Tag Archives: nature

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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25 December. Five notes: Father Andrew at Christmas, III.

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More from Fr Andrew’s Introduction to his book of Carols.

The Mystery of the Incarnate Love has brought to us, first of all, a revelation of simplicity. Theology teaches us that the life of God is a simple act, and, since God is Love, that act must surely be, however expressed, an act of love; and here in the little Babe laid in the midst of the straw of our human poverty is the simple appeal and revelation of the love of God.

The second note is sympathy, and that in the direct meaning of the word – ‘suffering with.’ We cannot understand the mystery of suffering, and really there is no particular reason why we should, since God has suffered with us, and one of the sufferings of God was this very mystery of suffering, for did not He take upon His lips the great classic words of the twenty-second Psalm and cry in His own darkness, ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’

The third note is joy. These poems and carols all have in them a note of joy and a note of pain. Laughter and tears are mingled in these Christmas songs.

The fourth is the sacredness of human nature. God joined together flesh and spirit. Sin put these asunder, and by the fall of man the flesh, which was only lower than spirit in condition and degree, became lower also in quality, and by the taint and twist of original sin this human nature of ours was made to seem a bad thing, as though the flesh were, in God’s intention, the enemy of spirit. In the coming of the Holy Child, when the angels sang their Gloria, once more flesh and spirit were united in perfect oblation.

The fifth note, which contains in it all else, is love. Over the cross, over the manger, over the altar, one can write the golden words, ‘God is Love.’

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November 21: Jesus Beyond Dogma II: xxi – ‘Challenged to respond unconditionally’.

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NASA

Faith has more to do with getting the right question, not necessarily the right answer. Nature has its own unique way of asking questions. Everything from galaxies to people is gifted in love. This is so because the relating in everything is attracted by goodness. God is unconditional love; don’t waste time trying to persuade God to love – we have always been loved. We tend to seek and offer love with conditions attached – so that unconditional love is unknown territory for us. Jesus is God’s Word that we are loved unconditionally. If I am loved unconditionally, I am being gently challenged to respond unconditionally.

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This was a step too far for the rich young man who went away – sad! This is not a request [command] from God that we must respond in the same way – what matters is that we love whatever unconditionally; there is no real experience of love where there are conditions. Loving God means being one with God in loving without conditions – notice loving, not necessarily loving God. The only way we can co-create our world is by becoming unconditional lovers.

Love changes everything – says the song [Les Miserables]. The major change is that where there is unconditional love there can be no hierarchical living, so we are now living by mutually empowering partnership. Co-dependency based on child/parent modelling has no place where adults relate inter-dependently. See the flowers of the field, the birds in the sky, they trust unconditionally so why can’t I? Love is not something to be performed, love is the unconditional response to unconditional gift.

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November 5, Jesus Beyond Dogma II: v – ‘the danger of reducing God-in-Jesus to our own image and likeness’.

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It is far from true to say that the majority of thoughtful young adults today have abandoned religion. My experience is that it is the denominational that is the issue. They want spiritual relevance and ethical responsibility, but cannot see it in any us-and-them ideology that has accompanied so much institutional religion. While formal religion seems to be on the wane, there is certainly a resurgence of interest in things spiritual.

For many, spiritual realities do not happen apart from some kind of formal belief; whereas human experience suggests otherwise. But how do we recognise these signs, and what are they telling us? Is it possible for a genuinely spiritual person to see institutional religion as irrelevant? We have inherited formal structures which seem to suggest they are a sine qua non – monogamous marriage, the nuclear family, formal work place and religious institutions with dogmatic boundaries. These boundaries translate as rules and regulations controlling personal behaviour. On the one hand, without these boundaries there would be anarchy; on the other hand, leaving such boundaries unquestioned is a prescription for disintegration.

Personal relationship with Jesus is regarded by spiritual guides as the ultimate criterion of genuine spirituality. I have experienced the closeness of God when walking in the countryside, or meandering along the coastline, or sitting quietly in chapel. I hesitate to use a human analogy to explain this experience, because it feels as if something greater, more profound is here. My hesitancy is the possible danger of reducing God-in-Jesus to our own image and likeness, and in some way alien to the freedom of the children of God.

Does this sound a little pagan, worshipping the elements as in primitive times? Such statements seem to carry an element of certitude and clarity of faith – we know what is right and this isn’t it. We are so much part of the system that we easily adopt its labels. Take the word pagan. It is used frequently to denote not just opposition to formal religion, but devoting one’s time and energy to worshipping what are seen as replacements for the real God. Jesus said: do not be like pagans, those who make their authority felt – Mark.10.42.

It alleges that ancient worship of sun, moon and stars is primitive when seen from our civilised times. True worship of God is only possible in a civilised world, and is monotheistic. The ability and freedom to see our past in a more favourable light is one of the spiritual challenges facing us. It is not exonerating the past, but widening our horizons and seeing the unity in creation in ever new light.

AMcC

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22 October: Readings from Mary Webb, XII: Time as the Shadow of Eternity.

 

trees-reflection-chris Near Bateman’s Sussex (National Trust)

When we look down into the blueness of some little pool, rejoicing in the birdlike passage of the clouds, and then look up to the wide sky, we realise that the finite is like a lake which, as far as its capacity allows, mirrors the infinite; and when we see the foreshortened image of a poplar stretched in pale colouring beneath it, we have a sudden vision of time as the faint, straitened shadow of eternity.

Reflections in a pool give rise to a reflection in Agnellus Mirror, 100 years since Mary Webb published Springs of Joy, from which this week’s thoughts are taken.

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October 19, Readings from Mary Webb X: Volatile Sweetness.

