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4 April, Desert XXXVI: Perseverance and Beauty.

A thought from the French singer-songwriter Laurent Voulzy, who put off writing a song to Jesus for 10 years. You can hear him sing it at the link below.

Right now, I am searching, I pray every day, I go into churches and I look at the diversity of faces … and I see wickedness in some of them …

The idea of faith as perseverance, full of humour and beautiful light, is a part of my prayer. It gives me a reason to believe, to feel joy every day, even if our times do not evoke it. My faith consists of questions. God is in all the faces I see, in all the questions that I put to myself. And in my search for answers…

Laurent Voulzy

Door of Mercy, Holy Family Basilica, Zakopane, Poland.

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30 March: What Do You Want Me To Do For You?

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Here is Sister Johanna once more, Welcome! We are following Jesus as he gets nearer to the Cross – the next chapter of Luke tells of Palm Sunday, but today he meets a blind beggar. In Sister’s reflection there is a question not unlike Woodbine Willy’s ‘Well?’ the other day: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’

There was a blind man sitting at the side of the road begging…. He called out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.’… Jesus stopped and ordered them to bring the man to him, and when he came up, he said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ ‘Sir,’ the blind man said, ‘Let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight. Your faith has saved you.’ 

Luke 18: 35-43.

This passage from the Gospel of Luke tells me a lot about what it means truly to encounter Jesus in prayer. I’ve read this story many times, but this time when I read it, I was at first a bit taken aback by the apparently daft question Jesus asks the blind man: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Well, I thought, he obviously wants to be healed of his blindness. But then I realised that the blind man could have had other issues; his blindness might not have been the priority for him. Perhaps he had a son on the verge of death, or perhaps he had other illnesses that were not evident. It could have been anything. The question is a highly important one. Jesus wanted the blind man to state his wishes so that he, the blind man, would be fully aware of what he was asking and could take full responsibility for the encounter and for what might happen next.

Sir, let me see again,’ the blind man says. This in itself is impressive – and Jesus doesn’t miss the fact that the blind man expresses no doubts about Jesus’ ability to heal him. His faith rings out with clarity. Moreover, the blind man knows what he wants. He does not hesitate or appear to weigh alternatives before speaking. He wants to see again, and he knows that Jesus is able to bring this cure about. And Jesus’ answer? Direct, simple, almost off-hand. A modern-day Jesus might have said simply, ‘Sure! See! You are already half-way there because of your faith.’

So what does this tell me about asking Jesus for something? About prayer?

  1. The text says, ‘Jesus ordered them to bring the man to him.’ It is important, therefore, to go right up to Jesus, and have a real encounter with him, to be aware of him and to address my prayer to him. I should not just be talking to myself or dreaming. I must, in my mind and heart, stand before Jesus, and be in his presence, when I pray.

  2. It is important to be clear, to tell Jesus what I want and not, out of some misguided idea of abandonment to the divine will, go all vague. Moreover, I must take responsibility for my request. There may be times, perhaps many times, when we do not receive the specific grace we have asked for – but we can be sure that we always receive something, and usually it is a grace that goes much deeper than the one we requested. Eventually we will be able to identify that deeper grace as the real answer to our prayer. But unless we make that original request specific, and own it, this deeper grace would probably have gone unrecognized – and perhaps would not even have been bestowed.

  3. Jesus easily cures the blind man, without a laying on of hands or any other physical process. He merely utters the healing words. He is able to do this because the blind man trusts him completely – his faith saves him, as Jesus declares afterward. The blind man, presumably, had never met Jesus before; he knew him only from hearsay (rather like us). And that was enough for the blind man. Is it enough for me?

  4. Jesus’ question, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ tells me a great deal about Jesus’ eternal ‘attitude’ toward us whenever we go right up to him, in faith, and ask him something. He is already there, saying, ‘Johanna, or Tom, or Annette, what do you want me to do for you?’ He places himself completely at my disposal.

  5. And what is my answer?

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18 November: The King II, Pilate and Jesus Meet.

