Wednesday, 15 March 2023

Not one jot or tittle

 Today's gospel offers a challenge and a paradox, as so many of Jesus' words do. Behold, Jesus makes all things new, and yet... 

I have come not to abolish but to complete [the Law and the Prophets]. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved.

In the Old Testament there were several kinds of laws; for not all laws are of the same nature. Some laws, such as the command not to eat certain kinds of meat, were what are called 'positive laws' that had a kind of arbitrary character to them (like, I suppose, driving on the left). The sense of the law lies not in the terms of the law but rather in the deeper reasons behind it. 

It is these deeper reasons which are the eternal laws, rooted in the nature of God who is truth, goodness and beauty. We find an echo of these laws in the call that God sends out into the world - the call to recognise the difference between good and evil, the call to hear the gospel, and indeed in our own particular calls or vocation. The law in this sense is not what the modern world thinks of it - an interfering constraint and shackle upon our freedom - but rather the condition of our flourishing; freedom is FOR something beyond ourselves. Moreover, it is God's love that underpins His eternal law since all law directs us towards the good, and the ultimate good is God Himself (which is why He, not we, are the ultimate givers of the law).

Yet why, then, does the law seem to trammel us? To some extent, it is due to our wayward human nature. In some measure, it is because of the laissez faire culture in which we live. Nobody else lives by God's compass points, so we - herd animals that we are - find ourselves struggling to swim against the tide (or run against the herd). Yet, as Georges Bernanos - a devotee of Carmel's spirituality and a great commentator of spiritual childhood - was wont to say: Dead dogs get carried with the current; only live dogs can swim against it.  

At the same time, the risk of being overly lax about the law can lead us into being overly zealous. From indulgence we can turn to excessive observance. Nevertheless, the thing that both laxity and rigidity hold in common is a lack of love - and, therefore, wisdom - about our duties. Both laxity and rigidity are complicated and calculating; love is understanding, but simple and resolute. And that love should teach us to be tough on principles but gentle with people; the very opposite of today's tendency to be lax on principles but tough on people. 

In the end, we can make no sense of Law and Prophets without seeking above all union with Him. It is not about finding the loopholes. It is about finding the purpose of the law of love and the love behind the law. 

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

Do not pray as the pagans pray

 Today's gospel reminds us of the deep gulf that sets the revelation of Jesus apart from the pagan religions that shaped the world into which He was born. We are right to look to find the Seeds of the Word that are scattered throughout the world in other religions or philosophies, and we try to encourage them to take root and grow so that those who bear them can be led towards the one source of light who is Father and Lord of all: ultimately, to full communion with the Mystical Body of His Church. Nevertheless, this act would be a rose-tinted act of naivety if we forgot that the cockle of Satan grows everywhere, and that all falsehood, especially when erected into a religious system, is an obstacle to the grace of God.

Probably the predominant pattern of religion in the ancient world was that of trade with the gods. Men offered them sacrifices, hoped for their blessings, and feared their anger when things went badly. Ancient religions developed elaborate ceremonies and practices to grapple with the unseen, spiritual world that they perceived behind the appearances of nature. Jesus' command today - "do not pray like the pagans pray" - is an invitation for us to purge from our minds and hearts all the remaining clutter of those earlier pagan practices which were superficial (full of babbling prayers) and, above all, devoid of intimacy with God.

And then, Jesus gives us His own prayer, a foundation stone of the Christian life and a monument to the greatest truths of Revelation: the fatherhood of God, the holiness and eternity of His reign, the all encompassing nature of His will, our dependence on Him for material and spiritual gifts, especially those of forgiveness and protection from evil.

We should not babble like the pagans do! But St Paul teaches us that the Holy Spirit prays in us with unutterable groanings. Our prayers should be more intimate not only because we address God as Father, but because in doing so, we are open to being moved by the Spirit into the communion of love offered to us by the Blessed Trinity. 

Our prayers are often those of petition, and the risk of remaining in the mode of petition is that we tend to think of God like the pagans do - a god of the slot machine. In turning towards adoration and thanksgiving, we are not abandoning petition but allowing it to find its place in the wider and richer relationship that the Father calls us to. He knows we have need of so many things, and of course we should pray for them. Just not in desperation; not as if He were a merchant, rather than a Messiah.  

Perhaps, therefore, the first thing we pray for should simply be the grace to pray in the way He wishes us to pray. And all the rest follows from there.  

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

An agenda for Lent

 Every year I am amused by the wave of Lenten ash crosses that cover the pages of social media. No sooner do people have the cross daubed on their foreheads by an enthusiastic priest than they are doing a selfie and pinning themselves up digitally for all to see. The race is on to find the biggest, boldest definition of the cross, and of course to wear it proudly for as long as it stays put. To all intents and purposes, the motive is a simple one: in this world that wants to make religion private, this is the one day in the year that our religion invites us to carry a public sign of our dedication to the cross. And this amuses me only because it seems to run directly contrary to what Jesus says in the very gospel that is used for Ash Wednesday: don't parade your good deeds before men.   

