Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Understanding the Visitation

Today's joyous Feast of the Visitation culminates the month of Mary and also fittingly falls within the Novena before Pentecost, because the narrative in St Luke's Gospel of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth and the fruit of their wombs, the Lord and His Herald, highlights the action of the Holy Spirit in human lives. John, while still in the womb leaps for joy upon hearing the voice of Our Lady and filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth greets Mary with the words we still repeat in the 'Hail Mary'. This prompts the Blessed Virgin to sing her Canticle, those immortal words of the 'Magnificat' which have inspired generations of musicians and which Holy Mother Church lovingly chants every evening in her Divine Office.

The Holy Spirit had clearly given St Elizabeth some special knowledge and understanding because she did not yet know of Jesus' virginal conception in Mary's womb and yet she cried out with a divine insight: "Blessed are you among women and blessed if the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?"(Lk 1:42-43).

Continuing our series on the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, it seems to me apt to say that Elizabeth was given (among other Gifts), the Gift of Understanding (Intellectus). Writing about this Gift, fr Jordan Aumann OP explains:

"The gift of understanding is a supernatural habit, infused in the soul with sanctifying grace, by which the human intellect, under the illuminating action of the Holy Spirit, is made apt for a penetrating intuition of revealed truths... The essence of the gift of understanding is a penetrating intuition... simply speaking, this is a type of infused contemplation, a simple and profound intuition of truth... The gift of understanding produces admirable effects in the soul, and all of them perfect the virtue of faith. St Thomas Aquinas points out different ways in which the gift of understanding enables us to penetrate into the truths of faith.

It discloses the hidden meaning of the Sacred Scriptures... It reveals the mysterious significance of symbols and figures... It reveals spiritual realities under sensible appearences... It enables one to contemplate the effects that are contained in causes... It makes us see causes through their effects...

St Thomas stated: 'In this very life, when the eye of the spirit is purified by the gift of understanding, one can in a certain way see God.' These souls seem to be guided entirely by the divine instinct as to their manner of being, thinking, speaking or reacting to the events of their own lives or to the lives of others."

(Spiritual Theology, pp252-253).

And in response to Elizabeth's Spirit-filled cry, her inspired reaction to the arrival of Mary and Jesus at her threshold, Our Lady utters a profound prayer of praise and thanksgiving. Fr Edward Schillebeeckx OP considers the Magnificat as a beautiful and mighty paradigm of prayer and offers some insight into what it can teach us and inspire in our Christian prayer. He says:

"Luke makes the content of Mary's Magnificat a reflective, prayerful meditation in which the basic structure of all authentic Christian prayer clearly comes to the fore... The Magnificat is first of all a grateful hymn of praise to the glory of God, i.e. praise of God purely and simply because he is what he is: a living God... This prayer comes from the depth of the psyche and the pneuma, that is, the praise arises from the innermost depths of the person praying: the one who prays is transformed completely and utterly into thanks and praise...

In the Magnificat which Luke attributes to Mary there are two reasons for this depth. God is addressed here as 'my Yeshua', my saviour. Mary praises God who has given her Yeshua, Jesus... Such a divine gift to a simple person, one of many, only increases the gratitude...

Prayer is praying in a tradition of prayer. The consequences of this tradition can also be seen in the Magnificat. Prayer is not just grateful praise of what God does for me; it is always also anamnesis, remembrance. The gracious act of God which people praise and for which they literally offer their congratulations is never in isolation. It must be seen in a wider context of never-ending gracious activity.

Therefore in the Magnificat there follows the great anamnesis of God: a proud remembrance of what God has done in the past... By means of this great remembrance, the believer who prays puts God's gracious act, of which the person who prays is itself the recipient, within the perspective of a more comprehensive saving event in which all others are involved. The prayer directs concern away from our own persons, and places everything within the wider context of a history which stands under God's promise: 'He protects Israel, his servant, remembering his mercy, the mercy promised to our fathers, to Abraham and his sons forever.'...

Prayer, however personal, however deeply it comes from a person's heart and spirit, is nevertheless only Christian prayer when this personal prayer is actively taken up into the perspective of the promise and saving history which are for all men and which transcend the purely personal dimension. This Christian characteristic removes all individualism from prayer and at the same time gives it a broader undercurrent: as it were the whole of history issues in Christian prayer...

The Magnificat, a song of praise uttered to God by an expectant mother, is ultimately so completely taken up into a thanksgiving to God for the whole of the history of salvation that prayerful reflection on it arrives at the insight that this history is held in tension between a beginning and an end. In the Magnificat Mary is the eschatalogical, i.e. the final, personification of Israel, whereas Abraham, the 'father of all believers', is the protological, i.e. the first, personification of that same Israel. Between these two poles lies the whole of Israel's history, which has grown old in the longing for and expectation of the final coming of God's liberation... But now that God is at last definitively visiting his people in Jesus of Nazareth, these old men and women [Simeon, Hannah, Zechariah, Elizabeth] can sing their Nunc Dimittis: the new covenant has begun, permanently, and now at least everything can be different...

At all events, the saving action of God in history and reflection in prayer belong intrinsically together. Without recognition in prayer, our history can hardly be called salvation history, and without salvation history, prayer becomes purely a human projection without any foundation.

Therefore it is as though prayer is a harmonious accompaniment to God's own saving actions, the resonance of them in our spirits and in our hearts... Prayer is therefore 'pati divina', experiencing the divine, not in the (Neo-) Platonic sense, which is the context from which the word in fact comes, but in the Jewish-Christian sense: being open to the visitation, the coming of God into our history, letting the kingdom of God come."
(God Among Us - The Gospel Proclaimed, pp21-25).

Novena Prayer to the Holy Spirit

"O Loving Spirit, who alone can enlighten us, purify our minds of their dryness and darkness. Lover and Source of all right thinking, mercifully anoint us and inspire us with holy thoughts and desires. Purify our deepest intentions, that we may come to see the almighty Father, whom the pure of heart alone can see."

The images above are of the Visitation as depicted in a 15th-century wall painting in Willingham parish church and a beautiful and unique 12th-century alabaster statue of Our Lady which is housed in the Dominican nuns' museum at Caleruega, Spain: Our Lady is shown clearly pregnant and clutching a chastity belt.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Fear of the Lord

The Psalmist, quoting Proverbs 1:7 says: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Ps 111:10). As we considered the Gift of Wisdom yesterday, it would be good to look at this Gift of the Fear of the Lord (timor Domini) which the Scriptures and Sacred Tradition calls the beginning of wisdom. How are we to understand this?

