Tag Archives: conscience

18 May: Power Corrupts

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Do you ever, probably unconsciously, feel that a teaching of Jesus is not aimed personally? Recently I had a reminder to think again. I’m thinking of this little story from the Lord’s final journey to Jerusalem. Mrs Zebedee has just tried to get top jobs for James and John.

Jesus called the apostles to him, and said: You know that the princes of the Gentiles lord it over them; and they that are the greater, exercise power upon them. It shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be the greater among you, let him be your minister: And he that will be first among you, shall be your servant. Even as the Son of man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a redemption for many.

Matthew 20:25-28

I’m no Prince of the Gentiles, and indeed the royal princes in the United Kingdom seem to have taken this text to heart. But still, ‘It shall not be so among you’ suggests that Jesus expected that it often would be. The various scandals in the Church are to do with exercising power over other people.

But a more mundane instance hit me during the cold spell we had in March. I had to go to a place where dedicated people care for others, and to reach the area where the  hands-on care actually actually happens, walked past the administration offices. The path as far as that door had been treated with grit, so that all the snow had melted and walking was easy. For the last fifteen metres the grit had not been applied.

If you asked the admin staff straight out, are you more important than the carers, they could hardly say yes. But the pathway tells another story.

So perhaps a little examination of conscience on where I might be lording it over people? Even though I never thought I was?

When Peter’s mother-in-law was cured, she at once ministered to Jesus and his companions. With all the gifts I have received, I should be ministering to his friends too.

PS: spare a thought and prayer for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as they prepare to marry tomorrow. The timing of this post was co-incidental; I only noticed on rereading it today.

WT.

Different town, different winter, deeper snow…
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15 May: Telling the Truth V: Blame it on the Vicar.

becketcarvingBurgate

We met the poet John Betjeman again last month. He was a devout Anglican, if one beset by awareness of his own sinfulness as well as intellectual doubts. In his autobiographical poem Summoned by Bells he wrote:

What seemed to me a greater question then

Tugged and still tugs: Is Christ the Son of God?

Betjeman was also aware of the natural aversion of people to self examination and repentance. We can see it in all sorts of situations of course; he exposes this hypocrisy in a Church community. Let’s take note, not just how we treat our clergy, but also in all our dealings. I’d recommend seeking out the poem as well. I feel I am at times guilty of trying to ‘keep us bright and undismayed’, mea culpa!

Blame the Vicar

When things go wrong it’s rather tame
To find we are ourselves to blame,
It gets the trouble over quicker
To go and blame things on the Vicar.

The Vicar, after all, is paid
To keep us bright and undismayed.

Thomas Becket did not keep King Henry bright and undismayed.

WT.

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February 3: Aberdaron XII.

 

 

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So we left Aberdaron. May we, like R.S. Thomas, look into the water (in this case a holy well) and

‘… Ignoring my image I peer down
to the quiet roots of it, where
the coins lie, the tarnished offerings
of the people to the pure spirit
that lives there, that has lived there
always, giving itself up
to the thirsty, withholding
itself from the superstition
of others, who ask for more.’[1]

 

[1]R.S. Thomas, ‘Ffynnon Fair’ in R.S. Thomas,[1]R.S. Thomas, ‘Ffynnon Fair’ in R.S. Thomas, ‘Collected Poems, 1945 – 1990’, London, Orion, 2000. ‘Collected Poems, 1945 – 1990’, London, Orion, 2000.

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January 26: Reflections from the Little Flowers of Saint Francis. IV.

Francois.Anne. beaupre.1Apologies that we miscalculated where Church Unity Week clashed with The Little Flowers, so that this post got separated; but we conclude this chapter concerning Brother Bernard, Francis’s first follower. More flowers to follow next month.

Of Brother Bernard of Quintavalle, 4.

A certain man whose name was Silvester seeing that Saint Francis gave and let give so much money to the poor, being moved by greed, said to Saint Francis: “Thou hast not paid me in full for the stones thou didst buy of me for to rebuild the church; therefore pay me now that thou hast money.” Therewith Saint Francis, marvelling at his greed and willing not to stir up
strife with him, as a true follower of the holy Gospel, put his hands into the bosom of Bernard; and filled his hands with money, which he put into the bosom of Silvester, saying that if he wished for more, more would he give him.

