Pope Gregory the Great as, “a man of great mirth” (Dialogues, Book 3). Eventually, these Syrian refugees would produce an eremitical culture that gave rise to the Umbrian movement of poverty and simplicity that inspired Francis.  Any pope who takes the name of Francis owes a debt to the refugees of 5th and 6th century Syria, and therefore has a special connection with their compatriots in today’s refugee crisis.

As a Catholic, I believe the moral lead provided by the Jews in the present crisis of refugees from Syria is inspiring. The recent statements of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, regarding the comparison with “kindertransport” children fleeing from Nazi Germany, follows through – in practical action – his challenging ideas in Not in God’s Name, which I am still reading and digesting. It would be good to see a strong lead on the Syrian refugee crisis coming from a Pope who deliberately called himself Francis.  I will develop these connections, and sow the way in which Syrian refugees of the 5th and 6th centuries in Italy gave rise to the Umbrian eremitical and monastic culture which ultimately produced the 13th century Franciscan movement with its great literary and artistic revolution that would widely influence European culture.

I hope that Pope Francis is aware of the spiritual debt he owes Syrian refugees of the past, and that he and the Church in Europe will look upon the plight of present refugees from that country with an appreciation of earlier migrations. In Part 2 I will tell the story of the Syrian refugee community of Monteluco in Umbria and the way that their hermit community provided many of the ingredients for Benedictine monasticism and prepared the way for the Franciscan movement just two day’s walk north in Assisi a few centuries later.

The Idolatry of Religion

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Religion generally makes for bad press these days a good gossip story in the local rag or more serious concerns in the coverage of war and terrorism.

The majority population in UK associate the term ‘Religion’ with negative connotations.

At home I was told “Talking about religion and politics only causes arguments”; while attempting evangelism at my first job (in the early 1960s) it was common the be rebuffed by the older guys; “Religion causes wars”! Who was I to argue with those who had been active in WW2, given the violent history of the world’s religions including the Christian one?

The influence of two world wars in the last century has not featured much here in discussing the decline in religious practice and adherence in the West. Shortly before WW1 there was a major revival in wales in which 100,000 converts entered the Welsh chapels. They did not just lose heart and drift, most of the men were lost in the Great War and their potential for the churches went with them. Prior to 1914 the most prominent work in Christian missions was carried out by Germany and the UK, two ‘Christian nations’, who were to be locked together through two bloody wars.

The effects of liberalism and 18th Century higher criticism seems not to have affected the UK’s evangelical pulpits or congregations but it did affect many Protestant Churches, dumbing down, hardening or disaffecting the populace. Others may have jumped ship and bolstered evangelical churches which were and largely remain well attended.

James mentions a pure religion that is acceptable to God so logically he had in mind another form of religion that was impure and unacceptable (James 1:27). As we have seen the Pharisees of the time for all their preciseness in the Law of God were largely rebuked for their ‘form of religion’ which followed the letter but missed the heart of the Law.

Although their religion used only the ‘right’ and scriptures, ‘right symbols’ and ‘right ‘rituals’ specifically authorised by the Lord ‘their religion’ was void of God’s life and marked as hypocritical, self-serving and full of pride by Christ Lk. 8:9-14, while Paul counted all that he knew of it as dung Phil. 3:8 in comparison to knowing Christ.

It is easy to become like a Pharisees we just have to stop resisting the temptation of our weak egos to put others down to improve our own sense of importance or self-worth, get on a soap box and tell others how they should live. In fact this is exactly how many objectors view our Christian religion. We need to take note – it cannot all be without reason.

For others religion means sets of beliefs, forms of religious rites, symbols and practices which they have no interest in. And if the Pharisee can engage fully with God ordained Law, rites and symbols, it is equally possible to embrace those elements encompassed in Christian religion and yet not to possess anything of the life of God. We may be moved emotionally by ‘High Mass’, ‘Gregorian Chant’ or ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ and be assured that we have the true religion of Jesus while our hearts are far from Him and we are under His condemnation.