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We are preparing to look at the relationship between Jesus and Pontius Pilate with a view to exploring the theme of power as it emerges in the relevant texts of the Gospel of John (18:1 – 19:22). I would like first to summarise the passage immediately preceding the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus. In John 18: 1-11we are told that Jesus had been arrested in the evening by a cohort from the Roman garrison, and a group of guards sent by the chief priests and Pharisees, all with weapons and torches – essentially, a lynch-mob. Jesus handles the mob with courtesy, cooperation and courage. Nonetheless, they bind him and, no doubt, shove and frog-march him to the palace of Annas, the high priest. Annas, probably realising after a short exchange with Jesus that he was out of his depth and could not possibly win in a dialogue with him, sends Jesus on to the next questioner. This will be Pontius Pilate and Jesus is sent to the Praetorium – his palace.

Pilate does not meet with Jesus until he meets Jesus’ captors – a rather unsatisfying encounter, I suspect, as far as Pilate is concerned. Jews were not allowed to go into the inner court of the Praetorium on pain of incurring ritual impurity, so Pilate must meet Jesus’ captors outside – a concession which must have rankled. But he complies, and questions them about the reasons for Jesus’ arrest. According to the text, they claim at this point simply that Jesus is a criminal and deserves death, and that they are not allowed by their religion to pass the death sentence. They do not specify what Jesus has done to deserve it (see Jn. 18:28-32). Pilate, none the wiser for this exchange, must now question Jesus about the reasons for his arrest.

Pilate leaves them, returns to the inner court of the Praetorium, summons Jesus and begins a highly revealing exchange with him. We see here two men who could not possibly have been more different. Pilate, with an abruptness suggesting that he is an important, busy man, asks Jesus the only question that could have any real interest to him, or any bearing on his judgement of Jesus: ‘Are you the king of the Jews?

Immediately, we see that the issue for Pilate is power, but he must hope that Jesus’ power is a trumped up affair, threatening to no one. He had probably encountered mad prophets before – they were not unusual in the Judea of Pilate’s day. So, Pilate’s question would, Pilate hopes, set such a prophet up to expose himself as a rant-and-rave religious fanatic. A wild-eyed diatribe on Jesus’ part would be most useful to Pilate and enable him quickly to dismiss Jesus as long-winded but essentially harmless; then Pilate would be free to move on to the more important business of the day. It is easy to imagine the slightly mocking tone of voice in which Pilate asked his question, much as one might use to a rather ill-behaved child, perhaps, or to someone whom one has already mentally pigeon-holed as not worth taking seriously. Pilate feels secure, powerful at this stage. Accordingly, his treatment of Jesus belittles him. We will examine Jesus’ response to this tomorrow.

Pilate went out to the street to meet the Jewish leaders.

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May 16. What is Theology Saying? LIII: Salvation outside the Church II.

 

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austinWhen the first Christians claimed a new covenant, they were aware of how the word new had been interpreted in the prophetic writings. Later generations spoke of old and new covenants – with the presumption the old was past its sell-by date. This is mistaken, the facts of history contradict it. The Jews have been faithful to Covenant in large numbers, even to the point of martyrdom; and Scripture tells us that God does not desert those who are faithful.

Some believe the issue is simple. If the Jews had really been faithful they would have recognised Jesus as Messiah, and have been part of the new covenant. But since they do not recognise Jesus as Messiah, we can assume they are unfaithful to the covenant. For this reason history left them behind as forever lost.

Such a view leaves all kinds of questions unaddressed. Even if it was perfectly clear that Jesus is the Messiah, we must remember that the Jews of the dispersion had never had the gospel preached to them. For example, exactly when did the covenant go out of date? Was it at Pentecost or at the death of the last Apostle? Also, does the Jewish participation in the covenant not remain in date until the end of time?

The only contact many Jews through the centuries had with Christians and the Gospel was that of persecution and victimisation in various forms of anti-Semitism. And many were told to renounce Judaism in favour of Christianity – if you are persecuted on account of your Christian faith and told to recant, would you see this as an act of God? We must accept the possibility that Jews cannot accept Jesus as the expected Messiah because he is not yet Messiah. We who are the presence of Jesus have not yet produced the promised signs of the Messianic presence. We know what these signs are – the Prophets are full of them, and the Gospels have Jesus quoting them.

The signs of Messianic times are: peace among nations and all people; perfect fraternity; justice for the poor and the powerless; no more violence and enmity; and all coming together to praise the one God in their own ways in peace, without hindrance. When Paul writes of these signs he says there is no discrimination in Christ between Jew and Gentile, between cultured Greeks and primitive Barbarians, between men who had all kinds of rights and women who had none. Today we might add: no discrimination between white or black, gay or straight, rich nations and poor – no annexation of the poor by the powerful.

