Today is the feast of Gregory the Great, first pope of that name, who sent Augustine to Canterbury, arriving here in 597. He was inspired to establish the English mission when he came across young Saxons on sale in Rome’s market. Gregory was also a theologian and spiritual writer, here in his book Moralia (XXVIII 47), commenting on the Book of Job (12.4), where Job is answering his critics:
I am one mocked by his friends, Who called on God, and He answered him, The just and blameless who is ridiculed.
Window, St Thomas’ church, Canterbury, England.
Worldliness dictates to her followers to seek the high places of honour, to triumph in attaining the vain acquisition of temporal glory; to return manifold the mischiefs that others bring upon us; when the means are with us, to give way to no man’s opposition; when the opportunity of power is lacking, all whatsoever he cannot accomplish in wickedness to represent in the guise of peaceable good nature.
On the other hand it is the wisdom of the righteous, to pretend nothing in show, to discover the meaning by words; to love the truth as it is, to avoid falsehood; to set forth good deeds for nought, to bear evil more gladly than to do it; to seek no revenging of a wrong, to account opprobrium for the Truth’s sake to be a gain. But this simplicity of the righteous is ‘laughed to scorn,’ in that the goodness of purity is taken for folly with the wise men of this world. For doubtless every thing that is done from innocency is accounted foolish by them, and whatever truth sanctions in practice sounds weak to carnal wisdom.
For what seems worse folly to the world than to shew the mind by the words, to feign nothing by crafty contrivance, to return no abuse for wrong, to pray for them that speak evil of us, to seek after poverty, to forsake our possessions, not to resist him that is robbing us, to offer the other cheek to one that strikes us?
Much of this passage could serve as a manifesto for Agnellus’ Mirror and for the Season of Creation:
It is the wisdom of the righteous, to pretend nothing in show, to discover the meaning by words; to love the truth as it is, to avoid falsehood; to set forth good deeds for nought.
We hope we live up to that, in the blog and in daily life.
The story of the boarding schools for indigenous children in Canada does not make easy reading. It’s an horrific affair, with racism and a lack of respect for children among the contributing evils.
It’s also confusing to attempt to find the truth of what happened then and what is happening now. Many records were lost or destroyed, many events were not recorded. The Archdiocese of Toronto, which had none of these these schools, has produced this very clear account, which may not answer all the questions, but perhaps may help us to identify the right ones and begin to answer them – and see where to go next. Click to read the report.
The trouble with memory is that often it plays us false. We may not remember an event exactly as it happened. Another witness may remember it differently. Here is Dr Johnson’s view of the matter, written well before we had such conveniences as camera phones to help – a little.
There is yet another cause of errour not always easily surmounted, though more dangerous to the veracity of itinerary narratives, than imperfect mensuration.
An observer deeply impressed by any remarkable spectacle, does not suppose, that the traces will soon vanish from his mind, and having commonly no great convenience for writing, defers the description to a time of more leisure, and better accommodation. He who has not made the experiment, or who is not accustomed to require rigorous accuracy from himself, will scarcely believe how much a few hours take from certainty of knowledge, and distinctness of imagery; how the succession of objects will be broken, how separate parts will be confused, and how many particular features and discriminations will be compressed and conglobated into one gross and general idea.
To this dilatory notation must be imputed the false relations of travellers, where there is no imaginable motive to deceive. They trusted to memory, what cannot be trusted safely but to the eye, and told by guess what a few hours before they had known with certainty. Thus it was that Wheeler and Spon described with irreconcilable contrariety things which they surveyed together, and which both undoubtedly designed to show as they saw them.
from “Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” by Samuel Johnson.
George Wheeler and Jacques Spon rediscovered the site of ancient Delphi, using an old description from Pausanias, and published their findings in 1682. I wonder, what will be the effect of all those video recordings of himself that my 20 month-old grandson likes to watch?
From a homily of Saint Oscar Romero, 1978, as relevant now as then.
Today the universal church celebrates World Communications Day. Let me say a few words to make all Catholics mindful of the importance of using the media of social communication in a critical and conscientious way. Through these marvellous means of communication—such as newspapers, radio, television, cinema—many ideas are communicated to large numbers of people, but often the media serve as tools of confusion. These instruments, as creators of public opinion, are often manipulated by materialist interests and are used to maintain an unjust state of affairs through falsehood and confusion. There is a lack of respect for one of the most sacred rights of the human person, the right to be well informed, the right to the truth. Each person must defend this right for himself or herself by using the media critically. Not everything in the newspapers, not everything in the movies or on television, not everything that is heard on the radio is true. Often it is just the opposite, a lie.
