Tag Archives: mystery

18 October: Realities that are Unseen, II.

A gate from former military land into Canterbury’s Poets’ Estate.

Sister Johanna’s second post in this series.

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Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of realities that are unseen (Hebrews 11: 1-2).

If you weren’t here for yesterday’s post I hope you will scroll back to it to catch up with us.   We’re looking at the relationship between the notion of religious faith and the notion of “proving” unseen realities – it all seemed problematic for me when I first read the verse from Hebrews given above.  “We’re not meant to prove anything; we’re meant to consent to mystery,” I ranted.  

Then, I remembered that frequently when I am doing my lectio, a problem surfaces within the text that seems unsolvable at first.  But after I spend time with the scripture passage, reading and praying, the problem resolves by means of a sort of journey I take into the text, led by the Holy Spirit.  In this case, I now found that the journey involved pondering the words at the end of the quotation given here: ‘realities that are unseen.’  I didn’t know why at that point, but those words seemed important and I kept repeating them slowly in my thoughts.  There is, I find, a balm in this – almost as though my mind craves the nourishment that the words give even before it is able to penetrate to their deeper meaning. 

‘Realities that are unseen.’ As I repeated these words, I began to reflect that unseen realities are not easy to live with, especially for us in our day.  We’re so scientifically minded.  For us, the word ‘reality’ applies mainly to what can be seen or touched or heard; we talk about ‘evidence-based medicine,’ for example–we need evidence that we can actually observe in order to decide on the right medicine.  So, the senses determine what we consider to be reality most of the time.  What is unseen can make us uncomfortable.  We often decide therefore that unseen things don’t exist.

Then it occurred to me that we do live with some unseen realities–constantly and fairly comfortably.  They don’t always discommode us.  Take love, for instance.  Love itself is unseen but we know with every fibre of our being that it is real.  While we know that love is forever seeking to give evidence of its existence through words and actions that are self-giving, even self-sacrificial, we also know that underneath these see-able expressions of love, on a level that is unseen, love exists as a reality.

Faith, I reflected, is like that.  In fact, it is extremely like love, I realised, and is inseparable from love.  Indeed, it is informed by love.  My problem with the scriptural text from Hebrews began to ease as I reflected that although faith is certainly about consenting to the truth of theological propositions that are too mysterious to grasp fully, faith is primarily a loving relationship with the unseen God.  I mentally rewrote the passage from Hebrews: “Only a loving relationship with the unseen God can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of realities that are unseen.”  I felt that I was moving closer to an understanding of this text.

Let’s stay with these ideas for the day and find out what they evokes in us.  I hope you will come back tomorrow for the continuation of our reflection.

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17 October: Realities that are Unseen, I.

Welcome back to Sister Johanna with four reflections on Faith from the Letter to the Hebrews.

The Trinity Window from Berwick upon Tweed Church sets out to illustrate the mystery of the Trinity, but leaves it beyond my comprehension.

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Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of realities that are unseen (Hebrews 11: 1-2).

This verse from the Letter to the Hebrews caught my attention recently as I was doing my lectio divina.  When I read scripture slowly and prayerfully there’s no telling what the Holy Spirit might make me notice.  Passages that I have read many times before suddenly seem to start dancing on the page, saying “Look at me!” A single sentence–or even a single word of a biblical text–can keep me thinking and praying for a long time: days, weeks, years.

So what was it about this line from Hebrews that stopped me?  Well, in a way, the line felt not ‘wrong’ exactly, but there seemed to be a contradiction in it.  More thought, more prayerful silence helped me to pinpoint the cause of my unease.  It came from the way I tend to think of the notion of faith.  I was surprised that Hebrews seemed to be saying that faith could ‘guarantee’ or ‘prove’ spiritual realities.  Guarantee?  Prove?  Those words seemed too empirical, if you will.  Is faith about what can be proved and guaranteed?  Faith, I’ve tended to assume, steps in where guarantees and proofs walk out.  Faith is what you have when you hit against deep religious mysteries that no human mind can fully grasp.   God is Trinity, for example.  No matter how long I ponder this, I will never understand how God is three Persons in one nature.  But I have faith that it is true. The Incarnation.  Jesus is both God and man.  Unfathomable on the intellectual level.  But I have faith in its truth. There are vital elements of our religion that cannot be proved in the way we might prove a scientific reality, or, say, a mathematical construct, or prove something that can be known by the senses.  How does the concept of proof fit with the concept of faith?  I puzzled over this.  I reread the text: 

Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of realities that are unseen (Hebrews 11: 1-2).