AMcC

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27 September. Truth telling XI: Due Diligence, or the truth is more interesting than you assumed.

In 2002 I wrote a history of Saint Thomas’s School in Canterbury to mark its centenary in its present building. There had been a few changes of address over some fifty years before that, when the school occupied one inadequate building after another. The parish and most of its families were poor.

The logbook of the school records how one Christmas Mr Henry Hart, of the Red House, gave cloth for the girls to make cloaks to keep themselves warm in wintertime. I knew of two buildings from that time called the Red House; the more likely one was near the shopping centre and close to the present-day Oxfam charity shop, which has a mosaic threshold bearing his name. Very interesting, and duly recorded.

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When I came to revise the story I was already a bit of a silver surfer and typed in Mr Hart’s name, occupation, and trade. I learned to my surprise that he was Jewish, (yet giving Christmas presents) and the first Jewish Mayor of Canterbury. That information was published on a couple of Jewish websites.

I certainly had not suppressed Mr Hart’s Jewishness, I just had not discovered it. In his lifetime the city was much smaller than it now is, and he was a member of the School Board as well as mayor. Everyone knew he was a Jew so nobody needed to record the fact. But it is an interesting fact and it points to something good about the integration of Jews – and Catholics – in Victorian Canterbury.

Keep on asking questions – such as who was Henry Hart. What you discover may be an interesting detail or a vital missing link.

This newer web page tells more about Henry Hart  .

MMB.

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14 June. What do the Saints know? V: Faith and Simplicity

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We are reflecting on the kind of knowledge that the saints have and we are looking at the theological virtue of faith. It seems to me that there is a wonderful simplicity about the quality of ‘knowing’ that goes with faith. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that God is simple: God is, he says, and “faith grasps that in a simple act” (II.II Q 1:2). Faith has content, then, and that content is God Himself.

Faith is not wishful thinking. It circumscribes and protects a relationship with God. That is what it contains. Once this content has been grasped in what Thomas calls a ‘simple act’ we also find, he says, that faith does involve knowing on a more ordinary level. Faith inspires us to learn about God and his life, to discover what He has revealed, to learn about the articles of belief, and so on. And, this kind of inquiry gives joy, I find. And increases love. Here it becomes possible to see the interconnection of theological virtues. Love of God is increased through the kinds of study that are an expression of faith.

Thomas goes on: it follows that, “…it is proper to the believer to think with assent.” Let’s pause here. It is proper to the believer to think with assent. This is not the way we learned to think in school. Ordinarily, thought means taking a stance not of assent but of disagreement. It goes something like this: ‘Why should I believe that any given statement is true? Chances are, you are trying to get something out of me that is not in my best interests to give.’ Now that may well be true, and faith does not mean that we abandon all capacity for critical distance in relation to the outside world. But faith is not really a dialogue with the outside world per se. It is a dialogue with God. Therefore, a different kind of thought process goes with it.

St. Thomas explains: “The act of believing is distinguished from all the other acts of the intellect, which are about determining the true and the false. In faith, [by contrast] we accept that what God has revealed is true” (II.II Q 2: 1). Why? Because God is Truth. It is simply not necessary to doubt this. On the contrary, faith calls us to absorb God’s truth more and more fully.

SJC

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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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9 May: What is Theology Saying? IV: Every believer has a part to play.

According to the ordinary knowledge of the universe current at the time, it could not have occurred to the theologians or Church authority that when Genesis speaks of the six days of creation, and itemises what happened on each day, that this was poetic rather than literal. Today, the increasing knowledge of the universe, along with the rapidly accumulating evidence for the unified and organic evolution of the universe and all things in it, caused many to say that the traditional way doctrine was taught no longer makes sense. The Church while not denying doctrine, reformulated it radically, so that believers could take it seriously. Today people are more comfortable with an account of creation that has incorporated all we currently know of evolution. Thirty or forty years ago many were still worried, and fifty years ago almost all Catholics believed evolution contradicted faith.

Theological development: every believer has a part to play, but not all are properly equipped to do so. When the faithful say that existing explanations do not make sense any more, it is a wake-up call to theologians that it is time to reconsider why these formulations were made in the first place, what was the important message and the historical circumstances leading to such a formulation. Having made this study, theologians then attempt to reformulate doctrine in a way faithful to the Christian message, but which is also up to date for contemporary believers. Not an easy task! They try to do it in different ways, according to what their people share with them. The way theologians think in Italy and Spain will differ from those in Central Europe, for example.

