His power is evident by upholding it all. But how shall His life appear in that which
is dead? Life is the root of activity and motion: Did I see a man sitting in a chair, as long as
he was quiet, I could not tell but his body was inanimate: but if he stirred, if he moved his
legs, or stretched forth his arms, if he breathed or twinkled with his eyes, I could easily tell
he had a soul within him. Motion being a far greater evidence of life, than all lineaments
whatsoever. Colours and features may be in a dead picture, but motion is always attended
with life. What shall I think therefore when the winds blow, the seas roar, the waters flow,
the vapours ascend, the clouds fly, the drops of rain fall, the stars march forth in armies, the
sun runneth swiftly round about the world? Can all these things move so without a life, or
spring of motion? But the wheels in watches move, and so doth the hand that pointeth out
the figures: this being a motion of dead things. Therefore hath God created living ones: that
by lively motions, and sensible desires, we might be sensible of a Deity. They breathe, they
see, they feel, they grow, they flourish, they know, they love. O what a world of evidences!
We are lost in abysses, we now are absorpt in wonders, and swallowed up of demonstrations.
Beasts, fowls, and fishes teaching and evidencing the glory of their creator.
Tag Archives: knowledge
His power is evident by upholding it all. But how shall His life appear in that which
In this extract from Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, King Alfred (r 871-899) is facing defeat at the hands of pagan Vikings and the loss of his Kingdom of Wessex, England. He prayed and received a vision of Mary, mother of Jesus, ‘Our Lady’. Two more extracts follow as part of our Gates series.
Fearfully plain the flowers grew, Like the child's book to read, Or like a friend's face seen in a glass; He looked; and there Our Lady was, She stood and stroked the tall live grass As a man strokes his steed. Her face was like an open word When brave men speak and choose, The very colours of her coat Were better than good news. She spoke not, nor turned not, Nor any sign she cast, Only she stood up straight and free, Between the flowers in Athelney, And the river running past. One dim ancestral jewel hung On his ruined armour grey, He rent and cast it at her feet: Where, after centuries, with slow feet, Men came from hall and school and street And found it where it lay. "Mother of God," the wanderer said, "I am but a common king, Nor will I ask what saints may ask, To see a secret thing. "The gates of heaven are fearful gates Worse than the gates of hell; Not I would break the splendours barred Or seek to know the thing they guard, Which is too good to tell. "But for this earth most pitiful, This little land I know, If that which is for ever is, Or if our hearts shall break with bliss, Seeing the stranger go? "When our last bow is broken, Queen, And our last javelin cast, Under some sad, green evening sky, Holding a ruined cross on high, Under warm westland grass to lie, Shall we come home at last?" This should not be read as a chauvinist or xenophobic text: two of Alfred's generals were Mark, a Roman still living in Wessex, and the Welshman Colan. And Alfred defeats the Danish invaders, but also converts them to Christianity and comes to a peace settlement with them. But that is in the future that he cannot see. Part of Mary's answer runs: "I tell you naught for your comfort, Yea, naught for your desire, Save that the sky grows darker yet And the sea rises higher." Suffering, despair, fear are the gate to 'home at last'. Read more about the Alfred Jewel, mentioned in the 4th verse here.
Samuel Johnson was a journalist and writer rather than an academic, though he often went back to Oxford. He wrote the following prayer on this day in 1765; it seems totally appropriate for the start of this academic year, when resolutions to study well may be difficult to keep without the support of tutors and fellow students. Have a good year!
Almighty GOD, the giver of wisdom, without whose help resolutions are vain, without whose blessing study is ineffectual; enable me, if it be thy will, to attain such knowledge as may qualify me to direct the doubtful, and instruct the ignorant; to prevent wrongs and terminate contentions; and grant that I may use that knowledge which I shall attain, to thy glory and my own salvation, for JESUS CHRIST’S sake. Amen
Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765″ by James Boswell.
Image, Johnson’s statue, Lichfield
Johnson’s friend, the surgeon Dr Staunton, was about to leave for the West Indies when he received this advice in a letter from Johnson. America here includes the Islands; New England was still a collection of British colonies. I hope you have the chance to enjoy examining something on holiday, a natural or even man-made curiosity.
In America there is little to be observed except natural curiosities. The new world must have many vegetables and animals with which philosophers are but little acquainted. I hope you will furnish yourself with some books of natural history, and some glasses and other instruments of observation. Trust as little as you can to report; examine all you can by your own senses. I do not doubt but you will be able to add much to knowledge, and, perhaps, to medicine. Wild nations trust to simples; and, perhaps, the Peruvian bark is not the only specifick which those extensive regions may afford us.
Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765 by James Boswell.
Cortex peruvianus study by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, 1706; better known today as quinine. A simple is a plant-based medicine; a specific is a medicine for a particular disease; in this case malaria.
If clouds of doubt should ever fall,
A fog so thick that I should cry:
Is this the truest love of all –
Where men still suffer, bleed and die?
