Author Archives: chrisplover

About chrisplover

Born in Reading, UK in 1953. I have been able to mix aspects of social sensitivity in faith, such as writing and presenting a musical (Echoes of Peace) with various teaching, tutoring and lecturing roles. I taught English Literature in Malawi, and have given talks on theology and literature in Edinburgh, New York, London and Canterbury. I have lectured in Church History, formulation of Christian doctrine, soteriology, early Christian writers and narrative theology. My hobbies are the theatre, poetry, and classical music from Pergolesi and Handel to Tippett and Bartok. I can speak and read German and French but also have some understanding of Italian and Spanish.

18 February: Convivial Grace.

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Where should we look for locations in which we experience Christ’s presence as healing, and thus as overcoming the bewilderment and fears which are too typical of our modern circumstances? Table fellowship, as some call it, table friendship, or the conviviality of a living community, happen better in some Christian settings than others.

This scene is one where barbeques have gone well, summer picnics have lasted for hours, and the spilling out of indoor celebrations have all been excellent occasions for informal interactions, concerned with inner peace and changes of direction. Unthreatening circumstances for sharing fears and bewilderment are essential for moving beyond fantasies and into strong life-affirming relationships.

But in such circumstances we must decide to put our religious self-awareness into convincing words and phrases. Perhaps we want a more sincere account of who we are than we had a month earlier. We alter our choice of adjectives. The novelist David Lodge claims that “the frequency of coincidence in fictional plots… is related to how much the writer feels he can ‘get away with’,” in order to show how vivid certain encounters or events were. Our stories told to friends may be altered also, to show how much God lets us get away with, in terms of kindness and forgiveness. On this point, David Jasper quotes Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant… The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind.”

What is more life-affirming: vivid wickedness admitted, and partly abandoned, or vivid new expressions of compassion taken totally to heart? Grace has multiple versions.

Chris D.

January 2017.

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February 16: the New Creation

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The way we overcome fears is not by coldly reasoning out an alternative. It is by accepting the gift of Christ’s new heaven and new earth, given to us as love. Mary received that gift on our behalf, a vision of new stars and a new sun, the sun of righteousness and integrity. Joy is an aspect of wonder in the Christian outlook of hope, because we look forward to transforming love as a community of joy. We cherish this authentic vision of love in all the layers of our personality.

As Karl Rahner expresses it:

“An authentic vision can probably be explained as a purely spiritual touch of God, affecting the innermost centre of a man, and spreading from there to all of his faculties, his thought and imagination, which transform this touch. Hence, when a ‘vision’ reaches the consciousness of a visionary, it has already passed through the medium of his subjectivity, and therefore also bears his individual characteristics as regards language, interests, theological presuppositions and so forth.”

Does this make our distinct cultures into barriers? Not so.

“The grace of which the Church is the enduring sign is victoriously offered by God even to those who have not yet found the visible Church and who nevertheless already, without realizing it, live by its Spirit, the Holy Spirit in the love and mercy of God.” “Some who would never dream of telling themselves… that they have already received ‘the baptism of the Spirit’ of the radical freedom of love… nevertheless live in a community secretly liberated by God’s grace in the deepest core of their existence.”

ChrisD.

January 2017.

 

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14 February: Mockery

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Just a few weeks after the children’s festival, a new academic year began at the University. During Freshers’ Week the newly-arrived keen students who have just survived Sixth Form pressures and A level exams, are encouraged to develop lively leisure activities alongside their chosen Degree courses. A Fresher’s Fair is a chance for all sorts of university clubs to win over a good number of students to this or that hobby. Here is one example, a Paintball shooting club. As seen here, human beings are presented as dividing into aggressive friends and unwelcome enemies. The idea of slaughtering an enemy is part of this so-called “game”. A mock human skull can be lifted up at the end to foster pride in the possibility of sneering (symbolically) at a corpse.

During the Vietnam War in the late Sixties and Early Seventies, some religious writers, both Buddhist and Christian, collaborated in calling for pacifist symbolism to be given a genuine hearing. The need for an agreed symbolism of non-violent resistance was what brought together the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan and the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Nhat Hanh wrote and spoke about resistance meaning “more than resistance against war. It is a resistance against all kinds of things that are like war. Because living in modern society one feels he cannot easily retain integrity, wholeness. One is robbed permanently of humanness, the capacity of being oneself… So perhaps, first of all, resistance means opposition to being invaded, occupied, assaulted, and destroyed by the system.”  It means refusing to join in all sorts of mockery, even in play, that treats others as disposable rubbish.  [See their co-authored book: The Raft is Not the Shore.]

 

Chris D.

Jan. 2017.

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February 13: Favela!