That is why critical people must know how to filter the media to avoid being poisoned with whatever falls into their hands. This is the type of awareness that the church wants to awaken today as we celebrate World Communications Day. We want people to read the newspapers critically and be able to say, «This is a lie! This is not the same thing that was said yesterday! This is a distortion because I have seen the opposite stated!» Being critical is a vital characteristic in our day, and because the church attempts to implant this critical awareness, she is facing some very serious conflicts. The reason is that the dominant interests want to keep people half-asleep. They do not want people who are critical and know how to discern between truth and falsehood. I believe that never before has there existed in the world, especially in a setting like ours, such a struggle—a struggle unto death—between the truth and the lie. The conflict at this time can be reduced to this: either truth or lies. Let us not forget that great saying of Christ: «The truth will set you free» (John 8:32). Let us always seek the truth!
There is a saying of Saint Augustine that I believe is very appropriate for these times: Libenter credimus quod credere volumus, which means, «We gladly believe what we want to believe». That is why it is so difficult to believe the truth: often we don’t want to believe the truth because it disturbs our conscience. But even though the truth may disturb us, we must accept it, and we must want to believe in it so that the Lord will always bless us with the freedom of those who love the truth. We should not be among those who sell the truth or their pens or their voices or their media to the highest bidder or to materialist interests. How sad it is to see so many pens being sold, so many tongues being fed through the slanderous words broadcast on the radio. Often the truth produces not money but only bitterness, yet it is better to be free in the truth than to have great wealth in mendacity.
St Oscar Romero, Ascension of the Lord. 7 May 1978 Read or listen to the homilies of St Oscar Romero at romerotrust.org.uk
‘Shall I ever,’ he asks on Easter Day, ‘receive the Sacrament with tranquility? Surely the time will come.’
from “Life of Johnson, Volume 2 1765-1776” by James Boswell
Doctor Johnson was staying with his friends the Thrales when he wrote this, well aware of his own sinfulness and the gulf that that could give rise to between himself and God, but also believing that salvation is ours: Christ has Passed-over through death to eternal life and so shall we. Believing does not mean being totally assured in my mind and heart that salvation is mine, and for the melancholic Johnson, all the theology in the world could not enkindle such certainty. Rather it is to accept the promise of salvation, even with a tiny part of myself, and forgive myself for my unbelief. Even a mustard seed faith can leaven the lump that I am; I can receive the Sacrament in fear and trembling, but at the same time, at a deeper level than my doubts, with tranquility.
Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1Corinthians 5:6-8)
All they that saw me have laughed me to scorn: they have spoken with the lips, and wagged the head.
He hoped in the Lord, let him deliver him: let him save him, seeing he delighteth in him.
For many dogs have encompassed me: the council of the malignant hath besieged me.
They have dug my hands and feet. They have numbered all my bones.
And they have looked and stared upon me.
They parted my garments amongst them; and upon my vesture they cast lots.
But thou, O Lord, remove not thy help to a distance from me; look towards my defence.
I will declare thy name to my brethren: in the midst of the church will I praise thee.
Ye that fear the Lord, praise him: all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him.
Ps 22: 8-9; 17-20; 23-24.
In today’s Psalm it is clear that the malignant have set out to humiliate the writer. Stepping into his shoes for the moment, I think of moments when I’ve been in trouble, usually with other boys. Which was worse on these occasions – to be stared at silently by authority, or to be ignored while he or she finished the work on the desk before them? Either way, this was a theatrical act to arouse fear in the culprits.
But here authority goes further, parting the writer’s clothing, treating it like a set of raffle prizes, and leaving him naked, to be stared at. If they’d had electricity we can be sure they would have turned the floodlights on him, arousing even more primal fear.
And yet – ‘I will declare thy name to my brethren: in the midst of the church will I praise thee.’ So went the martyrs, singing and praising God to the scaffold, like William Richardson last month. They were following Jesus, confident that he would lead them through the Valley of Death that he had conquered. The martyrs witnessed to the truth of love and the love of truth. Neither Love nor Truth were conquered on Calvary.
But the suffering and death were real. We should not insulate ourselves from that, from the flesh and blood of Jesus that was ‘ill-used’, as perhaps those who defaced this altar piece were trying to do. Rather we must accept to carry each our own daily cross and follow him, declaring his name to our brethren.
Sister Johanna was not thinking solely of the Annunciation when she composed this reflection, but the whole relationship between Jesus and Mary is there, as a newly germinated seed.
The woman who engages Jesus in this story receives his attention, respect, and a challenge. Our picture from the Baptistry of the Abbey of St Maurice, Switzerland, shows another encounter between Jesus and a woman – the Samaritan at the Well. Jesus is shown as the Word, his book showing Alpha and Omega, symbols to be engraved upon the Paschal Candle in ten days from now.
