Wednesday, 12 October 2011

"It's a complete insult to half the population!" On the new translation of the Roman Missal

I knew that, sooner or later, I'd end up writing a post about the new translation of Mass. I hoped it wouldn't happen, but I've now reached the stage where I feel it's necessary because I'm hearing a lot of comments like the one in the title of this post.

Originally, this was going to be about one particular phrase in the Consecration, but from numerous...let's call them 'conversations', I've had with fellow Catholics who oppose the new translation, it's clear that they don't save their displeasure for one phrase only. As such, I thought it might be useful to pull together various explanations of the most prominent changes so that you can explain them to the (mostly old) people who make their opinions known to you, and then, as usual, look at some underlying principles which can guide our thinking on the subject.

"And with your spirit" - surely the most noticeable change at Mass for those of us in the pews. Friends have taken to 'keeping score' of how many they get right (I hit all 4 today, without using the card!). Fortunately, there is a very in-depth article about this phrase written by the late Fr Austin Milner OP, but to summarize - praying for the Lord to be with someone's spirit is entirely Biblical; St. Paul signs off his letters to the Galatians and Philippians, and to St. Timothy and Philemon in various ways, but always praying that the the Lord or His grace will be with their spirits. This greeting/prayer is unique in the ancient world to Christianity - "and with your spirit" is therefore one of the most Christian things you can say. So why "and with your spirit"? According to St. Albert the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and more ancient sources, the people of God are praying that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit which gives the graces of Christ's priesthood to mere men, may be with the priest's spirit (soul) as he performs the sacred actions. After all, receiving those priestly graces at ordination works no change in a man's body, but eternally changes his soul, so while he must perform the actions with his body, it is through his spirit that the Holy Spirit works. As Chrysostom puts it: "For he who is there is a man, it is God who works though him. Do not attend to the nature of the one you see, but understand the grace which is invisible. Nothing human takes place in this sacred sanctuary." Finally, in the majority of European translations of the Latin, they have kept this phrasing e.g. "et avec ton esprit" in French. We're all part of a universal i.e. catholic church, and as such, should all at least say the same prays, even if in different languages, right?

The Triumph of Orthodoxy
"Consubstantial" - perhaps the most controversial change to the Nicene Creed, at least for some people. Someone I love dearly told me this morning that this new translation has a lot of "exclusive language" in it, citing this as an example - "people don't understand what Consubstantial means". The implication here is that they did understand what "of one being with the Father" meant, but I wonder how many Catholic Christians, when asked, would be able to give a satisfactory answer regarding the susbstantial unity of Father and Son (and Holy Spirit). Further, it is incredibly patronising to suggest that some people are just too stupid to understand what 'consubstantial' means, and that by its use they are somehow excluded from the liturgy. When I pointed out to her that the problem isn't the word 'consubstantial', it's that we haven't been taught what it means - everyone would be able to understand it, if only someone would explain it to us, she agreed. As with all similar misunderstandings and reservations about this translation, where the Church has fallen short isn't in the translation, it's in the catechesis which should have accompanied it. The blame here lies, not with the Pope, or even most Bishops, who have published booklets and DVDs and all sorts in an attempt to explain what was going on - the blame lies with us in the parishes. When was the last time you heard a priest give a homily on the meaning of 'consubstantial'? Have there been any workshops in your parish to explain, not just what was changing, but why? I didn't think so. (For those of you in this diocese/parish, watch this space).

"Pray brethren" - the phrase which caused the outburst which is the title of this post: "It's a complete insult to half the population!" Undeniably, 'brethren' began as an alternative plural form of 'brother', and was used alongside 'sistren' in the middle ages, and even up to Shakespeare's time. From then on, 'brothers' began to take over as the plural form, and 'sistren' fell out of use completely. 'Brethren' became, by the start of 17th Century, an exclusively religious word, meaning "fellow members of a religious community" without distinction between the sexes e.g. the Plymouth Brethren, a non-denominational sect of 19th Century, comprised of both men and women. Therefore, when the priest says, "Pray brethren" he is undeniably talking to both men and women! What's more, a straw poll of a number of female friends, all under the age of 25, revealed that they were not in the least offended by the word. The man who raised the objection is well into his late 70's. Only the "spirit of Vatican II" generation cares about these things, while the "Second Vatican Council" generation (i.e. us) have a deeper understanding of the meaning, and more important things to worry about.

hunc praeclarum calicem
"this precious chalice" - after the first week of using the new translation, one of the elderly women at my parish asked me what I thought of it. I didn't wax lyrical, but made it clear that I was heartily in favour of it. She had a number of reservations, and this was the one she singled out. Her concerns about this phrasing betrayed a faulty understanding of the Eucharistic celebration, which a couple of priests have told me were all the rage in the 1970s. As such, it's not entirely her fault - this was what she was taught by those she trusted to teach her the truth. So what bothered her about this wording? "I think 'cup' is better because it reminds us that Jesus was sharing an ordinary meal with his friends." Have you ever heard that before? I'd be surprised if not. If one thing is clear from the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, it's this - it was a highly ritualised, liturgical event. As we know from the Old Testament, there were symbolic foods, special psalms, and other customs which had developed by Our Lord's time (like the Five Questions) associated with celebrating the Passover, and it was participated in by all the people of Israel. It wasn't dinner at a stranger's house on a Thursday night!

"But what about those Gospel accounts?" some might say. "They clearly say 'cup' in 1 Corinthians, Matthew, Mark, and Luke." Well, they say that in most English translations, though not in all. However, an important principle in the liturgy comes into focus because of this logical objection - the liturgy interprets Scripture, and is its own source of theology and teaching. The Church is the preserver and giver of both liturgy and Scripture, and we must remember that the liturgy is the elder of the two (1 Corinthians having been written around 20 years after the institution of the Eucharist). As such, the Church may legitimately emphasise something in liturgy which is implicit, but not necessarily explicit, in the Bible, something Pope Benedict alludes to regarding this exact phrase in this homily from Maundy Thursday [paragraph 7 - "The Roman Canon interprets this psalm..."]. So why "this precious chalice"?

When we say this phrase, we tend to stress "precious chalice" - for us this undoubtedly recalls images of the gold, silver, enamelled chalices we're used to seeing at Mass. The real meaning, though, is found in the only other common Catholic phrase with the word 'precious' in it - the Precious Blood. It is not the material the chalice is made from which makes it precious, but rather it's being made for and coming into contact with "His Most Precious Blood", as the Divine Praises put it. If a coffee cup has to be used for Holy Mass because nothing more suitable is available, it becomes a 'precious chalice' and should be treated as such, as Servant of God Dorothy Day ably demonstrated [search for the word 'chalice']. The words "precious chalice", then, are bound up with our belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. "Cup" just doesn't do it justice.

Yet if we neglect the first word in the phrase i.e. "this", we're also missing a key point. The Church wishes to make clear to us an incredible fact - "The sacrifice of Christ [on the Cross] and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice" [CCC 1367. Emphasis in original]. When the priest acts as Christ did, taking the chalice in his hands and saying His words, there is actually no difference between 'our' chalice and the Lord's chalice of nearly 2,000 years ago - both contain the same Precious Blood. In a very real way, we are 'transported' back to that upper room where Christ began the New Covenant at every Mass we go to. Or rather, that Passover with the Apostles is brought through time to us (the Catechism has a good explanation of the meaning of "memorial" as applied to the Mass in CCC 1362-1364].