I’d like to leave you for today to continue to ponder this text and these questions.  Perhaps you have other questions.  The Holy Spirit may lead your meditation down a different path.  Explore it.  Tomorrow we will continue our reflection.

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30 December: No longer furious but awestruck.

Job and his comforters.

[In the book of Job chapters 38 and 39] God asks whether Job is capable of comprehending or conceiving of the ways of natural creatures or phenomena. The speech covers earth, sea, morning, the underworld, light, snow, storm, rain, stars, clouds, lions, ravens, ibexes, wild asses, oxen, ostriches, horses, hawks, and falcons. The effect is twofold: Job finds himself no longer furious but awestruck, humbled by his tiny place in a colossal universe of immense complexity and deft design. Meanwhile his situation is transformed from a problem into a mystery. A problem is a straightforward deficit like a breakage or a malfunction that you can simply fix and return to how it should be; a mystery is something unique and wondrous, which absorbs the whole of your intellect, emotion, aptitude, and experience – you can only enter, after which your heart and soul will never be the same again. Before God’s speech Job is saying “Why won’t you fix this problem?” Afterward Job is saying, “Take me with you into this mystery.”

Fiona MacMillan and Samuel Wells, ‘Calling from the Edge’, Plough Weekly, 26/11/2022

We are facing the New Year with our fair share of problems. But the world we are created for is something unique and wondrous. Let us pray that our eyes may continue to be open to that great mystery, and so perceive the ways, tiny as they may seem, that we might tackle the problems.

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10 December: Christianity means Stories, not Mechanical Rules.

Flowers and candles left after a bombing

Phil Klay is a young American war veteran. His 2020 novel Missionaries was selected by former president Barack Obama last December as one of his “favorite books of 2020” and was named one of the “The 10 Best Books of 2020” by the Wall Street Journal.

In the address Klay delivered upon receiving the Hunt Prize in 2018, he elaborated on the connection between the violence of the world around us and the life of faith. “Paul tells us ‘the Kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.’ And, at times, I think I can feel that power around me. Catholicism is not, or should not be, a religion of force. Not of hard mechanical rules, but of stories and paradoxes and enigmatic parables.

It is an invitation to mystery, not mastery, to communion, not control. It is a religion that fits with what I know of reality, that helps me live honestly, and that helps me set aside my dreams of a less atavistic world in which men follow rational orders and never rebel. Perfect obedience, after all, comes not from men, but machines. Fantasies of control are fantasies of ruling over the dead. And my tortured God is not a God of death, but of new life.

This post is abridged and adapted from an article in America magazine October 2021. Follow the link to read it all. ‘My tortured God is not a God of death, but of new life’: Christmas is part of that paradox.

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13 August, What is Theology Saying? XXIV: In the Image of God

monica11

We are imago Dei not in some external, visible way but in the depth of our experience when we look in on ourselves and share ourselves with others. To think of Jesus as the hollow shell of a man with a divine inside we would miss the real channel of divine revelation – the human inside.

Jesus experienced a gradual consciousness of himself, his ordinary human feelings about friendship and loneliness, loyalty and betrayal, life and death and sharing a common destiny for all. Jesus learned to speak, think and pray and to figure out the will of the Father from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the faith of those around him and from what was happening in the larger world. He exercised his prophetic mission in different ways and by trial and error, followed through with those that best served his purpose.

He knew there was a price to pay for this: he would be arrested and got rid of. He freely chose to stand his ground and continue his mission; through prayer and reflection he came to see his coming death as an innocent sacrifice for the lives of others.