As Jesus was Speaking (Luke 11:27-28)
It happened that as Jesus was speaking, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said, ‘Blessed the womb that bore you and the breasts that fed you!’ But he replied, ‘More blessed still are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’ (see Luke 11:27-28).
Jesus’ behaviour to women is a study that goes far beyond what I can do in a short reflection. But I think it might be safe to say that in his conduct toward women Jesus is both straightforward and courteous. At times he is more the first than the second, and becomes surprisingly frank – but only with those women who reveal in the course of the conversation that they are capable of dealing with his frankness – and he seems to be unerring in knowing who they are ahead of time. Something in their glance, maybe? Or the way they stand? I don’t know. But in this instance, recorded by St Luke (11:27-28), Jesus takes the other approach. He is very gentle here in the way he corrects this woman’s words.
She is clearly a well-meaning person, but nonetheless, she only gets it partially right and Jesus is not really happy with what she says. This passage has often puzzled me; at first glance, I couldn’t find anything really wrong with her words. I wondered why Jesus found it necessary to add his bit. Why couldn’t he just let it go? After all, his mother was blessed. As I was pondering this seemingly small exchange and asking the Lord to enlighten me about it, it occurred to me for the first time that the words the woman uses in praise of Jesus’ mother may very well have been an expression that was common among pious Jewish women at that time – almost formulaic. A bit of research revealed that my hunch was correct.* It’s likely that these words were a saying used when it was clear that some woman’s grown son had turned out well. Even so, what is wrong with it?
As I pondered, the matter began to clarify. First I realised that, yes, Jesus’ mother deserves praise, always and everywhere, but Jesus was not content to let his mother be praised in words that failed to take in the full scope of her blessedness. She was not blessed merely because she bore Jesus and fed him. Such a blessing could apply to every mother who succeeds in bearing and feeding her child. But Jesus knew well and truly that no one had ever been or would ever be like his mother. Such faith as hers was unprecedented in religious history. The archangel Gabriel visited her, proclaimed her ‘full of grace,’ and gave her God’s message. She, in turn, gave her entire being, body and soul, to God in her response to the angel’s words, and she conceived Jesus miraculously, not by sexual intercourse, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. In every sense, and throughout her entire life, Jesus’ mother lived her faith in a way that was beyond the power of ordinary words to praise. And yet, here she was, being praised in a mere commonplace. Jesus knew he needed somehow to adjust the inadequate words that were cried out by this well-meaning woman – and without hurting her.
But even more needed to be said. (I wonder if Jesus groaned a bit inwardly on first hearing the woman’s words.) Although the words were mainly about Jesus’ mother, Jesus himself was misrepresented by them. He – unlike us in our wandering life-journey – never lost sight of his identity as Son, and of his mission to the world. Therefore, anything implying that he could be properly understood as, say, his mother’s ‘pride and joy,’ was so wide of the mark that it could not be allowed at all. It would confuse matters, not so much for Jesus, but for his followers. Because of who Jesus and Mary are, they had a unique relationship in an absolute sense. Jesus did not live in such a way as to fulfil an ordinary mother’s ordinary expectations – the episode of finding Jesus in the temple when he was twelve years old makes that clear (see Luke 2: 41-50) – if any clarity was needed after the extraordinary revelations of glory surrounding Jesus’ birth. Jesus loved his mother – and provided for her care with his last breath as he died on the Cross (see John 19:26-27) – but he is not the doting son in any common sense. And surely, by this time in Jesus’ adult life, his mother will have grasped – somehow – the unfathomable truth that her son was the Father’s Beloved Son, and that his mission as saviour of the world superseded all other claims, hers included. So, as I reflect, I become aware that we are not meant to pigeon-hole Jesus as this woman’s words seem to do. His identity and mission, as well as his mother’s identity and mission, are matters for deepest contemplation. We will never plumb their depths – certainly not in this life. Therefore Jesus and Mary exist, then and now, as a challenge to our cultural mores, our family customs, and even some of our religious categories. These woman’s words of praise unwittingly “shrink” both Jesus and Mary down to a size that seems more manageable, but, in doing so, she also makes Jesus and Mary too small even to recognise.
What was Jesus to do in this awkward situation? How to respond?
