Bro Duncan PBGV Speaks His Mind

I have been listening to BigSis and LittleSis discussing world events and am frustrated by my inability to tell them what I think, so I’ll tell you instead.

Many big human problems are, in essence, little ones, but you complicate matters with your pride and your long memories of injustice and your inability to forgive. You think you are being brave when you make lots of noise and brandish guns and grenades. You congratulate yourselves when you kill someone. Worst of all, you try to drag God into it. Whether you call him God or Allah doesn’t matter, you blaspheme when you destroy his children, but you don’t seem to recognize that. I’m not sure what sort of heaven or paradise you think you will earn, but I suspect it may be too hot for comfort. Think, for a moment, of all the tears you have caused to stream down the cheeks of people just like yourselves, who love their families and want them to live long and happily. Think of all the pain, and ask yourselves, does it have to be like this?

I have been thinking about all the dogs in France waiting for a Special Someone to come home who won’t be coming home after the terrible attacks on Friday. I don’t think there will be many dogs in Raqqa doing the same after the bombing last night, but I expect there will be lots of cats waiting for their staff to turn up and being disappointed. We dogs and cats are united in this: in our condemnation of violence and the glee with which you humans greet your mutual destruction. BigSis was telling me about all the angry words she has been reading and how people accuse each other of being ‘wet’ and ‘naive’ if they don’t subscribe to the current orthodoxy, and how Muslims are living in fear of retaliation and Christians are worried about further attacks on them and everyone is going round blaming everyone else; and I just want to shout, ‘Stop!’ And I think God wants to shout ‘Stop!’ too, only you humans aren’t listening to him.

I’m not a very clever dog and I don’t do politics or stuff like that but living with Them I have learned something important about Christianity. You can’t stop being Christian when you are under attack. That’s when you really learn what it means to live by the mercy of God, when you learn what it means to forgive and make peace with your enemy. No one ever said it would be easy. When you come to the monastery, the first thing you see is a big cross with the figure of Christ hanging on it. That is the price of mercy and forgiveness. We dogs instinctively understand that; so why don’t you?


Mercy and Forgiveness — 4

In this fourth post, I’d like to consider the relationship between mercy and forgiveness and the experience many of us have as ‘average church-goers’. We are not, by and large, theologians or scripture scholars; most of us are lay people, and the majority of us would probably admit to being weighed down at times by a sense of failure or bafflement that, despite our best efforts, we seem to make the same mistakes over and over again. We find it hard to forgive others, and sometimes even harder to forgive ourselves. We are an Easter people with more than a whiff of sulphur about us.

I think it’s perfectly normal to feel like that, but feelings alone are never a very good guide to what is going on. Moreover, mercy and forgiveness are not the whole story, at least, not as we experience life. There are other concepts that, practically speaking, prove just as important: justice, for example, and a multitude of other factors that come into play whenever we talk about sin, love, mercy, all the big things in life. We are complicated and complicating creatures. At times we feel we’re running some kind of race, but it’s not always the one we think we are, and our own muddled thinking may be to blame for some of our problems. God’s mercy isn’t at war with his justice, yet we tend to think it is. Many of our difficulties follow from that false opposition. Let me try to explain.

How often, when we talk of someone’s being merciful, do we mean that they have let somebody else off scot-free (incidentally, a very telling term relating to a tax or settlement of an obligation) and allowed them to escape a punishment that was properly due to them? We forget entirely the biblical origins of the word (see post 1) with its connotations of pity and fellow-feeling. Effectively, we harden our hearts and close ourselves to forgiveness  — a bit like the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who was angry that his younger brother should behave badly and then be welcomed back joyfully. The injustice of it! (And if you don’t have a sneaking sympathy for the elder son, believe me, you are very, very virtuous.)