We can begin by saying what it is not: Pope Benedict XVI in his General Audience of 8 June 2005 taught: "It is not fear and terror that are suggested by this word, but serious and sincere respect which is the fruit of love, a genuine and active attachment to God the Liberator." Hence the 'fear' we speak of is not a servile terror of the servant for a dread and cruel Master; it is not even the fear of terrible punishment which is an imperfect kind of fear. Rather, we speak of the rightful reverence for God that is born of love, and St John says that "perfect love casts out fear" (1 Jn 4:18). The Conferences of the Desert Father John Cassian, explain it thus:

"Whoever then has been established in this perfect love is sure to mount by a higher stage to that still more sublime fear belonging to love, which is the outcome of no dread of punishment or greed of reward, but of the greatest love; whereby a son fears with earnest affection a most indulgent father, or a brother fears his brother, a friend his friend, or a wife her husband, while there is no dread of his blows or reproaches, but only of a slight injury to his love, and while in every word as well as act there is ever care taken by anxious affection lest the warmth of his love should cool in the very slightest degree towards the object of it."

Incidentally, it is also in this context that Ephesians 5:33 speaks of the reverence of a wife for her husband and vice-versa. This reverence is born of love, a concern to please the beloved and fear of hurting the Other. We hear it often enough in romantic movies when one says to the other: "The last thing I ever wanted to do is to hurt you" and of course this said after the hurt, lies, deception has been inflicted! This is often because the person may have acted out of fear, in the more primal sense of the word; true love means true fear of hurting the other and a desire to do that which pleases the other. As fr Richard Conrad OP puts it:

"If we love God, if we are His children and friends, then we have a deep concern to do what pleases Him and avoid what would hinder our journey into Him. And that is the Fear which is the Gift of the Holy Spirit, a Fear which goes with love... [With this Gift] we can sense if it's important to God for us to give up some legitimate pleasure or need - and our anxiety is to give it up and please God."

Moreover, Fr Jordan Aumann OP says that Fear of the Lord corresponds to the theological virtue of Hope "which it perfects by motivating the individual to avoid sin out of reverential fear of God... [it is] filial fear born of love and reverence [that] seeks the purity required for union with God."

Why is Fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom? Its fruition from Love should be indicative, for as we have seen Wisdom and Charity are inseparably linked. Again, Pope Benedict offers some insight into the matter. The Holy Father said:

"The Christian writer Barsanuphius of Gaza (active in the first half of the sixth century) comments on this verse: 'What is the first stage of wisdom if not the avoidance of all that is hateful to God? And how can one avoid it, other than by first asking for advice before acting, or by saying nothing that should not be said, and in addition, by considering oneself foolish, stupid, contemptible and of no worth whatsoever?'

However, John Cassian (who lived between the fourth and fifth centuries) preferred to explain that 'there is a great difference between love, which lacks nothing and is the treasure of wisdom and knowledge, and imperfect love, called 'the first stage of wisdom'. The latter, which in itself contains the idea of punishment, is excluded from the hearts of the perfect because they have reached the fullness of love'

Thus, on the journey through life towards Christ, our initial servile fear is replaced by perfect awe which is love, a gift of the Holy Spirit."
Hence, as we journey into love, into the Holy Spirit, we begin with Fear of the Lord, which is that anxiety to do only that which pleases Him and to avoid all that offends Him; it is a journey into greater purity of heart and intention. Let us pray:

Novena Prayer to the Holy Spirit

"By bestowing on us Your Holy Spirit, purify and enlighten our hearts, O Lord. May He come into their depths like the gentle dew and make them fruitful."

The stained glass image above of the Binding of Isaac is from the Basilica of Fourviere in Lyon. The holy patriarch Abraham so desired to please God and had such fear of the Lord that he was willing to sacrifice even his only son for the sake of his love of God.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Wisdom of the Most High

In the beautiful and ancient hymn to the Holy Spirit, the Veni Creator Spiritus, we sing: "You are seven-fold in Your gifts".

The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit (cf Isa 11:2) are Wisdom, Insight, Counsel, Courage, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord. These seven gifts are given in fullness to Christ and called down upon us at Confirmation but we seldom grasp how they work, which is a great pity: to be given gifts that we don't know how to use of what they do! For the next week as we approach Pentecost, I propose to consider these gifts as St Thomas Aquinas saw them and as they were explained to me. I am grateful to fr Richard Conrad OP for his help and teaching on this topic.

Fr Richard Conrad will also give a talk on the Seven Gifts here at Blackfriars Cambridge, this Thursday 1 June at 8pm. All are welcome.

Wisdom is the greatest of the seven gifts, it "reaches highest and lowest" and is "the ability to make judgments in the light of the highest principles. Charity attaches us to God and makes life with Him our goal, and by wisdom we acquire a kind of 'divine perspective' on things..." Charity and wisdom are thus inately linked and it is impossible to have one without the other. Hence fr Jordan Aumann, OP explains:

"The gift of wisdom perfects charity by giving it the divine modality it lacks so long as charity is subject to the rule of human reason, even illumined by faith... this is not a purely speculative wisdom but a practical wisdom. It is true that it belongs to the gift of wisdom, in the first place, to contemplate the divine, but in the second place, it pertains to wisdom to direct human acts according to divine things.

The philosophers defined wisdom as certain and evident knowledge of things through their ultimate causes. Those who contemplate a thing and know its proximate or immediate causes have scientific knowledge. Those who can reduce their knowledge to the ultimate principles of the natural order possess philosophical wisdom, which is called metaphysics. Those who, guided by the light of faith, investigate the revealed data of revelation deduce conclusions from them and possess theological wisdom. But those who, presupposing faith and sanctifying grace, judge divine things and human things through their ultimate causes by a kind of divine instinct possess supernatural wisdom, and this is the gift of wisdom. Beyond this, there is no higher type of wisdom in this life. It is surpassed only by the beatific vision and the uncreated wisdom of God...

For this reason a simple and uneducated soul lacking the theological knowledge acquired by study may sometimes possess, through the gift of wisdom, a more profound knowledge of divine things than an eminent theologian."

(Spiritual Theology, p271)

From this, fr Aumann draws a vital conclusion for the theology of Christian perfection: namely that the mystical state is not something extraordinary in the full development and maturation of the Christian journey of perfection. It is commonly thought that mysticism is for the rare few, those who are chosen and gifted, but that is not so. By the gift of wisdom and the exercising of this gift, all the baptised are drawn to the mystical state. Fr Aumann says mysticism "is the normal atmosphere that grace demands..."

How does one dispose oneself for the actuation of the gift of wisdom? Apart from the general means such as recollection, a life of prayer, fidelity to grace, humility, fr Aumann lists the following:

1. By seeing and evaluating all things from God's point of view;
2. By combating the wisdom of the world, which is foolishness in the eyes of God;
3. By detaching oneself from the things of this world, however good and useful;
4. By cultivating indifference to spiritual consolations.

Fr Richard Conrad OP explains the gift of wisdom by saying that "when we become truly wise, Jesus Christ comes to dwell in us. We share in the Divine Wisdom that Jesus is." The key to obtaining Wisdom of course is Charity, which is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Fr Richard goes on to say:

"So if we have Jesus and the Spirit within us by Wisdom and Charity, we also have God the Father since we embrace Him by Love and share His perspective on things by Wisdom - which is therefore a kind of foretaste of the clear vision of God in heaven, when we will see into His mind. In fact, it is quite natural for our perspective and our affections, for our instincts and our values, to go together: if your really love someone, you want to hear that person and see things his or her way; after a long and close marriage a couple value each other very deeply and each can sense how the other is thinking - and that is how it is between us and God: if we love God we have 'a sense of how God is thinking'..."