When the promoters of the new translation claim that it has more spiritual and theological depth than the (soon-to-be) old translation, these few examples are what they are talking about. There'll be even more in the prayers said by the priest at various points in Mass as well. I hope this will help you to at least present these positive aspects of it to the understandably cautious and the downright recalcitrant alike!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

"What's the point? It's just a superstition." On blessings and sacramentals.

As you may or may not know, I'm a keen baker. It's not good for my waist line, but it means that people like me more than they normally would, so I think it's a fair trade. Thanks to a former housemate, I'm also into raiding the 'wild larder', which is fully stocked at this time of year with apples, blackberries, plums, and elderberries. I've spent many a happy weekend picking the fruit one day, and making something with it the next. This in itself is something of a spiritual experience, and I'm planning a more reflective, contemplative post on this topic for another time.

This year, I decided to make my annual jam-making session into a truly spiritual effort. Having discovered the Rituale Romanum last year, the one-stop-shop for the rituals of the Latin rite, I thought it would be a good thing to get the plums blessed before preserving them. Take a look at Chapter XI "Blessings and other sacramentals" - there's a blessing for pretty much anything! As an aside, you'll see Chapter XIII is about Exorcism (is it a coincidence that this is chapter 13?) - click on any of those links and see what happens.

Anyway, our parish priest was happy to oblige. He has on a number of occasions lamented the downturn in demand from the laity for things like blessings and other acts of popular devotion, and was delighted with the blessing, adapted from the blessing for grapes. He even took the prayer home to bless his crop of damsons (which he'd somehow managed to keep secret from me!).

Now, having mentioned this to a couple of friends, both young converts and, just as important, recipients of gifts of jam in previous years, they were both puzzled, if not positively scandalised, by this act of blessing plums. One said that this was one of those things which still made her think that "Catholics are weird", and that she was pretty convinced that only people could blessed, not things. Neither of them could see the point, and both indicated a suspicion of superstition in the whole thing.

Admittedly, when pressed for an explanation, I was at a loss. I don't know much about the specific theology or spirituality behind blessing objects, whether sacred or secular, and so decided to investigate; What is a sacramental? How do they work? Is it not beneath God's dignity to have plums blessed in His Name and with the sign of His Cross? I've turned to the Catechism and to the introduction to that chapter in the Rituale, and of course, to the Bible. Let's take a look at what they have to say.

The Catechism makes a number of references to Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council's constitution on divine worship. SC explains sacramentals very simply. They are "sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments...By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy." They do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the Sacraments do, but "by the Church's prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to co-operate with it." [CCC 1670] In fact, in the Church's view, by drawing on the power of Christ's Passion and Resurrection, "There is hardly any proper use of material things which cannot thus be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God." [SC 61].

So what are some examples of sacramentals, these sacred signs which dispose us to receive grace? First and foremost, blessings are sacramentals in themselves, and by them other sacramentals may be made. Take a look at any section of that chapter in the Rituale, and you'll see plenty of examples, but the most familiar will be things like the blessing at the dismissal of Mass, icons and statues, Rosary beads, scapulars, Stations of the Cross, even the altar in church is counted as a sacramental. Through all these signs, and the prayer of the Church which goes hand-in-hand with them, we are called to fix our minds "on things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth." [Col 3:2]

But, surely, these sacramentals, these pictures and objects and garments are earthly things? How can they help us towards our heavenly destination? St. Paul explains to St. Timothy that every creature of God is good, and "is sanctified [i.e. made holy] by the word of God and prayer." [1 Tm 4:5]. Further, in his letter to the Romans, the Apostle tells the Church that "the entire creation...still retains the hope of being freed, like us, from its slavery to decadence, to enjoy the same freedom and glory of the children of God [emphasis mine]." [Rm 8:19-21]

Why does the rest of creation need to be freed? As the Rituale explains, "The fall of man caused lower creatures to be separated from God, for they were bound to God through mankind." Just as God made us and saw that we were good, and that goodness has been compromised by the Fall, so too for the rest of creation. When Our Lord sanctified human nature by taking it to Himself in His Incarnation, so too He made holy all those everyday things He came into contact with.

The Church has always understood this 'making holy' accomplished by Jesus. St. John records that He cured a blind man by making a paste out of His own spit and the mud on the ground, applying it to the man's eyes, then sending him to wash it off in the pool of Siloam, which was full of ritual significance for the Jews [cf. Jn 9:1-8]. The Synoptics tell us that the woman with the hemorrhage was cured by touching His cloak [e.g. Mk 5:25-34]. The liturgy of the Church teaches us, in the Eucharistic preface of St. John the Baptist, that "[St. John] baptized Christ, the giver of baptism, in waters made holy by the one who was baptized."

 In fact, given that we're talking about sacramentals, let's look at an example of the 'real thing', a sacrament. Take the Eucharist. The new translation of Mass is much clearer than the old one, that when Jesus took the bread, "He blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples..." What is clear is that it is the bread which is blessed, not His Apostles.

Now, let's be clear about this...all of this is entirely unnecessary on God's part. He doesn't need to make a paste to cure blindness, or have a cloak to cure bleeding, or even water to pour out His Holy Spirit or bread to share His divine life with us. Let us reflect on that fact, and then realize that He, who only does what is wisest and most loving, has chosen to work this way anyway! He has no problem using created things to help us - consider that He uses us, mere creatures, to carry on His saving work, which He certainly doesn't need to do. He sees fit to pour out His Spirit on us through the waters of baptism, He feeds us with His body through the sign of bread.

Surely, no Catholic would say of the Sacraments, "Oh, that's superstition!". That the sacramentals are not an end in themselves, and are ordered for our good and sanctification just like the Sacraments, is made clear in every one of the blessings in the Rituale. For example, in the blessing for beer, the Church prays: "Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul; through Christ our Lord." Likewise, the Eucharistic bread is not transubstantiated for its own good (an absurd idea) but for the eternal good of mankind.

The Rituale is well aware of the problems faced by sacramentals, acknowledging that "some are apt to be disedified rather than edified when they are made aware that the Church has a mind to speak a blessing on a horse, silkworm, bonfire, beer, bridal chamber, medicine or lard." Pride and sophistication are to blame for this antipathy, according to the introduction to the chapter. Recognising the important place that God has allocated to created things in His plan for our salvation, and genuinely desiring to make our whole lives holy, let's be confident in asking our priests to bless our houses, cars, and yes, plums.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

"I feel like they're telling God what to do."

In my last post, I repeated the explanation of Indulgences I gave to a friend of mine, who'd never heard of them. In this post, we'll look at some of the objections I've heard to them, and examine the basis for the Church's teaching on Indulgences.

Talking to another young Catholic a while ago, she said that she didn't believe in Indulgences because she felt like they were a way of "telling what God what to do" i.e. that He must remit the temporal punishment due to our sins. Certainly, I can see where she's coming from, but on closer inspection, it doesn't make much sense. Think about it - from this point of view, aren't the Sacraments also a way of telling God what to do? The priest says certain words and does certain actions, and therefore God baptises us, forgives our sins, seals us with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and allows us to consume His Body under the appearance of bread. How is this less shocking than Indulgences? Obviously, this isn't a good way of understanding the Sacraments, and neither is it a good way of understanding Indulgences.