If we don’t rebel against such undeserved good fortune in another, we try to make a distinction between forgiving and forgetting — which is reasonable enough until we recognize that all the effort we are putting into remembering makes it impossible ever really to forgive. The truth is that forgiveness is rarely a once-for-all act. If it were, it would be much easier. We human beings may have to forgive again and again, taking the anger and hurt we have experienced and dashing them against Christ, who alone can draw the poison. We have to insert ourselves into a dynamic of forgiveness, as it were. I’m guessing the elder son in the parable sometimes found his brother’s face at breakfast hard to bear and had to make a conscious effort not to say or do something cutting. It would not be strange if he sometimes failed, just as we do.

We make life harder for ourselves by wanting God’s justice to be exactly like our own. Our modern ideas are associated with law and the scrupulous apportionment of blame and punishment. We talk about ‘justice being done’ in a court case and mean that guilt has been ascertained and punishment meted out. An older idea of justice certainly includes that notion, but it has as its primary focus the restoration of right order, which is a more difficult concept for most of us to grasp. Right order isn’t a wishy-washy attempt to annoy no-one or ‘live and let live’ in a world that has very little to trouble or vex it. Concern for right order implies a powerful and sustained attempt to ensure fairness in a world that is manifestly unfair, flawed, difficult to categorize. It means working to resolve conflicts before they degenerate into hatred or hostility, and a readiness to acknowledge the claims of others in an equable manner. It is really quite exhausting, because justice of this kind can never be automatic, either in its operation or in its sanctions — unlike the fixed-penalty fines for certain transgressions of the civil law.

There is a further problem, of course. We look at the Crucifix and see Jesus hanging there, knowing he has taken on himself our sickness and sin, and we feel guilty (see post 2). We turn our gaze away from him and focus on ourselves, seeing nothing but negativity. Then we remember that it was love, not nails, that kept him there; that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘if I could have suffered more, I would have suffered more’; and all our theoretical ideas about sin and punishment come tumbling round our ankles and we must look Mercy in the face and know him, as for the first time, ruefully admitting that our ideas were too small for so great a Redeemer, one who wants to share his very life with us (see post 3). We speak of sins to be forgiven, debts to be repaid, but he annihilates them all in the abyss of his love! He wants us to be what God intended from the first: true images of himself, whole, healed, beautiful.

One of the great gifts of the monastic order to the Church has been private sacramental confession — an opportunity to meet the mercy of God and experience the joy of being forgiven not just once, on our death-bed, but throughout life, again and again. Over the centuries the Church has articulated the theology of this sacrament with great care. Everyone knows that it is not enough to state one’s sins and express sorrow for them. One must also put right what one can and have a firm purpose of amendment — the desire to change for the better. These are sometimes seen as necessary pre-conditions for forgiveness; and sadly, people often become so focused upon their ability/inability to meet them that they miss the fact that God’s grace is already operating in them, already drawing them to the sacrament to experience his mercy and forgiveness. In an important sense we can say that we have already been forgiven if we seek God’s forgiveness, although we have still to make the changes in our lives that forgiveness demands. A problem comes, however, when we have to apply to others the grace we have ourselves received. Forgiven, yes; but forgiving?

One often hears people say that forgiveness has to be earned, that there has to be evidence of repentance. I don’t think that measures up to the gospel standard. God in Christ forgave us without any evidence of repentance on our part, without our doing anything at all to earn his forgiveness; and I think he expects us to follow his example in relation to others.  We are to make others whole as we have been made whole ourselves. The disciples were told to forgive an uncomfortable number of times. When asked who our neighbour is, Jesus replied with the Parable of the Good Samaritan to show how we ourselves must be neighbours to others. We are to concentrate on what we can do, not on what we think someone else should do, but we have a tendency to waste time and effort on their sins and shortcomings which we usually see more clearly than our own. An example will show what I mean.

