The Conversion of St Paul (Again)

Conversion on the Way to Damascus-Caravaggio (c.1600-1)

Caravaggio’s depiction of the conversion of St Paul is probably one of the best-known paintings of all time, but if you sift through the hundreds of images of it posted online you will notice how much variation there is in the colours and general ‘look’ of the painting. To an ex-printer like me, that comes as no surprise: cameras and monitors introduce an infinite number of small distortions, to say nothing of the different ways we, as individuals, perceive things, especially when we look at them from different angles or in different lights. Instead of dismissing that as ‘just one of those things’, perhaps we can use it as a way of understanding something much harder to put into words.

The longest, loneliest journey Saul of Tarsus ever made was from just outside Damascus, where he was blinded by the light of Christ, to the house of Ananias where his sight was restored and he received his mission to serve. He had been a good man before his conversion but he became a better one after, when he saw that his persecution of followers of The Way had been wrong and he realised that zeal alone is not enough. There must be love and compassion, too. His life henceforth was to be one of ever-expanding knowledge and love of Christ, which meant an ever-expanding love of members of the church. It meant a change of perspective, a re-assessment of values, hard work and sacrifice along with unexpected rewards.

We often forget that Paul grew in grace and understanding, just as our Lord Jesus Christ did and as we ourselves must. As the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity comes to an end, we may be feeling a little disappointed. There may not have been any major break-throughs. In some places, there may not have been any very obvious efforts to come together in any significant way. We have been too occupied with our own problems or those of the denomination to which we belong.

Perhaps we can take comfort, in the sense of drawing strength and inspiration, from the way in which Caravaggio portrays the moment of the saint’s conversion. All is glare, shock. Saul has been thrown from his horse, blinded, felt condemnation in the voice he hears. But he consents to be led by the hand into the city, where he will become Paul. Becoming fully Paul will take the rest of his life. We see how it works out in the letters he wrote to the young churches and in what we can glean from the Acts of the Apostles. Our work for the unity of Christians will follow the same pattern. We must allow ourselves to be shocked into awareness of the importance of unity and be led by the Spirit into whatever it is God desires for his Church. We do not have answers yet. We do not even have the right questions. But if we do not deliberately place any obstacles in God’s way, we can be quite sure that one day what God desires will come about.

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St Agnes and the Exploitation of Children

St Agnes with Lamb (after Dorigny)
St Agnes with Lamb (after Dorigny)

We know very little about St Agnes, except that she was martyred at an early age and was the inspiration for much of St Ambrose’s thinking and writing about consecrated virginity. Neither martyrdom nor consecrated virginity seems to exercise much appeal nowadays, which may be why this day is more often associated with the basilica of Sta Cecilia in Rome, where the pope will bless the lambs whose wool will be made into the pallium worn by the pope and archbishops. There is a curious fitness about that, because I think it underlines the way in which we tend to filter out everything that is disturbing or ugly and substitute what easily becomes sentimental. Fluffy white lambs are much more attractive than broken limbs or children and adolescents abused or exploited by adults.

A third of the world’s poorest girls are denied access to education, according to a report issued by the U.N. (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-51176678). The number of boys and girls who are homeless, living in sub-human conditions in refugee camps, working as bonded labour, forced into marriage or otherwise exploited is frighteningly large. In the U.K. we have learned, to our shame and disgust, of the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by so-called pillars of society — clergy, teachers, doctors, parents, relatives and many more — and have been horrified by some of the high-profile cases of neglect reported by the media. The IICSA reports and the recent BBC documentary on Bishop Peter Ball have been sickening in their exposure of the depravity of which the human heart is capable.

Most of us protest, quite rightly, that we condemn any and all such behaviour — then we go off and hurl insults at Greta Thunberg or say of a young boy knifed to death by a drugs gang that ‘he got what he deserved’ and do not register the inconsistency. If we truly believe that children should be respected and protected, we need to examine our own conduct first. The manufacturer who sexualises the clothing worn by the young; the singer or influencer who foists on children the acceptability of conduct they are not yet intellectually or emotionally ready for; the parent or teacher who abdicates responsibility for those entrusted to their care; the pastor who is a wolf in sheep’s clothing — indeed, anyone and everyone is capable of the massive self-deceit that leads to the abuse and exploitation of children and adolescents.

Instead of dismissing St Agnes as one of those saints who are no longer ‘relevant’ to our times, it would be far better to see her as someone who can provide a valuable corrective to our treatment of young people today. Her courage, her clear-sighted love of Christ, her youthful fragility, which was so much stronger than the brutal power of those who put her to death, make her both inspiring and loveable. I admit, teenagers are not always loveable all the time, and younger children can be maddening in their own unique way, but unless we see and love in the young that which God sees and loves in them, how can we truly claim to be his disciples?