Silvester being content with these, forthwith was away and gat him to his house: but in the evening bethinking him of what he had done throughout the day, and chiding himself for his
greed, pondering on the fervour of Bernard and the sanctity of Saint Francis, he had from God, on the night following and two other nights, a vision on this wise, that from the mouth of Saint Francis sprang a cross of gold, of which the top reached unto heaven, and the arms
stretched from the East even unto the West. By reason of this vision, he gave away all that he had for the love of God, and became a brother minor, and lived in the Order in such sanctity and grace that he spake with God, as doth one friend with another, whereof Saint Francis ofttimes was witness.

Bernard in like manner had such grace of God that oftentimes in contemplation was he caught up to God: and Saint Francis said of him, that he was worthy of all reverence, and that it was he that had founded this Order; inasmuch as he was the first to leave the world, keeping back naught for himself, but giving all unto the poor of Christ, and, when he took on him the Gospel poverty, offering himself naked in the arms of the Crucified;

Bless we His name,

world without end.

Amen.

Another picture from Christina Chase’s pilgrimage to Ste Anne de Beaupre.

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14 April,Good Friday: Pilate’s Politics.

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John Masefield wrote a play in verse about Good Friday. In an exchange after Jesus was condemned, we hear Pilate and and his wife Procula, who famously warned him ‘Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.‘ (Matthew 27:19)

Pilate:

Another charge was brought some hours ago,

That he was claiming to be that great King

foretold by prophets, who shall free the Jews.

This he persisted in. I could not choose

But end a zealot claiming such a thing.

Procula:

It is a desecration of our power.

A rude poor man who pitted his pure sense

Against what holds the world its little hour,

Blind force and fraud, priests’ mummery and pretence.

Could you not see that this is what he did?

Pilate:

Most clearly, wife. But Roman laws forbid

That I should weigh, like God, the worth of souls.

I act for Rome, and Rome is better rid

Of those rare spirits whom no law controls.

He broke a statute, knowing from the first

Whither his act would lead, he was not blind.

‘Good Friday’ in John Masefield, ‘Collected Poems’, London, Heinemann, 1925, pp449-507.

Procula’s speech is as good an examination of conscience as any for today, but if you can find the text, the whole play is worth reading and pondering.

Tissot: The Message of Pilate’s Wife, Brooklyn Museum

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16 March, Human Will XI: Conscience and Freedom.

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Fr Daniel Weatherley of St Thomas’ Church in Canterbury continues our reflections on the Will with his thoughts on Thomas’s choice to follow his conscience and God’s will.

It would be easy to look at the martyrdom of St. Thomas in a rather narrow and triumphalist way as the authority of the Church ultimately winning over the State.

Thomas refused to allow divine law to succumb to the earthly, giving his life in its cause…yet, after his murder, the King repented – so all is settled nicely: Thomas is a martyr and the King has admitted his fault and made his peace. End of the story…?

Far from it. Thomas’ self-sacrifice teaches us something more than just the authority of one institution over another. It is certainly true that the divine law can never be dictated to by an earthly one. Indeed, the Gospel must be permitted to critique society: so that earthly matters might be enlightened by the divine.

But Thomas’ supreme testimony is to the primacy of conscience.

In accepting and following the voice of his conscience, fed by divine law and strengthened through a life of piety and devotion, Thomas exercised the true freedom of one whose house is built upon rock, not sand. Like another Thomas, four centuries later, the human pain of becoming an enemy of one who was a close friend did not weaken his resolve to serve God above all others. And in choosing the ‘narrow way’ of integrity and obedience he won for God countless souls who were to flock on pilgrimage to the site where he laid down his life.

We today will do the greatest honour to Thomas (and give glory to God) by doing all we can to feed, nurture and sharpen our consciences by immersion in the Word of God, the teachings of Holy Mother Church and the Holy Sacraments, with a humble confidence that Jesus Christ will transform us and, through us, the world around us.

Seven centuries after Thomas’ martyrdom Cardinal Newman raised his glass to the Pope – but to conscience first. There is a tendency for us to see conscience as ‘choosing what I prefer to do’ rather than the God-given faculty which enables me to exercise my freedom in choosing what would most please Him, and bring about the highest good, even though it may well cause me more suffering in the short term.

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8 March, Human Will IV: The Will and Virtue

 

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In the Church’s anthropology, our will is one.  We have ‘free will.’  Saint Irenaeus, in the third century, wrote that the human person is ‘master over his acts’ precisely because of his free will.  We are therefore responsible for our decisions and actions.  Those decisions and actions of which we are ashamed cannot be panned off on some other sort of ‘will’ present within us.