Rather, like the Sacraments, Indulgences are ways that God communicates His superabundant love (grace) to us in this life. In the Sacraments, we receive a share of His divine life. In Indulgences, we receive a share of His merits. Again, even the word 'merit' can raise an objection from other Christians, who sometimes think we're saying that if you can earn enough 'Jesus points', you get to Heaven (this is the heresy of Pelagianism, against which the Church fought strenuously). So what do we mean by 'merit'? Our belief in the Treasury of Merit, and therefore Indulgences, has its basis in Our Lord's own words - "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal." [Mt 6:19-21]

In the previous paragraphs, Our Lord has told His disciples not to imitate the hypocrites, who fast and pray and give alms in public so that people will praise them, but rather to do them so as to please God, and God will reward them. It's very clear then, that such things as penances, prayer, and charity are 'worth something' in God's eyes, are in fact a "treasure" which is stored in heaven for us.

Of greatest value, indeed of infinite value, are the absolutely perfect treasures stored up by Jesus Himself - who ever fasted, prayed or did charity more perfectly, or was more pleasing to God the Father in this life? St. Paul writes of the Lord that because He "became obedient unto death, even death on a cross, therefore God has highly exalted him." [Phil 2:8-9] On this verse, St. Thomas Aquinas comments, "Therefore by obeying He merited His exaltation and thus He merited something for Himself." [ST III, Q 19.4]

Yet, because God's love isn't just 'enough' but 'super-abundant', this treasury of His is added to by the spiritual treasures of Our Lady, next in perfection to Him, and of the saints, all of whom have been perfected by being conformed to His nature. The face that "all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy" [CCC 1477] avoids any critical nonsense about the Catholic Church exalting the saints to the same level as God - they're only perfect because they've been perfected by Him, whereas He is, of His very nature, perfect.

All this is well and good. Store up treasure in Heaven by praying, doing penances, and acts of charity which are pleasing to God - check. But what do Christ, and Mary, and the saints do with it all? Is it for their pleasure only? Can they even share His merits with us on Earth (or souls in Purgatory, for that matter)? Our answer to this will depend a lot on what our vision of Heaven is like. In my opinion, too many Christians imagine Heaven as place of inert bliss, with souls floating about, not doing much. This isn't how Our Lord describes it, and in a well known parable, He gives us a clue about the truth of life in Heaven.

In the famous Parable of the Talents [cf. Mt 25:14-30], Our Lord describes a man going abroad, and entrusting his own property to his servants. As we know, the one who was given 5 talents made another 5, the one with 2 doubled his as well, and the servant with 1 hid his in the ground. Do you remember what the master says to the two servants who invested wisely? "Well done, good and faithful servant. You have shown you are faithful [or trustworthy] in small things; I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master's happiness." [emphasis mine].

When recalling the Master's words, too many of us leave out the part I've emphasised here. Another translation reads "...I will place you over many [things]", indicating a position of authority and responsibility. This certainly runs counter to what "[sharing] in your master's happiness" conjures up for many people.

It seems that the Master's good and faithfuul servants have things to do in Heaven. Might not their investments then be shared out with other servants in the household? According to our belief in the Communion of Saints, ably laid about by St Paul in his analogy of the body, they can. In clarifying the theology of Indulgences, Clement VII in the bull 'Unigenitas' used imagery from this parable, saying that Christ did not "hide His treasure in a napkin" as did the unwise servant, but laid up an "inestimable treasure for mankind".The merits of Christ, the good Master and the faithful Servant, and those of His saints, are able to be distributed to us by the power of the keys which He gave to Peter, and of binding and loosing, given to the Apostles. No limit is set on this authority, because it is Christ's own, shared with His Body, the Church.
so, don't be afraid of attempting to gain indulgences. In fact, search 'Enchiridion of Indulgences' on Google, and download the Church's handbook of Indulgences. You'll see that a lot of what you do already is indulgences in some way. Then tell others about them. Be a good and faithful servant and share the treasure which Christ has stored up for us!

Sunday, 17 July 2011

"What's an Indulgence?"

Enjoying a Sunday afternoon with a couple of friends, the conversation turned, as it usually does, to matters spiritual. We talked about Medjugorje (far too much was said to recount here, but all in a spirit of charity), which lead to a brief chat about the new Brown Scapular one of them had just received. He's a fairly recent convert to Catholicism, and a guy of such good humour, honest nature, and a real working-man (an electrician), that I always imagine he'd have been in his element 'talking shop' with those other holy working-men, the Apostles.

It turns out that none of us knew very much about the Brown Scapular, other than it was something to do with the Carmelites. The guy who'd given it to him had told him that if you die whilst wearing, you go straight to Heaven, at which point I made the 'wrong answer' noise from Family Fortunes [errrhhh-uurrrhhh!]. A quick check on the Carmelites' website revealed, as I suspected, that this is nonsense and that they've taken pains to distance themselves from the silly superstitions which have become attached to this devotion, which is almost as old as the Rosary. I also discovered that it's an English devotion of sorts, so naturally I'm all for it.

Something the guy told my friend which was true, however, was that an indulgence could be gained by kissing the Scapular. Unfortunately, you have to be formally enrolled in the Scapular to gain this indulgence, and I get the impression that the guy gave it to him as some sort of 'good luck charm', or the Catholic equivalent at any rate. Needless to say, my friend "just started wearing in" but didn't know any of this at the time.

On the plus side, it did lead him to ask about indulgences, about which he knew even less than the scapular he'd been wearing for weeks. Certainly, this is one of those topics, like the Crusades, the Inquisition, or Galileo, about which so many lies have been spread by critics of the Church, and for so long, that even Catholics think they must be true (indulgences are "buying your way out of Hell" etc...). That being the case, it's more important than ever for us Catholics to understand precisely what an Indulgence is, and what it is not, and more important still, to make them part of our practice of the Faith.

The Church's teaching on Indulgences is clearly laid out in the Catechism, 1471-1479. However, this is all theological language, and can be difficult for some. This is how I explained it...

Imagine you're playing football outside in the garden of the house which is owned by your friend, in which you rent a room, and you're having so much fun you start to get carried away. Perhaps you even think to yourself, "I should calm down a bit. This could all end in tears," but you're having such a good time, you don't listen to Jimminy Cricket, and so, almost inevitably, you end up breaking your friend's window. [This is the act of sin].

However, two things are actually broken now - the window, and your friendship with your friend. After all, it was your fault, and you were being silly. [cf. CCC 1472 - sin deprives us of communion/friendship with God, which is called 'eternal punishment due to sin', and also has here-and-now consequences, which is called 'temporal punishment'.]

So, seeing the damage you've caused, you apologise profusely, promise not to behave like an animal in or around their house again, and being merciful, your friend forgives you, and your friendship is restored [the same happens through the Sacrament of Confession; we ask forgiveness for our sins, and God forgives us, and so we are spared the eternal punishment due to the sins we've just confessed, and are restored to friendship with God].

