Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The call to conversion

Today's Matins readings (in the traditional forms of the Office) are from Isaiah 2: 1-9.  The verses set for the day open with an invitation for us to allow Christ to teach us his ways.  They end though, with another strong warning: if we prefer earthly riches and the works that we ourselves create to those of God, then we will ultimately be condemned for it:
The word that Isaias the son of Amos saw, concerning Juda and Jerusalem. And in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be prepared on the top of mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it.  And many people shall go, and say: Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall come forth from Sion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
And he shall judge the Gentiles, and rebuke many people: and they shall turn their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into sickles: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they be exercised any more to war.  O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord.  For thou hast cast off thy people, the house of Jacob: because they are filled as in times past, and have had soothsayers as the Philistines, and have adhered to strange children.
Their land is filled with silver and gold: and there is no end of their treasures.  And their land is filled with horses: and their chariots are innumerable. Their land also is full of idols: they have adored the work of their own hands, which their own fingers have made.  And man hath bowed himself down, and man hath been debased: therefore forgive them not.
The promises of the Incarnation

The Fathers interpret these verses as the announcement of the Incarnation: Christ and his Church and the mountain of strength; and through him a new age of peace will be ushered in.

How do we ascend to Christ?  St Benedict points us to the image of Jacob's ladder, particularly apposite here given the repeated references to Jacob's house, where by we ascend by humility, and descend by self-exaltation.

St Bede links the degrees of humility with the key messages of the fifteen Gradual Psalms (which correspond to the fifteen steps to the top of the inner court of the Temple, and ten of which are said Tuesday to Saturday in the Benedictine Office), noting that:
For the steps that come down from the city of David to the lower parts of the city of Jerusalem are the aids of divine inspiration or protection by which we should ascend to his kingdom. For David made the steps by which we should ascend to his city when divine mercy taught us the order of the virtues by which we may seek heavenly things and when it granted us the gift of seeking these same virtues….Benedict, a father very reverend both in his name and in his life, realized that these steps especially consist in humility when, interpreting our journey to celestial things to be designated by the ladder shown to the Patriarch Jacob, by which angels ascended and descended, he distinguished in a very careful and pious examination the steps of the ladder itself as the increments and stages of good works that are performed through humility. (On Ezra and Nehemiah, trans DeGregorio, pg 172)
We need then, to return to Chapter 7 of the Benedictine Rule, and the Gradual Psalms (Psalm 119-133) and work on our ascent through humility, for only by converting ourselves can we convert others.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Stir up thy strength O Lord and come...

We live in a world where secularism reigns, and many in the Church seem bent on a policy of appeasement rather than defence of truth.  Scripture and the Fathers offer many warnings about the consequences of such a policy, not least in the readings set for Advent, when we contemplate not just the first coming of Christ, but also his return in judgment.

Today's readings for Matins in the 1962 form of the Office are from Isaiah chapter 1, and seem to me to be particularly apposite:
Wash yourselves clean, spare me the sight of your busy wickedness, of your wrong-doing take farewell. Learn, rather, how to do good, setting your hearts on justice, righting the wrong, protecting the orphan, giving the widow redress; then come back, says the Lord, and make trial of me.
Strange, that the city once so faithful, once so upright, has turned harlot; the haunt of murderers, that was the home of right! The silver in thee turned to dross, the wine grown watery to the taste, thy law-givers wanting loyalty, so that they make common cause with thieves! None of them but takes bribe and looks for profit, none will give the orphan redress, none listen to the plaint of the widow. 
What, then, does the Lord proclaim; he, the God of hosts, he, the Prince of Israel? Out upon it, I will rid myself of these rebels, my enemies shall have their deserts.  And then I will take thee in hand again, smelting thee till thou art free from dross, purging away all that base alloy. Once more I will give thee judges like the judges of old, counsellors like the counsellors of past days, and thou shalt be called the home of right, the faithful city.  Right and justice shall be done, when Sion is redeemed, when her exiles return;  with one blow, the wayward sinner shall be overthrown, by the Lord he has forsaken doomed to perish. 
And on the subject of law-givers and princes of the Church (though they mostly disdain that title these days),  The Catholic Thing has an interesting post well worth a read called The Silence of the Lions.  It poses the question of what would have happened if all the bishops, and not just one or two had stood firm at key points in history: if more had stood with St John Fisher against Henry VIII, or with Bishop von Galen against the Nazis for example.