Dogmatic development: because the experience of various kinds of believers is so different, there are often clashes between different schools of theology – sooner or later, because of differences, they will ask the teaching authority of the Church to intervene with an official version. There are usually many ways of expressing the truth; there has never really been only one correct way of doing it. The teaching authority of the Church has no hot line as to which is the better way. Even when infallibility is invoked by the Holy See or a General Council it does not mean that this statement was made on the basis of a new revelation. It means that it claims to be the authentic interpretation of what the faith of the people as a whole has always explicitly been or implied.

Such statements tend to be conservative, because that is their purpose. This does not mean there has been no dogmatic development. It takes third place because there cannot be a judgement on something until it has been discussed [the role of theology], and cannot be discussed until human experience has given rise to the query [the role of all faithful]. Some feel guilty when thinking differently from official pronouncements. They should respectfully and responsibly express this mismatch, because this is how development of doctrine has always taken place, and must continue to do so.

AMcC

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3 March. Little Flowers of Saint Francis, XV: Francis the Peacemaker

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Now as they went along this way, Brother Masseo marvelled within himself, wherefore Saint Francis had made him do as do the children, before the worldly folk that passed that way: howbeit for reverence sake he dared say naught to the holy father.

As they drew nigh unto Sienna, the people of the city heard of the coming of the saint and hied them out to meet him ; and of their devotion bore him and his companion right to the bishop’s house, in such wise that they touched not the ground at all with their feet.

Now at that same hour certain folk of Sienna were at strife with one another, and already two of them lay dead. Saint Francis having won there preached to them in so devout and saintly a fashion, that he brought them one and all to peace and close unity and concord together. For the which cause the bishop of Sienna, hearing of the holy work that Saint Francis had wrought, bade him to his house and received him with high honour that day, and eke the night.

And the next morn Saint Francis, who with true humility sought naught in all his works save only the glory of God, rose up betimes with his companion, and without the bishop’s knowledge was away. Whereat the said Brother Masseo went by the way murmuring within himself.

 

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December 16. Zechariah: an Unlikely Advent Star: IV.

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Your son will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord; he must drink no wine, no strong drink; even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the Israelites to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him to reconcile fathers to their children and the disobedient to the good sense of the upright, preparing for the Lord a people fit for him (1:14-17).

Zechariah and Elizabeth had longed for a child. A child will be born to them, says the angel, but such a child as they could not possibly have imagined. The angel declares that their son will be “great in the sight of the Lord… in the spirit and power of Elijah. Their son will have a mission for all Israel: to bring them back to their God, to prepare for the Lord a people fit for him (cf. 1: 12-17).

This angelic utterance is really a rather long one, containing information that can only have been completely mind-boggling for Zechariah. Perhaps readers of this post have heard this story many times, and through familiarity have lost the sense of its being beyond fathoming – this prophecy from the mouth of a powerful and numinous being. Certainly for Zechariah, it is all too big to absorb. At first he is silent while the angel delivers his astonishing message.

When Zechariah does find power of speech, he comes out with the words that have earned him such criticism through the centuries: “How can I know this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years” (1:18). I rather doubt I’d have performed any better than Zechariah, and would probably have done far worse, but note well: this was an angel, after all, and angels generally know what they are talking about. Zechariah, however, seems to think that the angel might not realise how old he and his wife are. Even with my bias in favour of Zechariah, I must confess that I can’t help smiling here. It is almost as though he is asking the angel to check his divine instructions and make sure he has not come to the wrong temple and spoken to the wrong man.

So, what do we see here? Zechariah blurts out a question that is pretty daft in the circumstances. But is he really so bad after all? His question shows at least that he is a stable character, not easily diverted from the path of righteousness. And it has already been established that Zechariah is a good and upright man in the sight of God. He is not someone to curry the favour of men (or angels), or to give his consent, even to an angel, without deep conviction of heart. He is a man of depth. He wants to understand what is happening, but he is out of his depth now. He is used to having his prayer unanswered, we know. But he is not used to that same prayer now being answered.

SJC

John baptising Jesus – Zakopane Basilica of the Holy Family, Poland.

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