However, as nice as it is that you're on friendly terms again, none of that fixes the broken window. Someone is going to have to pay for it, and in all fairness (a better word is 'justice'), it should be you - you broke it, you pay for it. It's not a penalty, or a harsh fine that's being inflicted on you, it's the debt you owe as a direct result of your carelessness [cf. CCC 1473 - "sufferings and trials of all kinds" come our way as a direct result of our sinful actions. The Christian should accept these as a grace, an opportunity to pay our debt, even taking up works of mercy, penances, and prayer as well, as a way to grow spiritually so as to avoid sinning in the future].

As it happens, you're in luck, because you know that your friend has put by a fund for just such an occasion. It turns out, that through your friend's contributions, and the contributions of lots of others who've lived in the house before you, there's lots of money in the fund, and all you need to do is apply for it, and the window will be fixed lickety-split [cf CCC 1476-77. This is the act of gaining the Indulgence, whereby our temporal punishment due to sin is remitted, 'paid for' by the merits of Christ and the saints from the Treasury of Merit.]

That, in a nutshell, is the process and purpose of Indulgences, yet more does need to be said. In the next post, we'll look at two of the most common objections to Indulgences, and then see on what basis the Church holds to this doctrine.

Monday, 13 June 2011

" no less a human construct than a Shakespeare play."

Anyone care to guess what the first part of this quote, the "....", is referring to? Well, as the First Sunday of Advent approaches, I'm sure you can expect to hear more comments like this one in reference to the new English translation of the Roman Missal.

Yep, the book which gives form to the main act of worship (the "source and summit", if you will) of the largest part of the church founded by Christ, is no more divinely inspired than a Shakespeare play. At least according to The Tablet (sometimes called 'the Bitter Pill' - I'm starting to see why). This is one of many troubling statements made in the inaugural piece of a series of articles about this new translation. It's common on blogs to find emphasis and analysis posts, wherein the blogger looks at someone else's writing under a microscope. I haven't done one before, so I thought I'd give it a try:

Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, the first time, after the Resurrection, that the apostolic function is exercised. Filled with the Spirit, Peter and the others leave their place of concealment and come out into the crowded, noisy city streets, to begin the work they have been given to do.

They start to preach, and so strong is the power of the Word within them that when it is uttered it heals Babel, and is heard by the cosmopolitan mass of people, gathered in the city, clearly in their own languages. ["heals Babel." I like that. Very good - onwards!...]
Thus the first functional effect of the Word of God being preached is to make itself understood by all, no matter what their origin, their background, their language. The first apostles did not expect their hearers to understand Latin or Greek, or any other lingua franca. They did not have to hear the Word in any special register or vocabulary set. The Word comes to them in the language or dialect that speaks to them most immediately. [And it was all going so well. This makes it sound like the Apostles had laid out a strategy for evangelisation while they were waiting in that room, and had decided not to bother the man in the street with incomprehensible languages like Greek and Latin. Thus the 'Sacred language-bad, vernacular-good' subtext of this whole article comes to the surface.]
By the way, if the Apostles did have any expectations (though the whole Pentecost episode seems rather...spontaneous, doesn't it?), I'm sure they expected the "strangers of Rome" to understand Latin, and the half dozen nationalities St. Luke records as present who spoke mainly Greek, to understand Greek. And St. Peter definitely speaks in a 'special register' and 'vocabulary set' - hence his lengthy quotes from the Prophets Joel and Isaiah, and two Psalms. If the "stranger from Rome" in the street wasn't familiar with the Scriptures? He'd have to ask someone to find out what St. Peter was talking about. See how evangelisation works?

The writer then describes the theory of 'topology of language', which deals with how translations may be changes of the original text, in order to convey the same main reference points ("subject, plot, characters, the message"). Which brings us to this:

We preserve faithfully the poetry of Shakespeare’s drama, but we change the settings, costume, time frame, scenography of the plays. We perform them to a wide audience, and we translate the words used into speech forms that are comprehensible to their listeners. For example, although we may use Shakespeare’s own words, the accents and voice patterns used to express them are certainly different from those an Elizabethan audience would have heard, and obviously the canon of the plays has now been translated into practically every language on the planet. [Who thinks that Shakespeare is better in modern English than in the original Renaissance English? No one? That's what I thought, so I'm not sure how this makes the writer's overall point - 'old language-bad, new language-good']

The liturgical action we call the Mass, the eucharistic sacrifice, is no less a human construct than is a Shakespearean play. The words and the texts we use today are very different from those used 500 years ago, and certainly from those used in the Early Church, the first century or so after the Resurrection. Thanks to modern liturgists, there are elements of similarity. Ancient forms of the eucharistic prayers have been revived and are used in our vernacular texts. [E.g. Eucharistic Prayer II, from around 3rd Century, I think] But the way in which these are rendered, put into forms with which contemporary minds and tongues can feel comfortable and understand, is crucial if the liturgy is to have the desired effect of raising hearts and minds to God.  [I have no Magisterial authority, thank God, so can't say how close that first statement comes to heresy. I do own a copy of the Catechism, however, which has multiple paragraphs concerning the divine, heavenly, cosmic reality of our earthly liturgy e.g. CCC 1084-1090 "In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy...", 1137-1139 "It is in this eternal liturgy that the Spirit and the Church enable us to participate...", 1326 "By the Eucharistic celebration we we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy...".
The Missal isn't Scripture, to be sure, but it is part of our liturgy, which is a "constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition" [CCC 1124]. Tradition, of course, comes to us from Christ through the Apostles, just like Scripture. It seems the Church has a more elevated view of its liturgical books than The Tablet. Also, did you spot the assumption? Comfortable and understandable language "is crucial" to raising hearts and minds to God. Says who? Doesn't comfortable language make us feel, well, comfortable, rather than rousing our innermost beings to contemplate the divine and difficult things of God? Wouldn't "poetic and challenging" language be better suited to this purpose?
It is important to remember that, as with Steiner’s examples of classical texts, the topos of the Mass remains the same. The core of the liturgy, the eucharistic action of the gather­ing, remains consistently the work of God; his mysterious presence within the community is still a reality, no matter what the context for the celebration. [Some of this is true - the liturgy is God's work primarily, ours secondarily, though that seems to cut across the grain of what the writer is advocating here (note the emphasis on 'the gathering' and 'the community'). Now, The Catechism rightly asserts that liturgy is the worship of the whole community, but that has to include people AND priest because Christ will never be sacramentally present without a priest to say Mass. This is just an impression, but given that Christ's sacramental presence is never mentioned in this article about the Mass, I don't think the writer has that view in mind.]
We do not negate that by using modern language or contemporary music. Just as the action of the celebrant is valid no matter what his personal state of soul, the action of the whole Mass is valid no matter what the state of those present, whether they are attentive or asleep, resentful or eager for full, wholehearted participation in their celebration. [If validity is all we're aiming for in our liturgy, then the priest could wear shorts and flip-flops, with a barmcake and a bottle of plonk on the coffee table, and we've got ourselves a sacrament. Always look out for this talk of 'validity' - it's a smokescreen for liturgical (and spiritual) minimalism, as though the miracle of the sacrament we witness at every Mass didn't demand our most beautiful art, music, poetry, architecture, and haberdashery (for the vestments).]

