People despise religion. They hate it and are afraid that it might be true. In order to heal this we must begin by showing that religion is by no means contrary to reason.
Pensées sur la religion et sur quelques autres sujets, Blaise Pascal.
A reflection for Bastille Day, which celebrates the French Revolution.
Pascal, like many scientists of his 17th Century and through to today, saw no conflict between religious faith and reason.
If religion is true, it challenges us to repent, to live differently, to examine our consciences as to our behaviour, to acknowledge and be grateful for the gifts we receive, and to share them. Then people will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. But others may run a mile rather than repent – today at least!
We are heading toward a reflection on Mark 4: 26-29. Yesterday we looked at some of the preceding scripture passages in order to understand more about the context within which the beautiful parable of the seed growing by itself emerges. I ended yesterday’s post inviting my readers to spend a day with Mark 4: 1-9 – the parable of the sower, sometimes called the parable of the soil. What light does this shed on Mark 4: 26-29?
In both passages, Jesus uses seeds as a metaphor, but the two passages are very different. In Mark 4:1-9, the emphasis is more on the soil and its capacity to receive the seed. If you recall, our reflection yesterday found Jesus on a bad day – he’d had run-ins both with the scribes and with his own relatives. It’s no accident, then, that Jesus talks about receptivity. – for he’d been struggling against incomprehension and closed-mindedness all day long. To illustrate his teaching he uses the metaphor of various types of unwelcoming soil.
And here I have a confession to make. The parable about the different types of soil – the rocky, the shallow, the thorny, and finally the good soil – makes me nervous. I can’t help it. I try to tell myself that Jesus was perhaps directing the parable against those who were hostile to him. I try to convince myself that although I am far from being perfect, I am certainly not hostile toward Jesus. But, it doesn’t help, because I also know that Jesus’ parables are always profoundly meaningful on many levels, and they all apply to all of us. That’s the trouble. I can easily see myself in this one. I am capable of being all of the different kinds of soil Jesus describes here: at times, hard and rocky (stubborn and hard-headed), other times, shallow (immature and given to sudden enthusiasms that don’t last), still other moments find me thorny (preoccupied by worry) and, yes, thanks to the grace of God, I know that I have been at times receptive to the seed of the word – and I am grateful for that grace. This parable is about me and should not be dismissed. And I hope, with God’s grace, to become the good soil all the time, or at least more of the time. But, the parable still makes me nervous. Whenever I read it, I wonder if I will ever really manage to become the person the Lord wants me to be, and to be good soil, rich, velvety and constantly nourishing for the seed of the Word.
And then, I read further in chapter four of Mark and I come upon the parable of the seed growing by itself. A truly wonderful thing about scripture is that scripture interprets itself. In other words, there is a unity between biblical texts; passages of scripture throw light on other passages of scripture – so if there is a section that seems to be difficult, count on it, there will be another part that provides the help we need. Mark 4:26 to 29 provides that help.
Let’s pause here for another day and spend it looking at Mark 4: 26 to 29. Perhaps you will find balm in that passage, too. Tomorrow we’ll talk about it.
Illustration: Abel preparing the soil with compost and hard work.
Usually we publish this monthly post on the first Friday, but Saint Kevin was already occupying his feast day, while next Friday gives us a peep into someone’s diary entry for the day. So, here we are on Whit Monday with Pope Francis’s monthly prayer.
We pray for Christian families around the world; may they embody and experience unconditional love and advance in holiness in their daily lives.
That is one impossible manifesto. I cannot live up to that. But I don’t have to, not on my own, because my calling is to married life and the graces and gifts I need, or think I need, have to give first place to the graces and gifts of my spouse and family.
Unconditional love is an aspiration which we work towards, mostly without saying so. Earning a living, putting a meal on the table, walking little ones to school, drying up the dishes: there are tasks that parents, children, grandchildren can do without moaning, even gladly, to help in our shared daily lives. We can become better people, or in Catholic jargon, ‘advance in holiness’ in our daily lives, through such co-operation and deeds of kindness, through teaching good manners, please and thank you.
We can reflect on our lives, in Catholic jargon ‘examine our consciences’ and develop what is good, set aside what is no longer appropriate; tend wounds, physical, mental, or of the heart; move on as a family or as a family member, right what is wrong.
All this is ‘advancing in holiness’. All this is prayer.