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Acts of Kindness

The theme for this year’s Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins today, is Acts of Kindness. It was set by the people of Malta, who famously treated the shipwrecked Paul with exemplary kindness. As I mentioned in my post of 16 January, there are a range of resources that can be downloaded from Churches Together. I don’t want to duplicate anything said there, but I think it is always helpful to ask ourselves what we mean by being kind, really kind. Too often we seem to limit it to not deliberately giving pain, rather like Newman’s definition of a gentleman, but the word itself should provide a clue, particularly if we look at its origins. To be kind is to recognize kinship with another, to be of the same lineage, the same family. We don’t often use the word in that sense these days, but perhaps we should. To acknowledge our common humanity and the unity we already have by virtue of our baptism into Christ is, for Christians, an excellent starting-point for what we are about this week. Random acts of kindness may be popular in some circles, but there is nothing random about those practised by Jesus’ disciples. We are his Body; we have a purpose, and He is with us always until it is fulfilled.

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Beyond Our Strength?

For a couple of days now I have been trying to put up a blind in my room. I have a powerful electric drill and enough screws and rawlplugs to last the community many years to come. What I don’t have is enough puff or breath to hold the drill for more than a a minute or two at a time. The obvious solution, to ask someone else to do the job, isn’t actually a solution at all. I wouldn’t have begun the task if anyone else had been available — and that, I suspect, is a situation familiar to lots of people. We find ourselves trying to do something that exceeds our ability or strength and end up feeling foolish or cross when we fail. Worse still, we sometimes berate ourselves for our pride or silliness (as we see it) and forget something rather important. We tried. We had a go. We didn’t allow our all-too-obvious limitations to define what we would attempt, and we recognized that if we didn’t try, no one else would.

We shall soon be beginning the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity.* At times, Christian unity seems impossible of attainment. Our differences cannot be minimised, unless we are prepared to be dishonest with ourselves and others; nor can we kid ourselves that holding a few services together or joining in some action plan to improve the lot of the poor or disadvantaged is enough to satisfy the longing Christ has for his Church, that we may all be one. St Benedict urges us to pray that grace will supply what is impossible to us by nature, and that is as true of our quest for unity as anything else. Ultimately, our unity depends on fidelity to grace. It is the work of the Holy Spirit and, as such, must be led by the Spirit. ‘Led’ you notice, not, ‘don’t think of doing anything because God will do everything’. We have to begin somewhere. We are involved. The praying and working together is essential, but it must be prayer that goes beyond the joint services, work that exceeds the token gesture. What lies before us is indeed beyond our strength, but we do not rely on ourselves alone. It is grace, and grace only, that allows us to see the humility of God in inviting us to co-operate with him and gives us courage for the task.

*The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is traditionally held from 18 to 25 January. You can download resources for this year from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland: https://ctbi.org.uk/resources-for-week-of-prayer-for-christian-unity-2020/

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Gracious Words

There are times when a phrase leaps out of a text and hits one between the eyes. Very early this morning I read today’s gospel (Luke 4. 14-22), the last sentence of which is ‘And all were astonished at the gracious words that came from his lips.’ It made me question how often the words that come from my own lips could be described as gracious, and whether those who hear them are astonished when they are. Food for thought there, and not only for me!

We are often told (in words) that we live in a world where the visual is more important than the verbal. Our use of smartphones and messaging apps has encouraged a truncated language of abbreviations and emojis incomprehensible to some, and I’m surely not alone in thinking the regular use of profanities as adjectives goes unnoticed by the perpetrators, so habitual has it become. But, and it is a big ‘but’, there is not much point in lamenting the passage of a past that was never quite as golden as we would like to believe. I could quote hundreds of instances of ugly, brutal misuses of language from earlier times, but it is what we do now that is important. The words we speak or write, the choices we make, have an effect on ourselves as well as others.

St Benedict devotes a whole chapter of his Rule to restraint in speech (RB 6) and often mentions the value of the good word or blessing that we pass on to others. He is concerned, too, about the way in which we shape our words in choir or as we read in the refectory, how we address one another in the cloister, and how we use words (or not) to welcome a guest. I think most readers of this blog know that it was reflecting on hospitality in the Rule of St Benedict that led the community here to develop an internet outreach at a time when it was still unfashionable among ‘churchy’ types. It is what drives our engagement with social media today, but I think we are facing a new challenge; and if we are, then you, the reader, are, too.