Pray hard this Advent, for our bishops to arise.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Comments enabled...so let's not eat pasta!

It has been pointed out to me that comments on this blog were turned off (I turned them off when I stopped blogging here) - as I seem to have resumed operation, at least for the moment, I have turned them on again, and welcome contributions.

I reserve the right though, to reject any comments whatsoever - in particular I'm not going to enable trolls or heretics; genuine inquirers though of course are welcome.

Meanwhile the situation of the Church both locally and internationally remains deeply depressing.

Let them eat pasta?

I was personally appalled recently, when the first response to the news of the earthquake that devastated Norcia - at a time when the monks of St Benedict's birthplace were reportedly out searching for people needing the last rites (though providentially none were killed as it turned out) -  was a message urging us to eat pasta in honour of town:

We did all'amatriciana for Amatrice. Let's try alla norcina for Norcia. Pasta as the stillpoint of a trembling world.

I must confess my first thought was to wonder if the Archbishop had perhaps been reading up on the French Revolution, and thinking of Marie Antoinette's famous advice to the starving peasants, 'let them eat cake'.  I then wondered if perhaps he had converted to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and I wasn't much reassured when he responded to my comment that perhaps a call for prayer and fasting might be more appropriate, by accusing me of puritanism.


As a follower of Benedictine spirituality, I tend to see such events as a call to turn towards the Lord (facing East!) and serve the Lord in fear and trembling.

But hey, I'm probably just a self-absorbed, Promethean neo-Pelagian rigorist...

In fact my response, on reflection, was to turn off the Archbishop's twitter feed (not a big deal since I only rarely check twitter these days in any case ), and I do think this is the best approach when faced with this kind of thing.

Suspension of the Magisterium?

But I have to confess that I couldn't resist looking it up again (to my regret) when the one blog I do still read regularly, Fr Hunwicke, pointed to another tweet from the Archbishop's extraordinary twitter feed, viz this one:

 In reply to 
Not easy to balance the pastoral & the pontifical, especially when the professorial is also in the mix.

Fr Hunwicke's note on this is extremely short, but as ever witty and to the point, so do go read and enjoy (and to save you looking it up, Mark 10:12 reads "and if a woman puts away her husband and marries another, she is an adulteress").

I do particularly urge you though, to go read the slightly longer piece Fr Hunwicke offers on the problem we must all ponder of how to deal with the Magisterium when it chooses not to actually teach the faith.

Defending the citadel of virtue with unchanging dogma

Once again I want to conclude with a little wisdom from St Bede.

In Nehemiah 3:3, we are told that those rebuilding the walls and gates of Jerusalem added doors, bolts and bars, so that, St Bede comments, citizens might have a way of going in and out, and the enemy might be kept from entering.

So too, St Bede, urges, we must set a door in ourselves, first so that we can go out and do good works, thus leading others to God; but also so that we can defend the 'citadel of our virtue' against attacks and invasions of the enemy:
In the same way, therefore, doors of kindly provision should be placed in our good works so that, upon seeing them, our fellow citizens (ie our neighbours) might glorify our Father who is in heaven and by our examples learn also to go forward themselves and enter the walls of the virtues with us.  
Bolts and bars must also be set up against the attacks and invasions of enemies, namely so that by diligent industry we can defend ourselves on all sides lest by chance through our carelessness the ancient enemy be allowed to enter and storm the citadel of our virtue..
And just as the bars of cities strengthen the gates, in the same way the dogmas of the truth protect the churches throughout the world...Likewise set up the bolts and bars of our gate when we vigilantly take care not to betray the secrets of our faith to pigs or dogs (ie to unclean minds), or perform our acts of righteousness for the sake of human favour and allow people to enter and see our good works who bring more danger to us by praising them than they take salutary support from us by seeing them. (On Ezra and Nehemiah, trans Scott DeGregorio, pp 166-7)
As Fr Hunwicke urges, study history, for there are things we can learn from it.  And, I would add, also study Scripture, pray, and fast.

Friday, 25 November 2016

On the work of the four...