Writing all this makes me realize how far I have to go in acquiring Wisdom(!), but the journey of Christian perfection begins with a single step, with little acts of love. Let us pray too for the grace of the Spirit:

Novena Prayer to the Holy Spirit

"O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit have instructed the hearts of the faithful, grant us by the light of the same Spirit to be truly wise, and ever to rejoice in His consolation."

The above stained glass window of Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom is from the Basilica of Fourviere in Lyon.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Silence at Auschwitz

The Holy Father, self-styled as a "son of the German people", personally insisted on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau today and to walk around the camp (above), to meditate in that place of tremendous suffering and to pray and lay a candle at the memorial and to meet with survivors of the Nazi concentration camp.

The BBC video clip (which is available via this link to the BBC News page) clearly shows what a moving event this was and indeed how effectively it preached "God is Love". Some also have commented on the rainbow, God's sign of hope and promise, which appeared over the camp during the Pope's visit (below).

In the face of great suffering and evil at Auschwitz, the Holy Father pondered: "In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can only be a dread silence, a silence which is a heartfelt cry to God - Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?"


Sometimes that is the only answer we can have when we encounter the mysterium iniquitatis.

The following reflection from the Prologue to the Acts of the General Chapter of the Order of Preachers in Krakow 2004 was also written after a visit to Auschwitz and resonates with the Pope's experience. It is a profound meditation on preaching which moved me to tears the first time I heard it and I am pleased to be able to share extracts from it with you:

"Our visit to Auschwitz presented us with an example of extreme exclusion, which did not end 60 years ago. Our world has always been, a world of conflict but now this is global: a new world [dis]order, massive inequalities, discriminatory and bloody xenophobia, common attacks on the most fundamental rights to life, obscene wealth amid widespread misery, epidemics barely acknowledged and inadequately met. Albert Camus, speaking to the French friars after World War II, reminded them that ‘there is in this world beauty and there are the humiliated. We must strive,’ he said, ‘not to be unfaithful, neither to the one nor to the other.’ There are some people so tormented by the injustices in our world that they forget that the sun rose in the morning; there are others so taken with the beautiful that they are blind to the sufferings of others. These are some of the issues before us, provoking questions for which we have no complete answers. And yet, as an Order of Preachers, we must respond – not merely with words but with the Word that lives in our lives. We must strive not to be unfaithful, neither to beauty nor to the humiliated...

Do we dare risk being drawn beyond the security of what we know, dare to go out and enter the homes of those whom we do not know, to find ourselves bewildered and silenced? For this silence is creative: it is the silence of our nuns; it is the silence of the voiceless that invites us into another world.

To enter this other world is to discover ourselves as one small part of a world where the liberating word comes from elsewhere. It comes from those on the margins of society. It comes from those in our world whose concerns are bigger than themselves, who care for creation and the environment, for prisoners and patients, often putting their own lives at risk. To enter this world is to yield the illusion of power in order to be ‘possessed by others.’ To do so is to learn humility, to be docile before the wisdom and language of others’ experience, where we preachers receive much more than we give.

Like Dominic, we are but beggars, waiting in silence for a word from God and from others.

It is important for us to dare to learn with others how God has communicated himself to them, and from them learn the languages we need for our preaching. This is important if we are to be witnesses of a life that can only be experienced as gift and mystery.

To preach in this world is to share the life, the hope, and the promise that lives in the world of the other. To preach in this world is to walk on the frontier between sharing the lives of all those others and sharing the promise of salvation, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to them and discovering that he has gone before us into Galilee.

In this world we will have something to say, but only if it is a word for which we have suffered, a word we have fought for, and a word for which we have prayed. And this response – like that of the trumpeter of Krakow, whose hourly call ends abruptly – might be a word that ends in silence as the only adequate response before suffering humanity or before the immensity of the mystery..."

Looking to the World to Come

The Preface of the Ascension proclaims that Christ is the "king of glory... the mediator between God and man, judge of the world and lord of all... the head of the Church" and expresses the Church's faith and the Christian's hope that "where he has gone, we hope to follow". As such, our Head has already "ascended to heaven" and we, while still on earth, await the union of the Church, His Body with Him. Thus as Christians, we hold that heaven is our homeland, our true dwelling place is in heaven with the Blessed Trinity.

Hence in today's Gospel, the Lord says twice: "They do not belong to the world anymore than I belong to the world..." (Jn 17: 14, 16); rather we belong in heaven with Christ who has gone before us to prepare a place for us. Because we are not of the world but are merely in the world, Jesus warns us that the world would hate us (cf Jn 15:18-20; 17:14). What is this 'world' that hated and persecuted our Lord and which hates his true disciples too? Fr Herbert McCabe OP says:

"Jesus goes to the extremes that he does because of the human world to which he has been sent, the less than human world to which he belongs, the only human world there is. It is because this human world is one of sin (not just a world with sins in it). It is a world maladjusted to the very purpose and point of being human"
(God, Christ and Us, 49).

Signs of the world's hatred for the Church and the Word she proclaims are legion. Recent events covered on the blogosphere which come to mind are the lies of The Da Vinci Code and the recent incident in the USA involving Ben Kessler. But in addition to this there are the many forms of injustice and opposition to the Church's social and pro-life teaching that indicate the world's hatred.

As Pope John Paul II said, the Church stands as a "sign of contradiction" before the world because:

"The Gospel of Christ constantly renews the life and culture of fallen man, it combats and removes the errors and evils resulting from the permanent allurement of sin. It never eases to purify and elevate the morality of peoples"

This tension between the world and its' sin and the Church and her eternal Gospel of truth, goodness and holiness is always with us, this "maladjustment" to true humanity is the magnification of the struggle of the human heart that St Paul describes so well in Romans 7:14-25. This conflict that rages in the human heart is why there is such resistance to divine truth; and this inner conflict is manifest as opposition to the Church who preaches, teaches and shows forth the truth of the Gospel.

Without the Spirit to "guide [us] into all the truth" (Jn 16:13) and to "consecrate us in the truth" (Jn 17:17) we too would lose the struggle and begin to be loved by the world "as its own" (cf Jn 15:19). Hence the Holy Father, Benedict XVI taught with such clarity on Friday in Poland:

"Every Christian is bound to confront his own convictions continually with the teachings of the Gospel and of the Church's Tradition in the effort to remain faithful to the word of Christ, even when it is demanding and, humanly speaking, hard to understand. We must not yield to the temptation of relativism or of a subjectivist and selective interpretation of sacred Scripture. Only the whole truth can open us to adherence to Christ, dead and risen for our salvation."

The very idea of being consecrated in the truth means that we are set apart for Christ. What are we set apart from? The world and its lies, illusions and empty promises. Indeed, the word 'ekklesia', which is used to name and describe the Church, is related to the earlier Jewish word, 'qahal', which means "to be called out". Hence, the etymology of the word 'Church' can convey the idea that we are called out of darkness, sin, the world to become the People of God (cf 1 Pet 2:9).