Masterfully, brilliantly, Jesus, in one sentence, managed to achieve everything. First, he was able to use some of the woman’s words, as if to tell her, ‘Yes, what you say is good. But together we can make it even better.’ (Few of us would object to that.) So Jesus keeps hold of her desire to give a blessing (thereby affirming her) and says, ‘More blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.’ In these words, Jesus praises his mother rightly, for she alone of all women heard the word of God through the Angel Gabriel’s message and opened her heart and body to a depth that was and remains unprecedented. She ‘kept’ the word of God by literally giving birth to the word of God. Jesus does not want to give a theology lesson to the woman here, but he leaves us with words of such profundity that they are still yielding treasures to us two millennia later. Second, Jesus opens up this blessing to apply it to all people, men and women alike – even the hapless speaker in our text. The motherhood of Mary is, in fact, a vocation open to every person who hears the word of God and keeps it. Jesus had, after all, been speaking to a crowd of people. (‘As he was speaking,’ the text says, ‘a woman in the crowd’ cried out.) Jesus is always keen to invite all people into the state of blessedness and joy that is one of the signs of the presence of the kingdom now, on earth. This situation gave Jesus the opportunity to teach a deep truth about the kingdom and invite everyone in. And lastly, there is an implication about Jesus himself contained in his words. Jesus is the word of God. To ‘hear’ the word of God and ‘keep’ it is to be in a dynamic relationship not merely with a biblical text, but with the person of Jesus. There is no greater joy, no greater blessing than that.
This is a biblical text of only two lines. Look at it closely and it tells a story, which, had it happened to anyone else, would doubtless have ended rather awkwardly. But it happened to Jesus, and without distressing any well-meaning actor in this story, he broadens its message to praise his mother rightly, and include all men, all women, and all time in a salvific blessedness that will endure even in heaven. Blessed be He!
God loves man’s lamp lights better than his own great stars.
from “Stray Birds” by Rabindranath Tagore
Do you agree? Can God love something more than another thing? Which of men’s lamp lights does he love so much – those lit in love, perhaps, like these. Hardly a burglar’s torch or flashlight! And Tagore was writing before city dwellers were isolated from the skies by light pollution.
We cannot see the Light of the World for the world’s lights. We cannot see the Wise Men’s Star for the world’s lights.
But it is almost Christmas, four candles lit, let the fifth be in my heart as I go out to meet him!
Advent is a time of watching and waiting: Sister Johanna invites us to listen to the Word of God and accept the challenges it confronts us with.
My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice (Lk 8:21).
Do I want to be part of Jesus’ family, his mother and brother and sister? Oh, yes. Absolutely. Then, the question to ask myself, and with some rigour, is: What are you hearing? Hearing the Word of God and putting it into practice is the prerequisite for being a mother and brother of Jesus. Well, am I hearing the word of God? Really?
What we hope to hear often affects what we are able to hear. Identifying my hopes tells me what I will be listening for. Ok. Be honest. Don’t I hope (at least with a tiny part of myself) to hear someone who teaches that the ‘wide way’ is the true way? That if something ‘sincerely’ seems good to me then it is good in itself (‘sincerity’ being the only test for ethical uprightness)? That good and evil are empty constructs, man-made, politically or sociologically engineered to foster a culture of guilt and unhealthy self-criticism? Or, if I can honestly say that I have no such hopes, isn’t it still true that I wish I could hear someone telling me that I am doing just fine, and don’t need to work too hard to get on the right track?
Hearing the Word of God demands something different of me. Such hearing requires some preparation, some awareness of the human tendency to evade the truth, to want things to be easy. To hear the Word of God means putting the false self elsewhere – the self that is focused on its outward appearance and that wants to impress others and be important. Those desires need to be seen for what they are: vain, addictive, and ultimately unfulfilling. The words these desires speak to our mind are not God’s Word, and they get in the way of hearing it.
I am a Benedictine nun, and strive to live by the teaching of the Rule of St Benedict, a profound spiritual document written in the sixth century for people searching for God in every century. Its very first word is the command to listen. How to listen better, more deeply, more honestly, without self-seeking: this is the crucial question.
The second half of the statement from the gospel of Luke is “…and put it into practice.” I suppose it is possible to listen and then carry on as before, without changing anything or correcting anything – possible, but I don’t know how. If one is really listening rightly, deeply, unselfishly, if one is really hungry for the Word of God, then the Word does what food does: it makes action possible, it strengthens us for the right kind action. The two – the hearing and the acting – are completed as one thing. The Word, if truly heard, results in a desire and ability to put it into practice. But truly hearing the Word is required first. What are you hearing?
By vigorously enjoying this world, we shall turn to God; there’s a thought! The vigour we bring to the task is getting down on our knees to see a flower, or getting dirt under our fingernails, digging, planting, pruning sweeping; taking care of our home, ‘the remainders of Paradise’.
There are many sublime and celestial services which the world doth do. It is a glorious mirror wherein you may see the verity of all religion: enjoy the remainders of Paradise, and talk with the Deity. Apply yourself vigorously to the enjoyment of it, for in it you shall see the face of God, and by enjoying it, be wholly converted to Him.