The apostles and their immediate successors did not “say” Mass in Latin. [No, they sang it in Greek and Aramaic] The Pentecost story demonstrates the diversity of the society into which the Church was born. It was only with the dominance of Roman culture, centuries later, that Latin became the lingua franca of the Church, as well as of the higher professions, of learning and so on.
She then puts forward the case that because English is the new lingua franca, the English translation of the Roman Missal is of global importance, which is true, but includes this:
In other words, for a religion that, like Catholic Christianity, professes to be universal, a closed, initiate group, with its own language and secret rituals, is not conducive to the intended aim of spreading the Word of God to all. And trying to maintain or restore this sense of encrypted meaning within the liturgy, through the use of esoteric or historical language, sets obstacles (scandal) in the way. [Is it me, or is she talking about the Latin Mass Society? And the FSSP? And the Pope? And the Church as she worshiped from the time of St. Gregory the Great until the 1970's? This writer is a translator, not an historian, so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt, and assume that she's doesn't know which language the great missionaries used at Mass all over the world, throughout the centuries, from Augustine of Canterbury in Anglo Saxon England, to Francis Xavier in India, winning untold millions of souls for Christ. By the way, it was Latin. And even if she's talking about 'King James Bible' English, the point still stands - the British Empire exported that around the globe, and it has nourished the faith of countless generations of Christians, including my beloved Newman. Who also said Mass exclusively in Latin when he converted.] 
And that's pretty much it, apart from a sinister prophecy that "If obstacles are put in [the word of God's] way, those responsible [i.e. the translators] will be called to account."

Behind this whole piece is a whopping assumption - that Mass should be immediately intelligible, and a foreign language (like, say, Latin or Ye Olde Englishe) definitely prevents that from happening.  Even in English, though, you can't understand it all straightaway, because there are so many actions, and signs and symbols and prayers, that are rich in different layers of meaning. We need to be taught what these meanings are to participate actively in the liturgy, regardless of the language, which is why I can actively participate in a Mass said in Flemish without understanding a single word of what was said, sung, prayed, and preached (which was what I experienced in my recent trip to Bruges).

This attitude also reflects the mentality of a faithful which only encounters God, and His Church, at Mass on Sunday. They don't read spiritual books, go to Mass mid-week or say the Rosary, look at the Bible or Catechism, or go on courses. In short, it is a symptom of the appalling state of catechesis in the modern Church. If our bishops, priests and deacons would only teach us some stuff, instead of giving us the same sort of exhortational homily on the moral life each week, important as that is, we'd be in a better position to receive this new translation. And in a better position to understand it.

Monday, 9 May 2011

"...and one is from Q."

When we look at the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, what do we think of as being his number 1 priority for the Church in this new millennium? Dealing with the sex abuse crisis, reforming the liturgy, or combating the "dictatorship of relativism"? All important topics on which the Pope has spoken and written at length and with great passion, all throughout his life, never mind just throughout the last 5 years.

It is, however, none of these. His Holiness has publicly stated that his, or rather, the Church's "supreme and fundamental priority" is leading people to the "God who speaks through the Bible". Dr. Scott Hahn, himself no biblical slouch, points out that we've never had such an accomplished Bible scholar in the Chair of Peter. I am reading the Pope's "Jesus of Nazareth, part 1" at the minute, and I have really marveled at the depth of his insights, his knowledge, and the obvious reverence with which he approaches 'the sacred page'. A correct understanding of how the various books of the Bible came to be written, studying their genres, how they came to be compiled as one volume, and understanding the limits of this 'historical-critical method' are key themes for the Pope in both parts of Jesus of Nazareth.

With this is mind, I was intrigued when I read a friend's essay a few days ago on the "theological significance of prayer in St. Luke's Gospel." I always find it interesting when someone brings out the different emphases the Evangelists place on certain things, each account of the life of Christ contributing a different facet to the whole structure, much like Bl. John Henry's 'many-sided solid object' which we talked about in a previous post.

One comment in particular, though, caused me a raised eyebrow: "seven occasions [of Jesus at prayer] are...additions to his Marcan source, and one is from Q." I had heard of 'Q' before, and knew that it was something to do with the Gospels, but didn't really know that much about it, and I'm sure most of you haven't either, so allow me to share what I've found.

'Q' is supposed to be book from the time of the Apostles, a Gospel which was simply a collection of the sayings of Jesus. The theory goes that St. Mark wrote his Gospel first (the traditional view is Matthew wrote first), then St. Matthew, and then St. Luke, who both used Mark independently, which is to say that they didn't rely on each other as a source. This accounts for most of their respective Gospels, where all three 'agree' i.e. record the same events (what is called 'triple tradition material'). For those passages found only in Matthew and Luke ('double tradition'), they must have had another source, probably written before Mark, and this source is given the name 'Q', from the German for 'source' (quelle). Check out the diagram for a simple, visual explanation.

This theory has been much in vogue for around 200 years, first being suggested at the start of the 19th century, mostly in Protestant German circles, and is still a consensus amongst academics today. It's popularity as a theory, and the reason it's taught as plain fact in many places like my friend's Uni, can be explained by a number of factors. Dr. Michael Barber has suggested that it's become a symbol of 'academic independance', a sign of serious scholarship, basically because it shows that you don't necessarily believe in the Gospels' content, and so can teach 'impartially'. Following on from this, apologist Karl Keating thinks that the original Q scholars were uncomfortable with the supernatural elements of the Gospels, and because Mark records by far the fewest miracles, they hypothesised that he wrote first, and so Matthew and Luke can be accused of adding false stories of miracles into their Gospels. This is backed up by this quote from Prof. Burton L. Mack from his book The Lost Gospel: "[The Gospel of Q]...should bring an end to the myth, the history, the mentality of the Gospels." (emphasis mine).

Clearly, if Q actually exists, then it could be of concern to the believing Christian. Personally, I'm not too concerned about it, for one very simple reason - the evidence against Q ever having existed is staggering! The main advocate of this line of research is Dr. Mark Goodacre. Please do check out his website, The Case Against Q, for very detailed information if you want more (much more) information. However, for the sake of ease, I'll summarise some of his reasoning here.

First and foremost, no-one had even heard of this 'lost Gospel' until the 19th century! No ancient source mentions such a sayings Gospel. Wouldn't the early Christians want to preserve a copy of Our Lord's teachings? Next, placing Mark first ('Marcan priority') in the order of writing can be done without the need of Q to explain the rest of Matthew and Luke (contrary to what Mr. Keating suggests in his article). Another theory that has Mark first, but is much simpler than trying to reconstruct a document for which there is no historical evidence, is the Farrer Theory, in which Luke uses both Mark and Matthew as his written sources. This would do away with the need for another written source i.e. Q. Is there any evidence that Luke knew Matthew's Gospel? There certainly is, as we can see from this word-for-word identical passage from both Matthew and Luke, which is absent from to Mark's telling of St. John the Baptist's speech:

[Mt 3:12 and Lk 3:17] "Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Follow the reference links, and you'll see that it's identical in both Latin and Greek as well.

There are about a thousand minor agreements between Matthew and Luke (e.g. the spelling of 'Nazareth' in Mt 3 and Lk 4 as 'Nazara', sadly often 'corrected' in English translations) which Mark doesn't have - points 6 & 7 in Dr. Goodacre's explanation. Even the way the major, longer, agreements are recorded in Luke indicates that he was copying from Matthew's text (this is called fatigue [point 8], and is fascinating stuff).

