Tag Archives: human

January 11: Temperance V: The Gift of Shame

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The virtue of temperance does not require the stoic abstention from all physical pleasures. Temperance is the virtue by which we are strengthened in the ability to decide how much is good for us, and to follow through on that decision on the level of behaviour. What helps us in our decision?

St. Thomas teaches that the spontaneous reaction of shame that surfaces when we have over-indulged in the physical pleasures is both healthy and helpful to us. At first this might be hard to believe: shame is such a miserable, intensely uncomfortable feeling. We don’t like it, and often try to suppress it, or to defend against it by laughing it off and telling ourselves not to be so morbid. Yet, it is better for us to face our feeling of shame. It is a useful reaction whereby we recoil psychologically from the disgrace that comes from intemperance.

Excesses on the level of our physical appetites give us a feeling shame that is usually more intense than the shame we feel over our other moral failings and sins. St Thomas explains that this is because our bodily appetites are what we share with animals, and when we over-indulge them we feel deep down that we have lost something of our innate dignity as human beings.

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Shame, again, surfaces spontaneously. In the masterful book Love and Responsibility, written by Karol Wojtyla*1 in the 1960s, the phenomenon of shame is one of the topics he studies in depth. Here is a brief passage from his book:

Shame is a tendency, uniquely characteristic of the human person, to conceal sexual values sufficiently to prevent them from obscuring the value of the person as such. The purposes of this tendency is self-defence of the person, which does not wish to be an object to be used by another… but does wish to be an object of love (Chapter III).

Perhaps this requires some unpacking. First Wojtyla affirms that shame is part of our in-built moral equipment, as it were – uniquely characteristic of the human person. As such, it is a gift, and it has an importance and a purpose in our spiritual and human lives. Then, he speaks of ‘sexual values.’ Again, an important notion. We see here that he is not trying to say that our sexuality is bad. Then why does he talk about ‘concealing’ this value? Simply because this value has a tendency to loom larger than it should, so much so that it can ‘obscure the value of the person.’ There is a hierarchy of values here, he is saying: the person is of greater value than sexual values. Through shame we actually protect ourselves as persons, so that we do not become an object of “use”. According to Wojtyla, then, shame is not the result of prudish conditioning by repressive religious teachings, or over-strict authority figures. It is inherent in our nature, and surfaces spontaneously with a message for us. That message is that we are created to be loved and to give love in a manner that always affirms the unique beauty and dignity of the person – both our own person and that of the beloved.

This beautiful insight by Karol Wojtyla shows us something that helps us to moderate our physical appetites, by reminding us that we were created to love and be loved. This is the fulfilment we crave most deeply. But we must love and be loved rightly, with great respect for ourselves as persons and for the unique personhood of our loved one.

1 Karol Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978, and was known as Pope John Paul II. His papacy lasted until his death, twenty-five years later.

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November 26: Jesus Beyond Dogma II: xxvi – Jesus’ risen life wasn’t more real

 

Creation is one – which is a reminder that there is no separation between the dead and the living – we share the same Creation but at different levels. The realm of the dead is not some distant place from where we will escape through resurrection. Life and death belong in the one reality. Jesus’ risen life wasn’t more real than his ordinary life – he is the fullness of reality – yet it is certainly more enduring.

There is one Creation in life, in death and beyond death. Creation is forever undergoing death, resurrection and transformation. Resurrection is not just about Christ; it is about all of us and all creation. Jesus was not just 3 days older, with wounds healed by God, but was present as one simultaneously alive and dead. Not that the Lamb slain has recovered. Resurrection has emptied death of its power; by showing the shape of death – the mortal wounds – without its content.

This presence is always present as death overcome. Resurrection is a new way of being human, or a rereading of the original human story that had been obscured by death. God’s affirmation of Jesus’ living and dying is Resurrection. Jesus Risen did not simply reveal information as yet unknown, but shows a reality as yet unobserved, because clouded by death. The Revelation is not that there is Resurrection from the dead [this was known at the time of Maccabees].

It is not in being human that we rise from the dead, like the next step on a journey, we rise from the dead through association with Jesus Risen, it is an entirely new way of being [as Jesus told Nicodemus]. Prior to Resurrection the disciples couldn’t understand what he was saying or where he was leading – now they see something new about him, about God and about themselves. Incarnation means coming in the flesh. The body is the creative medium through which Spirit flourishes.