I have sometimes been questioned about the fate of Judas by those who want absolute certainty regarding something the Church wisely prefers to remain reticent about. It is a little too close to ‘delighting in the sins of others’ for my taste — I have enough sins of my own to worry about — but I can see why it can be troubling. We want a world in which the parameters of good and evil are marked in black and white, where good is rewarded and evil is punished. Having to tread a path that’s largely different shades of grey is more problematic. It means we have to make choices, and how will we know we’re making the right ones? We won’t always, alas, and there’s the difficulty. Where sin is not so much a matter of debts to be calculated and repaid but a sickness to be healed and an estrangement to be ended, our firm footing in the world can look decidedly wobbly. Knowing that we can never fall below the love of God is fine in theory, but in practice we can feel lonely and exposed, buffeted by conflicting opinions and desires. We want to do the right thing but, like St Paul, have the sinking feeling that oftentimes we fail. We forget that Christ came among us to deal with failure and restore us to fullness of life.

In calling on the Church to celebrate an Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis is asking us to be stretched in ways we never thought possible. He is asking us to experience more deeply than ever before God’s unfailing love for us, and to share that love with others. I have no doubt that, as the year unfolds, there will be much to ponder, much to do. Pope Francis is asking us to become, in effect, what Mary, the Mother of God, was: an aqueduct, a channel for the life-giving fountain which is Christ. That is no mean task for us all.

Note: the Vatican has set up a special web site of resources for the Holy Year which you can find here. If you feel daunted by the size of the task the Holy Year lays upon us, let’s ask the prayers of St Mark, whose feast-day it is. The short ending of his gospel concludes with the disciples’ feeling afraid, not yet the confident evangelists they were to become. (Mk 16.8) I think most of us can probably identify with that.


Mercy and Forgiveness — 2 (to be continued)

Before we look at the Resurrection gospels to which I referred yesterday, we need to take a brief look at the way in which the Church has developed her teaching about mercy and forgiveness, and St Anselm, whose feast we keep today, is necessarily important.

In Cur Deus Homo (‘Why God became Man’), Anselm articulated a theory that has been hugely influential in the Western Church. He asked himself the question, what  is the meaning and purpose of  the Crucifixion of Christ? The answer he gave was that human beings had sinned gravely and incurred a debt to God. Only a human being could recompense God for sin, but the insult to God was so great that no human being could actually do so, only one who was both God and man, himself completely sinless and therefore not in debt to God. Christ alone satisfies these conditions. Hence  we can speak of the Atonement, when Christ, as both God and man, paid the debt incurred by human beings and satisfied divine justice through his death on the Cross. The Crucifixion thus becomes a punishment for sin, our sin; and many theologians in the Reformed tradition have made this satisfaction theory of the Atonement a test of Christian orthodoxy, seeing Christ as a punitive substitute for us.

Philosophically speaking, Anselm’s argument is beautiful; theologically, it introduces one or two more doubtful elements. For a start, the idea of sin as a debt to God is rather less easy to reconcile with biblical notions of sin than may at first appear. We are indeed alienated from God by sin, which ruptures the relationship of love and trust to a greater or lesser degree. We profane the holiness of his great name by failing to live a holy life. If we stopped to consider that, would any of us ever sin? I rather doubt it. But we choose lesser ‘goods’, the satisfaction of some current desire and end up in some sense distant from God, conscious of an unfulfilled obligation which we describe as being in debt to God. Think about that seriously, and one can see that we have nothing we can call our own in the first place. If we owe everything to God, how can sin place us further in his debt? We tend to talk about our ‘fallen nature’ without really thinking what we mean by it: essentially something evil (i.e. opposed to God), or essentially something sick (i.e. in need of redemption)? Our answer may be significant.