As I've said, there's much more over at Dr. Goodacre's site, and it's worth a visit. I don't know how likely it is that the Two Source Theory (Q) will come up in conversation, but you never know, so it's good to be prepared.

Friday, 29 April 2011

"If ever there was a safe truth, it is this..."

During our examination of Bl. John Henry's writing 'On the Development of Christian Doctrine', we have seen that he has concluded that it is reasonable to expect developments to occur in the doctrines of Christianity, because it is a heavenly idea which must be comprehensible to earthly minds i.e. it must gradually be understood, being too 'big' an idea for the human mind to take in all-at-once. Further, it is because of this necessary component of development that an infallible authority must exist as part of this Revelation, in order to judge between genuine developments and false ones, that is, corruptions.

Newman, thinking deeply
 So far, all of the old Cardinal's work has been theoretical, along the lines of "it is reasonable to expect that...". What about the empirical facts? Do the observations fit the workings out? Being Newman, he sees fit to start this section (as with every previous section) with a few principles to bear in mind before we proceed...

First, this investigation should be treated like any other: “Thus most men take Newton's theory of gravitation for granted, because it is generally received, and use it without rigidly testing it first, each for himself." I suspect Newman knew that people approach religious matters like this one with a predetermined mindset of suspiscion, and so is trying to call attention to that hypocrisy. Of course, we all know this attitude is as common today as it was 160 years ago, if not more so.

Next, we must go about collecting evidence, not seperating it. Once piece of evidence may not be enough to make the case by itself, but when it is gathered together with other, similarly 'sized' examples, then we begin to see that the facts follow the theory. Finally, we must take account of a wider context when looking at the individual evidences. Newman uses icons as an example, by arguing that a fully formed, or even nascent, theology of icons was not likely while the persecuted Church was surrounded by pagan idolatry (though it's worth noting that the practice of iconography began as early as the 2nd Century).

So, when we look for a church with developing doctrine, overseen by an infallible authority, actually fulfilling this theory in history, where should we look? The Anglican Newman wrote that there was only once place to go - the Catholic Church. From it's ancient Latin and Greek roots down to the present day, only this church, Newman observed, has lived and grown along the lines we have come to reasonably expect.

For one thing, only its system of doctrine is the 'many-sided' object we looked at in a previous post - only this church has gone about collecting doctrines together, so that one truth supports another. For example, "The Incarnation is the archetype of the Sacramental principle*. From the Sacramental principle come the Sacraments properly so called. Of the Sacraments, Baptism is developed into Confirmation on the one hand; into Penance, Purgatory, and Indulgences on the other." Needless to say, Newman gives a few dozen examples, but these will suffice. Further, even its critics insist on the 'wholeness' and integrity of this system of teachings, if only because it means they can opt out of it entirely.
*(Newman just expects you to know what he means by this; no explanation is forthcoming. However, he's simply referring to the meaning of the word 'Sacrament' - an encounter through the senses with a divine, invisible reality. This is how God has chosen to reveal Himself to us.)

What about about other churches? They have systems of doctrine, too, after all. Could one of them be the legitimate development of the Church which Jesus founded all those years ago? The Anglican Newman is not convinced: "If ever there was a safe truth, it is this...To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant. This is shown in the determination already referred to of [their] dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men would never have put it aside, unless they despaired of it."

From the first, he goes on, the Catholic Church's "teaching looked towards these dogmas, afterwards recognised and defined, with a determinate advance in the direction of them." Like what? Again, there are numerous examples given, from the Canon of the New Testament, to the Lord's Nature, and Infant Baptism. We'll look in more depth at the dogma which began our, and Newman's, investigation - the Papacy.

St. Ignatius and the lions (not of Judah)

Newman observes that the papacy remained a "mysterious privilege, an unfulfilled prophecy" until the time and circumstances were right for it to be brought into effect. "For St. Ignatius [in the early 2nd century] to speak of Popes when it was a matter for Bishops would have been like sending in the army to arrest a housebreaker." The authority of the popes remained undeveloped during this time because of the persecution the Church suffered (St. Ignatius wrote of the authority of bishops as he was on his way to Rome to be thrown to the wild beasts), as did the New Testament and the Creed (which we accept without a problem).

Neither should the time lapse of a few centuries before a Papacy we would recognise grew into its full stature bother us, because if the Bible shows us anything, it's that God always keeps His promises, but in His own sweet time. Newman compares this relatively short period to the eight hundred years between Jacob's prophecy of Judah's offspring being kings of Israel to it actually being fulfilled, during which interval we hear next to nothing of the tribe of Judah [Gen 49:8].

The words and acts of the early Church speak strongly of a latent, papal authority-in-waiting. St. Clement (the fourth pope) writes to the church in Corinth, while it is without a bishop, to settle some of its internal disputes, and he was never accused of interfering in something which didn't concern him. During the many doctrinal disputes which were part of the early Church's life, Rome was the destination of deposed bishops and heretics alike, who streamed to Rome to plead their case before its Bishop, the Pope. There is no equivalent traffic to any other See, not even Jerusalem, the birthplace of the Church. Finally, there is the praise heaped upon the Roman church, and its bishop, since the earliest times, from St. Iraneaus in the 2nd century, to this from St. Jerome in the 5th: "I am associated in communion with thy blessedness, that is, with the See of Peter. I know that on that rock, the Church is built."

Still need historical proof? This is from the very end of the book, and it's awesome: "If there is a form of Christianity now in the world which is accused of gross superstition, of borrowing its rites and customs from the heathen, a religion such, that men look at a convert to it with a feeling which no other denomination raises viz. with curiosity, suspicion, fear, disgust...[if Christian communions separated from it] are but local; if they continually subdivide, and it remains one, if some of its members are degenerate and corrupt, and are surpassed in conscientiousness and in virtue by the very heretics whom it condemns;—if heresies are rife and bishops negligent within its own pale, and if there is but one Voice for whose decisions the peoples wait with trust, one Name and one See to which they look with hope, and that name Peter, and that see Rome;—such a religion is not unlike the Christianity of the first to sixth Centuries.” So...what does the theory anticipate, and the history show? "If there must be, and are in fact, developments in Christianity, the doctrines proposed by successive Popes and Councils, are they."

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

"Are you not as a hypocrite, listening to them when you will, and deaf when you will not?"

In our last post, we looked at the importance of doctrine and dogma, not as lifeless, academic concepts, but as ways of coming to know the Truth Himself, Our Lord Jesus. Given that different churches teach different things about Him and His Church, surely we have to ask ourselves which church has the truest doctrines, and therefore the truest picture of Christ.

This is precisely how The Development of Christian Doctrine begins. Bl. John Henry Newman, writing as an Anglican, recounts the inner-monologue he engaged in when receiving Communion from the altar. He affirms his belief in the Real Presence, and then asks himself, "Who told you about that Gift?" He answers that he "learned if from the Fathers." Newman, always eager to give ten examples when two or three will do, gives us a comprehensive selection of quotes from the Church Fathers, testifying to the ancient Church's belief in Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist. "I cast my lot with them. I believe as they," he concludes.

