Tag Archives: knowledge

March 24: Before the Cross XI: The Truest Love of All

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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.

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18 March. Before the Cross V: An Absent Presence.

'Still', a major work by Scottish artist Alison Watt, is installed in the Memorial Chapel

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.

Janet McDonald

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.

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27 December: Bird watching

 

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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.


Bird watching

The evening sun has warmed the wall

At my back,

Soon to cool in the last of its light.

The eagle hovers,

Circling tirelessly.

All day it has been there

Circling ever higher, higher,

Wider, deeper,

Always above.

While I, sit like the ageing man that I am,

And wait.

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?

And how?

Watching you, bird, in your calm drifting

His voice returns,

His nearness touches.

His command.

Write this!

Tell them that I Am the Beginning,

The start of everything.

Tell them that you knew me!

Heard me,

Touched 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 …

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October 22,What is theology Saying? XXIV, Original Sin 3.

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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.

AMcC

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17 September: What is Theology Saying? XXVII: creation, redemption and salvation in evolution.

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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.

AMcC

Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge, England.

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9 August, Traherne VII: He delighteth in our happiness more than we.

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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.

WT

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7 July: What do the Saints know? Part II, 7; Conclusion: What do the living saints know?

What do the living saints know?

Perhaps, first, they are not afraid to know divine things with a kind of knowledge that makes room for mystery. This ‘base-note’ was sounded when we were looking at faith, and it plays continuously. Faith is the habit of mind in which we assent to what is ‘non-apparent,’ says Thomas. Our existence is usually geared to what is apparent on the level of our senses. But there is emphatically another level. St. Thomas tells us (or me, anyway) to trust it.

Second, perhaps saints on earth know – unforgettably – that they are on a trajectory headed towards the fulfilment of our deepest hopes not in this life, but in the next. Yet, surely, they are also unforgettably aware that eternal happiness has its beginnings now. St Thomas teaches that through the virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, our whole being can be directed to God – and not merely God outside and beyond us. The theological virtues tap a new spring within us where God dwells, making Himself known. Now. Today. This very moment!

Third, perhaps the saints are more aware of the gift of God. God gives us the beginnings of eternal life, He gives us His ‘wide lap’ to support us, He gives us His happiness. And Thomas makes it clear that God is not stingy with His gifts. They are for everyone.

Lastly, perhaps the living saints are more willing to undergo the process that gives us connaturality with divine things. It strikes me that the virtues of faith, hope and charity are not so much virtues that we have, as virtues that have us. Through faith we allow God’s truth to form us. Through the virtue of hope, we allow our egg-sized hopes to be stretched to something more ‘heaven-sized’. Suffering can be seen as part of that stretching process. As we lean on God’s help, He leads us to the virtue of charity. Through the virtue of charity, we consent to ‘suffer’ divine things. The deepest, most divine thing, as we know, is Christ crucified. We learn to love as Christ loved by undergoing something of what He underwent. Through this process the Holy Spirit creates in us that connaturality with divine things for which we hunger on the deepest level of our being.

SJC

Many thanks, Sister Johanna, for this series of reflections. Maybe we now ought to read Pope Francis’s ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’ to help the message sink in and stretch ourselves to eternal-life-size.                                                                                                                                WT.

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15 June. What do the Saints know? VI: Gifts of the Holy Spirit

HARVESTCHAPEL

Harvest

We have been pondering some wonderful things about the theological virtue of faith and using St. Thomas Aquinas as a guide. Consider this: in St. Thomas’ system, each theological virtue is attended by corresponding gifts of the Holy Spirit, which enable the virtue to exist more profoundly within our mind and heart. The idea is that no virtue is static. So faith does not just ‘sit there’ accumulating dust in our mind. It grows, deepens, flowers, bears fruit. We can count on this.

Thomas says that the gifts of Knowledge and Understanding attend the virtue of faith. In the gift of Understanding, he explains, we are supernaturally enlightened in order to penetrate further into the very essence of faith, and gain a sound grasp of the things to be believed (II.II. 8:1, and 9:1). And, the gift of Knowledge is a spiritual enlightenment by which we acquire a “sure and right judgment” about matters of faith. This knowledge, he says, is a ‘participated likeness’ to God’s own knowledge, and to God’s way of knowing. And God’s way of knowing? It is “not discursive, not argumentative, but absolute and simple” (II.II. 9:1).