Here it may be helpful to consider another way of regarding sin. Where we in the West tend to think of our fallen nature as intrinsically evil, our brethren in the East tend to think of it as intrinsically disordered, sick, something that needs to be restored to full health and vigour. Sin is missing the mark rather than incurring a debt. The Orthodox reject the idea that Christ died to satisfy divine justice as taught by Anselm, or as a punitive substitute as taught by the Reformers. Sin (separation from God, the source of all life) is its own punishment, capable of imprisoning the soul in an existence without life, without anything good, and without hope: hell, by any definition. The death of Christ on the Cross restores life and health to humanity, restores the relationship with God and indeed permits a new creation as the Church is born from the blood and water that flows from his side.

In practice, both views of sin and of the meaning of the Crucifixion can enlarge our understanding and sense of wonder and gratitude. The problem comes when we want to nail other people and demand of others our own concept of repentance and the satisfaction of our own ideas of justice! Tomorrow I hope to argue that we need to be much more circumspect in attributing to God ideas that are not his. Certainly, repentance, conversion, literally changing our course, is a necessary part of Christian living, but we need also to be aware of that unmerited gift of God’s grace that flows so freely upon us all. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke shows us the sinner being forgiven by his father before the words of sorrow and apology had fully fallen from his lips. It was enough that he had turned back to meet the overwhelming love that had watched and waited for him for many a long day. How many of us, deep down, hope that we shall be embraced with such a love when our own time comes?


Mercy and Forgiveness — 1 (to be continued)

Most of us are very happy to have mercy shown us and to be forgiven when we are conscious of wrong-doing. We are not always quite so happy to show mercy to others or forgive them their failings when we are the injured party, and least of all are we happy when mercy and forgiveness appear to be poured out indiscriminately on those we think unworthy of it. Perhaps I exaggerate and everyone reading theses pages is already much more saintly than I am, I can only speak from my own experience.

When Pope Francis announced an Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, to begin on 8 December 2015 and end on 20 November 2016, there was some muttering in certain quarters. First of all, the whole concept of a Holy Year is widely misunderstood. The first was proclaimed in 1300, but its origins are much older since it is a form of the Jubilee, and I cannot do better than quote from the document which ushered in the Great Jubilee of the Millennium (2000):

A Holy Year, or Jubilee is a great religious event. It is a year of forgiveness of sins and also the punishment due to sin, it is a year of reconciliation between adversaries, of conversion and receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and consequently of solidarity, hope, justice, commitment to serve God with joy and in peace with our brothers and sisters. A Jubilee year is above all the year of Christ, who brings life and grace to humanity.

The origin of the Christian Jubilee goes back to Bible times. The Law of Moses prescribed a special year for the Jewish people: ‘You shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim the liberty throughout the land, to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. This fiftieth year is to be a jubilee year for you: you will not sow, you will not harvest the un-gathered corn, you will not gather the untrimmed vine. The jubilee is to be a holy thing to you, you will eat what comes from the fields.’ (Leviticus 25, 10-14) The trumpet with which this particular year was announced was a goat’s horn called Yobel in Hebrew, and the origin of the word jubilee. The celebration of this year also included the restitution of land to the original owners, the remission of debts, the liberation of slaves and the land was left fallow. In the New Testament, Jesus presents himself as the One who brings the old Jubilee to completion, because he has come to ‘preach the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Isaiah 61: 1-2). . . .

The Jubilee is called Holy Year, not only because its begins, is marked, and ends with solemn holy acts, but also because its purpose is to encourage holiness of life. It was actually convoked to strengthen faith, encourage works of charity and brotherly communion within the Church and in society and to call Christians to be more sincere and coherent in their faith in Christ, the only Saviour.

A Jubilee can be ‘ordinary’ if it falls after the set period of years, and ‘extraordinary’ when it is proclaimed for some outstanding event. . . . The custom of calling ‘extraordinary’ Jubilees began in the 16th century and they can vary in length from a few days to a year. There have been two extraordinary jubilees in [the twentieth century]: 1933 proclaimed by Pope Pius XI to mark the 1900th anniversary of Redemption and 1983 proclaimed by Pope John Paul II to mark 1950 years since the Redemption carried out by Christ through his Death and Resurrection in the year 33. In 1987 Pope John Paul II also proclaimed a Marian year.