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Not once only, but every year, the fair young body of the wild rose hangs upon the thorn, redeeming us through wonder, and crying across the fetid haunts of the money-grubbers with volatile sweetness – “Father . . . they know not what they do.” (Luke 23.34)

Xtlily

I love that expression, volatile sweetness. Worth pondering; how readily do I give out my loving kindness?

I did think of saving this post until Lent, but I miss the wild roses, so here is a reminder of summer. These were beside the Canal near Edinburgh. Christ crucified on the lily is on the Isle of Wight. In different ways Mary Webb and the unknown island artist remind us that all creation is one, and we all have responsibility not to be money-grubbers, but to use all we have, including money (that tainted thing, as the Jerusalem Bible translates the words of Jesus in Luke 16.9) wisely and generously.

And naturally, Laudato Si’!

 

 

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October 16: Readings from Mary Webb, VIII – Tranquility deepened by sounds.

barley-sea-waves-b-w-2-640x477Barley, one of the heavier grains, dancing in the wind

 

Just before autumn the oat fields begin their dry-throated song, louder than that of the grass, and the heavier grains keep time with fairy castanets. Sounds of reaping begin to haunt the air; the prelude of autumn has begun.

On still, September mornings, when a sweet warm wind blows under the grey sky, sounds carry far – the bleating of sheep, calls from far-off fields, the sharp trot of a horse on a hard road, the hum of threshing. The rooks fly in a long black thread across the uplands to the stubble-fields, and the sense of tranquillity is deepened by their erratic cawing.

Some of the harshest tones of nature bring the deepest rest. Few things are so unmusical as the voices of rooks, yet a home with a rookery is a very peaceful place. Perhaps the continual cawing, like the ticking of a clock in a quiet room, emphasises the surrounding hush; perhaps it is the associations of childhood and calm days; or is it something deep and old as earth that lurks in the harsh voices and comes poignantly to our hearts?

Hear them on a windless evening, winging homeward heavily through the rain, with desultory cawing! Listen as they settle clamorously for the night and you will know how well they fill the pauses made by departing sweetness.

From Springs of Joy: The Joy of Music.

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September 23: Up the Apricot Tree III, after the rain.

A version of this post appeared in the Will Turnstone blog a few weeks ago.

2.00 p.m.: it was the summer storm we’d been waiting for, though not predicted by that morning’s weather forecast. A good 25mm, 1” of drain-blocking rain in an hour. Before I tackled that little job (and I would have waited for Abel, had I known he was almost on the doorstep) I looked out of the back door.

The rain had ceased. Movement in the apricot tree: a song thrush decided it was time to dry herself off. An all over shake; spreading first the left wing, then the right, preening each with her bill; fanning the tail and giving that a good shake, followed by a dance move no human could copy: head thrust forward and down, feathers all fluffed, then three or four undulations from head to tail. That did the job! Satisfied, she preened herself once more and flew away.

I’ve seen few thrushes in our garden over the past few years. It was an extra pleasure to witness this intimate moment in her life.

Sometimes these special moments are given to us personally, individually: I hope, dear readers, you can find a memory that sings in your heart as this does in mine.

Laudato Si’ !

WT

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August 25: The truth about a camp

 

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Pattie said that morning, ‘Do you know the opposite of Faith? It’s certainty.’ Perhaps, in a ‘naught for your comfort’ way, certainty belongs to hope – or deep hope against hope – rather than faith?

But this passage from Roger Deakin’s inspiring book, Wildwood – A Journey Through Trees (Penguin 2008, p 14) makes Pattie’s case very well. The writer is describing sleeping in a shed in an orchard on an August night.

To sleep half a field away from the house, tucked into the hedge, with an open door facing south into the meadow and plenty of cool night air, must surely add very much to the chances of sleep.

…There’s more truth about a camp than a house. Planning laws need not worry the improvising builder because temporary structures are more beautiful anyway, and you don’t need permission for them. There’s more truth about a camp because that is the position we are in. The house represents what we ourselves would like to be on earth: permanent rooted, here for eternity. But a camp represents the true reality of things: we’re just passing through.

And as Saint Francis would say, welcoming Sister Death: Laudato Si’ !

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August 5, Francis Thompson IV. THE HOUND OF HEAVEN: III

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I sought no more that, after which I strayed,
In face of man or maid;
But still within the little children’s eyes
Seems something, something that replies,
They at least are for me, surely for me!
I turned me to them very wistfully;
But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair
With dawning answers there,
Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.
“Come then, ye other children, Nature’s—share
With me” (said I) “your delicate fellowship;
Let me greet you lip to lip,
Let me twine with you caresses,
Wantoning
With our Lady-Mother’s vagrant tresses,
Banqueting
With her in her wind-walled palace,
Underneath her azured daïs,
Quaffing, as your taintless way is,
From a chalice
Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring.”
So it was done:
I in their delicate fellowship was one—
Drew the bolt of Nature’s secrecies.
I knew all the swift importings
On the wilful face of skies;
I knew how the clouds arise
Spumèd of the wild sea-snortings;
All that’s born or dies
Rose and drooped with—made them shapers
Of mine own moods, or wailful or divine—
With them joyed and was bereaven.
I was heavy with the even,
When she lit her glimmering tapers
Round the day’s dead sanctities.
I laughed in the morning’s eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
Heaven and I wept together,
And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine;
Against the red throb of its sunset-heart
I laid my own to beat,
And share commingling heat;
But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart.
In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek.
For ah! we know not what each other says,
These things and I; in sound I speak—
Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.
Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth;
Let her, if she would owe me,
Drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky, and show me
The breasts o’ her tenderness:
Never did any milk of hers once bless
My thirsting mouth.

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