How could his consciousness be that of God and man at the same time? God does not think conceptually, nor does God know the way we know, when we speak of God as a person we are using analogy. God is mystery, we have no idea of knowing how God knows. When we speak of Jesus as human we know what we mean, when we speak of Jesus as divine we do not know what we mean. We know we do not mean a simple equation like Mrs Jones is the former Susan Smith because God is more beyond personhood than simply person.

AMcC

Photo from Monica Tobon

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12 August, What is Theology Saying? XXIII: Jesus was alive and present to the disciples

upperroom tomdog

We can see in the Nicene Creed two kinds of information. Jesus born of Mary, executed by crucifixion and buried. This account comes from observation. But the facts are set within a different recital, which says: before the beginning of time Jesus was born as the only Son of God; at a point in time he became incarnate. It is only in recent times we have asked if religious statements were literally true – verifiable by observation. Our technology minded age is in danger of thinking that such verification is the only criterion of truth. As a result, new questions are being asked. One item in the Nicene Creed’s account of Jesus causes a special problem. It is not self-evident that and on the third day he rose again belongs to the first or second account. Saint Paul says if Christ is not risen then our hopes are in vain. We do not know whether Paul was thinking of the resurrection in the first or second recital.

We know that everywhere in Scripture, where we have testimonies of the risen Christ, mystery language is used – dazzling light, white garments, sudden appearances, ecstatic joy. No unbelievers had seen Jesus, and the guards told a different story. In effect, it doesn’t matter whether the resurrection belongs to the first or second recital, because the important issue is that it does hold the two recitals together. The apostles spoke from a faith experience, Jesus alive and present to them: something that changed everything for them. The evidence they gave was their own lives; alive in hope, joy and freedom – no longer cringing in that locked upper room – they were now living as a community of love and trust. Because they never asked was the Resurrection true as an observable fact, it never occurred to them to answer the question, and because they never asked or answered, we shall never know.

How could Jesus be truly human? Theology is never the study of God, but the study of man and his experience of God, because this is the only experience open to us. Focussing on Jesus is on a man in whose existence we have glimpsed the invisible God whose only image is man. In the experience of the man Jesus, especially in the way he met his death and his triumph over death, we have met the image of God who gives life and gives himself in a shocking and unique way, once and for all.

AMcC

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What is Theology Saying? XXII: God revealed in their friendship with Jesus

As time passed, Christians kept asking questions about Jesus’ unique relationship with the Father, and about the title Lord. Here again, as with the Eucharist, we face a mystery. We have the living experience of Jesus, and of the risen Christ in the early Church along with their testimony of what this meant for them. They used whatever words they could put together to express this in language that was mysterious and religious and which hinted at more than it said. God had been revealed to them in their friendship with Jesus in an overwhelming way.

The questions they asked were against a background of Greek philosophy and religion – a vision of the universe in which their time and space were somehow contained within eternity and infinity as though these were continuations of time and space. This was a world that believed that gods sometimes descended and mingled with humankind, intervening and then withdrawing again. In fact, their great problem – and ours – was to find any way to express religious experience and faith. No matter what words are used to explain mysteries, they are analogies and comparisons that never quite fit. Gradually, formulations were worked out to answer the questions, and examples remain with us today in what we know as the Nicene Creed of 325 AD.

This is a statement of what Jesus Christ means to us. We say it so frequently as almost to take it for granted. Yet if we read it as for the first time we will see in a single recital two kinds of information. Jesus born of Mary, executed by crucifixion and buried. This account comes from observation and could be found in any police record. But the facts are set within a different recital, which says: before the beginning of time Jesus was born as the only Son of God; at a point in time he became incarnate [before this he was son of God but not human]. After his death he was back again and at another point in time went back to the Father; he will return, establishing the endless kingdom.

This second recital could not have been checked by observation – yet the account is written as though it could have been observed: a story of two persons, one who stays always in that upper region, the other moves to and fro between heaven and earth, linking them in one experience. They did not think that Jesus came down from heaven like he came down from Mount Olivet, nor that he sat next to the Father in the way he sat next to John at the Last Supper.