A quiet voice might ask of me
What other love I thought so true
What greater, deeper love I see
More heartfelt than the God I knew?
See there, beside the poor and weak,
Among the broken, there, he stands,
And with the voiceless, there to speak
With grieving heart and nail-pierced hands.
Abandoned once by dearest friends,
He meets the lonely, brings them near,
His mercy and gentle presence mends
Souls bound by bitterness and fear.
And he would show me in my prayer,
His woundedness, his cross, his shame:
The truest love of all was there –
There, even there, he knew my name.
Psalm 46:10 ‘Be still and know that I am God.’
A mysterious and endearing quality of art and music is that they can open a door within us to a stillness in which we can inwardly sense the knowing of God. For ultimately this knowing is not a theory in our heads, but the kind of knowing that ripples through our being in a way in which we most probably don’t understand and yet we can say of it ‘I just know’.
‘Still’ is by the Scottish painter Alison Watt OBE (b. 1965), and is hung behind the altar in the Memorial chapel of Old St. Paul’s Episcopal church in Edinburgh. If ever you have a few moments free in the centre of Edinburgh, or arrive by train to the central Waverley Station it is conveniently just across the road from the back entrance to the station. The church is usually open for visitors, offering a respite from the vibrancy and noise of the city centre by the contrastingly silent and poignantly serene space which is this chapel – dedicated in memory of those fallen in World War 1. It is a dark space which holds both the sadness of the memory of those who gave their lives, and the light of hope through the risen Christ.
This unique work somehow expresses the sense of beauty and light and continuing movement of the spirit, through its enigmatic focus on folds of fabric. The work is a quadriptych (a work in four parts) 12 ft by 12 ft, and so naturally echoes the cross in its layout, a reminder of the ultimate sacriﬁce taken by Christ. The theme of the painting is hanging drapery. The implication is that the cloth is that of the shrouds of Jesus, though what hangs behind it is only alluded to. Certainly the subtle implication is of a body beneath, causing the shaping and the folds. Watt says of the work: ‘‘Although the body is not explicitly represented, it’s still echoed in the landscape of the cloth. The paintings are about an absent presence.’
An absent presence – something we can’t see or physically perceive and yet we know and sense is there. And so it was for those who experienced that ﬁrst Easter morning – the confusion of a mysterious absent presence. It is that very quality which, without words or analysis, settles within me as I sit with this work of art.
When I ﬁrst saw this painting I felt mesmerised by the beauty and the impact of the white simplicity of the hangings amidst the stark silence of the chapel. It stills me, and yet the stillness is not rigid but full of gentle movement and ﬂow. The meaning is not obvious and yet in my unknowing it offers me opportunity to sit and just to absorb. It offers that doorway to ‘Be still and know that I am God.’
I often like to pop in when I am back in my home town; By stepping aside from all that energises the centre of town into the entrancing beauty and stillness of being in that place, I experience a way into the serenity of prayer which settles and recharges my inner resources through this beautiful work of art.
Alison Watt is the youngest artist to have had a solo exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (2000) and to serve as an Associate Artist at the National Gallery, London (2006-8). For Still, she won the ACE (Art and Christianity Enquiry) award for a Commissioned Artwork in Ecclesiastical Space in 2005. See:
Janet McDonald is a member of the L’Arche Kent Community.
It’s been a while since we heard from Sheila Billingsley, but then we have three seasonal posts: Christmas morning and now two poems for consecutive feasts: saint John the Evangelist today, tomorrow the Holy Innocents.
This is a fragment from an early papyrus copy of Saint John’s Gospel, held at the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester. Go and see it; it’s usually on show. We are told in chapters 20 and 21 that the signs that Jesus worked were witnessed by the disciples and written down ‘that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life through his name.
The evening sun has warmed the wall
At my back,
Soon to cool in the last of its light.
The eagle hovers,
All day it has been there
Circling ever higher, higher,
While I, sit like the ageing man that I am,
Watching the great bird,
Surely the great bird watches me?
Oh lift me, bird, on strong wings
Until I can look into the sun.
I could write.
I should write.
But what to write?
Watching you, bird, in your calm drifting
His voice returns,
His nearness touches.
Tell them that I Am the Beginning,
The start of everything.
Tell them that you knew me!
Tell, oh, tell of my Father and our Love.’
The sun is almost gone,
The bird, great eagle,
To its eyrie.
Now light the lamp,
Bring my papyrus,
Bring my pen …
Why are we here? What are we like? What are we here for? Karl Rahner’s explorations went much further, by showing that God is an essential part of our lives and we are all related, whether we realise it or not. God is at the core of every aspect of our experiencing. We are never satisfied. We never reach a point where we know all that there is to know or experience all that there is to experience because we are always open to newer and more fulfilling experiences. Our thirst for knowledge and new experiences is never quenched.
