Tag Archives: evil

23 November: The King VII, Jesus.

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Should we understand Pilate’s question as a signal that he is now ready to listen? I don’t think so. Had Jesus detected even a hint of sincere open-mindedness in Pilate, he would have responded to it. But now, he is too weak and Pilate’s question about Jesus’ origin is far too big. Jesus remains silent. Pilate is not accustomed to such treatment and chooses this moment to remind Jesus of his power over him – once again, the power fixation – ‘Are you refusing to speak to me? Surely you know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you.

Even in the extreme weakness of his physical condition, Jesus cannot allow these ill-conceived words to stand uncorrected. He somehow manages to dredge up the strength to find breath and say, ‘You would have no power over me at all if it had not been given to you from above; that is why the one who handed me over to you has the greater guilt’ (John 19: 11). Another highly enigmatic statement which would have seemed incomprehensible to Pilate – and maybe seems so to us, too. When Jesus says that Pilate’s power over him is ‘given from above’, what does he mean?

Jesus’ statements are always multi-layered. Each time we reread scripture prayerfully we can find new depths in Jesus’ words. This statement is one of his most profound utterances. I would like to pause for a moment to consider its implications. Here, Jesus is saying an enormous amount in very few words. What Pilate understood by them cannot be ascertained, but we ourselves can reflect on them. We can recall that in John’s gospel, ‘from above’ refers to God, the Father and creator of all; it refers to the origin and perfection of all that exists and of all that is truly good and loving. This God, whose very being is goodness and love, cannot will what is evil. And, clearly, Jesus’ execution and all that led up to it, including Pilate’s complicity with the forces of darkness, is evil. The Father did not will this particular evil, or any other evil. But he does will human freedom – with the consequence that human beings are free to love God and each other, and to create or respond to all that is good and true in the world. Love is only love when it is given freely. But, by this same freedom, the human person can conceive the convoluted and tragic structures of sin – hatred, jealousy, slander, falsehood, murder, death, and so much more. The political power wielded by Pilate is part of the complex working out of human freedom on a world scale.

We can also reflect that Jesus knew that his mission was to confront, single-handed, sin and death at its source in a titanic battle against Satan. He understood its demands profoundly, and accepted it absolutely. He never shirked his mission*; he walked resolutely towards it, foreseeing and predicting that the consequences of his teachings and of his very presence in the world would lead to this moment he was now undergoing. He knew that, in fact, his mission was one with his very identity. He gave himself completely to it, holding back nothing, out of his unfathomable love for his Father and for the whole human race. This is why Jesus could say that Pilate’s power had been ‘given from above’ – inasmuch as Pilate was an unwitting instrument of the salvation of the human race.

Jesus’ words to Pilate, however, tell us here that, in Jesus’ estimation, Pilate plays only a very small part in a drama of cosmic proportions – ‘given from above’. And, once again, Jesus pays Pilate the profound compliment of interpreting Pilate in the best possible light, when he tells Pilate that the one who handed him over ‘has the greater guilt,’ for Pilate is the quintessential pawn, not merely of the Roman government and the hysteria of the Jewish authorities baying for his execution, but of the entire history of human evil, culminating in the pathetic, confused, self-absorbed political manoeuvres Pilate was trying to make with regard to Jesus. Jesus sees that Pilate is not fully to blame for his actions. His spiritual blindness and his preoccupation with power are moral failings that he has inherited from the human condition time out of mind. But, Jesus also wants to make it clear to Pilate that Pilate’s so called power is the power of a minnow as compared to a whale. It is no power. Pilate’s threats are only a tiny factor in the greater pattern of primordial evil that Jesus has been confronting all his life, and in his divine nature he would ultimately overthrow it, like a great whale overturning the whaling vessel and the crew that is trying to harpoon it. God’s infinite power ‘from above’ will turn evil on its head through Jesus. He is able to, and will, bring good out of what seems to have fallen completely beyond the furthest reach of goodness, for God’s arm is longer still. Indeed, it will reach into Jesus’ very tomb.