It used to be one of the standard questions in those short celebrity interviews: Who (or what) do you see in the mirror in the morning? Perhaps it’s been quietly dropped because interviewees came to expect it and had answers ready, answers to sell their new film, tv show or book.
Saint James would have us look into a mirror, a looking glass. We like mirrors, here at Agnellus’, even when they make us look ridiculous.
But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if a man be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he shall be compared to a man beholding his own countenance in a glass. For he beheld himself, and went his way, and presently forgot what manner of man he was.
But he that hath looked into the perfect law of liberty, and hath continued therein, not becoming a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work; this man shall be blessed in his deed.
The mirror to see ourselves in is the ‘perfect law of liberty’: how do we use the liberty we have been given, or would have been given if our hands had not been clenched, deep in our pockets? We will never reach the day’s end without refusing or abusing our liberty in some way, great or small, but we can look into the mirror of liberty, and with our God-given freedom, do better tomorrow.
It’s the eighteenth century, and Dr Johnson and James Boswell’s tour around the Hebrides has been curtailed by the weather. Boswell had enjoyed more than one glass of his host’s hospitality on Saturday evening, and woke up with a hangover, barely conscious. No minister, so no Sunday service, but conscience was to catch up with him, though he tried to wriggle out of it. But finally he was honest with himself and the reader.
I took my host’s advice, and drank some brandy, which I found an effectual cure for my head-ach. When I rose, I went into Dr Johnson’s room, and taking up Mrs M’Kinnon’s prayer-book, I opened it at the twentieth Sunday after Trinity, in the epistle for which I read, ‘And be not drunk with wine, wherein there is excess.’ Some would have taken this as a divine interposition.
This was another day of wind and rain; but good cheer and good society helped to beguile the time. I felt myself comfortable enough in the afternoon. I then thought that my last night’s riot was no more than such a social excess as may happen without much moral blame; and recollected that some physicians maintained, that a fever produced by it was, upon the whole, good for health: so different are our reflections on the same subject, at different periods; and such the excuses with which we palliate what we know to be wrong.
From “The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.” by James Boswell.
Then Friar Leo, obedient, stood still and waited for him, with such fear that, as he afterwards told his companions, he would rather, at that moment, that the earth had swallowed him up than wait for Saint Francis, who he thought was angered with him; because with very great diligence he took heed not to offend his fatherhood, lest, through fault of his, Saint Francis should deprive him of his company.
When he had come up to him, Saint Francis asked him: “Who art thou?” and Friar Leo, all trembling, replied: “My father, I am Friar Leo”; and Saint Francis said unto him: “Wherefore didst thou come hither, friar little sheep? Did I not tell thee not to come and watch me? For holy obedience, tell me whether thou sawest or heardest aught.” Friar Leo replied: “Father, I heard thee speak and say many times: ‘Who art Thou, my most sweet God? What am I, most vile worm and Thine unprofitable servant?'” And then Friar Leo, kneeling down before St. Francis, confessed himself guilty of disobedience, in that he had done contrary to his commandment, and besought his pardon with many tears. And thereafter he prayed him devoutly that he would explain those words which he had heard, and would tell him those which he had not understood.
Then, seeing that to the humble Friar Leo God had revealed or granted to hear and to see certain things, by reason of his simplicity and purity, Saint Francis condescended to reveal and to explain unto him that which he asked; and he spake as follows: “Know, friar little sheep of Jesus Christ, that when I was saying those words which thou heardest, then were shown unto me two lights for my soul; the one of knowledge and understanding of my own self, the other of knowledge and understanding of the Creator. When I said: ‘Who art thou, O my most sweet God?’ then I was in a light of contemplation wherein I saw the abyss of the infinite goodness and wisdom and power of God; and when I said: ‘What am I?’ I was in a light of contemplation in the which I beheld the depth of my baseness and misery; and therefore I said: ‘Who art Thou, Lord of infinite goodness and wisdom, that deignest to visit me, that am a vile worm and abominable?’
And in that flame which thou sawest was God; who in that form spake with me, even as of old He spake unto Moses. And, among other things which He said unto me, He asked me to give Him three gifts; and I made answer: ‘Lord, I am all Thine; Thou knowest well that I have nothing beside the habit and the cord and the breeches, and even these three things are Thine; what then can I offer or give unto Thy majesty?’ Then God said unto me: ‘Search in thy bosom, and give Me that which thou findest therein’. I searched and found a ball of gold; and I offered it to God; and thus did I three times, even as God three times commanded me; and thereafter I kneeled me down three times and blessed and thanked God who had given me wherewith to offer Him. And straightway, it was given me to understand that these three offerings signified holy obedience, highest poverty and most resplendent chastity; the which God, through His grace, hath permitted me to observe so perfectly that my conscience accuseth me of nothing.