We can always go beyond what we know. But we need to remember that this transcendence includes our knowledge of the finite; we go beyond every finite object thanks to our openness to the infinite, in order to recognise a limit, we must transcend it. Imagine the fence around an area. You might think that when you reach that fence, you don’t need to go beyond it to recognise it as a limit. On a physical level, you’re right. However, in thought you’ve already transcended the fence. You’ve realised that there’s something beyond it but that you can’t go beyond it. In the same way, though we can only take hold of the finite, we aspire to the infinite. In supposing that we’re limited by a finite horizon of questioning, we go beyond this and experience ourselves as able to transcend. So, the fact that we know the finite requires the existence of an infinite.
Original Sin shows us to ourselves. It is natural to assume that my desires are mine! This presumes that I am me before I decide to desire; whereas my desires make me. Something is triggered in me when I experience another person desiring something. I too can begin to desire like this. Eventually and inevitably this leads to rivalry – mine’s better… and then I am set against the other, which is how I experience me as different. This rivalry is simply me against you, the way I establish myself.
Desire has become my desire and what makes it mine is that it is not yours! Some call it friendly rivalry, or competitive spirit. In fact the “me” that is now opposed to the not me is the product of my desiring. Much time and energy is spent on fostering and preserving this artificial self; whereas, as we discover from the Incarnation, real self is total gift. My own sense of self is me in contrast to you, whereas my real self sees other as total gift to me.
Society becomes possible through imitation by keeping humans together while forming individuals psychologically. The infant imitates the adult, reproducing what the adult does; there is no me in the infant independent of the model that fashions it. The adult plays with a toy to get the infant to do the same; eventually this will lead to desire, which tends to detach us from the model and seeks autonomy.
However, much more than imitation is needed to make me. This results in my wanting to be who the other is. This in turn can lead to an unequal rivalry. Rivalry tends to be resolved by the exclusion of the victim, asserting my emerging self against the other. It is the tension set up between my sense of being as given, and my acquiring of it by more or less violent means that is at the heart of theology of Original Sin.
Note what happened to Teilhard de Chardin – a Jesuit scientist specialising in Archaeology. He was captivated by the theory of Evolution and the various ways it might be tested. Because he was a deeply religious man, he felt driven to integrate what he was discovering from the natural sciences with his understanding of salvation in Christ. He meditated deeply on Paul’s writings and early Church commentaries on these. He developed a magnificent vision of the universe and all of history shot through with Jesus Christ. He saw creation, redemption and salvation woven together in the unified process of evolution.
He suggested that through time, inanimate [dead] matter is drawn into such complex patterns that it develops an inner spontaneity and there is a breakthrough into living things. At a further stage – a breakthrough into reflexive self-awareness – human beings. After this, the process of evolution becomes conscious, when we know and project the goals we are striving for and the changes they are trying to make. Looking forward, the next breakthrough must be the immense unity of mankind bound together in relationships of knowledge and love – what he terms the Omega Point.
He next made a bold suggestion – not as a scientist but as a Christian believer – that we have a pre-view of the Omega Point – that the whole world is being drawn towards the second coming of Christ – which will be the breakthrough, the outcome of evolution – the Church, because Jesus is already within history, which is striving towards its fulfilment, concluding with Paul that all things were made in Jesus Christ – who is the pattern of the world from the very beginning. The goal of evolution is the Christification of the world. [His thinking appears in his Phenomenon of Man, though is perhaps more readable in his The Divine Milieu – nature and grace].
When this first saw the light of day it raised concern because it sounded as if God’s self-gift to us is not a necessity for us but utterly free. In the Hebrew Scriptures the relationship between us and God was described in terms of a covenant, binding duties and sometimes as sheer favour shown us by God. Whatever God was bound to was always the result of his promise, having bound himself. The Jewish understanding of covenant always looks back to Creation as the setting-up of the covenant. It seems that God, having created humankind, has bound himself to bring us into his friendship.
Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge, England.
From Thomas Traherne’s 17th Meditation. Mrs Turnstone describes spending time with grandson Abel as a tonic; while it may be tiring, it is invigorating! Such experience of humans finding delight and joy in each other surely informs this meditation. We will return to Traherne now that we’ve met him.
To know GOD is Life Eternal. There must therefore some exceeding Great Thing be always attained in the Knowledge of Him.
To know God is to know Goodness. It is to see the beauty of infinite Love: To see it attended with Almighty Power and Eternal Wisdom; and using both those in the magnifying of its object. It is to see the King of Heaven and Earth take infinite delight in Giving.
Whatever knowledge else you have of God, it is but Superstition. Which Plutarch rightly defineth, to be in Ignorant Dread of His Divine Power, without any joy in His goodness. He is not an Object of Terror, but Delight. To know Him therefore as He is, is to frame the most beautiful idea in all Worlds.
He delighteth in our happiness more than we: and is of all other the most Lovely Object.
An infinite Lord, who having all Riches, Honors, and Pleasures in His own hand, is infinitely willing to give them unto me. Which is the fairest idea that can be devised.