But this does not mean that the Church is called out of the world such that she is an entirely spiritual entity. Afterall, she is also a visible institution. So, Christoph Cardinal Schonborn OP explains:

"The kingdom of God is 'eschatalogical'. It belongs to the end time, yet the end time has already begun in Christ. His kingdom is not of this world, but it comes into this world. For where men become his disciples, they form not a group thrown together by chance but a structured fellowship that is constituted in a visible manner and displays in its fundamental structure an organic continuity with its origin. The Church's fellowship is neither a merely a secular religious grouping nor a purely spiritual community: it is neither an exclusively visible Church or an exclusively invisible Church. It is both at one and the same time, and in an inseparable fashion, earthly and heavenly Church, a structured society and a spiritual fellowship."
(From Death to Life, pp110-111)

Hence, the Lord goes on to say in today's Gospel: "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one" (Jn 17:15). Truly, we cannot be taken out of the world; we live in it! Hence Yves Congar OP observed: "The world of tangible things is our assigned setting in which we live out our lives...", our lives of fidelity to the demands of the Gospel. Moreover, as the Council Fathers at Vatican II taught:

"While helping the world and receiving many benefits from it, the Church has a single intention: that God's kingdom may come, and that the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass. For every benefit which the People of God during its earthly pilgrimage can offer to the human family stems from the fact that the Church is 'the universal sacrament of salvation', simultaneously manifesting and arising the mystery of God's love... Christians, on pilgrimage toward the heavenly city, should seek and think of these things which are above. This duty in no way decreases, rather it increases, the importance of their obligation to work with all men in the building of a more human world."
(Gaudium et spes, 45, 57).
Christ enthroned
Therefore, we exist in this world as its leaven, to be salt and light to the world; to fill it with the love of Christ, the truth that the Holy Spirit teaches us and to give the world hope in the promises of Christ, so as make the world more fully and authentically human and to advance all of mankind on the way to the Trinitarian life. Thus, the Church enhances and promotes true humanity and is the friend of humanity, contrary to the ideas the world has about the Church and the Christian faith.

It is also important to affirm that our disconnectedness from the world does not mean that the world, human culture and society is evil per se: that Manichean tendency is a real danger and temptation and it must be roundly rejected and resisted. What Christians reject is the glamour of evil, its falsehood and Satan's vain promises (cf Renewal of Baptismal Vows) which is found in the world. However, the world itself - as God created it and intended it - is fundamentally good. Therefore, Cardinal Schonborn summarises and paraphrases Gaudium et spes in saying that society (and the 'city of mankind'):

"In itself is good and possesses its relative autonomy, its own positive values, and its own finality: the 'common good' (bonum commune). Culture, science, economics, and politics have their positive values, which cannot simply be identified with man's ultimate goal, which can only be God... the kingdom of God, the 'civitas Dei', is this ultimate goal, which is already present in the Church and is to penetrate and reshape all temporal values, without calling their autonomy into question."
(op. cit., p121).

I suppose the problem arises when we become so seduced by the world and the transient pleasures it offers that we no longer have God and His Kingdom as our destination and ultimate goal. Or, sometimes in our desire to work for a more just and humane society we can forget that "the kingdom of God is not of this world; the sphere of the reconciliation of all antitheses is not to be found within history... the ultimate goal of man cannot lie in this world" (ibid., p114) and we start to desire a totalitarian utopia that cannot exist. This world is transitory and we are but pilgrims on the way to our heavenly homeland. It has to be said that:

"For the Christian, heaven is already on earth, in a certain sense. For where he attempts in this time, with all its provisional character, to create space for love, to lend a voice to justice, to live peace, there - even in the midst of great deficiencies and miseries - something of heaven can already be sensed on earth... the Christian knows that the decisive struggle is not a 'class struggle' or a 'struggle for existence' but the continuous struggle against the power of evil, against the forces of pride, of arrogance, of hatred..."
(ibid., p123).

And so, we return to our essential struggle with sin in our lives, in our fallen human condition, in our less-than-human world. Who is it who will save us from this? Who offers the answers? It is God: The Holy Spirit is sent among us to guide and protect us from the wiles and snare of the Evil One, to equip us with the graces necessary for spiritual battle and to help us grow and mature into the perfect manhood of Christ (cf Eph 4:13), so that we are led, in the communion of the Church, to God the Father of all.

Let us invoke the Spirit into our lives and be formed by His Love.

The images above show a Romanesque relief of the Ascension from the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos; the Holy Father in Warsaw and a stained glass window of Christ enthroned in heaven from Willingham Parish Church.

Novena Prayer to the Holy Spirit

"O King of glory, Jesus Christ, Lord of Hosts, who ascended victorious above all the heavens:
Do not leave us orphans, but send us the Paraclete You promised,
the Spirit of Truth."

Saturday, May 27, 2006

St Augustine of Canterbury

St Augustine chapel Westminster

On this day, the Church in England rejoices in the memory of St Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury and Apostle to the English. The photo above is of the reredos of the chapel of St Gregory and St Augustine in Westminster Cathedral. St Augustine is shown in the habit of a Benedictine monk next to Pope St Gregory the Great. In the mosaic above the opus sectile reredos, St Augustine is shown on the left kneeling before Pope St Gregory who sent him to convert the Angles c.596. Hanging from the roof of this chapel is the red galero, the cardinals' hat, which belonged to the late Basil Cardinal Hume. Himself a Benedictine monk, he is buried in this chapel under the watchful gaze of the saintly Pope, with whose Successor he was in communion, and the blessed Augustine, whose mantle had fallen on him and his successors, the Archbishops of Westminster.

St Augustine of Canterbury landed on these shores c.597 and having converted King Ethelbert of Kent to Christianity, he established with papal authority the Primatial See of Canterbury as the Seat of the English church. He built the first cathedral of Canterbury and two other churches. He oversaw the sending of missionary bishops throughout the land and died in 604, buried outside the city of Canterbury. His relics were later transferred into the Benedictine abbey of Ss Peter and Paul that was subsequently dedicated to him. The last Catholic Primate to sit in the Chair of St Augustine as his rightful successor was Reginald Cardinal Pole (ob. 1558).

There is an excellent site on St Augustine's mission that is well worth a visit and there are good links there to further information about the saint.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II and the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury made a common declaration at Canterbury Cathedral. It is fitting that we end with their words and ponder the task of Christian unity that lies before us:

"This holy place reminds us of the vision of Pope Gregory in sending St Augustine as an apostle to England, full of zeal for the preaching of the Gospel and the shepherding of the flock. On this eve of Pentecost, we turn again in prayer to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who promised to ask the Father to give us another Advocate to be with us for ever, the Spirit of truth (cf. Jn 14:16), to lead us to the full unity to which he calls us. Confident in the power of this same Holy Spirit, we commit ourselves anew to the task of working for unity with firm faith, renewed hope and ever deeper love."