And as thou sawest me put my hands in my bosom and offer to God those three virtues symbolised by those three balls of gold, which God had placed in my bosom; so hath God given me such virtue in my soul that, for all the benefits and all the graces which He hath granted me of His most holy goodness, I ever praise and magnify Him with heart and mouth. These are the words which thou heardest when I thrice lifted up my hands, as thou sawest. But look to it, friar little sheep, that thou watch me no more; but return to thy cell with the blessing of God, and do thou have diligent care of me; because, a few days from now, God will do such great and marvellous things upon this mountain that all the world shall wonder thereat; for He will do certain new things, the which He hath never done unto any creature in this world.”
And, when he had spoken these words, he caused the book of the Gospels to be brought unto him; for God had put it in his mind that, by the opening of the book of the Gospels three times, that which it was the will of God to do unto him should be revealed.
A modern Northumbrian coble fishing boat, captured by Nigel Coates
48. The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest” For example, the depletion of fishing reserves especially hurts small fishing communities without the means to replace those resources; water pollution particularly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled water; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go. The impact of present imbalances is also seen in the premature death of many of the poor, in conflicts sparked by the shortage of resources, and in any number of other problems which are insufficiently represented on global agendas.
49. The excluded are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. At times this attitude exists side by side with a “green” rhetoric. Today, however, we have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.
50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimise the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalised, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”.
The photograph introducing this post we first used for a piece about Holy Island, which showed how depletion of fish stocks was taking place before the Great War. How much have we learnt in the century since then? Stocks are still being extracted to the point where their survival is threatened, and livelihoods demolished.
This passage from A Christmas Sermon by Robert Louis Stevenson was written in 1888, when he was convalescing in the Adirondack mountains. We’ve put it here because it is his honest look at himself when he was aware of his own fragility, and it follows on from the honest answer given by the trapper in yesterday’s reflection.
To look back upon the past year, and see how little we have striven and to what small purpose: and how often we have been cowardly and hung back, or temerarious and rushed unwisely in; and how every day and all day long we have transgressed the law of kindness;—it may seem a paradox, but in the bitterness of these discoveries, a certain consolation resides.
Life is not designed to minister to a man’s vanity. He goes upon his long business most of the time with a hanging head, and all the time like a blind child. Full of rewards and pleasures as it is—so that to see the day break or the moon rise, or to meet a friend, or to hear the dinner-call when he is hungry, fills him with surprising joys—this world is yet for him no abiding city. Friendships fall through, health fails, weariness assails him; year after year, he must thumb the hardly varying record of his own weakness and folly. It is a friendly process of detachment.
When the time comes that he should go, there need be few illusions left about himself. Here lies one who meant well, tried a little, failed much:—surely that may be his epitaph, of which he need not be ashamed. Nor will he complain at the summons which calls a defeated soldier from the field: defeated, ay, if he were Paul or Marcus Aurelius!—but if there is still one inch of fight in his old spirit, undishonoured.
The faith which sustained him in his life-long blindness and life-long disappointment will scarce even be required in this last formality of laying down his arms. Give him a march with his old bones; there, out of the glorious sun-coloured earth, out of the day and the dust and the ecstasy—there goes another Faithful Failure!
Pope Benedict created a stir when he invited poor Romans and those living and working with them to a Christmas meal. Jesus caused a less comfortable stir when he was invited to dine with a leading Pharisee.
Jesus had just finished speaking when a Pharisee invited him to dine at his house. He went in and sat down at table. The Pharisee saw this and was surprised that he had not first washed before the meal. But the Lord said to him, ‘You Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and plate while inside yourselves you are filled with extortion and wickedness’
Yesterday we were looking at Luke 11:37-38. I recommend that you scroll back to yesterday’s post it if you weren’t here for it.
As I leave the surface level of this gospel and keep thinking about this scene, I find the text taking hold of my mind more fully. I begin to feel a sense of awe at what Jesus says, and at the courage and brilliance of his handling of the situation. I find that I want Jesus to “stir it”. So much really was at stake, and as I meditate, I become more aware of it. An opportunity was offered to the Pharisee who had invited Jesus for dinner. That dinner – and indeed, the whole of history of Christianity – could have been different had even a few of the religious authorities of Jesus’ day recognised the truth of Jesus’ message – and of his very person. If that evening’s host, for example, had allowed Jesus’ strong words to break through his defences, if he had responded to Jesus with an open heart – well, we don’t know what would have happened. But it’s obvious that the host of that dinner missed a crucially important opportunity that night.