It is no wonder given ‘all that’, that some Christians when communicating the gospel, in an attempt to avoid the negative connotations of religion, say they have nothing to do with religion, they are talking of “a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

The enjoyment of religion that does not impact our inner motivations and outer works of mercy is not worship; in fact it is idolatry – and the enjoyment or elation is the god. The outward idol may be a statue, the Bible or an icon etc. In reality it is self-worship, we may become ensnared by legalism, ritualism or a host of other-isms and in effect become our own idol doing what is self-pleasing, self-affirming and leaving the Lord at the margins.

I will add a few quotes from: ‘Benefit of the Doubt’ pages 55-56 by Greg Boyd

“In Jn. 5 Jesus confronted some religious leaders … These leaders thought they possessed life by diligently studying scripture. What made these leaders feel accepted and secure before God was that they knew their Bible and were confident they embraced true Bible-based beliefs … Jesus, of course, wasn’t suggesting that there was anything wrong with their diligent study of scripture … the issue wasn’t about ‘what’ they believed: he disputed the way they believed it.”

“He (Jesus) was trying to get them to see that there is no life in knowing the Bible and embracing Bible-based beliefs unless they lead to him. By trying to wring life out of things that have no life apart from Christ, these leaders made an idol out of the Bible and their Bible-based beliefs”.

Religious hypocrisy – religion without reality is dangerous spiritual state. If we play religion without sincere repentance, simple faith and a desire for holiness we are in a bad way. Our religion at best is natural, intellectual and or emotional – ‘such religion’ has an empty form of godliness but denies its power (2 Timothy 3:5). This state of affairs cannot exist for long, ‘nature hates a vacuum’ and ‘devils find work for empty hands’.

Boyd continues:- “There is a demonic self-reinforcing quality about idolatry that can be discerned in these leaders. By trying to derive false life from their confident knowledge of scripture … these leaders made an idol of their knowledge …they were not hungry for the true ‘Bread of Life’ because they had stuffed themselves with the false life of their idol. … The idols that trapped them … looked very spiritual and) made them confident they were OK with God.”

The wisdom of religion that is self-orientated with features identified by James is a religion of this world, earthly and natural in a toxic environment and soon becomes demonic James (3:13-18).

Boyd concludes:- This episode demonstrates the way we believe what we believe can transform what we believe into an idol that actually blocks us from getting life from Christ … this happens whenever we are confident we are OK with God because of what we believe rather than because of our relationship with … (Jesus Christ) … If what makes us feel ok with God is our confidence in the correctness of our beliefs, then our confidence in our beliefs is, in effect, our god.

The same is true of anything else religion that has won our confidence if it is anything other than Christ Himself!

The following link provides a further critique:

http://reknew.org/2014/10/the-most-subtle-of idolatries/?utm_source=Website+Signup&utm_campaign=2c759920f4-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0de6226b5c-2c759920f4-42046169

 

Endings?

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Last Friday I went down to the outskirts of Manchester for the funeral of an old friend – in your mid 70s it happens with increasing frequency; at this rate I’ll need to update my old black suit, as it’s had a deal of usage over the last five years. When Mrs S asked whether the expense could be justified, I pointed out they could always bury me in it, and I know she’d not want me to look scruffy at the undertakers; this, she agreed was a very good point. Mind you, the trouble of going to the shops for one may yet defeat that objective.

I first met Frederick (he hated being called Fred) at school, and we stayed in touch across many years. He was brought up a Congregationalist, and I was a Baptist. I daresay that the theologians, had any been interested, could have told you the difference, but to me the similarities were marked, and as I looked around the Masonic Hall where we had the wake (tea and coffee only, Frederick could not abide the demon drink and left firm instructions there was to be none at his funeral), it occurred to me that it was more than Frederick we would soon be burying – a whole culture would soon be lost. It’s not one the anthropologists seem to have studied, but someone ought to at least outline its features.

The first thing that would have struck an observer would have been the age of the congregation. Leaving out Frederick’s grandsons and great grandsons, the majority were over 65, and all from within a fifty mile radius of where Frederick had lived his entire 76 years; in fact, it’d be more accurate to say that most of them lived within walking distance of the chapel, of which they’d been members since before it became the United Reformed Church. It was a whole culture; what the clever folk would call an ‘ecosystem’. Let me explain.