Probably all of this is way beyond what Pilate could consciously grasp. But, clearly, something came home to him, for the other gospels indicate that Pilate is thoroughly shaken now and wants to put as much space between himself and this intense and enigmatic preacher as he can. In Matthew’s account Pilate, at this point, publicly washes his hands of Jesus and of the whole situation. But in the gospel of John, Pilate continues to interact with the crowd, bringing Jesus out again before them, broken and bleeding. Pilate’s action elicits only an intensification of mob-hysteria, as they scream for Jesus’ execution. Again, Pilate challenges them: ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ They answer with the blatant hypocrisy Jesus had challenged in them repeatedly throughout his ministry: ‘We have no king but Caesar!’

And Pilate gives up. There is nothing for a politician to do but appease this group, give them what they seem to want and hope they will go away and give him less trouble in the future. And Pilate is first and last a politician. He orders Jesus to be taken away and crucified.

*The other gospels tell of Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane – but this is not a ‘shirking’ of his mission. Rather, it shows the reality of Jesus’ suffering, and of his human psyche instinctively recoiling from an excruciating death. But, through his prayerful communion with his Father, Jesus received the strength he needed to carry on.

SJC

 

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April 5. Before the Cross XXI: The power of evil is poured out on Jesus

I think Jesus might be dead… Or extremely close to death. The thought of His lifeless body growing cold terrifies me. Or of struggling to hear if He’s still breathing. Or hearing Him struggling to breathe. He has become nothing but weakness and pain and death. He has united Himself to us, even in our weakness and pain and death, even our oppression and victimhood. If you are united to the oppressed, you share their oppression.
Jesus is completely naked. He is left with nothing hidden, no protection, nothing off limits. His last possession, His final mark of dignity, is stripped from Him. Here He is. The authorities were trying to expose Jesus as a fraud, as a pathetic, weak, failure. What they did instead, was expose the fullness of His love, in giving absolutely everything, absolutely all of Himself, to His wife, the Church. Nothing at all has been held back from His beloved.
His mother is there, in the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, at the foot of the Cross. The blood from Jesus’ feet has run down onto her; she shares His death by her love; if He is bloody, she is bloody. In the icon, we can see the child Jesus: it is the same Jesus and same Mary, when Mary held Him in her arms, and when she stood at the foot of His cross. He is her child.
Why have an icon of Mary in the image, and not just Mary? Because Jesus told us, “Behold, your mother”, and the icon is where we do that. Behold her. She is our mother, the mother of the New Creation in Jesus Christ. And at the foot of the Cross, in her sufferings she is giving birth to us, the Church. Behold your mother: know her and love her.
Behind the cross we have the Church, led by Pope St. John Paul II (the Pope when it was painted, and also a great saint of the cross). The Church is at the foot of the cross, because that is where Jesus is. He gives His life to us on the cross, and that is where we must go to receive it. He unites Himself to us in our sin and suffering, and unites us to Himself in His obedience and glory. He offers Himself and us to the Father, and we must let Him. He unites Himself to us by sharing our death, and we must unite ourselves to Him by sharing His.
Then there are the many crosses. The cross has gone forth through the world, and through it, the sufferings of the world are being united to Jesus and offered to the Father. Through the cross, the sufferings of the world are becoming love, and being borne with the hope of resurrection. The world is being divinised through its suffering.
Jesus is either dead or nearly dead. He is pinned down so He can’t move. He is bleeding all over. He is physically torn apart by His own gravity. He is mocked openly by His enemies. He is stripped naked and put on display. He is annihilated. Evil has won.
But it doesn’t have the last word. This image seems to show Satan’s victory. On the cross we see God fully under evil’s power, but in this, evil is overcome, because He transforms it into His own love. All of the power of evil is poured out on Jesus, and all of it is overcome by being transformed into Jesus’s self-gift.
This post is from Ignatius, an old friend of Agnellus. Ignatius went to Poland for World Youth Day in 2016. This painting is from the Stations of the Cross by Jerzy Duda Grasz at Jasna Gora in Częstochowa, Poland. As Ignatius says, this is not a risen Jesus, but these stations, like Ignatius’ reflection, do end in resurrection. You can find the full pilgrimage of stations here.
I am very grateful to Ignatius for this reflection. There is room for us all before the Cross.
WT.

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30 September: Fortitude VII, More Endurance.