Bring the two recitals together as one and see that the historical facts provide the immediate experience which the Christian community has always wanted to interpret. It does not matter that theology through the ages has discussed the mysteries of his life, treating both accounts on equal footing. The whole account means we see Jesus as the meaning of history, everything was at the beginning with God, and at the end linking everything together reconciling human and divine.

AMcC

Canterbury Cathedral Easter Tomb;
African Pilgrims at St Maurice, Switzerland (MAFR)

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July 15: What is Theology saying today? XV: The Eucharist 2; mystery not magic.

mercygate (640x469)

Gate to Jesus Hospital, Canterbury

The Eucharist is Mystery; mystery is not magic. Magic supposes there is no explanation or understanding – no way of entering-into the reality; whereas mystery invites participation in an encounter. This means a way-in to something greater than we are. Mystery is not something I can’t know anything about – but something can’t know everything about. How ludicrously wrong to say you can’t tell me anything about him – as if I can fit into my tiny mind everything about another person – when I can’t even know all about myself. Interesting to ask ourselves why did Jesus ask – who do people say I am?

To say we enter into something greater – to be with someone who can appropriately say we whereas I can only say I! What is happening for this to become my experience? The basic action of the Eucharist is sharing – not just eating. The experience this addresses in me is my experience of hunger. To be human is to be hungry, in the sense that I need more than myself to live fully – as well as food and drink, I need companionship and compassion… so many human hungers persuade me that I cannot be self-fulfilled. With all possible human hungers in mind – this is what Jesus means by I am the bread of life. Our Western culture persuades us that meal-times are essential and always available. There is no such thing as meal-time for the vast majority, who eat whenever food, affection and compassion are available.

If I am never hungry in any of these human hungers to the point of starving, it is unlikely that I feel for those who are permanently there. Compassion requires me to enter into the suffering of another simply because that is where they are [this makes sense of the ancient discipline of fasting before communion]. The obvious way to know about hunger is to be hungry. Hunger is intrusive; will not allow us to get on with anything else until it is attended to. When God created hunger he created a blessing – opportunity to experience so many good things. God created more than enough ways to satisfy every possible hunger – the fact of so much starvation serves to tell us what we have done with Creation’s good things, enough to make the experience of hunger a curse to be eradicated.

AMcC

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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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9 March, Human Will: V Clarification of Terms

 

liege-staircase-640x389

In our reflections so far, we have been considering the will as a faculty of the soul, which, when guided by our reason, moves us in making choices that align with what is truly good, with what is directed to God and to others in charity.  In this sense, the will itself is something good, something vital for the functioning of our spiritual life.  It is the locus of the true self.  By its work, our emotions become integrated and our decisions and actions gradually align with what is good and true.  We need to know that our will is there – and appreciate it.

But, on the other hand, the will has also received some rather bad press.  ‘Oh, my little Jimmy is so wilful,’ an exhausted mother of a two-year-old might say.  Used in this way, the notion of the will can seem to be something problematic, stubbornly chained to the disordered cravings of our emotions and allied to our selfishness.  Is our will something good or something bad, then?

In a superb book, Will and Spirit, written in 1982 by the psychologist Gerald May, an important distinction is made between being wilful and willing.  This distinction focuses on the will not only as a faculty of the soul, but as an operation.  According to May,

Willingness implies a surrendering of one’s self-separateness, an entering into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself.  In contrast, wilfulness is the setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control, or otherwise manipulate existence.  More simply, willingness is saying yes to the mystery of being alive in each moment.  Wilfulness is saying no….

     Willingness and wilfulness…reflect the underlying attitude one has toward the wonder of life itself.  Willingness notices this wonder and bows in some kind of reverence to it.  Wilfulness forgets it, ignores it or at its worst, actively tries to destroy it [Will and Spirit, Harper Collins, 1982, Ch. 1].   

Perhaps, simply put, when we are talking about the will in terms of wilfulness, then, we are speaking of an aspect of our interior life that is self-involved, determined on its own agenda, closed to God.  When we are speaking of the will as a faculty of the soul, then we are usually speaking of it in terms of willingness, as Gerald May describes.  And more, we mean the will as an ally of our reason, giving us an ability to make wise decisions and choices, as well as motivating us to carry them out.

SJC

 

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