It is not enough to make a resolution to avoid profanity, for example, or refuse to join in when others are casting slurs on the integrity of others. That can look a little like holier-than-thou tactics to avoid drawing fire on one’s own head, though I would endorse both as being part of civilized discourse. When Jesus is described as uttering gracious words, we have to consider what made them gracious. Content, style, purpose, yes; but something more, the something John tells us about in 1 John 4: love. I wonder how often love of others prompts our words, and how often it is simply love of self, the desire to be heard? Being more self-aware without becoming self-obsessed is a difficult art but one I think we all need to master, both online and off. It may change how we perceive words and how we use them. The most gracious word ever spoken was made flesh at Christmas. That’s how important words are and what we need to ponder.

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St Stephen, Courtesy and Techie Stuff

In previous years I see I have written about St Stephen in terms of faith, forgiveness, martyrdom and zeal. If interested, you can find the links by using the search box in the right-hand sidebar. This morning, however, it is the courtesy of St Stephen that strikes me, and that chimes in with a theme I have begun to develop about our use of technology and the internet.

‘Courtesy’ literally means having manners fit for a royal court. Anyone reading the account of Stephen given in Acts 6 and 7 will note that he was ‘full of faith,’ ‘filled with grace and power,’ ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ and that his dying words were ‘do not hold this sin against them.’ The account in Acts is not so much a paeon of praise for Stephen as a programme of action for us to follow. His refusal to speak angrily or disdainfully to the Sanhedrin was rooted in the transformation grace had wrought in his life. He was a man of faith because he prayed and allowed God to act in and through him. Somehow, I do not think that he would have had much truck with the concept of ‘righteous anger’. It was for God, and God alone, to decide who should be punished for wrong-doing, and Stephen himself preferred to follow Jesus in asking for forgiveness not condemnation. His manners were, so to say, fit for the royal court of heaven.

How does that link up with our use of technology and the internet? In the first place, I think it is a powerful reminder of the need for consistency. We cannot be Christians in church and howling demons on the internet. The judgements we make and the language we use should reflect the same standards. Whether we are online or off, thoughtfulness and the sort of self-control we associate with kind and considerate behaviour are essential. That means, of course, that we need to make some preparation beforehand. We need to pray, and we need to inform ourselves. Just as Stephen’s faith was rooted in prayer and reading of the scriptures, so must ours be. (I would add that, for Catholics, regular reception of the sacraments is also essential and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep our reading up, either. If we can’t manage theological texts, there is always the Catechism of the Catholic Church to check that the Church does actually teach what we think she does.) It all looks pretty basic, put like that, but we have only to glance at Twitter or Facebook or the comment section of most online media to see how ugly and brutal or even plain vulgar much of our public discourse has become.

Does this matter? I think it does, and in some later posts I hope to argue why I believe we are at a critical point in our use of technology and the internet. For years the Churches (plural) were a little suspicious of the new-fangled world of the internet and only used technology in ways that were perceived to be immediately beneficial (think CCTV, sound systems, etc). The situation now is quite different. Sometimes it can seem as though everyone is online and technology has become a substitute for genuine human interaction. That isn’t true, but the development of A.I. (artificial intelligence), the growing inequalities of the world in which we live, which include inequalities of access to the internet, for example, and, in the West, the increasing prominence of the laity in online engagement, mean that many of the old certainties are crumbling. Certainly, as regards religion, the old hierarchies are no longer as dominant as they once were. There is hope as well as danger in this, but it would be a sad mistake to stumble into a situation that effectively denies the Holy Spirit’s role in the Church. No doubt most would protest that it is not so, but many of us are given to wanting the Church to be what we want her to be, rather than what she is in herself — and we are vocal, and not always very courteous, in expressing our views.

Judging by his words and actions, that was not St Stephen’s attitude. He was happy to be a member of the Church. Yes, happy! He was her devoted servant because he was the servant of Christ. He did not see individuals as abstractions. When he gazed at the faces of the Sanhedrin, he saw them as they were, not as ogres or bullies but as men who were mistaken, perhaps, but basically people as intent on dong right as he was; and like his Master, he was filled with love for them. What Acts only hints at, his regular round of service as a deacon, must have taken up most of his time and exercised all those qualities of mind and heart we see at his end. It is tempting to forget the ordinariness of Stephen’s life as a whole because of the Caravaggio-style spotlight on his martyrdom, but doing that is to see only half the man and little of the saint. One of the lessons to be learned from Stephen is his utter selflessness, his desire to be conformed to Christ, and his graciousness in the face of adversity and opposition. It is a lesson I pray we may all take to heart — especially online.

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Christmas Day 2019

Our Lady of Consolation
Our Lady of Consolation, icon since c. 1450 at Cambrai, Flanders

This icon of Our Lady of Consolation reminds us that Christmas is never without its sorrows. The tear on Mary’s cheek recalls that poignant medieval lyric in which Christ’s death is lamented in deeply personal terms. Our salvation did not come cheap:

Lovely ter of lovely eye,
Why dost thou me so wo?
Sorful ter of sorful eye,
Thou brekst myn herte a-two.