As lads, Frederick and I would go to Sunday school (different ones at different chapels), and we’d join the same cub troop and scout troop, which met at the Congregationalist Hall (because that was bigger and posher than our hall). We’d go to Bible study classes, and in the school holidays the Scout troop would go away to North Wales or the Wirral, and we’d spend a week under canvas doing our ‘badges’ and generally having fun fording streams, building camp fires, climbing trees and trying not to kill each other by food poisoning. For both of us, as for our contemporaries, chapel was more than a part of our life, it was the weft and warp of it, it was built in to all we did. He met his future wife at a chapel outing, and we both married in chapel – him my best man at my wedding in my chapel, me his best man at his in his, as it were. Our moral and ethical code came from Chapel, and woe betide anyone who flouted it – a clip round the ear was the minimum tariff exacted from us for minor infringements. Frederick left school at 14 and went into the mill to learn how to become an engineer, I stayed on with a county scholarship and ended up at what folk then called ‘The University’. But as I ended up teaching just across the Pennines, we stayed in touch. He was godfather to my eldest, and I reciprocated.

Congregationalism was like Frederick, and he like it: understated, seemingly unemotional – repressed folk would call it now, and modest to a fault. ‘well done lad!’ was about the highest praise anyone could be given, and ‘not a bad effort at all’ was very high praise indeed. The outsider would have observed little talk of God, save at chapel, but that was simply because he was in our minds constantly – he was our father and we prayed to him, and we talked to him in prayer always; we’d no more think of singling him out for special mention than we would our own dads – it wasn’t the done thing.

One of the grandchildren, to whom I got talking, asked how his granddad could reconcile there being a God with the hard life he and his grandma had led – by his standards there was not much in the way of material possessions, and after the mill closed Frederick had struggled for a while, though the family never wanted; they never wanted because the chapel made sure there was always food on the table. When Frederick’s fortunes changed and his little engineering business made some money, he was, on the quiet, a big donor to the chapel’s foodbank; as he put it when a new Minister asked him why, ‘those who have received should give – that’s plain Christianity in my view’ – and so it was. Frederick had no explanation for how God could be love and the world be what it was – that was the way it was, and folk could puzzle their heads until they ached, and it would still be that way. But there wasn’t a widow in that congregation, or an orphan in it who went uncomforted or unfed. As in my chapel, if someone was known to be in need, the Minister or an elder, would go round to the folk ‘with a bob or two’ [for our American readers, a ‘bob’ was a shilling, now 5 pence] and collect money and goods, which would be quietly taken to the needy by a friend. It wasn’t charity, it was ‘helping out’. The Apostles had done it, and if it were good enough for them, then we’d jolly well better think it were good enough for us. Those who couldn’t provide cash would cook something, or provide clothing. It was what St James called ‘true religion’.

Most folk didn’t trouble their heads about theology. They, and we, would read the Bible, listen to the Pastor or Minister, and we’d ‘get on with it’. That was a good Lancashire/Yorkshire phrase; there was always a great deal of ‘getting on with it’ – life was tough, sometimes very tough, but you got on with it, you prayed, you went to chapel, you helped others and they helped you. Agnes, Frederick’s widow, had already had seven offers of meals – she can’t cook because she’s got bad arthritis in her hands – as well as a lift to chapel, and one to the shops. The grandchildren wondered whether Nana would have to move south with them, but their dad explained that she had a full support system in place – which had little, if anything, to do with the Social Services.

I think that system will see me out – provided I don’t linger and wear out the new suit (should I get it). Some will think the lives led were narrow and confined, but for me, they were good lives well-lived in the fear of the Lord. If anyone asks me to believe these folk won’t go to heaven because they were in the wrong church, I’m having none of it; my God’s greater than that. Frederick died, as he had lived, in the love of Christ – and I’m looking forward to singing the old scout songs when we meet again on the other side of Jordan’s banks.

Signs & Symbols

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My good friend Dave Smith, always a font of knowledge on Catholicism (if you want to know something, my advice is first stop at his blog, because if it’s not there, there’ll be a link to it there), posted an interesting link which bears on what I was saying yesterday about religion. I can’t comment on what American baptists believe, but I can on what my own tradition holds, and the notion that we think in terms of an invisble church and don’t think of the people as the church and the church as a community is just plain not right. I’d have thought most Christians would focus on our alientation from God and the fact of sin – not least because Jesus was Incarnated, died and rose to end that state of affairs. As for the notion that:

Protestants emphasize the individual’s existential inner response to God rather than the idea that God is “with us” working to save us in and through the physical and historical world.