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As well as fantasy, the BOing! Festival at the University of Kent tried to provide a contrasting awareness of the hurtful and distressing reality of severe overcrowding. This installation in the foyer of the Gulbenkian Theatre was called ‘Favela’ which is the name for large concentrations of slum dwellings in shanty town conditions around the cities of South America. The impression of thousands of families barely housed at all, piled on top of one another, given here for the teenagers and pre-teens to wonder at, was very striking. Poverty, even when represented in a cardboard imitation, is overwhelming.

The Brazilian Catholic Franciscan theologian Leonardo Boff writes about the way in which Francis of Assisi “brought great liberation to the poor,” even without the advantages of a social services structure. “That which makes poverty inhuman is not solely (though it is principally) the non-satisfaction of basic life needs. It is the denigration, exclusion from human community, the introjections into the poor of a negative image of themselves, an image produced by the dominating classes. The poor person begins to believe he is low and despicable.”

In St. Francis, “the ferment of the Gospel breaks forth in all its questioning, challenging reality. We realize how lazy we are, how strong the old man still remains within us. [Francis] is more than an ideal; he is a way of being, an experience of identification with all that is simplest, fraternization with all that is lowliest, enabling the emergence of the best that is hidden within each human being.” [From L. Boff & W. Buehlmann eds., Build Up my Church.]

CD, January 2017

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12 February: Wonder and Bewilderment.

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I  call Friar Chris’s posts this week ‘Reflections from St Thomas’s Hill’ and I enjoyed rereading them, one after another, when I’d slotted them into the blog calendar. You may like to go back through them at the end of the week. Will.

 

BOing! was a Festival for children held on the Kent University campus over the last weekend of August 2016. This strange structure, called Mirazozo Luminarium by Architects of Air is like a series of neon-lit tent tunnels, winding paths through beautiful green and red light and colour. The visitors’ playful antics are transmitted by CCTV to other places on the campus. Is this wonder, fantasy or anti-reality? It is like the children’s games used by primary school teachers, such as asking groups of six children how they imagine a space creature, with suitable bodies and facial expressions. They move around to eerie music such as comes from a Moog synthesizer. Making a ‘Spooky Garden’ is another game like this, with play-acted statues.

But internet and video games nowadays can make this virtual world normal for many adults. Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) saw much modern experience as “mass bewilderment in the face of accelerating change.” There is disproportion between our low human complexity and high technological special effects. Emmanuel Sullivan (Baptized into Hope), as an Anglican Franciscan, asks how we develop sensitivity to those around us. “The ongoing mystery of creation and redemption is a meeting of waters, of life and values, of thought and emphasis. At times it is a gentle flowing together; at others the meeting takes place in a mighty roar.” God gives us, if we are open, “the courage and love we need to tolerate and integrate a diversity of Christian life and witness.” But we must consider, are we moving effectively on from fantasy and eerie music to solutions for bewilderment, a genuine witness to hope?

CD.

January 2017.

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Chris Dyczek, OFM, Review of Martin Stannard, Muriel Spark – The Biography, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2009).

At Eastertime, ten years ago (2006), Muriel Spark died in a hospital in Florence. It was Maundy Thursday, she was eighty-eight years old. Her final years had involved a botched operation, and a great amount of physical pain. Yet she kept on writing novels up to the end, The Finishing School, her last, being published in 2004. Its title recalls her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but there is no other reason to draw this comparison. Her twenty-two novels explore humanity’s troubled and envious relationships across many circumstances, from the grotesque account of a care home for the dying, in Memento Mori, to the naïve and sadistic inhabitants of Château Klopstock, in Not to Disturb, in which murder is obscurely linked to financial corruption.

Martin Stannard was asked to be Muriel Spark’s biographer by the novelist herself, after he had published his biography of Evelyn Waugh. He has done her proud, seeking out the authentic person behind the celebrity, in situations where distortions of her life and motives were far too common. He observes that many of her stories involve an “epistemological crisis,” where some “pre-laid plot” begins to be shaky and is then blown apart, making a new initiative unavoidable. Her life was one of considerable mobility, beginning with her early, disastrous marriage to a violent husband, which trapped her in the racist settings of white Rhodesia. She became, in Stannard’s words, “the gentle and affectionate supporter of those who did not threaten.” She had been nineteen in 1937 when she went by ship to Africa, soon to be horrified by the cruelty of the white settlers. Several fine short stories which she wrote in the 1950s and 1960s were constructed around her experiences there. One of these, ‘The Seraph and the Zambesi’ (1951) indicates a spiritual experience which put her personal sadness into perspective. Seeing the Zambesi river, as it thundered over the Victoria Falls, seemed to her a kind of mystical experience, ‘the seraphic river’ bringing her an awareness of strange energies. Stannard calls the story one of the first works of ‘magic realism’. Its plot is both simple and fantastic, involving a Nativity Masque.