Yet now his conscience begins to berate him, and is worth quoting at length: "And do not the same ancient Fathers bear witness to another doctrine, which you disown? Are you not as a hypocrite, listening to them when you will, and deaf when you will not? How are you casting your lot with the Saints, when you go but half-way with them? For of whether of the two do they speak the more frequently, of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, or of the Pope's supremacy? You accept the lesser evidence, you reject the greater."
This set Newman to wondering which church, Anglican or Catholic, had the correct doctrine about the papacy, and the correct doctrines in general. A simple appeal to the ancient Church's belief wasn't enough to settle to matter, because hardly any matters were settled in the Church of the first three centuries, in terms of having a defined doctrine; Newman admits that the ancient sources are "scanty" for both Real Presence and Papacy. How was he to account for the variations in belief and practice within the first Christian centuries, and so to find the church of his own day which was the descendant of the one founded by Christ on the Apostles? 
His hypothesis is that "time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas", even, or especially, the divine idea of Christianity, which was transmitted once and for all by inspired teachers but "could not be received all at once by its recipients." Any idea which has power enough to possess and move the hearts and minds of human beings requires "longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation." To expect an idea to spring up fully formed is unreasonable.

By way of analogy, Newman compares great ideas to a many-sided object, which may be "walked around, and viewed in contrary lights." At first sight, 'smooth' and 'pointed' seem like contradictory ideas, but both can be applied to a table-top, which is flat, and has four or more corners. What seems like evidence of an idea's not making sense could actually be proof of its "substantiveness and integrity," and will appear so once you've found the 'joint' where the two aspects are connected.

Likewise, Newman says, ideas embody the opposite principle of the old saying that 'streams are clearest nearer the source'. Not so with a great idea - it will become clearer, "and purer, and stronger" once it's had time to build up momentum. Silt and dirt sink to the bottom, and life begins to team in its waters once its course is "deep, and broad, and full." In fact, the river, like the idea, must constantly change in order to remain the same. They both must change course to flow around and over obstacles in their path, and even sweep away or cut through them if necessary. If either stick to a straight course, going only in one direction, eventually they meet an obstacle that cannot be overpowered, and become stagnant pools.

With these analogies in mind, what do we find if we look at the 'source' of the Christian 'river', the Bible? We see that it doesn't explain itself: What should be included in the Bible? Is it all of Revelation, or only a part? The Bible is silent on these crucial aspects, and more besides. Given that we can expect developments in the idea that is Christianity, we can expect those areas on which the Bible doesn't pronounce definite teaching to be left to development, and for the Bible itself to have been subject to development, though now fixed.

Further, 'development' as a component of the Divine scheme can be found in the Bible itself. Newman draws attention to prophecy, wherein the idea of the Saviour gradually grows in the mind of Israel, from the one-line protoevangelium of Genesis ("and he will crush [the serpent's] head"), to the "Wonder Counsellor, Prince of Peace" of Isaiah, to his full revelation in the person of Jesus. Likewise, there are ritual, ethical and political developments e.g. God's chosen people go from a family, to a tribe, to a race of people, to a nation.

Clearly, God has no problem working by means of developments; He knows that an all-at-once revelation of Himself would be too much for us, as Newman, and countless saints, have recognised. Yet Newman saw that there was something missing from his description of the process of Revelation. He states boldly, "He who gave Revelation virtually has not given it, unless He has also secured it from perversion and corruption." In other words, if God did not give us some guarantee that the fullest truth about Him would be preserved during this process which all great ideas go through, and therefore be knowable down through the centuries, then He might as well not have bothered! We've seen in the last post the spiritual importance of knowing the Truth, so why would God allow the idea of that Truth, the idea of authentic Christianity, to be lead astray, or die out?

Here is the rational expectation, given what has already been stated, (the "antecedent probability" as Newman calls it), of there being an authority in Christianity which cannot make mistakes about essential aspects of the idea but can always judge correctly between true changes i.e. developments, and false changes i.e. corruptions. Put another way, it's logical to expect an infallible authority in Christianity. Newman acknowledges that Protestants also believe this - for them, it is the Bible. Again, Newman's response to this idea is worth quoting in full:

"We are told that God has spoken. Where? In a book? We have tried it and it disappoints; it disappoints us, that most holy and blessed gift, not from fault of its own, but because it is used for a purpose for which it was not given. The Ethiopian's reply, when St. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading, is the voice of nature: "How can I, unless some man shall guide me?" The Church undertakes that office; she does what none else can do."

The idea of a living infallible authority, exercised by other human beings, was no more popular in Newman's day than it is in ours, and the objections to it which he deals with sound awfully familiar. For example, 'Doesn't this do away with the need for faith?' might be one. Well, no. Even an absolutely guaranteed truth can be "doubted, argued against, perverted, rejected", just as the Truth Himself was. The process by which the human mind can come to accept such difficult truths/ideas is the subject of another of Newman's famous books, The Grammar of Assent.
What have we learned from Bl. John Henry so far? First, that knowing the truth is essential to having a relationship with the Truth, Jesus Christ, and so is crucial for our spiritual lives. Therefore, following the church which has the fullness of the truth in its doctrines is important. Next, that developments in the 'great idea' which is God's Revelation of Himself through Christianity are to be expected, and can in fact be found. Finally, that one of those developments must be an infallible authority, able to react to changes in the course of the idea, and to promote good developments, and rule out false ones. So far, however, all this is theory, along the lines of 'it is reasonable to expect/conclude that...' In our next post, we'll look at the facts of the case, and see if all these expectations, these 'antecedent probabilities', have actually been fulfilled.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

"There is no positive truth in religion..."

This past weekend, I was privileged to give a talk at a Catholic Charismatic event on the subject of my great hero, Blessed John Henry Newman. It was the first talk I've ever given, and I certainly learned a lot from the experience i.e. don't try to cram an infinite amount of information into a finite amount of time! The talk was entitled, "Newman and the Impact of Christian Doctrine" and served as an introduction to the beloved Cardinal's insights into the development of the Church's teaching.

This might sound like an abstract subject at best, and a deathly boring one at worst. However, Bl. Newman's life testifies to the dramatic power that Christian doctrine can, and must, have. His most popular prayer book is called Meditations on Christian Doctrine, from which the famous prayer "God has created me to do him some definite service" is taken. Most dramatically, his research for his book On The Development of Christian Doctrine compelled him to become Catholic.

It's hard for us to imagine just how colossal a decision that was for the middle-aged John Henry. As he knelt in his study before Bl. Dominic Barberi on that rain-soaked October night in 1845, and asked the Italian priest to receive him into the Catholic Church, Newman must have reckoned the cost. He paid it dearly. He was ostracized by old friends, and it adversely affected his relationship with his family, to whom he was devoted. His conversion was met by disbelief in the Anglican Church, and even suspicion by some in the Catholic Church. He had to resign his post as a fellow of Oriel College. In later years, he would be attacked in the newspapers and pamphlets (which were widely read, and readily believed) by pillars of English society, like popular author Charles Kingsley, and former Prime Minister William Gladstone.

What did he find in the course of writing Christian Doctrine that he "recognized in himself a conviction of the truth" that the much-maligned Catholic Church was (as we would often refer to it in his later letters) "the one, true fold"? What caused him to undergo the 'bloodless martyrdom' described above?