Or, let’s look at the Twelve. Jesus, in fact, “stirs it” with them, also – but in a different way. He is forever challenging their desire to find out who among them is the greatest. He frankly and clearly tells the Twelve that they are missing the point: ‘The greatest among you must be the least,’ and ‘The first shall be last,’ and ‘He who loses his life for my sake will find it’: all of these sayings of Jesus – and many more – teach that the deepest self-giving, not self-aggrandizement, is the hallmark of the true disciple. This a lesson that the Twelve don’t seem able to grasp until much, much later – after Pentecost, in fact. But despite the fact that the Twelve must have repeatedly felt pretty stupid when Jesus lets them know that they are wrong-headed, they act very differently from the defensive Pharisee we see here. They love Jesus and keep on loving him. They recognise that he has the words of eternal life. They don’t understand everything he teaches, but they want to. They are seeking the truth and they know – imperfectly, but they know somehow – that he is Truth. Unlike the dinner-host Pharisee, the apostles keep trying to embrace Jesus’ teaching, and, with the exception of Judas, they stay with him. They must have come to expect that Jesus would stir it. I begin to see that he stirs it with nearly everyone in the gospels at some point.
What does this tell me, then, about my relationship with Jesus? Simply that I mustn’t be surprised when Jesus stirs it in my life. I have given myself to the Lord as well as I am able, but I am a fallen human being, and aspects of my life have not always been in alignment with the self-gift I have made. Jesus has not hesitated to stir this situation, and bring my fragmentation clearly to my awareness. He has done this many times. And I find, as a result of this meditation, that I do not want a compliant Jesus who will overlook immaturity in me. Above all, I do not want Jesus to be the urbane dinner guest who tells amusing stories and takes his leave politely at the end of the meal. Jesus’ meal, in fact, is the Eucharist, where his self-gift is total. He expects nothing less from me, and I expect nothing less of myself. He offers forgiveness, yes. But that does not mean he will look the other way when he sees that something in me needs to change. And I don’t want him to. I hope I continue to find Jesus “stirring it” in my life in order to make me aware that there are things in me that are not what they should be. It has never been easy to be a follower of Jesus. But I know he is Truth, and I pray that I may take full advantage of every graced opportunity for growth that Jesus offers me – stirred or otherwise.
Sister Johanna Caton OSB
Just to round off, here is a collect from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, to be recited while stirring up the Christmas Pudding in November. WT.
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
That a man is beloved of God, should melt him all into esteem and holy veneration. It should make him so courageous as an angel of God. It should make him delight in calamities and distresses for God’s sake. By giving me all things else, He hath made even afflictions themselves my treasures. The sharpest trials, are the finest furbishing. The most tempestuous weather is the best seed-time. A Christian is an oak flourishing in winter.
God hath so magnified and glorified His servant, and exalted him so highly in His eternal bosom, that no other joy should be able to move us but that alone. All sorrows should appear but shadows, beside that of His absence, and all the greatness of riches and estates swallowed up in the light of His favour. Incredible Goodness lies in His Love. And it should be joy enough to us to contemplate and possess it. He is poor whom God hates: ‘tis a true proverb. And besides that, we should so love Him, that the joy alone of approving ourselves to Him, and making ourselves amiable and beautiful before Him should be a continual feast, were we starving. A beloved cannot feel hunger in the presence of his beloved.
Where martyrdom is pleasant, what can be distasteful. To fight, to famish, to die for one’s beloved, especially with one’s beloved, and in his excellent company, unless it be for his trouble, is truly delightful. God is always present, and always seeth us.
Notice how the all-seeing God is, for Traherne, a cause for rejoicing, not a threat from an angry, fearsome avenger of sin, such as many were led to believe. Would martyrdom have been possible or honourable if you believed in a god who hated his own creation?
Tudor times were wintry for men and women of conscience who dissented from whichever variety of Christianity was politically expedient at any time, yet they accepted the sharpest trials even unto death, out of loyalty to God’s love.
We can rejoice in all English and Welsh martyrs, not just the Catholic ones, and may we all meet merrily in heaven, as Thomas More said.