So, why the fuss about proclaiming a Holy Year of Mercy?

Saying he has ‘thought often about how the Church can make more evident its mission of being a witness of mercy,’ the Pope announced the new Jubilee Year during a Lenten penitential service in St Peter’s Basilica.

‘I am convinced that the whole Church — that has much need to receive mercy because we are sinners — will find in this jubilee the joy to rediscover and render fruitful the mercy of God, with which we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time. . . . Let us not forget that God pardons and God pardons always, the Pope continued.  ‘Let us never tire of asking for forgiveness. We entrust it as of now to the Mother of Mercy, because she looks to us with her gaze and watches over our way . . . Our penitential way, our way of open hearts, during a year to receive the indulgence of God, to receive the mercy of God.’

The Pope also said he wants the Church to live the upcoming holy year ‘in the light’ of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Luke: ‘Be merciful, just as your father is merciful.’

Part of the problem, of course, is that some people think Pope Francis too soft on matters they regard as central to their understanding of Catholicism. Part of the problem is confusion about the very meaning of mercy and forgiveness. What do all those Resurrection gospels where Jesus confers the power to forgive sin really mean?

We have to begin with a little exegesis of the language and concepts underlying the gospel. Biblical Hebrew has two closely related words which are sometimes translated in the same way. In the first place there is hesed, which denotes God’s unfailing loving kindness to his people. It expresses God’s fidelity to his covenant with Israel, his bride. See, for example, the references in Hosea 2.18 and Isaiah 54.5. It is a word that contains overtones of tenderness, love and strength,  which the scriptures often link with experience of morning. We awaken to God’s loving fidelity which will accompany us through the day, e.g. Ps. 142.8

In the morning let me know your love (hesed)
for I put my trust in you.
make me know the way I should walk
to you I lift up my soul. (trans. Grail)

There is also the word racham, which corresponds more closely to mercy or compassion in English. The differences can be seen more clearly in these sentences:

In an outburst of anger I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting loving kindness (hesed) I will have compassion (racham) on you,’ says the Lord your Redeemer. (Is. 54.8)

For the mountains may be removed and the hills may be shaken, but my loving kindness (hesed) will not be removed from you, and my covenant of peace will not be shaken,’ says the Lord, who has compassion (racham) on you. (Is. 54.10)

The Lord’s loving kindnesses (hesed) indeed never cease, for his compassions (racham) never fail. (Lam. 3.22)

The Septuagint (Greek Bible) usually translates the word hesed as eleos, while the Vulgate (Latin Bible) usually renders it as misericordia, a word which links ‘mercy’ with ‘heart’. The fundamental idea to grasp, however, is that hesed, God’s loving kindness, is sheer gift — completely undeserved but bestowed on us from the first moment of creation and tenderly, faithfully, strongly maintained thereafter. Exodus proclaims the God who is rich in love and fidelity at the very moment the people of Israel have broken their covenant with the Lord. He goes on being faithful when we have failed to be. (cf Ex. 34.6) It is, ultimately, fidelity to a relationship that God has called into being, and in likening it to a marriage bond, the scriptures stress both the obligations it imposes and the huge dignity conferred on us by God.

When we come to the New Testament, mercy and forgiveness come to the fore. God sees our distress and weakness, like that of the straying sheep, and has compassion on us. It is the love of a parent for a child, a tenderness that can never be completely reciprocated. We cannot earn it, we cannot deserve it, it is simply lavished upon us. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post on St Anselm (I hope), connecting mercy and forgiveness with the idea of indebtedness may have blunted our appreciation of what is really going on. We repent of sin, that which destroys (mortal sin) or impairs (venial sin) the relationship with God, because we have been forgiven, not because we seek forgiveness. But because that statement may read to some as heretical, I’ll attempt to explain more fully tomorrow.