Ezekiel’s Vision
(Ezekiel 1:1-30) ‘Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. […] As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and...
Ezekiel 1: Nicolaus de Lyra super Bibliam, Italy ca. 1402.
John Rylands Library Latin MS 30

Continuing this little series on reflections from St Bede that seem particularly apposite to our times.

St Bede focuses in on the restoration of the sheep gate and the fishgate - pointing out that sheep and fish are symbols of the faithful entering in - and notes that though many leaders fall along the way, Christ has guaranteed that some will always point us to the true way:
...For he saw that both the faith and the works of teachers, through which it was proper that others should be rescued from the waves of this corruptible life and brought into the Holy Church, would be thrown to the ground by attacks of the ancient enemy - that is, would be deprived of celestial joys through an appetite for earthly pleasures.  ...he saw that both the outer works and the inner hearts of the neglectful were going to be overthrown by the devil's warfare.   
But since the Lord lifts up those who are dashed down, Nehemiah relates that this same Fish Gate, after a long period of ruin, was restored because, even though occasionally some preaches fall through sinning, nevertheless up to the end of the world there will be no lack of those who, following in the place of their precedessors, open the gates of righteousness through the Lord's aid by preaching to the faithful and living well. (On Ezra and Nehemiah, Trans DeGregorio, pg 166)

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

When the gates of hell seem to prevail...

Gustave Dore: Nehemiah inspects the ruined walls of Jerusalem

Today a little more in this little series on St Bede's advice on how to respond to the destruction of the Church, embedded in his commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah.

Stage 1: Prayer and fasting

In my last post, I noted that Nehemiah responded to the news of the desolation of Jerusalem with prayer and fasting, and this continued for several months:
So I asked them how it went with Jerusalem, and with the Jews still left there, survivors of the exiles who returned. Survivors there are, said they, in various parts of the province, left over from the days of the exile. But they are in great distress, and count for nothing; Jerusalem is but broken walls and charred gates. For a long time after hearing this news I kept my house, all tears and lament; I fasted, and sought audience with the God of heaven in prayer. (Nehemiah 1:2-4)
At length Nehemiah makes his distress evident to King Artaxerxes, for he was a senior official in his court.  The King duly grants him leave to go to Jerusalem to take up the task of restoration.

Stage 2: Investigate, take stock and plan

On reaching the city, Nehemiah doesn't announce himself or his plans, but rather inspects the state of things on the quiet:
Then I went on to Jerusalem, and waited three days before telling anyone what purpose God had put into my heart, to bring me there. When I stirred abroad, it was at dead of night, with only a few men to attend me, and none mounted but myself. At dead of night, I went out by the Valley Gate, past the Dragon’s Well, and on to the Scavengers’ Gate, and all the way I found the wall of Jerusalem lying in ruins, and its gates blackened with fire. The next gate I came to was that of the Well, and beyond that was the royal aqueduct; here the beast I was mounted on could find no way to pass.  So, at midnight, I passed along the ravine and examined the wall, returning home again by the Valley Gate; none of the rulers knew whither I had gone, or on what errand; I had not opened my mind yet to the Jewish folk, priest or noble or ruler or any other whom the task concerned. (Nehemiah 2:11-16)
St Bede's commentary suggests that this is a prototype for others to follow:
Similarly, it is fitting for spiritual teachers get up regularly at night and inspect with careful scrutiny the state of Holy Church while others are resting, so that they might vigilantly investigate how they might repair and rebuild through chastening those things which have been defiled or destroyed in it by the warfare of sins.  Jerusalem's walls lie in ruins, and the way of life of the faithful is soiled by earthly and base desires.  The gates are consumed by fire when, as a result of their abandoning instruction in the truth, even those who ought to have been opening up the entrance of life to others also by teaching them now grow idle with the same laziness as everyone else and become slaves to temporal concerns. (Trans DeGregorio, pg 161).
Stage 3: Arise and act!