In commemorating St Augustine of Canterbury, we recall the roots of the Church in England, its profound and filial union with the Bishop of Rome and the fullness of the ancient Faith he brought to these shores. By his prayers, may it be ever so once more.

Novena Prayer to the Holy Spirit:
"May the Holy Spirit, the Counsellor, who proceeds from You, enlighten our hearts, O Lord; and in accordance with Your Son's promise, may He lead us into all truth."

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Wine of the Spirit

The image of wine was frequently used by early Dominican preachers, as noted in Paul Murray OP's excellent book 'The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality' and I have mentioned in previous posts the aptness of wine as an image of evangelical preaching and the joy of the Gospel. Here is a beautiful quotation from the Golden Legend by Blessed James of Voragine OP, which I came across yesterday in his passage on the Ascension:

"[The angels asked Christ:] 'Why then is thy apparel red, and thy garments like those of the ones who treads in the winepress?' (Isa 63:2). Here the Lord is said to have had a garment, namely, his body, that was red because it was running with blood, since even then, while he was ascending, he still bore open scars in his body... Therefore the Lord answers this question as follows: 'I have trodden the winepress alone, and not a man of the Gentiles was with me' (Isa 63:3). The cross may be called a winepress, because on it he was crushed as in a press and his blood gushed forth. Or he may be calling the devil a winepress, because the evil spirit has so bound and entangled the human race with cords of sin that whatever spiritual in them is squeezed out and nothing but the sour pulp is left. But our warrior [Christ] trampled the winepress, broke the sinners' bonds, and, ascending into heaven, opened the heavenly inn and poured the wine of the Spirit."

It is for this outpouring that we pray anew in these nine days before Pentecost. May we drink deeply of the new wine of the Spirit and become as the apostles - drunk with love for Christ, the Gospel and His Church - and eager to spread that inebriation!

One such person who was certainly drunk on the Spirit is St Philip Neri, whose memorial is kept today. Called the 'Apostle of Rome', he had close associations with the Order of Preachers. He was taught and sheltered by the Dominicans of San Marco in Florence; hence, he had a particular devotion to and thought highly of the reforming friar, Savonarola, who was once Prior of that community.

St Philip Neri was to found the Congregation of the Oratory in Rome and he is famed for his love and joy, such that his heart was enlarged with charity and he is known by some as the patron saint of joy! Stories abound of his wit and fine humour and his witness of good works and zeal for souls inspired a new Pentecost in Rome, as people were converted to greater fervour in the practise of their faith.

Moreover, as Pope John Paul the Great has written, St Philip "undertook to reform and elevate art, restoring it to the service of God and the Church. Convinced as he was that beauty leads to goodness, he brought all that had an artistic stamp within the realm of his educational project. And he himself became a patron of various artistic forms, promoting sound initiatives that led to truth and goodness."

We have much need of St Philip Neri and his example in our day. May the Holy Spirit continue to inspire his sons, the Oratorians and bless and fructify their work.

Novena Prayer to the Holy Spirit:

"O God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secret is hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by breathing into them Your Holy Spirit;
that we may perfectly love You, and worthily praise You."

The stained glass window (above left) of the Ascension is from the recusant chapel of Hengrave Hall and dates to the early-16th century and has fortuitously survived the Protestant Reformation. On the right is a window depicting St Philip Neri from the Dominican Sisters' Convent at Stone.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The View From Your Window

Andrew Sullivan, whose blog I stumble onto every now and again, is currently running a series in which he invites readers to send photos of the view taken from any window of their homes. These photos have to be un-doctored and taken the day that it is sent to him by e-mail.

It's a marvellous idea and very impressive because one sees his wide readership base from across the globe. Do check out these photos, even if you don't agree with his opinions!

And... if any of my small group of readers want to send me views from their windows, I would be happy to post them up! It might be interesting to share, quite literally, your viewpoint on the world! E-mail me:

Any takers? To start it off, here's the view from my bedroom (a.k.a. 'cell') window taken a couple of weeks ago: Yes, it's Br Paul studying his Latin primer in the garden!

The 'Legenda Aurea' on the Ascension

Ascension Hawkesyard

With a certain Scholastic clarity and the confidence of faith, the Dominican bishop, Blessed Jacobus de Voragine, who wrote the famous 'Golden Legend' in the 13th century presents a veritable treatise on the manner and where and why of the Lord's Ascension. His writing on the Solemnity which we celebrate today seeks to provide sound answers to the questions that may arise in relation to this day.

Perhaps like the "men of Galilee" who looked up bewildered and uncomprehending as the Lord was taken from their sight, I too tend to find myself asking questions about how the Lord ascended and where did He go, how high did He ascend; the material and physical aspects of this event, quite apart from the theological significance of the Ascension, fascinates me somewhat! It is an event that has clearly aroused the imagination of artists too: Although the Lord is often shown serenely lifting off into the heavens (as above, in this window from the Hawkesyard Priory church), in earlier representations one often sees just a crowd of upturned faces looking at two pierced feet or just these sacred feet dangling from a cloud.

As such, following are extracts from 'The Golden Legend' in which some questions are given and Bl James' answers for them. I find a perusal of his work is always interesting, delightful to the imagination and edifying to one's faith. Thus, even if we don't physically ascend into the heavens today, let at least our minds soar and reach for the heights with thoughts such as these:

"Regarding the place from which Christ ascended, Sulpicius, bishop of Jerusalem, says, and the 'Gloss' also says, that when a church was built [on the Mount of Olives] later on, the spot where Christ had stood could never be covered with pavement; and more than that, the marble slabs placed there burst upwards into the faces of those who were laying them. He also says that footmarks in the dust there prove that the Lord had stood on that spot: the footprints are discernible and the ground still retains the depressions his feet had left.

On the second point, namely, why Christ waited forty days to ascend to heaven... the first was to provide sure evidence of his resurrection from the dead... The second reason was the consolation of the apostles, because the divine consolations are more abundant than our trials... thirdly, there was a mystical meaning involved... the ratio of day to hour is manifest from the fact that the Lord lay dead for forty hours, a time of tribulation, and, rising from the dead, appeared to the disciples over forty days for their consolation...

The third question concerned the manner of his ascension. First of all he ascended powerfully, because he did so by his own power, as we read in Isa. 63:1 'Who is this that cometh from Edom... walking in the greatness of his strength?' and John 3:13: 'No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven.' Admittedly he ascended in a globe of cloud, but he did not do this because he needed the help of a cloud but to show that every creature was ready to serve its creator... Secondly he ascended openly, because the disciples were there to observe it, according to Acts 1:9... He willed to have them see him ascending so that they would be on hand as witnesses of his ascension, would rejoice that a human being was carried up into heaven , and would to follow him there. Thirdly he went up joyfully, because the angels were jubilant... Fourthly, he went up swiftly, as Ps. 18:6b says: 'He has rejoiced as a giant to run the way'. He must have ascended with great speed, since he traversed such a distance, as it were in a moment... So it was a great leap that Christ made from earth to heaven; and about this leap and some others that Christ made, Ambrose says as follows: 'By a leap Christ came into this world: he was with the Father and came into the Virgin and leapt from the Virgin to the manger, went down into the Jordan, went up to the cross, went down to the tomb, rose out of the tomb, and is seated at the Father's right hand.'

