Tag Archives: human
Today is the shortest day of the year, up here in the Northern Hemisphere. From today, the hours of daylight gradually increase, as people were well aware before the mixed blessings of electric light allowed us to forget we live in a world we only like to think we control.
The Church has long prayed on this day the antiphon ‘O Oriens’:
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
This verse of ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ is not a direct translation but captures the spirit of the original, especially in lines three and four.
O come,Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Of course we want the light, and would be far more lost in a power cut than our ancestors were in days gone by. And we pray ‘God from God, Light from Light’ in the Creed, perhaps without thinking too much about it.
For a surprising view, let’s turn to our old friend, William Blake; Auguries of Innocence includes these lines, which I leave you to digest.
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night,
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day.
We are reflecting together for a few days on the notion of conscience. Here is a passage I love from The Catechism of the Catholic Church:
It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection: “Return to your conscience, question it… Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness” [no. 1779].
It would seem that being present to oneself ought to be perfectly natural. Why even mention it? Yet, anyone who has begun to take seriously the challenge of living an interior life every day (and not just sometimes) soon discovers that it is far from easy. Sooner or later, a painful absence of harmony within ourselves and with others becomes evident. This is one of the results of original sin, and, as The Catechism expresses it, ‘…the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered….’ [see no. 400].
Our capacity to be present to ourselves, our capacity for true interiority is therefore impaired. Unless we try to do something about this, we will only be living out of a small and superficial portion of ourselves. We will be vulnerable to any fads or addictions that seem to promise release from our inner disharmony. Without working on our interior life, without understanding what our conscience is, we will not have the strength to adhere to what is good. We need our conscience in order to fulfil our human potential and claim our dignity as human persons.
Yet, many people today do not desire to be present to themselves. We are apt to go to great lengths to avoid being alone with ourselves. In the car, music must be playing, as it is in most shops. In many homes the television is on all day long, largely unwatched, but providing background noise and the possibility of self-distraction whenever the mind is insufficiently occupied with the task at hand. Now the Internet, with its instant communication, unlimited entertainment, and information on tap, means that some sort of contact with others whenever we want can entice us away from being present to ourselves. Even people who have discovered how unsatisfying a life of self-distraction can be can testify that giving up their distractions was deeply challenging at first. I doubt former ages were really very different from ours. Our alienation from our deeper self is as old as the human race. Self-distraction simply took other forms in other eras.
The reason we are considering the subject of presence to ourselves is to examine the necessity of living in touch with our conscience. The quotation from The Catechism with which I began this post suggests that there is a step one and a step two with regard to conscience. Here is step one: with Christ, with his grace, we must first work to acquire presence to ourselves. This involves turning off the electronic media gadgets from time to time, it means self-discipline, prayer, a measure of silence and a willingness to be alone sometimes. And step two: there must be some self-questioning going on. We need to look at our thoughts and our instinctive drives and to ask them where they are taking us and whether they accord with true goodness. In this way we will draw near to the reality of our conscience. I would like to explore this in the next few posts.
Another reflection from Mrs T’s mirror: she copied this little list onto another scrap of paper, but I cannot find it now; it seems to have got blown away. Still, even if I’d forgotten the whole thing, Richard Rohr OFM, whose list it is, is well ensconced on the internet: see our link on the right for his website.
This is as good a vade mecum as you’ll find anywhere.
1) Life is hard.
2) You are not that important.
3) Your life is not about you.
4) You are not in control.
5) You are going to die.
Mrs T describes this as ‘tremendously liberating’, and it does give another way to look at the golden rule of ‘Do as you would be done by’ or ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Lots of worries can be revisited and laid aside, with this list in mind.
When I go into the chapel for the Divine Office, yes, it is a time for being with God in the deep places of the soul. But, really, all humanity is there, too, because all humanity is represented in the Psalter. In the Divine Office, we sing the one-hundred and fifty psalms of the Psalter through in a week, give or take. The psalms become familiar – some become friends.
