Nothing Wrong With Thinking

A few days ago, I was surprised to find someone attacking philosophy as an ‘airy-fairy’ discipline and lamenting its effect on contemporary theology. Personally, I would argue that it is precisely the abandonment of philosophy as a necessary discipline that leads to the weakness of much contemporary theology (no names, no pack drill). Woolly thinking does not give glory to God. On the contrary, thinking about God, asking questions about God and  the things of God can only contribute to our love and wonder. I often think of monastic life as doing theology on our knees, but reading, thinking, meditating are an essential part of the process that leads to prayer.

Of course, we are not all philosophers. I’m not one myself; but anyone who is serious about their following of Christ must surely be concerned with discovering more and more about truth, what the early Church believed about Christ, how that belief has developed over the centuries, how we are to understand and apply it nowadays. And we can’t do any of that without ways of thinking, questioning, arguing, using a language that expresses and defines even as it admits its limitations. We seem to be so concerned sometimes to be, on the one hand, ‘doctrinally lite’ or, on the other, ‘ritually exact’ that we miss something important: not only the utter transcendence of God but also his infinite tenderness and compassion. We will never succeed in articulating God, so to say, but surely it is a worthwhile endeavour to try to do what we can.

Tomorrow we shall be celebrating the feast of St Hildegard, Benedictine polymath and Doctor of the Church. Many people know something of her music, but I wonder how many have read her Scivias or engaged with some of her more difficult texts? She is a worthy patron of International Buy a Nun a Book Day (see here for an explanation of BANAB-Day): a reminder that in seeking to know more about God, we are seeking to know God himself.

Note
As I have explained, we ourselves are not publishing a wish-list for books this year. People have been very generous to us, and we would like others to benefit from the idea.

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Clarity

Having written about brain fog yesterday, it seems only fair to write about clarity today. What do we mean by it? Most people, I think, would reply that we mean the quality of being clear, intelligible, sharply defined. Some of us, however, particularly those accustomed to singing the Divine Office in Latin, might want to overlay such a definition of clarity with something others might find unexpected. The word clarus in Latin is associated with glory, more specifically the divine glory (cf the antiphons for Vespers on Holy Saturday). That takes clarity into another dimension. Just as I argued yesterday that the danger of the many varieties of brain fog is that we use them as an excuse for not making the effort to distinguish between true and false, right action and wrong, so I would argue today that striving for clarity infuses a very ordinary, everday activity with touches of divine glory.

I always pray before I write, and one of the things for which I ask in prayer is that what I write may be clear and truthful. That it should be truthful is, I hope, self-evidently necessary; but clarity isn’t always so easy to achieve and many might argue that it can appear ‘simplistic’ and  ‘unprofessional’. (I am thinking here of the turgid prose that too often masks the thought of the academic or expert while proclaiming to the rest of the world that he/she is one who knows — and is keeping the secret close.) In an age where speed-reading and headline-skimming are more and more the norm, I am conscious of how easy it is not to make one’s meaning plain; and even if one does make one’s meaning plain to one’s own satisfaction, there will always be someone who uses words and concepts differently and therefore understands differently. But that doesn’t invalidate the quest for clarity, or lessen its importance.

To be clear, to reflect something of the divine glory, to allow that glory to permeate, infsofar as one can, both thought and speech is not a trvial matter. It is the work of a lifetime — and it is work.

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Praying to the Devil

Have you ever prayed to the devil? Before you recoil in shock and horror, let me explain what I mean. We are all familiar with the prayer the pharisee prayed to himself in the parable of the pharisee and the publican, Luke 18.9-14, and most of us would admit, a little shamefacedly, to having had moments when we allowed a touch of smugness to infect us. We may not have lauded our own virtue but we have condemned someone else’s failure to live up to our expectations or cried ‘hypocrite’ when they acted in ways we disapproved. Praying to the devil is much worse than that, but it is dangerously easy to slip into if we do not hold ourselves in check. Only this morning we received a prayer request which was essentially a calling down of curses on another and willing their death. I don’t think the person who sent the request had any idea of the spiritual danger to which they were exposing themself. However hurt or angry we are, however incensed by someone else’s conduct, we must not allow our feelings to open us up to spiritual harm. Nonsense? Let’s see.