We rejoice in the most perfect of all gifts, the gift of our Saviour Jesus Christ, but we also acknowledge the grief and sadness of the world in which we live. We may be mourning the loss of someone we love or grieving the violence that has killed so many in Burkina Faso and Syria, or there may be some more private sorrow that weighs us down. But still we rejoice. The bitter irony of the birth of the Prince of Peace coinciding with a fresh outbreak of war is not lost on us, nor is the seeming inability of our leaders to work together to end poverty and homelessness and all the evils we regard as insupportable. But still we rejoice. We rejoice because we must. Destruction, negativity, hopelessness is not the whole story and never can be. With the coming of Christ into the world, God has bound himself to us in a way that can never be broken. He has become what we are — for ever and ever. If we let that truth sink in, we can indeed find cause for joy.

On behalf of the community, may I wish you all the blessings of Christmas and the assurance of our prayers. Thank you for your engagement and support during the past year.

If you are struggling with serious illness, you may find something useful in this earlier post about celebrating Christmas with cancer: https://is.gd/BCZDup There are also several posts about the Nativity which can be found using the search box in the right-hand sidebar.

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Advent Fire and the Ballot-Box

fire

The second Sunday of Advent’s Mass readings are anything but cosy. We are confronted with fire — the fire of the prophet Isaiah with his yearning for integrity and justice, and the fire of John the Baptist with his passionate call for repentance and conversion of heart (cf Isaiah 11. 1–10; Matthew 3. 1–12). As the U.K. General Election draws near, it is impossible not to reflect whether/how that fire informs our own decision about voting.

There are those who have told me in no uncertain terms that I should avoid all mention of politics in my blog. If, by that, they mean that I should never voice an opinion with which they disagree, they will be sorely disappointed. I regularly disagree with myself! If, however, they mean that some subjects are not suitable material for reflection, I can only urge them to read the scriptures more thoroughly and consider whether our conduct is meant to be influenced by what we read. For the truth is, the texts put before us today are an unmistakable call to action. They demand a response, just as the person of Jesus Christ demands a response. Are we going to seek justice and integrity or not? Are we going to try to produce good fruit or are we not? When we vote, will we vote in what we think are our own interests or will we heed the warnings of John the Baptist and of the prophet?

This Sunday may be the last day many of us have leisure to think through and pray about the choice we must make on Thursday. For some there is the temptation to opt out of voting, on the grounds that no candidate or party seems to measure up to the situation facing us. While that is understandable it has the effect of placing a heavier burden on those who do vote. What no one can deny is that the outcome of Thursday’s vote is going to have long-lasting consequences.

Fire destroys, but it also cleanses. Perhaps this Sunday we each need to allow the fire of the Holy Spirit to burn away whatever is selfish or self-serving in ourselves that we may play our part in bringing about the age of peace and goodwill we shall sing about at Christmas. The ballot-box, too, can be a vehicle of grace — if we consent to make it so.

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A Forgiving God?

On the memoria of St Ambrose the ‘godly internet’ will be awash with a single quotation: ‘No one heals himself by wounding another.’ Very few, however, will read what St Ambrose has to say in his treatise, Concerning Repentance, from which it is taken. You, dear reader, can, and in English, too, if you follow this link: St Ambrose on Repentance. If you do, you will find something that may make you think about two things that are very important this Advent.

First, Ambrose wasn’t judgemental in the way that we habitually use that word. He knew what he believed and was anxious to win the Novatians back to Catholic unity, so he advocated gentleness and patience rather than blistering attacks on the integrity of others. He could only do that because he believed in the forgiveness of God. I sometimes wonder whether we do. Do we really believe that others can repent, and that God’s mercy will embrace their desire to be reconciled? Some of the ‘debates’ taking place in the Church and the fierce and unforgiving language in which they are expressed might make an outsider question that. We are often more demanding than God, more certain that everyone should believe as we do — in short, more exacting, less forgiving.

Second, forgiveness is personal. During Advent it is important that we should, if possible, make our confession and be reconciled with God and one another. The sacrament of confession isn’t an endorsement of sin, as some maintain. We genuinely do have to repent, to seek forgiveness, be prepared to make amends and avoid sin for the future. Sometimes we will be asked by our confessor to go to someone we have injured and say ‘sorry’ if we haven’t already done so. That can be very hard, especially if the person we’re apologizing to is in no mood to forgive. We have to believe in the reality of grace before we can allow God to forgive in us, or accept forgiveness ourselves.

So, today’s Advent challenge is very simple. Am I willing to forgive and be forgiven? Do I believe in a God who forgives or do I not? Will I make my confession, or will I refuse the coming of God into my life?

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