At the same time, we know that our will’s capacity to respond to the promptings of our conscience is not always immediate or consistent.  Although Augustine thought our emotions and our will can and should work as one, the fact is that sometimes the will is under the sway of our emotions.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this important observation:

Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts [no. 1734]. 

Let us pause over this sentence and savour it a bit.  It means that if we want our will to function properly with ‘mastery’ over our acts, it needs some help.  First, as the Catechism indicates, help is needed on the level of virtue.  The Church defines virtue as ‘an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.  Virtue allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself’ [Catechism, no. 1803].[1]

What is important to note here is the encouraging news that we can grow in virtue.  Each time we do something truly good, the will is strengthened by that action, and we grow in our ability to continue to do good.  We grow not only in terms of the ease with which we act in a good way, but we grow in our understanding of what we are doing and why: we grow in spiritual depth.  We thereby make real progress in virtue, and strengthen the power of our will.

The next idea in the sentence we are considering is that our will’s mastery is strengthened by our progress in ‘knowledge of the good.’  Perhaps you are someone who has been a Christian all your life, or perhaps you are someone who is just discovering God, Jesus, Christianity.  But, wherever we may be on the Christian timeline, we all need to grow in our ‘knowledge of the good.’

We do not live in a society that accepts that ‘the good’ exists in a way that makes requirements on all people.  Much of what Christianity declares to be truly good in an unchanging and universal sense, our society simply writes off as mere opinion – not binding on anyone except those who hold such opinions.  This can be confusing, both for long-term Christians, and new Christians.  To really know ‘the good’, it is necessary to turn to the teaching of the Church, to pray for understanding, and to be courageous enough to reject some counterfeit notions of goodness that are the currency of our culture.  The Church has always been counter-cultural and Christians must simply expect that the ethical and moral teachings of the Church will be a challenge to many of our society’s popular notions of morality.   As we gradually come to understand what is truly good, and live in accordance with our knowledge, our will is strengthened, and its mastery over our acts is enhanced.  We become more alive, more joyful, on a very deep level.

And lastly, our phrase from the Catechism uses the word ‘ascesis.’  What is that?  Perhaps we can call it the ability to set limits on our pleasures.  Living for mere pleasure can quickly degenerate into addiction.  And it is well known that addiction’s pleasures operate by the law of diminishing returns.  This is not to suggest that a Christian should have no pleasure, but that pleasure is the by-product of joy, and joy comes when our will, guided by our reason and informed by faith, exercises mastery over our acts.  Perhaps it is easiest to understand ascesis as self-discipline that functions for the purpose of enabling us to be free of dependences in order to live fully for God.  St. Augustine’s prayer, published at the beginning of these posts, affirms God helps us on the level of our will.  He is the strength of the will that serves him.

 

[1] This is not the place to give a detailed treatment of all the virtues, but those wishing to understand more about this subject may refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1804 – 1829.

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5 March, 1st Sunday in Lent: The Human Will.

 

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O God, who are the light of the minds that know thee,

 the warmth of the hearts that love thee and the strength of the wills that serve thee, help us so to know thee that we may perfectly love thee,

so to love thee that we may worthily serve thee, whose service is perfect freedom.

 Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine, in the beautiful prayer given here, mentions the human will and says that God is ‘the strength of the will’.  I would like to reflect on this notion of the human will in a few posts.  The Church has always given the will an important place in her teaching on the dignity of the human person, but the human will isn’t an easy thing to define.

Perhaps we don’t think about our will very much or very deeply.  We may think about our emotions, or our mind.  But the will tends to be forgotten.  So let’s start with a simple definition that may not be completely adequate, but at least is easy to understand.  The will is the part of us that assists us in sticking with our good resolutions.  But as anyone knows who has tried to stick to a diet, the will isn’t always very effective in its task.  Just when I might want my will to give me some real backbone, it is nowhere to be found.  What is going on?