As to the fourth point, namely, with whom Christ ascended, let it be known that he ascended with a great catch of people and a great multitude of angels. That he took a catch of men with him is obvious from what Ps. 68:18 says: 'Thou didst ascend the high mount, leading captives in thy train.'...

On the fifth point - by what merit Christ ascended - be it known that it was by a threefold merit, about which Jerome says this: 'Because of truth, since you fulfilled what you promised; because of meekness, since you are sacrificed like a sheep for the life of the people; because of justice, since you delivered man not by power but by justice; and your right hand, in other words, power and virtue, will lead you wondrously - i.e., up to heaven.' (cf Ps 44:5).

The answer to the sixth question, namely, where Christ ascended to, is that he rose above all the heavens, according to what we read in Eph. 4:8-10: 'He that descended is the same also that ascended above all the heavens that he might fulfill all things.' The text says 'above all the heavens' because there are several heavens - the material, the rational, the intellectual and the supersubstantial - beyond which he ascended...

Regarding the seventh question, namely, why Christ ascended, it is to be noted that his ascension was fruitful or beneficial in nine ways. The first is that it brought down the love of God upon us... The second fruit is our greater knowledge of God... The third benefit is the merit of faith... for this is the strength of great minds - to believe without hesitating things that the eye of the body cannot see, and to fix desire on what you cannot reach by sight... The fourth fruit is our security. Christ ascended in order to be our advocate with the Father... The fifth benefit is our dignity. Very great indeed is our dignity when our nature is exalted to the right hand of God!... The sixth fruit of the Lord's ascension is the strengthening of our hope... on this, [Pope] Leo [the Great] again: 'Christ's ascension is our elevation, and where the glory of the head has gone before, there the hope of the body tends also.' The seventh benefit is that the way is marked out for us... The eighth fruit is the opening of the gate of heaven; for as the first Adam opened the gates of hell, so the second the gates of paradise... The ninth is the preparation of the place; John 14:2: 'I go to prepare a place for you'..."

With such thoughts as these, we rejoice with the angels, we praise God with song and we cry aloud: "God goes up with shouts of joy! The Lord ascends with trumpet blast! Alleluia!"

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Today the Order of Preachers celebrates the memorial of the Translation of our holy father Saint Dominic. He had been buried in the church of St Nicholas of the Vineyards at Bologna and his brethren "whose simplicity outweighed their prudence" were reluctant to acknowledge the many miracles of healing taking place at his tomb. Finally at the urging of Pope Grefory IX, St Dominic's remains were moved to a marble sepulchre on Pentecost Tuesday in 1233. This marked the beginning of his canonization process and he was declared a saint on 3 July 1234. In 1267, St Dominic's relics were moved to its present tomb in Santo Domingo in Bologna. On the left is the cypress wood coffin in which St Dominic is buried, as mentioned in the story below.

Blessed Jordan of Saxony, Successor of St Dominic, describes the event of the translation of St Dominic's body:

"The bishops approached devoutly, the workers applied their tools, and the stone that had been firmly cemented to the sepulchre was removed. Inside the tomb was the wooden coffin, just as it had been placed there by the venerable Pope Gregory when he was bishop of Ostia. A small opening was visible in the coffin.

As soon as the stone was taken away a wonderful odour poured out from the opening and its fragrance caused astonishment among those present. They were amazed and overcome with wonder at this strange event. Everyone shed tears and feelings of joy, of fear and of hope rose in all hearts...

The body was carried to the marble sepulchre where it was to rest and the perfume encompassed it. This marvellous aroma, which the holy body breathed forth, was evidence to everyone of how much the saint had truly been the aroma of Christ."

In honour of today's Dominican feast, I am privileged to be able to share with you an extract from the poem 'Sun-Dogs' by Michael Symmons Roberts. 'Sun-Dogs' was written for a choral and orchestral work set to music by the noted Scottish composer James Macmillan, a lay Dominican and friend of Blackfriars. He gifted me with a copy of the manuscript of this work a few months ago when he came to stay with us. The musical composition, Sun-Dogs was co-commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival and it will receive its UK Premiere at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford on 10 August 2006. James Macmillan has dedicated his work to the Order of Preachers and I reproduce the following extract from the poem with his permission:

"Domini canes;
a pair, one white, one black,
guardians of order,
custodians of luck.

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark,
the beggars are coming to town!

Like Sirius' twins at the feet of Orion,
other dogs, skin and bone on rope leads, kept their distance,
slept with men in make-shift beds,
men who wondered where these perfect strays had come from,
with such an amber in their eyes,
and coats which, though immaculate in black and white,
became prismatic in the sun, too hot to touch,
as if they ever let you come that close.

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark,
the beggars are coming to town!"

May St Dominic pray for his sons and daughters and unite us with the blessed in heaven.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Body of Christ, Source of the Spirit

This week's Gospel readings point to the necessity of Christ's return to the Father, for our good and indeed, for the good of His Church. As the Lord says to his disciples in today's Gospel: "I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you" (Jn 16:7).

We do well to ask what this means and to ponder the mystery of the Eucharist in which Christ is made present among us for all time by the working of the Holy Spirit whom He has sent. A Carthusian, giving a set of novice conferences, has had his reflections collated in From Advent to Pentecost. In this book, he shares the fruit of his contemplation on this matter:

"Only the glorified Christ dispenses the Spirit (cf Jn 7:39). The bodily humanity of Christ is the source of the Spirit, it is the spiritual rock of the desert (1 Cor 10:4), but it must be struck with the rod of the Cross, so that the rivers of living water may gush forth from it (Origen). St John, and the Fathers after him, saw the symbolic realisation of that promise in the flow of blood and water from the pierced body of Christ on the Cross (Jn 19:34). The water symbolises the Spirit; the blood, the humanity of Christ which bleeds in the Passion. Through the blood poured out, we receive the Spirit.

Note well the realistic idea of St John. He places the source of the Spirit, 'spiritual' reality par excellence, in the body of Christ. But that cannot come about without a radical transformation of Christ's humanity: unless, according to the terminology of St Paul, the last Adam becomes a 'life-giving spirit' (1 Cor 15:45).

So that the man Jesus can give us the Spirit and thus bring us into the Kingdom of God, he must return to the Father. The Father has to give him that divine glory he had in the presence of the Father before the world existed (Jn 17:5). His humanity must be transformed by the divine light of the Word, embraced by the flame of the Spirit, must become 'spiritual' to the point of becoming the source of the Holy Spirit for those who touch it through faith and the sacraments.