AMcC

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November 7, Jesus Beyond Dogma II: vii – “Christ is everything and is in everything”

 

The Incarnation means God identifying with the human species. There is the Christic structure in all of us. Everything is open to infinite growth because God’s being, in whose image we are created, is love, communication, infinite openness. This total communication is called “Son” or “Word” in God. It means that creation possesses the structure of the Son in as much as everything communicates itself, maintains an external relationship, and realises itself by self-giving. The Son is active in the world from the very moment of creation. This activity becomes concentrated when the Word became flesh in Jesus and finally spread throughout the cosmos through the Resurrection: “Christ is everything and is in everything“- Colossians 1.17.

It took concrete form in Jesus because he, from all eternity, was thought of and loved as the focal being in which God would be totally manifested outside God. The Incarnation finishes the complete inter-weaving of God and humankind, in a total unity. Jesus is the exemplar of what will happen to all human beings and the totality of creation. He is the future already realised.

Again, in the Book of Genesis, God gives us the task of naming Creation for God, and tells us that is the name by which it will be known. Considering our track record, it seems that God was backing a loser! Unless – God always intended to become part of Creation. But looking around at the mess the world is in – the fear, the evil, the injustice, the abuse – we could be excused for asking will it ever happen, will Creation ever achieve its purpose of becoming one with the divine?

It already has achieved its purpose – in Jesus we have what is uncreated and what is created totally one. What is in Jesus will be in the rest of Creation by the way those who believe actually live in the world. I used to wonder about all the names we are supposed to think up to name Creation for God, until I found Francis of Assisi – and he tells us the names by which Creation is known are sister and brother, because God is Abba for all of us, through friar Christ.

The coming of Jesus marks not the beginning of a uniquely divine enterprise but its completion. Chardin points out that in the biological part of our existence we could not evolve much further, God has achieved what God set out to achieve; and the coming of God among us in the biological embodiment of Jesus affirms this.

But Jesus is more than a biological creature; as divine he is the transforming of the biological state into which humans will now evolve – with new powers of mind and spirit – which reaches its highest expression in Jesus Risen. To reduce the human story to the past 2000 years diminishes God’s role in the whole creation story. Putting Jesus on a divine pedestal leaves no room for a radically new way of being human.

AMcC

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20 February, Inter-galactic Exploration, XXIII: Peeeeeeeeeeeep! Peeeeeeeeeeep! part 2.

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‘Well,’ said Ajax after Will and Abel had taken themselves back to the railway station. ‘What do you make of that story?’
‘I liked Callum,’ said Alfie, ‘but he seemed a bit aggressive to start with.’
‘So, my friends,’ aked T. ‘Which was the real Callum? “Nasty piece of work” or “you made my day”?’
‘I guess if someone expects you to be a nasty piece of work, that’s what they’ll see, but I smelt anger coming out of him,’ said Alfie. ‘That was before we heard about him at school.’
‘And what if Will had been stealing you? Surely he’d have been righteously angry on my behalf?’
‘But you would not want Will beaten up by an angry law enforcer,’ countered Ajax.
‘He was never going to be touched by Callum, except for that handshake. Once Callum knew the dogs were OK, then Will was OK. And when Callum recognised Will he stopped being a cop and became just a human being. Mind, I might get Sergeant Callum to have a word about the way Will lets Abel stuff you with treats when you have perfectly balanced K9Krunchees in the bowls here.’
‘Leave Abel alone,’said Alfie. ‘K9Krunchees are better than certain other scientific foods we all remember. Adequate but incomplete, the old six foods and four drinks, but K9Krunchees seem to give me an appetite for more interesting things that you couldn’t sniff out in your human disguise.’
WT.

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21 December: O come, Thou Day-Spring

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.

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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.

MMB.

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9 October: CONSCIENCE II: Presence to the Self.

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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.

SJC.

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16 September: Mirror, mirror … III

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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.

WT.

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August 1: The Psalms as Personal Prayer II.

 

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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.

SJC

 

 


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28th June: Ubi Caritas et Amor Deus ibi est

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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.

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To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
                            Is Man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
A link to Blake’s own engraving of this poem, found in the Blake Archive: Blake’s Divine Image .

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April 12th – Reflections on Freedom and Responsibility X

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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 feltfor 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.

SJC.

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