I think the key to the mistake we are possibly making here is that such a display of the cross is a reactionary one. In other words, it is a sign not of boldness so much as of simmering insecurity about our position. We have to struggle against the world of course, but we must do so in the confidence of Jesus' love; not through a kind of deliberate ostentation. 

The reason for this is found in the gospel again: the danger of deliberate, self-conscious ostentation is that our hearts are too easily drawn towards the vanity of the thing. We risk becoming hypocrites who want to be praised or admired. What we might assume is an act of edification risks pulling us towards self aggrandisement. See how bold be are? We are not afraid!

But if we have to act big, the truth is that we aren't big. We must embrace and use the signs and sacramentals of our Faith - the ashen crosses or other signs - but we do not need to fuss about them like so many do on social media. In fact, the opposite is the case. Jesus tells us specifically: wash your face, slap on your make up (well, he says oil!) and get on with your day.  In this we are not hiding; rather we are placing ourselves before the gaze of the only One who matters: the Father in heaven.

This gospel tells us everything about what Jesus prizes in us: purity of heart and intention before everything. Let us stand in our hearts before our Father; let us seek to please only Him; let us allow ourselves to be, if necessary, the hidden leaven. And then if anyone bites us, let them find that in fact we are the salt of the earth!

Prayer, fasting and alms-giving: these are the remedies for our sins that the Church gives us now. But everything with a cheerful face and heart. All the rest is vanity. 

Saturday, 18 February 2023

The Peter memoirs and our common imagination

Today's gospel of the Transfiguration is taken from the gospel of St Mark. One of the beautiful things about St Mark's gospel is that in a sense it is not his at all: it is the gospel of St Peter. St Mark was one of Peter's disciples and so much of the latter's gospel is made up of Peter's recollections of the life and ministry of Jesus.

Memory is crucial to who we are. We think of memory in clinical and psychological ways these days; not as a power of the soul in which is rooted not only our identity but also our spiritual experience. What is so striking about today's gospel is that it is full of those elements that reveal to us the eye of the first-hand witness who recalls not only the scene but how it made him feel. 

The mountain was 'high'; Jesus' clothes became 'dazzling'; it was 'wonderful' to be there; the disciples were 'so frightened'. Eventually, they were covered in shadow and heard a voice.

In some way this process of remembering must have been anchoring for Peter, as it is for us. Remembering and forgetting can be processes beyond our control, and yet they are vital to us. There is some mysterious link between memory and justice, perhaps because justice requires the recollection of harm done and dues paid. At the same time, forgetting is mysteriously connected to peace, not because we want to bury the past but because when healing has happened, it is safe to leave the past in the past. It is we, not Jesus, who can be troubled by the recollection of sins confessed and ills that have been righted. Perhaps some wounds go too deep to be healed in this life, and their presence is part of the cross that He has assigned to us. 

St Ignatius's method of meditation on the gospels draws precisely on the power of memory and imagination. In what is called the 'composition of place', we spend a few moments thinking about how it would have felt to be in a particular gospel scene: what we would have seen, smelt, heard. This is not personal memory - because none of us was there - but in some ways, the words of the gospel enable us to benefit from a shared memory, a collective imagination that is specific to each of us but common to all in a sense. When we reflect and ruminate on the scenes of the gospel, we are recalling everything that this collective memory and imagination of the Church holds for us. And when we are open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, then His gifts can help us draw on this collective memory and stand also in the shadow of God's cloud where we can hear His voice.

 (Photo:  Mount Tabor by Susanne from the Lay Council)

Wednesday, 15 February 2023

I was blind

Today's gospel is packed with insights that should illumine our own path daily. Oddly, however, we are strangely resistant to some of them. 

The first is that we all need to recognise our own blindness or blind spots. Happily, the man in today's gospel is brought to Jesus by others who beg Jesus to cure him. But presumably he was not dragged to Jesus kicking and screaming! 

Physical blindness is something which has to be recognised, but for some people who gradually lose their sight, there can be a period of denial. This denial is very much like our denial of moral blindness; we prefer always to trust our own insights and judgements; admitting our blind spots is too uncomfortable. 

The second insight is that in order to see, we need perhaps a kind of reflexive sight. By a reflexive sight, I mean the ability to be aware of what could lie just beyond our insights; the blind man in this gospel has to guess that the trees he sees walking about are in fact people. By reflexive sight, I mean caution about the facts that we don't know and can only guess at. Too often we arrive at judgements that rest on a stack of guesses and hypotheses. By reflexive sight, we expand our reserve of insights about what is around us, and make space for God's inspirations which make up for our weaknesses. 