I am not sure I follow; how can God be with us in this world except through the physical world? Must be missing something there, I suppose. The idea that there is no connection between ‘Christ and culture’ is another one which passes me by. It is not, as Fr Longenecker seems to think, that:

faith is set up in dialectical opposition to the wisdom of man and the ways of the world

so much as our faith challenges the so-called wisdom of man and aims to set what is wrong right – but I thought we all thought that. Is he saying Catholics do not oppose the wisdom of this world?

I can’t attach any meaning beyond a failure of understanding, to the notion that Catholics are communitarian and Protestants individualistic; surely we’re all both? We’re saved in the church and we’re saved individually? If Fr L thinks otherwise, perhaps he should have spoken to some Baptists over here during his sojourn with us? Quite where he gets the idea that we wouldn’t be feeding the homeless knowing we are feeding Christ astnishes me – does he imagine that none of us ever read the verse: ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’? Yes, of course, we’d also like to introduce the homeless man to Christ, but is Fr L really saying he wouldn’t? For a man calling for us all to be better informed for ecumenical dialogue, I am afraid he’s very ill-informed about what my tradition teaches.

Just so he knows: we believe there is a church and it is us, the people of God; we don’t think magic things happen because someone lays a hand on someone who had a hand laid on him by a fellow who says he did too going all the way back to Jude or Peter, we think the Spirit moves all of us; we’re perfectly happy with the idea that Christ is with us in the bread and wine, which we also think is a memorial – it isn’t either/or, it’s both. Praying ‘differently’? Well, I’ve been at Catholic charismatic events which sounded much more extempore than anything I’ve heard in my Baptist chapel. But yes, we don’t do the Rosary, and we don’t do Eucharistic adoration, but then we don’t think the Apostles did, and they were fine on it, as we are. As for producing different music and literature, last time I looked, our salvation depended on Jesus, not our taste in music (and if I may sound a sectarian note, anyone singing ‘Shine Jesus shine anywhere near me needs to have their running shoes on – if that’s what Fr L means by Catholic music, forget it!).

I usually like Fr Longenecker, for whom I’ve a deal of time, but he needs to get out more in Baptist circles – then he’d realise that trying to generalise about us is about as useful as doing that about Catholics. Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Burke are both Catholics – I can’t generalise beyond that.

Religion

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You sometimes find, in my neck of the woods anyway, folk who say they’ve no time for ‘religion’, they believe in Jesus, they have a personal relationship, and they need no other company. We all come to him as he would have it, and I’ve nothing to criticise there, but I am puzzled nonetheless. Religion comes from the Latin word ligare which means ‘to join’ or ‘to link’. We are linked/joined to God, but in that we’re linked to others; we are children of God – not orphans. if we are adopted, we are not only children. We don’t come across lone Christians wandering about in the New Testament – Christians join together in churches and are, collectively, The Church.

We can see what folk who object to religion are getting at. It is usually what used to be called ‘priestcraft’ – the idea that there are some in Church who lord it over the others, and, beyond that, the way in which Christianity was coopted by the Monarchs to bolster their prestige. No doubt to be a ‘Lord Bishop’ with a seat on the House of Lords and lawn-sleeves is a fine thing – but to the way of thinking of some of us, it isn’t a very Christian thing unless it is done with humility. No doubt some folk are so good that they can manage to be a ‘Lord Bishop’ and not become proud, but what a temptation for the poor fellow; we should pray for such.

But just because sinners have, and do sin, and just because some aspects of religion may not be to our taste, does not mean we should reject religion. I can’t make out, myself, how you can be joined to God and not joined to the others who are; to be a Christian is to be part of a joining. I sometimes ponder whether those rejecting religion know what they are saying (I also wonder sometimes if they know what they are talking about at all – but that’s another topic for another occasion!)?

There’s no doubt that priests have lorded it over their flocks, but then there’s no doubt some evangelical pastors have done so too; it is the ones who have not – the majority – to whom we should be looking, and by which we can judge any ‘religion’.