She managed to return to Britain during the War, and ended her marriage. She also began to think about Christian faith, Catholicism in particular. In 1949 she received communion as an Anglo-Catholic, although she was still essentially an agnostic. When she edited poems by Emily Bronte, she described her as a ‘poet of Christianity,’ yet also as a heretic and ‘a mystic’. A new circle of friends who were Catholics, such as Frank Sheed, or sympathetic with Catholicism, helped her to talk freely about “our need for roots in God.” An Ealing Benedictine from Malta, Fr. Agius, gave her formal instruction, and she was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1954.

She was enthusiastic about Vatican II, and felt that Christianity, including Catholicism, was moving into an age of the Spirit. She could be critical of the kind of clergy who prefer dumbing down to tackling people’s doubts and honest disbelief. Joining the Catholic Church involved complications in her closer relationships, to the extent that she had to get away from that entanglement of awkward emotions. She found an opportunity for peaceful reflection in a cottage near Aylesford, in Kent, with guidance from one or two Carmelites nearby. There she began work on her first novel, The Comforters, which was published in 1955, a story about conversion. Fr. O’Malley, keen on Jung’s Answer to Job, expected this mix of theology and literary reflection to be helpful to her, but she found it too whimsical. She wrote an article about this, beginning a lifelong inquiry into how unreliably we see God as benevolent, while aware of the ironies of human suffering.

Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh, but spent a significant amount of time with her aunt Adelaide, in Watford, a feminist. This relationship shaped a poem she wrote about Mary Magdalene, an account of Mary as a peacemaker. When asked by the Jesuit Philip Caraman to contribute to his series Saints and Ourselves, she found Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, to be a sympathetic figure. She saw Monica as a “wise, oracular figure [who had] advanced ahead of herself into eternity.” A resolute and tough figure, not to be copied but contemplated, she said. The resilience of women such as these blended in well with the plight of Job, who was a figure giving an outline to several of her later works of fiction. He represented the importance of resisting complacent, self-satisfied, conventional and hypocritical attitudes of every kind. Muriel read the book of Job regularly. This focus was still operative in 1983, when she went to a museum in which a painting by Georges de la Tour was on view: Job visité par sa femme. This galvanised her ideas once more, and enabled her to write The Only Problem? The central figure of Harvey Gotham is a sceptic but also has ‘abounding faith’. When Gotham discovers he is being observed by policemen, these represent the shallow, interrogating ‘comforters’ of the biblical book. His visit to the same museum, in the story, and pondering on what is being communicated in the work of art which he sees there, places a telling role in the story.

It is probably not insignificant that Gregory the Great wrote a commentary, the Moralia on Job, and that Ronald Knox, who died in 1957, had translated the whole Bible into literary English. The figure of integrity in her 1960 novel, The Bachelors, was also called Ronald. He is something of an enigma, as was Muriel Spark. She emphasised her own habit of going over conversations which she had overheard, looking to capture the really appropriate detail. Those without integrity in The Bachelors are all attracted in some degree to the wispy unreal world of mediums, spiritualism and séances. It is a novel which I have enjoyed for its calm presentation of the buried character of sincerity in a Christian believer. Stannard’s book is well worth reading alongside many of her novels, since it gives thorough overviews of the tensions in the novelist’s life, at the period of writing each of her successful works. Free will and destiny are recurring issues from philosophical theology which contribute to the various ambiguities with which her characters wrestle.

Her religious experiences, and convictions related to these, play a part in how she portrays characters and their decision-making. She saw that cravings and possessiveness are best overcome and avoided. To experience wants is fine, but to sink into neediness is always problematic. The finest people are those who are capable of letting go. This factor is so important that we can generally gauge whether a character is heading towards greater integrity by their showing a lack of acquisitive traits, as distinct from other, less impressive characters, who cling to what might prove to bring them some material advantages. This division into two paths is not necessarily measured in terms of religious affiliations of a character (although this does often contribute some of their powers of discernment). It is a value in itself, without being overtly acknowledged in a given story as a process of conversion undertaken or prevented. If we read her novels because we are curious about her conversion, we might be disappointed at the lack of detailed Church events and gatherings. But if we direct our thoughts to the transformative potential of serving God, as enhancing or deepening character, we can learn a lot about this steady, yet also actively considerate inner life. Martin Stannard’s biography provides us with valuable additional insights into how Ms. Spark’s friendships and relationships were like a testing ground for her process of letting go of dead emotions and harsh memories.

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December 3, Jacopone da Todi 7: A Host of Pardons

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Jacopone’s exhilarating phrases about his great attraction to the tremendous graciousness of God are tied in with other, simpler phrases about how humbly he waits to experience the bubbling spring of God’s forgiveness. This alone can free him from punishment he has had to undergo, for being so outspoken on behalf of Christ.