So, in the gift of faith we are not given something that will ‘wear out’, that can be ‘used up’, go out of style, grow stale. We are given something that participates in God’s very life, in his way of knowing, and is sustained by further gifts of the Holy Spirit: Knowledge and Understanding. And these gifts continue to work within us, leading us to a participated likeness to God.

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13 June. What do the Saints Know? IV: How do we Cultivate our Faith?

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How do we cultivate our faith? If faith is a ‘place’, as I asserted yesterday – my word and not St Thomas’s – then we need to discover where we are. It is not a place on a map. So, and this is St. Thomas now, faith is cultivated (the ‘place’ comes to be understood) through questions, says Thomas. Faith, he says, “involves the intellect in a kind of inquiry.” What kind? Not the kind demanding empirical evidence (cf. II.II.1,5). Nor, when we inquire about the object of faith are we setting ourselves up as judges of the object of belief. If so, then this is not the kind of inquiry that is an expression of faith. It is merely a pitiful attempt to out-smart God. Thomas says that the kind of inquiry that goes with faith is that which attempts to “grasp with greater understanding what God has revealed and how he has confirmed it.” Faith, then, concerns not a vacuum in our knowledge; indeed, it concerns something that already exists, something that God has revealed, something that we therefore already ‘know’ – even if we only know it obliquely.

For me, this teaching from St. Thomas helps to dispel that temptation to think that we have to have faith because we can’t know God. At all. Faith, in that case, becomes something that merely tries to plug up the vacuum, a vacuum that we might not like to acknowledge is there in the first place.

What do we know, then? What can we say about faith? St. Thomas asserts: we can say that we know about eternal life. Or at least, we know it a little. This is how he puts it: “Faith is a habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent (II.II.4:1). The little words ‘in us’ are so important, I think. They tell us that we are ‘in touch with’ eternal life. And, so eternal life is not ‘out there’ beyond our reach. It’s not in an unbearably dull theological book. It’s not across the sea. We ‘have it’ in us. Going back to the image of the vacuum, well, we simply don’t have one, because through faith eternal life is begun in us.

This word ‘begun’ is important. Faith is not about the completion of the knowledge of God – if there even is such a thing. Which I doubt. Faith is about something that exists as a beginning – a beginning of something beautiful. This is something we ‘know’, but in a different way, on a different level from what we usually say we ‘know.’

Now, I can live with that understanding of faith pretty happily. It will probably not convince a hardened sceptic, but it does help to make my act of faith intelligible to me. If faith starts with ‘a divine infusion’ then it starts with mystery. This coexistence of real knowledge with mystery is not something to dismiss but to validate, and St Thomas does. In his teaching, faith is a real connection with eternal life, not in its fullness, but in its beginnings; not in clarity, but in mystery; not in fantasy, but in reality.

SJC.

Cultivating or Ploughing near Beachy Head, Sussex.

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10 June: What do the Saints know? I, Introduction

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Welcome back to Sister Johanna OSB of Minster Abbey. Today we resume the Sundays in Ordinary Time after Easter, Pentecost, Trinity and Corpus Christi. And what gets us through ordinary time but the great virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, also called the Theological Virtues because they tell us about God, each one in its own way. Over to you, Sister Johanna!

St. Thomas Aquinas, Connaturality and the Theological Virtues

Part I

  1. Introduction

I was recently asked to give a talk to a group of retreatants visiting my monastery. This was a group with a particular interest in exploring the relationship between theology and prayer. The leader of the group had proposed ahead of time that we all reflect on the question, “What do the Saints Know?” and prepare a talk on this subject.

I was delighted with the question, and loved pondering it. It intrigued me to imagine the kind of knowledge of God enjoyed by the saints – I mean living saints who are walking about now on this earth and have not yet entered into eternal life with God – the ones who have struggled with the complexities of existence; the ones who desire to know God but feel that they have a long way to go. How do such strugglers arrive at sanctity? Do they develop a special ability to ‘know’ God, I wondered?

This thought led me back to something I discovered when studying the Summa Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas several years ago. St. Thomas is not always the easiest theologian to read and understand, but I have learned an enormous amount from him. I have presented some of my findings in previous posts. I think Thomas has something to offer now as we seek to understand what the saints know. This may be found in his teaching on the gift of connaturality with divine things – indeed, with God himself. This rather overlooked theme in the Summa of St Thomas underlies much of his teaching on human growth in divine grace. The reflections which will follow in the posts this week are based on Part II of the Second Part of the Summa Theologica. And they represent my personal dialogue with the text as I have read and pondered his words for my lectio divina.

Photo: On a journey. MMB.

 

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