I find Saint Augustine to be a great help in understanding this kind of problem.  His Confessions, written in the late fourth century, show us that some things about human nature never change: Augustine, too, had plenty of experience with the weakness of his will.  During the period in his life when he was exploring Christianity but had not yet become a Christian, Augustine felt that his will was not merely weak, but split in two.  This is how he describes it:

The enemy had my power of willing in his clutches, and from it had forged a chain to bind me.  The truth is that when [vice] is pandered to, a habit is formed; when habit is not checked, it hardens into compulsion.  These were like interlinking rings forming what I have described as a chain, and my harsh servitude used it to keep me under duress.

     A new will had begun to emerge in me, the will to worship you disinterestedly and enjoy you, O God,… but it was not yet capable of surmounting that earlier will strengthened by inveterate custom.  And so the two wills fought it out – the old will and the new, the one carnal, the other spiritual – and in their struggle tore my soul apart.

[Confessions, VIII:10].

Is our will really split in two?  It can seem so, and certainly seemed so to Saint Augustine.  What of these two wills, then?  And what of Augustine’s declaration that ‘the enemy’ controlled his power of willing?  Augustine gradually came to realise that his moral problems could not be blamed on an external ‘enemy’ of any sort.  What he found when he felt that his will was split in two, was that conflicting desires within his soul led him in conflicting directions.  But his insights were even deeper than that.

Here is what he says later in the Confessions

When I was making up my mind to serve the Lord my God at last, as I had long since purposed, I was the one who wanted to follow that course, and I was the one who wanted not to.  I was the only one involved.  I neither wanted it wholeheartedly nor turned from it wholeheartedly.  I was at odds with myself, and fragmenting myself.  This disintegration was occurring without my consent, but what it indicated was not the presence in me of a mind belonging to some alien nature but the punishment undergone by my own

[Confessions VIII:22].

Note the repeated use of the pronoun ‘I’ in that passage.  Augustine takes personal responsibility here for all his actions.  That no alien being could take the blame for Augustine’s weakness was a crucial realisation for him – and for us as we strive to understand what our will is like.   Furthermore, Augustine sees a sort of ‘justice’ in his personal struggles, for he realises here that the weakness in his will that he deplored was the logical consequence of living a life in which he gave priority to the pursuit of selfish pleasures.  A weak will was what he called ‘the punishment’ appropriate to and consequent upon the lifestyle he had chosen for so many years.  No one was to blame but himself, and he finally realises that clearly.  Now, all this may seems rather heavy and dreary.  But, St. Augustine shows us that there is always the possibility of the will growing stronger as we grow in grace.  In the next post, I hope to develop this idea further.

SJC.

 

 

 

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23 February: Detective Stories for a Post-Truth Age

We are told that we are living in a ‘post-truth age’. The President of the United States has his staff put out alternative facts – or lies – when the verifiable truth is uncomfortable. Climate change is a conspiracy theory. The Muslims (en masse) are out to get us. A referendum is held, lies are told, 37% of people vote to leave the EU – but the people have spoken, although those living overseas could not vote, any more than Scots living in England were able to vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum.

1968, Czechoslovakia. The half-million strong, Russian-led Warsaw pact armies invaded to put down the Prague Spring. 18 months ago we briefly remembered that event and the Velvet Revolution that followed, before 1968 was forgotten, bringing freedom to millions. Click on  Wenceslas .

1968 – 1989 was an era of post-truth in Czechoslovakia following the “Entry of the Fraternal Armies Rendering Brotherly Help to the Czechs and Slovaks”. Jews are Zionists who want to turn the clock back and have no regard for the historical role of the working class. It is a crime to leave the country: if you do so, your family will suffer. A professor may find himself swinging a pickaxe for revisionist crimes. Others might be executed as political criminals. A policeman almost imperceptibly sinks into the grey, sad world of a class warfare he has never really believed in. Crimes his team have solved go unpunished because they are committed by people with connections.

I had never read any of Josef Skvorecky’s books till I picked up The End of Lieutenant Boruvka in a charity shop. I will be seeking out more of them. The short stories flow gently on, leading us into ever greater collusion with evil, crises of conscience sliding past as dear ones are protected, blackmail is applied.

Is there redemption? It often looks bleak for Lieutenant Boruvka, who is often hemmed in, with little choice over what to do with the results of his investigations. Find this book and read it, and pray for perseverance in seeking out and telling the truth, and in forming and following your conscience.

MMB.