Only then does Nehemiah call the faithful to action, seeking to instill courage within them:
But now I called upon them to witness the sore strait we had been brought to, Jerusalem a wilderness, the gates blackened with fire; Come, I said, let us build Jerusalem walls, and endure contempt no longer! Then I told them what favour God had shewn me, what speech I had had with the king’s grace; Up, I cried, to the task! And with the good news, courage came back to them. (Nehemiah 2: 17-18)
St Bede comments:
 ...holy teachers - indeed, all who burn with zeal for God - are in the greatest distress as long as they discern that Jerusalem (that is the vision of peace which the Lord has bequeathed and commended to us) lies deserted due to wars of disagreements, and they behold that the gates of the virtues (which according to Isaiah, 'praise' should occupy) have been destroyed and subjected to insults while the gates of hell prevail.  Hence they work hard to unite the ministers of the word in a single purpose so that those buildings of faith and good action which seemed to have been destroyed can rise again. (Trans DeGregorio, pg 161-2
Pray then, that such holy teachers will once arise, leaving aside their temporal concerns, and turn to the task of rebuilding holy Church; and  instil in us the courage to follow them.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

St Bede on how we should respond to corruption the Church

File:Jerusalem ruins from Davids.jpg

I'm currently reading St Bede the Venerable's excellent commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah (translated by Scott DeGregorio), two rather neglected books of the Bible that describe the return of the exiles to Jerusalem courtesy of the Persian kings, and the rebuilding of the temple and walls of Jerusalem.

St Bede's commentary is, in many ways, an extended exposition of Psalm 50, which of course culminates with the hope of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and the offering of true sacrifices.

The exiles, he explains are all of us, mired in sin, but seeking to return to God with the help of his grace; Jerusalem is the Church; the ruined walls, false doctrine and corruption that enters in the gaping holes in the walls courtesy of the devil.

When leadership fails...

St Bede sees the keys to reform as depending on leadership and right teaching, and views the failure of this to occur as very serious indeed:
 It is even more lamentable if those very ones should have been profiting others through their teaching and personal example show to observers an example of destruction in themselves by living corruptly.  For this is what is meant by the fact that the gates of Jerusalem were burned down by enemy flames: that those who ought, by living and teaching well, to have been introducing worthy people into the assembly of the elect and keeping unworthy people out, perish instead in the fire of avarice, self-indulgence, pride, strife, envy, and the rest of the vices that the enemy is wont to bring in. (on Nehemiah 1:3)
What should we do in these circumstances?  The answer, St Bede says, comes in the next lines of Nehemiah:
 For a long time after hearing this news I kept my house, all tears and lament; I fasted, and sought audience with the God of heaven in prayer. Mercy, I cried, thou God of heaven, the strong, the great, the terrible! Thou who ever keepest thy gracious promises to the souls that love thee, and are true to thy commandments!  Let thy ears be attentive, thy eyes watching still; listen to the prayer I offer thee now, thy servant, interceding day and night for my fellow-servants, the men of Israel. Listen to the confession I make of our sins; they, the men of Israel, have sinned, I and my father’s race have sinned; 
 The first stage in rebuilding the walls is to mourn their destruction and devote ourselves to fasting and prayer.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

When bad doctrine stands in the Church...

The Deeds of the Antichrist - Luca Signorelli
Luca Signorelli, 1502

This Sunday is the last of Pentecost in the 1962 calendar, and the Gospel is St Matthew 24: 15-35, a prophesy of the end times:
When therefore you shall see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place: he that readeth let him understand.
St Jerome's commentary on the text though, set for Matins, suggests this sign, the 'abomination of desolation', is foreshadowed in events leading up to the final occurrence:
But we may also understand by the abomination of desolation, any bad doctrine and when we see such a thing get a standing in the Holy Place, that is, in the Church, and showing itself that it is God, that is, pretending that it is His revealed truth, then will be the time when it will be our duty to flee from Judea into the mountains...
In these circumstances, St Jerome suggests, our duty is to take refuge in truth:
Then will it be our duty to find ourselves under a roof and in an house, where through the fiery darts of the wicked one can never pierce to smite us, and not to come down to take anything out of the house of our old conversation, or to have regard unto those things which are behind but rather to sow in the field of the spiritual Scriptures, that we may reap thereof a bountiful harvest...
When heresies contaminate the Church, then, we must ignore those who propagate it, and hold fast to the truth; pray with tears and do penance on behalf of those led astray by the allurements of erring men, that they might see their error and return to God.

*PS One has to wait until they are dead to throw their bones in the Tiber...