 

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This idea of endurance is worth lingering over. When I taught this subject as a class, a student once asked, “Isn’t it better to fight for what is right, rather than just put up with something that is evil? Shouldn’t we utilize anger and aggression against an evil which threatens?” St. Thomas allows this, in fact. Moreover, he nowhere says that we should ‘put up with evil’ in a passive way. He says that in resisting evil, all the emotions of the soul can be employed by the virtuous person if they are modified according to the dictate of reason. But as for anger and aggression, they are effective only sometimes. At best, “moderate anger”, as he calls it, can be useful because it is both “moved by the commands of reason and it renders an action more prompt.” Moderate anger, then, is not a tantrum, a rage, a show of personal power. It is intelligent, it speaks without shouting, it has a rational basis for its concerns. That is what Thomas means by being “moved by the commands of reason.” Moreover, an angry person doesn’t delay and stall about doing what needs to be done: an angry person acts quickly. This can be a very good and useful thing.

Then, if the anger is under control, if one has a reasonable set of objections and can communicate them in a rational way, and without dragging one’s feet, then this would be St. Thomas’s idea of the virtuous way to utilize the emotion of anger and grow in fortitude. It might be effective if the difficulty is the type than can be resolved by reasonable argument. Some are.

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The Iron Bridge is a symbol of endurance: Abram Darby III’s endurance against scoffers, and nearly 240 years of Shropshire weather and the vagaries of the river Severn.

But, sadly, not all difficulties can be resolved in this way. For Thomas, the bottom line still seems to be that we must accept that most serious problems take a long time to resolve. This is why endurance, in his teaching, is more effective than anger – even moderate anger. Endurance isn’t merely a passive virtue, for ‘do-nothings’. Rather, endurance actively stands firm on the side of what is truly valuable and good when trials come. It does not capitulate to pressure. It keeps hold of the ethical reasons for taking the stance we take. This, as anyone knows who has ever tried it, is not easy. That is why fortitude is a virtue.

I would like to end these reflections with what The Catechism of the Catholic Church says about fortitude.

Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice one’s life in defence of a just cause (no. 1809).

For further study:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church ,Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1994

The Four Cardinal Virtues, Joseph Pieper, University of Notre Dame Press

http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/aquinas/summa/

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2 May: Prudence IX, Hmmm.

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Circumspection. 

Foresight looks ahead.  Circumspection looks around.  It is to do with how the many circumstances in one’s life may combine at this particular point in time in the effort to attain one’s end prudently.  It takes cognisance of the complexity of existence.

Jack and his bookshop might be getting along fine now and he may decide to expand his business.  But then he prudently decides to wait a bit because of, say, illness in the family.  He doesn’t want to be preoccupied with business when the family may need him to be more available at home.  Circumspection strives to evaluate how everything will or will not work together.  It will try to leave room for the unexpected, for the unforeseeable.  Which leads us to: 

Caution 

Isn’t prudence about caution?  Having said so much do we really need to consider caution, too?  After foresight and circumspection, aren’t we sufficiently protected from evil?  Not really.  Thomas says that the things with which prudence is concerned are ‘contingent matters of action.’  Put in more modern words, we cannot control everything, or see into the depths of every action.  The ‘false is found with the true,’ he warns, and ‘evil is mingled with good on account of the great variety’ of life and events and personalities.

‘Good is often hindered by evil, and evil has the appearance of good.  Wherefore prudence needs caution.’ 

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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September 3: Algeria VII: Testament of Dom Christian

This is a long post, but I could not see how to shorten the Last Testament of Christian de Cherge, the martyred Prior of Notre Dame d’Atlas. Every word counts. Islam is not islamism. Muslims are God’s children, our sisters and brothers.

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Window at Llanthony, Brecon, Wales. 

When an “A-Dieu” takes on a face.

If it should happen one day—and it could be today—

that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf

all the foreigners living in Algeria,

I would like my community, my Church, my family,

to remember that my life was given to God and to this country.

I ask them to accept that the Sole Master of all life

was not a stranger to this brutal departure.

I ask them to pray for me—

for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?

I ask them to be able to link this death with the many other deaths which were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.

My life has no more value than any other.