I sometimes hear say that Protestants and Catholics have a different idea of the Church. Happen so, though since the Church is the body of Christ, and though we are many we are one body, I’m not sure quite what the difference is. I believe there is one church – in bits, to be sure in terms of communion with each other, but then, mutatis mutandis that’s what the RCC also holds when it talks about imperfect communion with itself. I’m not a fan of the idea of the invisible church. It would be a convenient way of avoiding looking at the scandal of division, but division there is, and we should be honest and admit it. If it fits with Catholic tradition to say Rome is the fullness of the Church, or with Orthodox tradition to say that the Orthodox Church alone is the one true church, then it fits with their traditions; perhaps they should both take a cold hard look at where those traditions have led them and the world and ask whether that fruit is the fruit of the outworking of the Holy Spirit or the pride of men?

In turn, my lot might care to wonder whether portraying ourselves as the embattled guardians of some kind of Primitive Christianity is not also a sign of the working of pride? Are bishops really so terrible a thing? Is Rome really the anti-Christ? Have we evangelised so well that our countries redound with praise of Christ? If the answer to this is no many times over, then we, too, might reflect in humility on our part in the divisions.

We are bound together. But as a wise man once said, we can hang together – or we can hang separately.

Pharisees: a comment on today’s Gospel

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Mark

Today’s Gospel readings present us with two sorts of temptation, both of which are covered it it: one is to behave like the Pharisees whilst codemning them – thanking God we are not like those people who observe the letter of the Law but not its Spirit; and the other is to miss the message that the Law still matter; either way, we fall into a trap of our own devising – one Jesus outlines well if we read with care.

In thinking ourselves better than the Pharisees, we become them, and in thinking that the Law does not matter, we forget that Jesus said that ‘unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.’ The Law provides a framework from God, but it is not a cross on which we are called to crucify ourselves or our fellows; it is a boundary fence, if you will, it provides for what we need if we are to coexist in communities. Jesus came to fulful the Law, and the early Church decided that this meant that many of the ritual practices set out in the Torah did not apply to new Christians; but the moral law was in no wise abrogated. If we love God, which Jesus said is the greatest commandment, then our hearts incline to obey his law; and that being so, we will observe the second of the greatest commandments, to love our neighbour as ourselves. It is on these. as Jesus reminds us, that the who of the Law and the teaching of the Prophets hang.

In criticising the Pharisees, Jesus is noting that what is on their lips is not in their hearts. They observe the Law, but they do not practice it in love. To them it has become an end in itself, as set of codes to govern every aspect of life – and something to buttress their own power. They condemn the disciples for not obeying the ritual laws, but they are not observing what Jesus and the disciples are doing. What is Jesus doing? He is healing the sick, he is comforting the widow and the orphan, he is preaching that the jingdom is at hand? Are there more important things than this? The Pharisees, by implication, think that they are; Jesus should be observing the letter of the Law. That is why Jesus calls them hypocrites – the Greek root of the word used means ‘actors’. Jesus sees into their hearts, as he does into all our hearts, and sees they are playing a part. They know all their lines, they are word-perfect – but they do not know what the words they are saying mean – if they did, they would not be askign Jesus what they are asking him, or levelling at him the criticisms they are aiming.

But we should not, and Jesus warns us of this, simply condemn them and then suppose their have no merit and the Law is a dead letter. Jesus did not come to abolish it, but to fulfil it. We are not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Ten Commandments still apply, but we are reminded that the Law is love – of God and of neighbour. We are to obey God’s laws, but we are not to make a fetish of them, we are not to worship them as objects, but rather to open our hearts so that they may be inscribed there, and that through love of God and of neighbour, we may hasten the coming of the kingdom. We are still running that great race, we cannot ignore the rules of the race, but neither should we ignore the reason we are running in the first place; it is the prize, not the race itself, which matters most.

Gospel 22nd Sunday in OT, Year B

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Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

St John of Damascus reminds us that the Pharisees were, literally, ‘men set apart’ who followed a way of life which they regarded as the most perfect; their way was superior to all other ways. They affirmed the resurrection of the dead, the existence of angels and holiness of life; they were ascetics and were celibate for long periods of time; they fasted at least twice a week; they ritually cleansed their pots, plates and cups, and they tithed; they lived according to the highest standards of the Law.