Whenever someone ‘prays’ with anger and hostility, wishing ill to another, they are praying to the devil. People whose marriages have broken up sometimes call down curses on their spouse’s new partner rather than praying for conversion of heart and an end to the adulterous relationship. Or people inveigh against someone they dislike or think evil in terms that are themselves evil. If this is allowed to go on, it becomes a prayer to the devil. All prayer is powerful but this kind acts as a concentrator of negative feeling. It is one thing to tell the Lord our distress and anger (and maybe get cross with him), quite another to demand he punish or hurt someone we regard as the cause of our unhappiness. That is the one kind of prayer that isn’t going to please the Lord; but it will please the devil very much indeed. If we are sufficiently filled with bitter zeal, we may think that is all right. We don’t care whether God or the devil hears our prayer so long as x suffers. What we forget is that when we open ourselves up to evil, we open ourselves up to something we cannot control, something that does not desire our well-being but our destruction. In the end, we are even more harmed than the one we want to afflict.

You will notice I have carefully avoided saying who or what the devil is, and that is important. It is a great mistake to think that sin and evil are outmoded notions, the product of a febrile imagination; it is equally a great mistake to think we have got evil ‘taped,’ so to say. It is precisely because we haven’t got evil ‘taped’ that we succumb to its allure.

If we fall into the habit of praying to the devil our lives will change as surely as they do when we pray to God. Instead of seeing the good in others, we will see only the bad. Instead of being generous, we will become mean and grasping. We certainly won’t be very nice to know. Ultimately, I think that matters more than we may be ready to concede when we are consumed with anger. People often quote the tag lex orandi, lex credendi, meaning ‘as we pray (or worship), so we believe’; it actually has a third part, lex vivendi, meaning ‘so we live’. Praying to the devil is what we might call a whole life choice — only it isn’t life at all, it’s death. The next time we are furious about someone or something, we might usefully remember that.

Additional Note
Several people have  commented on the difficulty they have with the cursing psalms. I wrote about them here. The two posts go together.

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On Not Being Cynical by Bro Duncan PBGV

One of the things that makes me sad is cynicism. Dogs don’t do cynical. We believe the best of everybody, all the time. It doesn’t matter if sometimes we are proved wrong. We were created to trust, and we do. You’ve probably noticed that we are all eager-beaver enthusiasm, even for people you wouldn’t let inside your front door. Whenever I suspect that the Enemy of the Moment has turned up, for example, I go into ecstacies of welcome. That soon brings everyone to their senses. You can’t go on being cool towards someone we’re treating with rapture, can you?

There is an important spiritual point here. Welcoming people — really welcoming them — is not about checking whether they have all the right credentials and espouse all the right views (i.e. the same as you) before trusting them but simply seeing them as they are, as God sees them. I think dogs have the gift of always seeing people as God sees them, which is why we don’t find trust difficult. Yes, human beans can be cranky (just look at My Lot!); they can be difficult, demanding, really rather horrible at times; but underneath all that messiness, the failures, the sin, they are rather beautiful.

Cynicism distorts the way human beans see others and blinds them to their good points. In the end, it can make the cynical lonely, because no one really likes someone who is always negative and trusts no one else. Except, of course, God and us dogs. 😉

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Easter Wednesday and Emmaus Moments

We all have Emmaus moments — times when we suddenly see and understand something previously hidden, or something we vaguely felt all along is revealed to be gloriously, unequivocally true. It is even more wonderful when we suddenly see not something but someone for the first time, as it were. It is an epiphany, a revelation; and seeing someone, really seeing them, is always to see something of God. Most of us will be very busy today. We’ll probably meet lots of people without truly meeting them at all: they will pass us in the street, drive past in a car or barely register as individuals in a crowd. Yet each one is a unique reflection of God, an expression of Christ ‘lovely in limbs not his.’ Let us give thanks for each one and ask a blessing on them as we pass.

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Good Friday 2016

Cristo crucificado.jpg
By Diego Velázquez[1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4214227

People sometimes ask why I add to some of my posts the year in which they were written. It is because we are bound by a linear understanding of time. Today is Good Friday, but it is a Good Friday unlike any other; and although I think all I’ve said about Good Friday in the past is still valid, this Good Friday brings with it its own challenges and graces.