In the psalms we have theology expressed poetically. We have the human person’s experience of God crystallised – I suppose that’s what one might expect of biblical poetry. But, less predictably perhaps, we also have the human experience of being human expressed in the psalms. Every human emotion is there in the Psalter: there’s praise and petition, euphoria and celebration; there are psalms of exhortation; some psalms refer to a congregation being there; others seem to be highly personal and private; kings and queens make appearances; shepherds, deer, bulls, goats and rams, fish and rabbits; all Israel is there; the psalms tell the story of Israel’s exodus, of the election of Israel as the Chosen People of God, and of their failures: Israel’s infidelity is frankly admitted – again and again; but so too God’s faithfulness is affirmed – again and again: the psalms testify with wonder and gratitude to God’s mercy and forgiveness. It’s notable, also, that the psalmist’s states of disillusionment and abandonment by God are written large in the Psalter. The Psalter’s pictures are not just the pretty ones about deliverance and forgiveness. Unlovely pictures of anger and anguish, rage and raving are painted in vivid colours in these inspired texts.
All this diversity is glorious, on the one hand. But on the other, how can I absorb it each time I go to the chapel to pray? Can it all become “me” every time? What if I go to prayer feeling rather down, and it happens to be the day for praying, “I will sing forever of your love, O Lord”? Or, I may go in feeling rather elated about something, and the psalm happens to be, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
One of the first things I learned about the praying the psalms is that the psalms aren’t just about “me” because prayer isn’t just about me. I wanted to be present to others when God called me. The psalms in their diversity bring others to me and enable me to hear about their experiences as each psalm unfolds, verse by verse, day by day in the Divine Office. In praying the psalms it becomes possible to pray from a stance of listening to humanity. It becomes possible to pray in solidarity with those in the world who are feeling what that psalm is expressing. I can take the psalmist’s experience and claim it as my own, pray it as my own.
It’s the old plainchant antiphon that becomes an earworm: ‘Ubi Caritas et Amor, Deus ibi est’ – Where Charity and Love prevail, there God is ever found’ – sung on Maundy Thursday when the priest washes peoples’ feet. I wonder what version of the hymn reached William Blake for him to write this meditation upon it: The Divine Image. Which includes ‘heathen, Turk or Jew’, as we can see.
We have been considering freedom not as a political right, but as a metaphysical condition proper to the very structure of the human being. We are considering it as a state of openness to truth and to love. And we are considering it as a capacity to dedicate ourselves to truth and love.
Not long ago I read a novel called The Bay of Angels, by Anita Brookner. When the story begins, the protagonist is a girl in her early teens; the novel takes the reader through the experiences by which she grows into womanhood. A key moment in her maturing process occurs when she falls in love with a young man who proved to be unfaithful to her. At times he seemed to love her, but finally she can no longer deny his infidelity and she comes to the realisation that ‘his liberty mattered more to him than whatever affection he might have felt’ for her [emphasis mine].
It is very easy to be like the young man in that novel, and to absorb from our culture the teaching that in order to be true to myself I must be free, and freedom means keeping myself in a state within which my options – with regard to relationships, or anything else that ordinarily leads to commitment – are as open as possible. But what kind of freedom is that? It is a freedom which precludes the possibility of really loving another.
Our Own Hopes Had Been… [19-24]
We now come to the account the two disciples give to ‘the stranger’ of what happened. What the stranger/Jesus is doing is listening to their experience of what happened, and as we listen with him—which is what we try to do at this station—we can become aware of several things.
- The first is that in pouring out their experience it is clear that they cannot understand it, still less accept that it makes any sense at all. It should not have been allowed. The unspoken question, their cri de coeur, is: Where was God? Why did God allow it to happen?
- That’s not a million miles from the way we might have experienced it if we had been there. All the more reason then to pause a little longer at this Station.