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22 November: Inter-Galactic Discoveries: XV The Sands of the Sea 3

 

Margate we live in hope

In the end, all teasing and parakeet safaris forgotten, the three Ossyrian agents did end up trooping down to the beach. It was late November and the water, reflecting the slate-grey of the overhead sky, was far too cold for a swim, yet, in the distance, a frisky pair of Labradors did frolic in the icy surf; oblivious to the numbing temperature, having a fine, wet, afternoon romp.

The two Chihuahuas, ever wary of dogs much larger than themselves, nevertheless watched the pair of Labs from a safe distance with unfeigned interest. The sight of the splashing dogs triggered an intense recollection for one of the Chihuahuas. Ajax vividly remembered the day in mid-September, less than a week after their reunion with the Director in Margate and the whole southeast in the grip of a great muggy heatwave, when ‘T’ had thoroughly amazed them all by shrugging his shoulders and muttering, almost with resignation, ‘This is ridiculous. I mean, here we are sweating away inside and outside, while just across the street lies a great, luscious, refreshing body of cool blue water. Guys…’ he paused, gulping, ‘I don’t care how cold the water is this far north (wistful memories of the languid Pacific still fresh); I’m going for a paddle…aw, what the heck? Make that a dip!!’
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The Chihuahuas were scandalised to the feathery tips of twitching tails as, ten minutes later, they crHarry_Dubai+Seaowded into the great bay window, damp noses pressed against the glass, and watched the Director cross the busy street outside dressed in flip flops, a garish blue and white ‘Tommy Bahama’ swimsuit, and grey tee. With a tattered beach towel tucked under one arm he headed down to the Margate sands, kicked off the flip flops, shed the tee…and resolutely waded into the surging tide; waist deep then up to his chest…shoulders, until he suddenly disappeared.

Mesmerised by the sight, both Chihuahuas, watching through the high bay window, were, at first, frozen in a static tableau by their stunned amazement. Seconds later, Alfie, thoroughly confused by ‘T’s eccentric behaviour and more than a little worried, began pawing and leaping at the unyielding glass, barking his frantic concern. Some relief was eventually had when the Director’s head of greying hair could be discerned above the water and, finally, the rest of him (clad in the vividly blue and white ‘Tommy Bahamas’) as he drifted, floating on his back; seemingly suspended at a mystical junction of blue on blue where the immensity of the Thanet sky met its match in the English Channel.

When the Director returned to the flat a half an hour later he walked with a jaunty step and there was a discernable sparkle in his deep brown eyes. The pair of Chihuahuas sulked in a corner, narrowed eyes appraising him with suspicion. ‘T’, for his part, nodded enigmatically before excusing himself in order to shed the soggy swim trunks and pat down his salt-spiked hair. He eventually returned to the front room dressed in normal fashion and looking distinctly refreshed. Plopping down in the old charity shop rattan chair tucked into the bay he beamed at the two Chihuahuas, ‘Guys, that was just great! I can hardly believe that we’ve been here all this time and right across the street, well…’ he trailed off with a blissful look on his homely face.

Daring to break his silence and fully aware of the gravity of the situation, which was about to border on insubordination, Alfie piped up, ‘But ‘T’, how could you??!’ He shot a worried look at Ajax in a silent plea for support, ‘We HATE getting wet!!’ ‘Yeah, I reckoned that was the case a long time ago.’ Far from sounding upset, the Director didn’t seem concerned at all. Cracking a yawn, he continued, ‘You didn’t think I noticed that when we go out for a walk that you two will even dance around a puddle – just so your paws won’t get wet?’ The canines were freshly scandalised when ‘T’ laughed out loud. ‘And remember the look on Ajax’s face when he jumped on the green scum covering Will Turnstone’s pond thinking it was grass…and disappeared under the water? Oh, just priceless!!’ There were tears of mirth in his eyes. ‘Why??!! How could you?? I just don’t understand, ‘T’,’ Alfie beamed; and was there just a hint of reproach in his tone? ‘T’ suddenly blinked. ‘Oh! I get it… You two think that if someone likes something that you don’t like it must be wrong. Yeah?’

Ajax would have blushed if Chihuahuas were capable of that sort of thing but Alfie refused to be cowed by the Director’s bantering tone. ‘Well,’ he growled, ‘isn’t it?’ The Director’s mirth gave way to familiar reflection as, reaching down, he lightly scratched behind the diminutive tricolour’s ears. ‘Sometimes it is,’ he agreed without reluctance, ‘but there are other times when one Chihuahua’s ceiling may be another Chihuahua’s floor.’

TJH

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