Reflexive sight could be prayed for with the prayer of the father who wishes Jesus to deliver his son from a demon. 'Do you believe?' Jesus asks him. 'I do believe; help my unbelief,' the man replies. The conversation might have gone otherwise. 'Do you see?' Jesus could have said. 'Lord, I see; help my blindness.'

Admitting that there are things that lie beyond our sight requires some humility from us - humility about our limitations - but also objectivity. This is a lesson not only for the optimists among us but also the pessimists. For the optimists, things are not always as we would want to see them; for the pessimists, things are not always as bad as they look to us. 

Thursday, 9 February 2023

Objectivity and humility

 Today’s gospel gives us a challenge from the modern perspective. Here is our Lord, goodness and kindness itself, meek and humble of heart, referring to non-Jews as dogs! In the end, of course, He grants the Syrophoenician woman her request, and her daughter is feed of an evil spirit. Nevertheless, it is not an easy path, requiring two essential qualities of her: objectivity and humility. Really, they go together.

She is objective first. In answer to Our Lord’s rejoinder that the food of the children is not given to dogs, she concedes that she belongs to the latter category. She is not part of the chosen race; literally, she is not of the elect – elect from the Latin ‘eligere’ to choose. She recognises in other words her distance from God who is preparing the coming of the Messiah through the education of the Jews. Perhaps here is the first lesson of this reading: that we all need to recognise who we are and where we are. That does not mean self-hating abasement, but joyous objectivity. And objectivity requires truth about our own situation. When the saints profess their unworthiness, it is not some ridiculous act of hyperbole. It is a breaking forth of objectivity and a recognition of their distance from God who is radically Other in His being.

But then the woman’s objectivity leads her to humility, and a humility which is insightful, not to say playful. Taking hold of the metaphor that Jesus Himself has used, she reminds Him that even the dogs are allowed the crumbs of the table. Her objectivity has opened not only her eyes but also now her heart, because in extending His metaphor, she is in fact appealing for mercy, heart to heart. Having recognised who she is, she is now recognising who He is. In a certain sense, she surrenders to Him, relying only now on His goodness for the answer to her prayer. And so, it is granted.

She is one of the unbelievers of the gospel who is blessed by Our Lord’s benevolence, which likewise extended to the Magi of Bethlehem, as well as the Centurion whose servant is healed. There is a sign in this encounter that God’s blessings are about to be extended from the chosen race of the Jews to all the nations around them. To receive those blessings, however, it is not enough simply to draw breath as a member of the human race. A degree of objectivity and humility is required.

Saturday, 4 February 2023

Like sheep without a shepherd

 The last words of today's gospel are such a consolation for us. Jesus, seeing the needs of the people, 'set himself to teach them at some length'. This is the true meaning of 'feeding the sheep' of the Church: their minds are fed on truth, and their hearts rise to love. True shepherds feed us with truth. Shepherds, formed after the heart of 'the Shepherd' know that teaching is not an encumbrance but a primordial duty of pastoral care. Weirdly, 'pastoral' care has come to mean saying almost anything but the truth. Of course, we don't want force feeding, but persuasive feeding! 

Jesus' example arises here because, as the gospel tells us, 'he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd'. How could this be? The people had nothing but overlords in the Palestine of Jesus' day: political overlords in the Romans, supervisory overlords in the Jewish tetrarchs, pedagogical overlords in the Scribes and Rabbis, religious and hierarchical overlords in the Pharisees and the priestly cast. How on earth was it that the people were like sheep without a shepherd?

This absence of care among a hierarchy is a sign of a profound crisis of leadership, especially in the religious domain. What is shocking is that the Jewish religious authorities were nothing if not active and interventionist; there was little they did not pronounce on in the lives of the Jews. And yet, the people were still like sheep without a shepherd.

Yet this crisis is no mystery. True shepherds feed the people truth (as Jesus' example shows); the truth in charity of course, but the truth. It is as simple as that.

Let us pray for our shepherds, that they resolutely follow the example of Jesus. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2023

'Where did the man get all this?'

In today's Gospel, form Mark 6, we can understandably feel shocked at the way the locals, amongst whom Jesus grew up, responded to the signs and wonders that He perfeormed in their town.  They seemed to be asking one another 'Who does he think he is?  Where does he get his ideas from?'

We're told that Jesus taught in the synagogue there but that the people rejected Him.  From their reported words, it sounds as though they simply thought Him too lowly, or they felt too familiar with His family for Him to be quite as special as to be able to perform miracles.

Jesus is apparently amazed at their lack of faith.  It if for this reason that 'He could work no miracles there', except for a few healings, which He did by laying His hands directlyl on the sick person.