This morning I look at the Crucifix and think of ‘the battle with the dragon black’, the tremendous vision of The Dream of the Rood, ‘the lovely tear from lovely eye’ of one of the Harley Lyrics, and know myself a charlatan. The Crucifixion wasn’t noble or beautiful. It was bloody, brutal and shot through with despair. We have made it beautiful with our words and images, our haunting music and our knowledge of what it achieved for us, but two thousand years ago it was simply a squalid exercise in corrupt power. Perhaps we need to remember that when we gather for the Solemn Liturgy this afternoon. The church will be stripped and bare, and our worship will reflect the spare forms of the ancient Church with its lengthy readings from scripture and sequence of prayers. One of those prayers will be for those who do not yet know Christ. In previous years I have always thought of it as the Church intends, as a prayer for those who do not yet acknowledge Christ as Lord and Saviour; but today I shall think of it more personally and be praying it for myself. No matter how great our love and devotion may seem to ourselves, no matter how many years we may have spent in his service, who among us can really claim to know Christ? That bruised and bloodied body hanging on the Cross is a reminder that God’s love and forgiveness are infinite. We can never exhaust them. We can only hope to go deeper and deeper into the mystery — which is my prayer for you and for me today.

Another link:
Some lectio divina for today on the link between the dates of the Crucifixion and the Annunciation: http://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/this-doubtful-day-of-feast-or-fast-good.html

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In Memoriam René Girard

Yesterday died René Girard, a giant among men, whose thought defies narrow classification. He rarely called himself a philosopher although many philosophical implications can be derived from his work in literary criticism, psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, biblical hermeneutics and theology. If one had to try to sum up in a single phrase the range of his interests, the focus of his intellectual enquiry, I think I’d say it was nothing less than what it means to be human. I have myself been profoundly influenced by his work on mimetic desire, the nature of violence and the role of the scapegoat, all of which have illuminated my understanding of the gospels and, I hope, affected my conduct, too. Here are a few of my favourite quotations which you may like to ponder:

The goal of religious thinking is exactly the same as that of technological research — namely, practical action. Whenever man is truly concerned with obtaining concrete results, whenever he is hard pressed by reality, he abandons abstract speculation and reverts to a mode of response that becomes increasingly cautious and conservative as the forces he hopes to subdue, or at least to outrun, draw ever nearer. (Violence and the Sacred)

Everywhere and always, when human beings either cannot or dare not take their anger out on the thing that has caused it, they unconsciously search for substitutes, and more often than not they find them. (The One by Whom Scandal Comes)

Our world is filled with competition, frenzied ambition in every domain. Each of us is acquainted with the spirit of competition. This spirit is not a bad thing in and of itself. Its influence has long been felt in personal relations within the dominant classes. Subsequently it spread throughout the whole of society, to the point that today it has more or less openly triumphed in every part of the world. In Western nations, and above all in the United States, it animates not only economic and financial life, but scientific research and intellectual life as well. Despite the tension and the unrest it brings, these nations are inclined on the whole to congratulate themselves for having embraced the spirit of competition, for its positive effects are considerable. Not the least of these is the impressive wealth it has brought a large part of the population. No one, or almost no one, any longer thinks of forgoing rivalry, since it allows us to go on dreaming of a still more glittering and prosperous future than the recent past. Our world seems to us the most desirable one there ever was, especially when we compare it to life in nations that have not enjoyed the same prosperity. (The One by Whom Scandal Comes)

In a truly global world, the renunciation of violent reprisal is bound to become, in a more and more obvious way, the indispensable condition of our survival. (The One by Whom Scandal Comes)

The experience of death is going to get more and more painful, contrary to what many people believe. The forthcoming euthanasia will make it more rather than less painful because it will put the emphasis on personal decision in a way which was blissfully alien to the whole problem of dying in former times. It will make death even more subjectively intolerable, for people will feel responsible for their own deaths and morally obligated to rid their relatives of their unwanted presence. Euthanasia will further intensify all the problems its advocates think it will solve.

and this, from Bro Duncan PBGV’s collection:

We don’t know if there’s a heaven for animals, but we know for sure there’s a hell.
Tuesday, 6 January, 2015

May he rest in peace. Amen.