For Christ's flesh is not replaced by a purely spiritual presence of God. It remains the point of contact; the Incarnation remains forever. Only its way of being present and acting is more universal and more interior; the sensible presence is effected through the sacraments of the faith, by which the glorified Christ touches us and infuses the Spirit into our hearts. Think of that sometimes at the moment of Communion during Mass; at that moment, our lips press against the open side of the Crucified and we drink deep of incorruptible Love. 'Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life' (Jn 6:54). "

O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of His Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory given to us, alleluia!

The engraving above is from an 1864 Book of Epistles and Gospels.

ADDENDUM (Updated 10:12am on 23/05): Fr Austin Milner, OP preaches at the on this idea of Christ's abiding presence in the Church and the world; do read his homily and others by the English Dominicans on that site.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Dominican Pilgrimage to Walsingham

Yesterday, the Dominican Family in our Province had its annual pilgrimage to 'Little Nazareth', the beautiful and serene village of Walsingham in Norfolk where Our Lady appeared in 1061 and her Holy House was built. Pilgrimages to Walsingham have been held since then and after the Reformation was revived in 1897.

On the right is the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham which was carved in the Marian Year of 1954 and venerated by Pope John Paul II when he visited England in 1982. The original statue was taken from the Augustinian Priory of Walsingham in 1538 and burnt by the 'Reformers'.

The Symbolism of this statue of is as follows:

The Saxon crown and throne portray Mary as Queen;
The three-fold lily symbolizes virginity and purity;
The pillars of the throne represent the Church;
The seven rings on the pillars stand for the seven gifts of the Spirit.

The statue is enshrined in the 14th-century Slipper Chapel (below) which is part of the Catholic Shrine and one of the few surviving buildings from the medieval complex. Originally pilgrims took off their shoes here and walked the Holy Mile into the village to visit the Priory.

The Slipper Chapel is a tranquil place for prayer and contemplation; one lights a candle here and places a petition before Our Lady. Mass was celebrated in the modern Reconciliation Chapel, followed by a packed lunch to fortify us for the Procession!

Assembling in the gentle rain outside the Reconciliation Chapel (below), we set out down the Holy Mile to Walsingham. I don't think any of us were discalced but there was a sense of prayer as we said the Rosary and sang Marian hymns for the entire duration of the Procession into the village.

The Procession took us down a quiet country lane, past the ruins of the Franciscan Friary and into the village square (below), near the Catholic church which is being reconstructed. Here, we rested the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham and prayed the 'Hail, Holy Queen'.

After the wet and windy walk, we were refreshed with tea and some finger foods and dashed off to visit the Anglican Shrine which has to be seen to be believed! It recreates the look of the medieval pilgrimage centre, and has a replica of the Holy House within the church. This is Anglo-Catholicism at its utmost and when we were there, 'Benediction' was being performed in the main body of the church. Below is the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham within the Holy House of the Anglican Shrine:

Below, I am standing in front of the gate house of the Augustinian Priory of Walsingham where the original Holy House and Shrine once stood. This is basically one of the few remnants of the medieval Priory and Shrine.

We made our way back to the Catholic Shrine and sang Vespers coram Sanctissimum, followed by Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. It was a wonderful way to end a beautiful pilgrimage to Our Lady's National Shrine in England. The painting below shows Our Lady of Walsingham as the heart of the devotion of the English saints of old and long may Our Lady and this holy place be a focus for the English saints of this generation too! May she obtain for our Dominican Order and Province every grace and blessing and grant us increase in number, holiness, and vigour.

"O Alone of all women, Mother and Virgin, Mother most happy, Virgin must pure, now we, sinful as we are, come to see thee who art all pure; we salute thee; we honour thee as how we may with our humble offerings; may thy Son grant us, that imitating thy most holy manners, we also, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, may deserve spiritually to conceive the Lord Jesus in our inmost soul, and once conceived never to lose him. Amen."

- A pilgrim's prayer composed by Erasmus when he visited Walsingham in 1511.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

"Love Your Neighbour as Yourself..."

"This I command you: love one another" (John 15:17).

GottfriedOne of the many striking passages in Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, is the honest observation that love cannot, in a sense, be commanded; and then the Holy Father's Christian response to the apparent paradox of Christ's divine injunction that is read in today's Gospel. As His Holiness notes in paragraph 16: "Moreover, love cannot be commanded; it is ultimately a feeling that is either there or not, nor can it be produced by the will." In the subsequent two paragraphs, the Holy Father explains how Christ's command is possible, because God Himself is the instigator and source of all human loving. He writes:

"He has loved us first and he continues to do so; we too, then, can respond with love. God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of producing. He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has 'loved us first', love can also blossom as a response within us... Love of neighbour is thus shown to be possible in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus. It consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern... If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be 'devout' and to perform my 'religious duties', then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely 'proper', but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me."

Hence, the Christian vision is Christ's vision: seeing with the eyes of Christ. The difficulty one finds in achieving this is because we don't have Christ at the centre of our lives. Instead we are caught up in an ego-centric vision which is the condition of all humanity. How are we to transcend this and become more Christocentric? Pope Benedict writing in 1989, before his election to the Chair of St Peter, explains:

"To describe love of neighbour Holy Writ uses a very wise and profound phrase: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' It does not demand any fantastic and unreal heroism. It does not say: 'You must deny yourself and exist only for the other; you must make less of yourself and more of the other.' No, it is as yourself: no more and no less. People who are dissatisfied with themselves will not be really good to others. True love is fair: where it is leading us is to love oneself as one of the members of Christ's body. Oneself like the others - becoming free of that false perspective with which we are all born, as if the world revolves around me and my ego.

Through faith we must all learn a kind of Copernican revolution. Copernicus discovered that it was not the sun that went round the earth but that this earth along with the other planets revolved around the sun. We all begin by seeing ourselves as a tiny earth around which all the suns must turn. Faith teaches us to leave this error and to behave like brothers and sisters, joining together with all the others in the round dance of love around the one centre that is God. Only if God exists, only if he becomes the centre of my life, is this 'love my neighbour as myself' possible. But if he exists, if he becomes my centre, then it is possible to reach this inward freedom of love."
(The Yes of Jesus Christ, pp112-113)

Therefore, a truly Ecclesial sense of communion can help re-orientate us. The saints had a great sense of this and remain a sure guide; above all, the Blessed Virgin Mother who bore Christ within her blessed womb so that He was physically and spiritually the centre of her very being.

Our Lady and angels (Stone)We can share in Our Lady's experience of God's love and having Christ in our very being when we receive Holy Communion today (and indeed, everyday); when we receive the great gift of Christ's Body and Blood, we do well to remember that in Him, we are united with one another across time and space. Communion unites all of us - the people we don't like, that parishioner we don't get on with, the Catholic politician whose views we just don't share, that priest or religious we consider 'liberal' or 'conservative' or whatever other label we'd like to stamp on them. United in Christ's Mystical Body and washed in His Precious Blood, how can we not love our neighbours, our brothers and sisters in Christ? And that is the mystery and beauty of the Church: we're all together, sinners in need of Christ on the Barque of Peter - why do we keep pushing and shoving one another, bickering and squabbling like children in the back seat?