- If we pay closer attention to what they say we will surely recognise the Gospel story, only it is not ‘Gospel’/Good News! It is their experience of the story, told from ‘a purely human’ point of view, and it is heavy with the weight of failure and ‘loss of faith’.
- First, there is the failure of the religious authorities [our chief priests and rulers] to recognise and accept Jesus of Nazareth as the prophet he had shown himself to be: ‘mighty in word and deed before God and all the people’. And not only that: They had delivered him up to be condemned to death.
- And now they admit to a faltering in their own faith: ‘But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.
- They then go on to talk about something else that has happened, something that seems to have disturbed them even more than the death of Jesus, and which has probably driven them to leave Jerusalem: ‘Some women of our company have amazed us’. They say they have been to the tomb and did not find his body but that they had ‘seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive’. Some others [presumably men!] had gone to check for themselves ‘and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see’.
- It is at this point that the stranger ‘breaks in’, upbraiding them for their lack of faith, so slow to believe. But before going there we should allow ourselves to be questioned also, and to hear what we might say in reply.
What is this like for us today?
- How do we try to ‘make sense of’ the crucifixion of Jesus, and of the apparent powerlessness of Jesus—and of God—to prevent it?
- This is not about theology but faith, about trusting and accepting that God’s power, and way of doing things, is very different from ours.
- Do we believe/accept that? What difference does it make to the way we actually live, and make decisions?
- When we talk—argue, complain—about what is happening, or not happening, in the Church today do we hear ourselves like these two disciples, telling it as we see it: needing it to make sense [our kind of sense]; and, of course, finding someone to blame [our chief priests and rulers]?
Our hands are the hands God is waiting for, our bodies where God is at home. We are God’s seed; as the acorn becomes the oak, so God’s seed becomes for us God’s real presence. Whence came the concept that we are here on mother earth to be tested and not be found wanting. True humanness – Jesus – shows us – means getting involved [God is Relationship] with the world in so many relationship various ways prompted by our vocational calling. Remember Original Grace not Original Sin is our origin – see what we have done by missing the point. What does the expression I’m only human say to you? What God made flesh in Jesus shows us that our selfish sinfulness has us less than human. The world is always shaped by the way we live in it, and if we are living in a less than human way we get the world we make. Such a world has no room for God – literally, as the Crucifixion shows. When the world is lived-in in a truly human way [in the manner of Jesus’ value system] we have the wonderful prayer – God is praised when we are fully alive. [Irenaeus].
We are sent to get to the heart of the world with its messiness and violence as well as much more in wonder and joy. The Cloths of Heaven – Yeats – speaks God’s involvement with us beautifully
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with gold and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.
As our relationship with God is not as one among many others – God IS; and as we are of God when we relate genuinely we are allowing our God origin to become real presence through us. It is often said: in our love for each other we found God – nice words, but somewhat erroneous. Only God is love so it is in God that we find each other. God is relationship and when we relate to affirm the goodness all around we become fully alive.
St. Luke tells us in Acts that Jesus “went about doing good.” It is not wrong or mistaken to refer to Jesus as a good man. But it is also obviously a weak summary of what we can appreciate by relating to him. We must at least ask how faith in his resurrection alters our ways of relating to God. There have always been some clashes in a small way between those who admire Jesus for the great integrity of his life, and those who see him as providing a direct relationship with God. But both are right. The mystery of who Jesus is has to contain both of these concerns and the religious behaviour that fits with them.
The big debates in fourth century Church councils were meant to clarify one point: that there must exist at least one human being who can show us, at the end of the day, that we are deserving of love in the eyes of God. Jesus Christ is that one person of whom we cannot suggest that he is not loved by God. And we are all in the same human race as him. Different traditions of prayer and different writers in the churches have discovered a variety of possible expressions of this wonder.
But we should also be aware of the conversion aspects of relating to God’s love. The gospels show this to be a journey of new discoveries for each person. Each of us has to face a future in which more is waiting for us to learn.