“Almost paralysed, I lie at the pool near Solomon’s Portico;

The waters have been moved with a host of pardons.,

And now the season has drawn to a close. When shall I be told

That I should rise, take my bed and go home?”                  (Laud/Letter 52)

(John 5:10)

“Why did you leave the golden throne resplendent with gems,

Why did you put aside the dazzling crown?…

Were these the actions of someone drunk, or out of his senses?

I know that all knowledge and power were yours

Even when still a child; how could so much be contained

In such a tiny frame, made of common clay?

What can a creature offer you, O Highest Goodness,

In exchange for your gift of yourself?

Your love, I think, brought you no gain.

Does gold need tin for its splendour to be seen?

For love of man you seem to have gone mad!

Myself and all my riches,

The treasure I brought with me when I exchanged

The glorious life of heaven for a cruel death.”                     (Laud  65)

 

This quietly bubbling fountain in a slab of stone is inside the Portiuncula Hermitage retreat centre at Clay Cross, Derbyshire. It is run by the Minoress Franciscan Sisters. Follow the link to learn more.

 

Chris D.

October 2016.

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November 27: Jacopone da Todi 1. A Poetic Challenge.

 

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This Wakefield scene shows us a provocative contrast between two ways of imagining the inner life of any person’s soul. Sometimes we feel churned up, or even seething. At other times, a lovely calm clarity runs through our inner world, and reveals our potential for containing tranquillity. On this footing we can show others how the world might appear in that condition.

Perhaps we more often have an opportunity to move from the turbulent to the calm than we realise. Franciscan poet Jacopone da Todi regarded our awareness of these formative moments as the key to a faith-based personality.

“We were a mighty host, encamped on the heights,

But the waters of the flood have risen and covered us,

And taken from us the power to pray,

Which alone could keep us afloat and heal our wounds.”  (Laud 30).

 

The power to pray consists to a remarkable degree in the ability to welcome calm into our lives, to become attuned to the Spirit who provides calm, and to begin to acknowledge those areas of wounded memory within us where healing is needed.

Jacopone had a troubled life, beginning with the sudden death of his young wife in an accident. But God was speaking to others very often through his poetry, bringing hope and sincerity where before there had often been only pomposity, cravings for luxury, and abuses of power. We could try to nurture the moments of poetic calm in the course of a week, to let healing begin.

 

Chris D.

October 2016.

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August 12: Trivial Solutions to Human Passions

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Our cosy routines are put in danger, but  we convince ourselves that right will be on our side because we are mighty and might generally proves itself right. Whether with flag in hand on horseback, or with horsepower under the bonnet, the agreed standards of civic protection will favour us, God or no God.  Here is Godfrey de Bouillon again.

We have an army to keep unwelcome passions of others supervised and checked, we imagine, as if there were no rival claims to protection at work in other cultures of the world.

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But what are the unexamined passions of consumer indulgence which provide our confidence? Are they the moderated passions of the best adults, or a splurge of childish cravings? A quick phone call and all the luxuries of the world are ours.

We are like baby kings, and the fact that we cannot observe the labourers abroad who provide the goodies does not disturb our sleep.

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These three images, all from Brussels, seem to me to pinpoint the unhealthy mixture of a tradition of power, resources of control, and the fascination of gaining our own advantages, and satisfying our tastes, which underpins so much modern existence. We don’t believe that we are in any position to prevent the fallout from this heady combination. But we do have the freedom to seek for a spiritual basis to our friendships and ways of living.

CD.

 

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August 11: Toppling Pillars

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Popes in the time of St. Francis, who promoted crusades, had great earthly power as well as spiritual dominance. It seemed to them that they had no alternative to making Christian institutions expand and become the trendsetters for the whole known world. One of these Popes, when St. Francis was a teenager, had a nightmare in which he dreamed he saw all the pillars of wise leadership, new cathedrals and their staff, the cosy life-style of canons and the hierarchy tumbling down in a whirlwind of  failure.

 

But within this dream there appeared a scruffy little man, not a member of the hierarchy, not a priest, just a lay preacher, who seemed to be able to prop up whatever it was that made a Christian society deserving of God’s help. This crowning carving of one of the columns in the Brussels Franciscan Church shows the dreaming Pope, the whirling wind and the tumbling buildings.

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Franciscans who set out to explain the dream, such as Thomas of Celano, said that Francis of Assisi was the amazing new presence in central Italian society who would pour hope into people’s hearts, and bring back the fundamentals of Christian community. That community of eager compassion towards suffering neighbours, including the friars with their studies and musical skills, would boost the hopes of many. A tottering society would discover its new caring direction through a new awakening of gospel-based relationships. The hierarchy might have a lot to learn about simplicity, honesty, and closeness to the ordinary workaday believers, but love could now begin again.

CD.

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