When we learn to love ourselves, by which I mean, one another in the one Body, the Church, because we truly appreciate God's love for us and are in Communion with Him (and one another), having Him at the centre of our lives, then we can begin to love our neighbours, those who are not of His One Flock and One Fold.

May Our Lady, Mother of the Church and Help of Christians pray for us and lead us into love and unity.

The photos above are of a friend, Gottfried, who was a lay missionary with Tahanang Puso in the Philippines and a stained glass window of Our Lady from the Dominican Sisters' Convent at Stone.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Seek the Truth!

Rather like Pilate who asked "What is Truth?" some people today seem quite eager to play fast and loose with truth. The Da Vinci Code received its premiere in Cannes this week and came onto general release in the UK yesterday. The tagline on the posters for this movie was: "Seek the Truth".

Indeed! For if one were to actively seek the Truth, one finally comes to Jesus Christ, who is "the Way, the Truth and the Life"; Truth is (as The Da Vinci Code supposes) indeed a Person and that Person is far more exciting and dynamic than the confused, contrived con that is the movie I saw yesterday. Coming to seek and to love the Truth is to love the Person of Jesus Christ; as Yves Congar OP once said, "I love truth as I love a person."

The very fact that Dan Brown and those who chose to make the movie based on his book 'The Da Vinci Code' can posit insinuations and lies as true shows how undervalued truth is in our world. People simply don't love truth; is it any wonder they don't love Christ and His holy Church? I have considered for two years the position of Mr Brown on this matter. He asserts that his book is a work of fiction and yet in television interviews wants to assert (as indeed he does on the very first page of his book) that his work is based on fact. By implication, he seems to be saying that he has woven his yarn around truths about Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the Church. Whatever his real position, such prevarication should come as no surprise to us. Anyone who has such a poor respect for truth cannot be expected to be a man of his word. This laissez-faire attitude to truth is perhaps rather sadly typical of our age. As fr Timothy Radcliffe OP wrote:

"We live in a society that does not have a high regard for the truth... For most of the history of the West, telling the truth has been thought of as valuable in itself, as belonging to our human dignity, and required by honour. Aristotle wrote that 'falsehood is itself mean and culpable, and truth noble and full of praise'. This tradition was still alive in Kant, who wrote, 'By a lie a person throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a person.'"
(What is the Point of Being a Christian?, p111.)

On another level, one may wonder what it is that drives one to have such disregard for truth. Where do lies originate and why? When it comes to a work like 'The Da Vinci Code', the core argument seems to be that the Church has been deceiving people for two millennia, that if the 'truth' were allowed to be made known, all oppression, violence, poverty etc would end, and she would kill to hide this 'truth'. This is preposterous and illogical, as any sociologist and historian might tell us; it is untrue, a lie. In fact, I would consider it libelous! Who would want to perpetrate lies against Christ and His holy Church?

"Jesus said to them, 'If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here... Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth you do not believe me... If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God'."
(John 8:42-47)

How has the "father of lies" acted this time? How does the Deceiver resuscitate old heresies and make them attractive for a 21st-century audience? One can almost hear Screwtape instructing Wormwood to use an exciting novel and a star-studded movie (even if it's been panned by critics, or maybe even because it's been slated!) as tools to spread lies and plant the seeds of unhealthy doubt about Christ and His holy Church!

The so-called 'facts' on which Dan Brown bases his book and which the movie amplifies are quite well-known. Summaries of Dan Brown's book and a synopsis of the untruths and insinuations his characters hold are readily available. We are exhorted to 'Seek the Truth', so let's do it: There are many excellent rebuttals to these lies and inaccuracies: I would recommend Bart Ehrman's Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code. If you can't get hold of it, read this interview with Professor Ehrman or visit the excellent USCCB website.

Some people may wonder why I read the book since I could get hold of synopses so easily and why watch the movie and enrich those who perpetrate the lies?

Because I desired to know how 'The Da Vinci Code' works as a book and as a movie, how it impacts upon the reader and viewer. The Lord Himself has said that "the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light" (Lk 16:8) and thus we, the 'children of light', need to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Mt 10:16). This we can do by examining for ourselves, the tactics of the Prince of Lies, in order to know one's enemy. As Sun Tzu, the Chinese philosopher who wrote 'The Art of War' put it:

"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."

Hence, I wished to examine how these lies were woven into the story, how they might appeal to audiences, how people might be fooled and drawn into the web of untruths, and the only way to do this was to experience both the book and the movie first-hand. This obviously does not mean I endorse them nor do I recommend that others head to the cinema immediately. One has to make one's own prudential judgement on this. Honestly though, I thought the book was an exciting page-turner and the movie a poorly-directed and poorly-acted bore; the latter let down the former but I fear the movie is more powerful in the manner in which it insinuates and plants in one's mind - by word and image - the supposed 'truth' it wants to market. This review gives a good idea of what I mean...

In many ways, the central lies of 'The Da Vinci Code' are old; the Deceiver does not change his story but his tactics are pretty inventive and he does not fail to try to get his message across. And there is some evidence that he has been quite successful. Going by a recent U.K. poll commissioned by the Catholic-run Da Vinci Code Response Group, many people (at least in this country) have been fooled by The Da Vinci Code.

What this suggests to me is that there is much to be done by the Church in the U.K. (as indicated in this week's Tablet editorial), and I rather expect in other parts of the world too! And the work we do as Christians is not to be defensive but to carry out a work of love and compassion. One thing that the Da Vinci Code phenomenon tells me is that there is a genuine hunger for truth but this hunger is not satisfied and is being frustrated by the lies that people are being fed! As such, the Church can and must respond with the Truth of Jesus Christ, He who alone can satisfy the longings of the human heart and our common search for Truth. As St Dominic knew well, eradicating error and teaching the truth was an act of compassion and love for humanity.

Recently, fr Bruno Esposito OP said at a symposium addressing the Da Vinci Code phenomenon that we ought to engage with seekers for the Truth, fans of the book and movie "not in a spirit of defense or confrontation but as an examination of conscience by believers, who must be committed to a new evangelization." This means that every Christian, every lover of Truth, of the Person of Jesus Christ, must be moved to love those who hunger for Him and yet cannot find Him. Like the real St Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the apostles, we have beheld Christ and His Truth and He summons us to run and tell the world that Truth which we ourselves are witnesses of!

The Da Vinci Code has also occasioned much comment and a lot of this is very useful. Some of the best comes from Amy Welborn's blog and The Times' religious correspondent, Ruth Gledhill's blog is also quite interesting and informative. There has also been a reported increase of interest in Opus Dei and membership is on the rise; some clergy report increased interest among students to study religion and Christianity and anecdotal evidence that the book and movie have been ways to talk about our faith with friends and colleagues. All this is very encouraging but not surprising... When the Church is persecuted, the Lord also grants her strength and increase!

And what is the final word?

"The Accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their witness..."
(Rev 12:10b-11)

And to that, let all the Church, all lovers of Truth cry out: Amen!