Nor any less value.

In any case it has not the innocence of childhood.

I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil

which seems, alas, to prevail in the world,

even in that which would strike me blindly.

I should like, when the time comes, to have the moment of lucidity

which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God

and of my fellow human beings,

and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death.

It seems to me important to state this.

I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice

if the people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder.

To owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be,

would be too high a price to pay for what will, perhaps, be called, the “grace of martyrdom,”

especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on Algerians indiscriminately.

I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain islamism encourages.

It is too easy to salve one’s conscience

by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists.

For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: they are a body and a soul.

I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received from it,

finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel,

learnt at my mother’s knee, my very first Church,

already in Algeria itself, in the respect of believing Muslims.

My death, clearly, will appear to justify

those who hastily judged me naive, or idealistic:

“Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!”

But these people must realise that my avid curiosity will then be satisfied.

This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—

immerse my gaze in that of the Father,

and contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them,

all shining with the glory of Christ,

the fruit of His Passion, and filled with the Gift of the Spirit,

whose secret joy will always be to establish communion

and to refashion the likeness, playfully delighting in the differences.

For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,

I thank God who seems to have willed it entirely

for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything.

In this thank you, which sums up my whole life to this moment,

I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today,

and you, my friends of this place,

along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families,

the hundredfold granted as was promised!

And also you, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing.

Yes, I also say this Thank You and this A-Dieu to you, in whom I see the face of God.

And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen. (In sha ‘Allah).

Algiers, December 1, 1993—Tibhirine, January 1, 1994.

Christian.

Testament of Dom Christian

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22 August. Reflections on Living Together, II: Shakespeare Broadens the Mind.

 

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Travel is said to broaden the mind. It certainly offers some delicious paradoxes and pairings that challenge presumptions and prejudices that I never knew I had.

On the U-bahn in Berlin I noticed a pale-skinned, brown-eyed German man joking with a Turkish-looking friend, who had dark skin and piercing blue eyes. What amused them I know not, but the pair belonged in Shakespeare! I was shown life through a different lens for a brief moment.

Shakespeare loves odd couples for whom the course of true love does not run smooth. The girls in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are quite unlike each other (one tall, one short; one dark, one fair) yet until Puck interferes in their lives, they and their fiancés are the best of friends. Confusion and insecurity, sown by Puck, lead from bewilderment to the trading of insults between them all and Lysander telling Hermia, his beloved:

Be certain, nothing truer; ’tis no jest
That I do hate thee and love Helena.

And soon, Oberon observes:

These lovers seek a place to fight.

He has Puck provide respite and resolution by undoing his first mischief and allowing the young people to relax and fall asleep together, waking to a new day, and all’s well that ends well with the mortals blessed by the fairies.

Those who would destroy fraternity among us touch our eyes with worse than fairy dust.

Let us pray that we may see God more clearly, and love him more dearly in our sisters and brothers. And that we may see through and renounce all the evil one’s empty promises.

MMB.

 

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August 2: The Psalms as Personal Prayer III.

 

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John Cassian

The monastic writer, John Cassian, writes in the fifth century that when we pray the psalms over time, it will be like this:

[The one praying will] take in to himself all the thoughts of the Psalms and will begin to sing them in such a way that he will utter them with the deepest emotion of heart [emphasis mine] not as if they were the compositions of the Psalmist, but rather as if they were his own utterances, and his very own prayer…. [c.f. Conference X:11].

How does this happen?  Is the every-day experience something that always involves the “deepest emotion of heart”?  Well, of course, there are good days and bad days, as is always the case with any human endeavour.  But, on a deeper level, it may be important to say that the concept of the heart for the ancients had connotations that we don’t automatically think of today.  The heart, for Cassian’s original audience, has very little to do with the mushy, over-emotional concept we may associate with the term today.  For Cassian, the heart is the most important part of the inner being.  It includes the mind, but it is also to do with the will, the place of deepest inner truth, of self-dedication, firm decision, profound responsibility.   So when Cassian talks about the deepest emotion of the heart we need to understand something that has more permanence and stability than we usually attribute to the emotions, maybe akin to a kind of “groundedness” in truth.  In a fast-changing world, and an often chaotic life-style, this description of the heart’s inner strength and capacity for self-dedication can be highly appealing.  The psalms can help us to realise this state in our own lives.