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Violence

If asked, how many of us would say we reject violence as a solution to the world’s problems? We condemn the brutality of IS; we are uneasy about the war in Syria; we are queasy about the so-called ‘intifada of knives’ in Israel/Palestine. As Remembrance Sunday approaches, we are even, at times, equivocal about the wars fought against imperialism and fascism in the twentieth century. It is all conveniently ‘out there’. Then we switch on the T.V. or radio or dip into Social Media and discover the violence is not ‘out there’ at all. It is within each of us, and it is beginning to make monsters of us.

You may think that last statement over the top, but think for a moment. How often do we encounter vehement language and insults in situations where they are inappropriate or counter-productive? We do not need to tell a prominent politician to ‘**** off’. We’d do much better to argue a case he/she has to answer, but we are too lazy to do that. Much easier to rant and rage instead. During the recent Synod on the Family we were treated, if that is the right word, to endless bandying of insults and accusations which achieved nothing of value. Much of the violence we express has, objectively speaking, little to do with the situation we are allegedly upset about but everything to do with us. We want to vent our own feelings, and sometimes we forget that doing so may have a negative effect on others. Perhaps we don’t care. What matters is us and our views and their unbridled expression. Unfortunately, that tends to undermine the value of whatever we have to say. We cannot plead for peace and justice unless we ourselves are prepared to be peaceful and just — and a vicious little  outburst rather gives the game away about what is actually going on inside.

I said yesterday we cannot change others, only ourselves. Maybe we could spend a few moments today thinking about how we react to situations and events that we believe wrong or which make us upset or angry. We can contribute to the world’s violence or we can lessen it. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God. Better that than ‘spawn of Satan’ surely?

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The Practice of Recollection

This isn’t an oblique reference to Back to the Future but a brief thought about something most of us need more than we realise: the habit of taking a few moments throughout the day to pause our activity, go into ourselves, as it were, and emerge with a more thoughtful, more purposeful grasp of what we are about.

The Latin word from which we get ‘recollection’, recolligere, means ‘to gather back’; and I think most of us understand how easily we become dispersed or unfocused in the course of the day. For monks and nuns it is easier, of course. We have the structure of the Divine Office to remind us, at regular times, of God and the things of God. But in a busy life, where the majority of the people we meet probably have little religious understanding, we’d be thought odd, if not actually mad, were we to make any kind of physical withdrawal in order to pray. Unlike our Jewish and Muslim friends, we Christians have largely abandoned the ancient practice of formal prayer at set times throughout the day. That doesn’t mean, however, that we have to give up the idea of turning to God in the course of our everyday life. We can practise recollection anywhere and at any time.

There are many opportunities for finding a moment or two to recollect ourselves. Walking from one floor to another (you do take the stairs, not the lift, don’t you?), before switching on the car, while waiting for the kettle to boil, we can turn to God interiorly and simply lay before him all that we are and do. Grace works to a timetable of its own. All we have to do is open ourselves to it; and that doesn’t take very long or require ‘optimum conditions’. How about making ‘Give grace a chance’ our slogan for today?

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Mindfulness the Beginning of Humility

Today’s section of the Rule, RB 7. 10–18, is like a bucket of cold water over one’s head. It pulls one up sharp with its reminder that what we call ‘the spiritual life’ is quite the opposite of that deliciously dreamy, pseudo-mystical stuff peddled by religious charlatans. Humility begins with mindfulness, with remembering God, keeping the fear of him before our eyes at all times, and guarding ourselves at every moment from those sins of inattention into which we so easily slip. It is an active and earnest pursuit which transforms our whole way of life. God’s gaze is always upon us. To some, that is terrifying; but if we reflect a moment, it is really quite the opposite. We know — or should do — that our merciful Lord wills us nothing but good. The fact that he is always with us, closer to us than we are to ourselves, should be a source of joy. Our problem is that we are too busy looking elsewhere, too caught up in our own ideas, that we don’t notice; and not noticing is where all the trouble begins. The sins of omission, the sins of inattention, are like a great pile of dead leaves around our ankles. They clog our way, hold us back, keep us from beginning to climb the ladder of humility, because they obscure its first step: awareness of God.

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