But, as Jesus saw, although they said they followed the law of God, their heart was very far from Him; their words and their hearts were not in alignment, St Clement of Rome points out. But, as Clement of Alexandria points out, their traditions contradicted those of Moses. They mixed water with their wine, and they added extra burdens onto the people.

By observing the outward formalities, the Pharisees forgot that the Law is underpinned by love, and in not having love, they transgressed the law, Tertullian points out. The venerable Bede adds that evil thoughts come from within, from our will, and we should not blame them on the devil. He can inflame our bad thoughts and passions, but he cannot create them.

As we are now back with St Mark, and our usual absence of Patristic commentaries, I add one from our diocesan website – just follow the link.

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Building Men Fit for Use

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looking-at-the-path-of-a-christian_tA bit over a year ago, Jessica took this blog private to help protect her contributors professionally. It was a dark day and a frantic one for most of us. And, I think that worry (and others) contributed to her illness. Evil has effects that we don’t expect.

Then in the few weeks, she was diagnosed with cancer, and the blog, and so very much more was dumped in Chalcedon’s lap to deal with. As most here know, Jess and I had become extraordinarily close friends, and keeping me in the loop also became his lot. Through that ordeal, we have become very close ourselves, which Jess foresaw, long ago she told me that she thought we were the same man, we always had the same answers, and while not completely so, in many ways it is true. We tend to react the same way. In many ways, one wouldn’t expect a British professor, and an American electrician to do so, but the answer is that as men we were formed in much the same way, although with considerably different means.

Much of that is, I think, we are sons of what has come to be called “The Greatest Generation” in both our countries. John Kennedy spoke for them back in 1961, when he said:

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

That defines those men and women as well as they ever have been, both politically, and personally. They weren’t the easiest people to live with, they knew right from wrong, and they meant to make sure you did too. The other thing that I really remember about them is: how often they looked to our past, and our God, although often not the church, for guidance, and that they never, ever gave, or accepted excuses.

By all accounts, Jessica’s parent’s were very much like that as well, and it shines brightly in her, and in this, the blog that she created. At some point last September, Chalcedon asked me for my thoughts on the blog’s future, as we started to face the horrid reality, that we might lose Jess forever. My quick and unconsidered answer was that while I had no real vision for the future, we must continue to protect and disseminate Jessica’s extraordinary work here. He, of course, readily agreed, and for the time being we tabled it until the future became clearer.

When the Lord cured her, and there is no other possible answer, something very strange happened. As she waited for her ride to the convent, she and I exchanged some emails, as was our wont, at any stray minute. She sounded incredibly good, completely normal, in fact, better than she did the week before she went to the doctor. And from what he told me, Chalcedon also found her completely normal in hospital those few days, although weak. But this is the strange thing, Jess remembers almost none of this, it is like someone took over to reassure us, if so, perhaps they did too good a job, because she was far from well, it would be Easter before she approximated the Jess we know and love.

Sometime last fall, Chalcedon asked me what I thought of the idea of AATW as a form of lay apostolate. I googled the term, it’s a Catholic (and primarily Victorian) one designating something that could be very roughly compared with what in my church we call the brotherhood. A volunteer grouping of men to help each other however they can (obviously in this case it would not be restricted, nor would we want it to be, to men). I thought and prayed about it and said that I thought that would be an excellent use of what Jessica had created here for us. For she had collected a diverse group of men, although not enough women, many of us older, and with experience across a range of churches, and no church. We had all learned for ourselves that Kipling was no fool when he wrote

It is rather strange, really, that so many of us love Kipling so, he has gotten a bad press over the years. Many have claimed he is racist or jingoistic or other things, I don’t see it that way. I fully agree with G.K. Chesterton that Kipling’s subject is not valour but interdependence. In Heretics, Chesterton writes:

It is that interdepedence and efficiency that belong quite as much to engineers, or sailors, or mules, or railway engines.. […] The real poetry, the “true romance” which Mr. Kipling taught, is the division of labor and the discipline of all the trades. […]

Everywhere men have made way for us with sweat and submission.