Many of the psalms are composed in the first person.  This allows a species of “transference” to take place, because when we pray things like “O God whom I praise, do not be silent, for the mouths of deceit and wickedness are opened against me” (108:1), or “When I think I have lost my foothold, your mercy Lord, holds me up” (93:18), or “I am beset with evils…” (39:13) and so on, the “I” in any given psalm can become our “I” when we’re praying, no matter what our mood might be at that particular time.  In this way, the psalms become not only a mode of praying, but they help free us from the tyranny of our own emotions, and become a means of self-transcendence, and of empathy.  The psalms enable us to say to humanity, “I am praying not merely for you, but as you”.  We can pray the psalms from within the very consciousness of the one represented by any given psalm.  This allows us to put our own “stuff” to the side, and really listen to and pray from the perspective of different “stuff.”

SJC

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11 June, Year of Mercy:

mercylogoJesus was asked by what authority he forgave sins – and his opponents were right when they said only God forgives sin. As human beings we can help others live with their guilt. But we cannot forgive it. Forgiveness is a creative, new beginning that cannot be derived from our world. By forgiving ourselves we do something that we cannot make happen to us and must be bestowed as gift. In the gift of reconciliation in which communal life is granted anew we are experiencing something that transcends us. In reconciliation we bestow something we do not have – we are in fact clutching for grace – we are reaching out for God’s mercy.

Neither the demand for justice nor for the mercy that is ready to pardon, can happen in this world. Perfect justice can only happen through a violent system which itself would be evil. Whoever wants to create heaven on earth in fact installs hell on earth – something true in both church and state. The excesses of reformists and of the Inquisition should serve as warnings. But this is not an argument for doing nothing. We must curb evil and injustice as far as humanly possible – we must help justice and mercy breakthrough.

In our world there are not only pitiless injustices and unrelenting perfectionists, there is also an unrelenting this-worldliness. We want perfect justice and full mercy now – everything must happen now – which simply makes everything faster, demanding and overwhelming. We demand that another’s love should give us heaven on earth and in the process overwhelm the other without mercy. All that remains in the end is an appeal to God’s mercy. This alone ensures that evil does not triumph over good. It is hope for justice and reconciliation at the resurrection of the dead that makes life in this world truly liveable.

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In the face of imminent despair, nothing else remains but to see the world and life in the light of hope. The cry Lord, have mercy will never be silenced but will grow ever louder – it is the cry proper to the human race – for mercy and peace with justice – to be heard and answered when life is lived to the full and God is praised by our, at last, being fully alive.

We need Christians who make God’s mercy and tenderness for every creature visible to today’s people. We know that the crisis of modern man is not superficial but profound; which is why the New Evangelisation, while it calls us to have the courage to swim against the tide and to be converted from idols to the true God, cannot but use the language of mercy, expressed in gestures and attitudes even before words – Pope Francis.

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April 11th – Reflections on Freedom and Responsibility IX

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Light and dark on the Devil’s chair, Shropshire. MMB.

St Irenaeus, in the second century, writes this on the relationship between our capacity for freedom and for evil:

The light does not force itself on any man against his will; nor does God constrain a man, if he refuses to accept God’s working.  Therefore, all who revolt from the Father’s light, and who transgress the law of liberty, have removed themselves through their own fault, since they were created free and self-determining [Against Heresies ].

Origen, around the third century, says similarly: ‘It is laid down in the doctrine of the Church that every rational soul is possessed of free choice and will; and that it has to struggle against the devil.’

There is simply no way around it: we cannot possess our freedom by giving free reign to our every desire, no matter how selfish.  Pope Emeritus Benedict has written,

[The human person] is called to greatness, but his freedom can allow the contrary temptation, that of wanting to be great over against God….  Sometimes we feel like saying to God, If you had made man a little less great, then he wouldn’t be so dangerous.  If you hadn’t given him his freedom, then he should not be able to fall so far.  And yet, we don’t quite dare to say it in the end, because at the same time we are grateful that God did put greatness into man.’

 SJC

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