This little detail made me stop and think.  It was the lack of faith in Nazareth that actually prevented Jesus from performing miracles.  Anyone might think that this was a limitation on the power of Jesus or something lacking on His part.  However, if we think for a moment, that can't be right.  Jesus is God and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - He could perform whatever miracles He wanted, where and whenever He wished.

No, the lacking lay on the part of the people - their lack of faith, their unbelief in Him and Who He is.

God is always coming, waiting to enter in, willingn to heal us, draw us near to Him and make us like Himself.  He is always able and never lacking in anything.  However, He can be prevented.  If we are not open and willing to be healed, He can't do it.  If we are not listening or refuse to hear His words of wisdom, He can't make His wisdom grow in us.  We have to want it and we have to ask Him to do it in us.

Jesus knew that 'a prophet is only despised in his own country', so He wouldn't have been surprised at their attitude.  However, he was amazed at their lack of faith because even though He did speak wisdom in their synagogue and did heal some of their neighbours, they still didn't believe and still rejected Him.

The readings of late have often been about faith - our lack of it or how to develop and grow out faith.  This one today seems a good lesson in being teachable and open to learning, givine God a second chance to show us Himself and to allow ourselves to be healed.  Only when we believe, can He act in us!


Friday, 27 January 2023

"...the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet once it is sown it grows into the biggest shrub of them all..."

Today's Gospel from Mark chapter 4 is all about faith. Jesus taught the crowds only in parables.  Here we meet two parables together in which Jesus uses the image of seeds and sowing, growing, blossoming and harvest.

We know that an increase in faith is a gift we can pray for (for ourselves and others).  We can also work at it ourselves, to be faithful, growing in the virtue and deepening our own faith through our love and service to Our Lord and other people.

As with other virtues, once we start to practice our faith more, it grows!  This is true both in the 'doing'  - of going to Mass and Confession, making time to pray and listen for Our Lord's voice and action in our life, as well as in the  - 'being' - of taking to heart Jesus' words in the Gospels and allowing His Holy Spirit to change us from within, to become available and teachable for whatever He is calling us to be for Him in our lives.

In the parables we can see Jesus simply explaining to the crowds which are the 'successful' seeds that, though tiny and seemingly unpromising, will bear the most fruit.

As we ponder today's Gospel, let's offer our hearts again to Him, asking Jesus to increase our faith and 'help our unbelief' to that we can step out and never look back on our journey.

The first reading for Mass today has the encouraging challenge:

"... we are the sort who keep faithful until our souls are saved."

Tuesday, 24 January 2023

'Anyone who does the will of God...'

'Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother.’ Mark 31:35

Jesus talks about His Father's will so often in the Gospels. Indeed Jesus focuses on God's will more more than His own as a matter of course.  Though Jesus calls us 'friends', He would call us sister or brother if we would live according to God's will and truly live in His will. 

Of course we know we are heirs to the Kingdom, adopted sons of the Father (if clarification is needed here, I mean sons as in heirs when firstborn sons used to be the inheritors. Now we say sons and daughters. However, this reduces the dignity meant by the word son here, when 'firstborn' is specifically what's intended). This is already a wonderful thought, to be loved like this by our Heavenly Father.

How lovely then to consider that Jesus wants to welcome us as brother or sister once we fully accept and live the will of the Father for us. In trying to unite our will to His, in joy and sorrow, small things and crazy huge things, we not only please God, we enter deeper into union with Him.

Our pilgrimage is a journey of going deeper and learning more about uniting our will to His.  The road will lead us deeper into the mystery of who we are in God's eyes and who we are as persons - as sons of God (firstborn-type-heirs).  Moreover, we are invited deeper into the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

Our desire to please Him and to enter deeper into union, being open to learn and be teachable for all He wants to teach us, is the best first next step on the road to living in His will.  On the road to union, we can drop off bags along the way that contain all that prevent our progress on the road and stop or slow the union.

Every day life doesn't usually feel like another step towards heaven or union with God. The small things of the trenches seem so removed from holy thoughts and uplifting ideas.

This is where its important to remember the reality of God's presence with us. He is here with us in everything, yes even while you read this and not just in your quiet holy moment. He will still be right with you when you're weary, frustrated, tired, delighted, moved, forgetful or worried.  

Making a habit of realising He is always there is a good step in then developing the practice of consciously wanting to live according to God's will.  If all our phases and waves of the day could be consciously lived in His presence - how much more aware we might be of His will in every moment!

Jesus said 'anyone who does the will of God'... we don't need permission, special qualifications or a permit to start today!  Let's pray for one another that we each grow to desire truly what He wants for us - in the little as well as the big things.  

Not one jot or tittle

 Today's gospel offers a challenge and a paradox, as so many of Jesus' words do. Behold, Jesus makes all things new, and yet...  I h...