Above all, he celebrates the “Marthas” of the world. And that is the title that we universally crave, isn’t it? To put our mark upon the world. Kipling is, above all, I think, the bard of ‘Doing our duty’ And in many ways, that is what the contributors here do. We try to help our younger members (and each other as well) learn from our experience. For, above all, we have learned, often the hard way:

Good judgement comes from experience

Experience come from bad judgement

If one is lucky, someone else’s

And so, we have taken it as one of our underlying missions since we came back from the catacombs, to function as guides along what could properly be called, The Pilgrim’s route, and to help others with their progress.

I can hear you now, some of you, “What do you old men know about my life, it’s all different now.” Well, actually no, it isn’t, we all wanted pretty much the same things you do, some we got, and some we didn’t and perhaps never will, and it’s likely a good thing we didn’t. But like Mr. Kipling, we will continue in our duty. You know, back when the world was young, in 1968 or so, we thought Mary Hopkins had a cute song, but we were different, it didn’t apply to us. Well, guys, we were wrong, it’s all true, and much, much sooner than you think.

Seeking the kingdom?

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There was an implication in my last one that the sort of faith I was fed in my youth, concentrating as it did on the fear of God and with its image of the Father as a stern but just judge, was not one which, when the winds of change hit, turned to have deep roots. That may, of course, just have been my view, but I don’t think it was; I think, though, it was superficial. For those who just went because it was ‘the thing to do’, that was what they came with and took away. But it wasn’t true for all of us. Some of us may have come for that, or because of that, but we acquired something else in the process – and that can best be called the ‘new spirit’ of which the New Testament speaks. Christ’s living word evangelised us.

I sometimes think that the way our faith is taught focusses too much on the two great festivals – Easter and Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the Resurrection and the Incarnation are not vitally important – but I am saying that are not everything. Catholics now, I think, number Sundays outside festivals as ‘in ordinary time’. I don’t know the derivation of that, but don’t like what (perhaps wrongly) I take to be the implication. For me, studying and reflecting on Christ’s mission during the Incarnation and before the Resurrection were what struck deep roots. Luke hit home hardest.

In Luke I encountered a Saviour who reached out to the marginalised and the sinner, indeed to those marginalised by their sins, and who prayed and told me prayer was important. So I tried to do the same, and the prayer mattered more than I could have known. I’d come to prayer as part of the code – we asked God for things, and we praised him. The Lord’s prayer apart, I found it hard, still do. I am not good with extempore prayer – and that helped me. It was in the silences when I had given up struggling to find words that there was a still, small voice to be heard. So I developed my own habit of being silent and just being there with God. I recall once telling a friend this, and he described it as ‘like sunbathing’  I’ll take his word, we don’t get enough sun in these parts, though we get plenty of the other stuff in which you can really bathe; but it expresses it well enough. It is a suffusing of God’s presence. Jesus told us he must preach the good news of the Kingdom (Lk 4:23) – and that Kingdom was not in the future, it was now – or could be.

The Spirit gives life, we are told, but there was a condition – that could happen only once Jesus had died for us (Lk7.39b). The Kingdom of God is what happens when the Spirit comes, or so it seemed, and seems still, to me. God is love, and light, and in that love we are loved, and by that light we are lit.

Only on reflection did it occur to me that this was my own out working of the doctrine of the Trinity. Concentration on the Father alone gave an unbalanced and shallow faith, only through the Son and the Spirit could balance be found and the deep wellsprings of faith be tapped. That being so, I stayed where I was because it was where God in fullness was. I know that for others that fullness is, they say, found in their churches. I’ve nothing against that, and indeed, once I had come to it myself, I renounced denominational rivalry. If a fellow believes he’s found the fullness of the Trinity in his church, I am glad for him – or her. And long before it became a suspect phrase, ‘who am I to judge?’ was on my lips. Not as a refuge in relativism, but as a surrender to the infinity of God’s mercy. These things are too high for me, I know only that me and my house serve the Lord God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the Trinity which deepened and balanced my faith and which struck roots which have withstood the tempests. I’ve a sense it’s so for all believers, so I let the theologians argue – and go away to a quiet place where that still, small voice is found – and I thank God for his mercies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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