For a starting point, let's imagine the absurdity of seeing on the news the tragic story that a man has been killed for refusing to deny the statement "2+2=4". Sure, this is a 'truth statement' and the truth is important, but we would rightly balk at the idea of sacrificing our lives for it. Simply put, an abstract, intellectual 'truth statement' isn't important enough for us to risk our lives, or even change them in the slightest. In the modern era, we have this same reaction to the terms 'doctrine' (teaching), and 'dogma' (truth). They're too technical, too distant, to be worth bothering about.

What is important, or valuable, enough  for us to risk the most valuable thing we have? St. Paul says that "perhaps for a good man someone would dare to die." [Rm 5:7] We all have trouble imagining an idea, even one we firmly believe in, for which we'd sacrifice ourselves, but we all have a list in our heads of people who we'd like to think we would die for if the situation arose. We need another person to spur us on to heroic deeds; someone we love, someone who loves us, someone who, one way or another, arouses our passions.

For the Christian, of course, this person is the good man, the God-Man, Jesus Christ. And He is exactly the sort of person we imagine that we'd be prepared to die for. How great He was! All that healing the sick, preaching the Good News to the poor and downtrodden, sticking it to the hypocrites, calling sinners like me "friend", let alone His being prepared to die for me! What a swell guy! Yes, I'd definitely put my life on the line for a chap like that.

Further, throughout the Gospels, and especially in St. John's, Jesus identifies Himself not only with the truth, but as The Truth. He brings out the true meaning of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells the Apostles that He is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" [Jn 14:6] and prays that the Father will "sanctify them in truth." [Jn 17:17] by sending "the Spirit of Truth" which will guide the Church "into all truth.".  At last, he tells Pilate that He came into the world "to bear testimony to the truth. All who are of the truth listen to my voice." [Jn 18:37]. Here, He is telling us in a not-at-all subtle way, that the truth is no conceptual, intangible ideal, but is reconciled to the Good Man in His Person. To give up your life for the truth is to give up your life that great guy we described earlier.

And here, of course, I run into a problem. How do I know that Jesus was like that, and said and did those things? He lived 2,000 years ago. Any information I have about Him has been passed on to me by someone else - I have to accept as true someone else's description of Him i.e. their doctrines and dogmas about Him. Even when it comes to praying to Him, the power of which, I might be tempted to think, does away with the need for boring ol' theology by simply 'deepening my friendship with Him' on an emotional level, I first have to know the truths that 1) He is to be prayed to, 2) it is possible to have friendship with Him in spite of the historical gulf between us, and 3) this by His outpouring of grace upon me. All this truth, all this theology, must come from someone else.

As if to make matters worse, I now have another problem. It seems that 'impersonal' doctrines are essential to my 'personal' spiritual life because I can't know anything about Jesus for certain without them. But whose doctrines? There are so many Christian denominations, and each paint their own picture of who my Lord and Friend truly was, and what He meant when He said and did what He said and did. Surely, it would be a disaster to try to build up a true relationship with a false Jesus? We've all seen (and perhaps been in) relationships which weren't founded on the whole truth eventually collapse, and when they do, we think to ourselves, "Well, that was bound to happen." Am I really prepared to put up with that possibility in the most important relationship I'll ever have?

Which brings us back to Newman. Believe it or not, the opening quote is from him. Here it is in context, from the speech he made upon being appointed a cardinal: "Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another." He describes this as the "great mischief" of his time (and ours) to which he had always opposed himself, "to the best of my powers." Simply put, contrary to common opinion, it matters a great deal which church you belong to, which church's doctrines you follow, because you'll be following its 'version' of Jesus, even if you're not aware that's what you're doing. For this reason, the truth or falsehood of doctrines and dogmas is an intensely personal, spiritual matter for Newman, and for us. Where can we find the real Jesus?

In the next post, we'll take a look in more detail at Bl. John Henry's journey towards the Truth.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

"I can make an image of what I have seen of God...and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled."

For a change of pace, I'm not going to be taking our opening quote apart, but affirming it. It is from St. John Damascene, the great 7th-8th century defender of sacred images. If you'll permit me, I'd like to share some of the fruits of my contemplation of a new icon in my parish church, and I hope it will better enable you to draw a spiritual benefit from sacred images.

The use of images, depicting Christ, Our Lady, and the saints, for prayer and teaching is an ancient Christian practice. This picture on the right of a shepherd bearing a sheep on his shoulders (the Good Shepherd), is a fresco from the Catacomb of San Callisto, a 2nd Century Christian burial site in Rome. Such images, constantly employed by the Catholic and Orthodox churches since the earliest centuries, constitute a Biblium Paupares, a 'Gospel of the Poor' "who read in them what they cannot read in books," according to St. Gregory the Great.

It occurs to me (and to my parish priest, who said so explicitly) that too many Catholic churches in this country are more or less bereft of quality sacred images - icons, statues, stained glass, and so on. Correspondingly, we have grown up to be spiritually illiterate, because we can't read these images in a way that earlier generations were able to. With the modern, and admittedly necessary, focus on introducing the laity to the riches of Scripture, perhaps we Catholics have focused on the written word to the exclusion of all the other means in which the Word communicates Himself to us.

Any of you familiar with Lectio Divina, the practice of praying slowly with Scripture, letting the mind wander over the words, making connections between various passages, and being drawn towards the Truth, will recognise a similar method for praying with icons. Let's begin by taking a look at our new icon, here on the left.

The first thing one notices is the position of the icon, directly above and around the Tabernacle. This is an icon of the Resurrection, and its placement is no accident. That Divine Life which conquers death is not merely an image on the wall, He is present in the Sacrament reserved in the Tabernacle, and our holy communion at Mass is a real share in Christ's own life.

Then we may find ourselves wondering at the figures represented. Who are they, and why are they here? Christ, dressed all in white, is pulling Adam (on the left) and Eve (on the right), from their graves, upon which is written: "Lord by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free +/You are the Saviour of the World." From left to right, standing over Adam are 'Righteous Job' and 'St. John the Forerunner', while behind Eve are 'Righteous Sarah' and 'King David'. The Gates of Death lie broken under Christ's feet, and under them is the black pit of Hell. The inscription at the top reads: "He has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light."

The first fruit of my contemplation struck me when I was singing the Benedictus from Lauds/Morning Prayer between Sunday Masses. This is the song which was sung by St. Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist (John the Forerunner in the Eastern Church), after his power of speech had been miraculously restored. This icon is the Benedictus in picture form! Singing that ancient song, and looking up at this icon, for the first time I could actually see the Lord God of Israel, visiting His people and saving them from the hands of their enemy. I could see the Mighty Saviour who God had promised would come from the house of David His servant, and the covenant He made with Abraham, and His love for Zechariah's fathers (the Jewish Patriarchs, Prophets and Holy Women), being fulfilled. Likewise, I could see the little child, John, who would become a prophet of God Most High, and prepare His way before Him. The Benedictus has never been the same for me since - I see it being acted out in this icon every time I sing it.

Then I realised that there is an even deeper link between the Benedictus, the icon and holy communion. In the English version we use, the Benedictus says "He has raised up for us a mighty saviour", yet what it should say is, "And has raised up a horn of salvation for us," ("Et erexit cornu salutis nobis" as it is in Latin). Why does Zechariah say this? In the Temple, of which Zechariah was a priest, the corners of the altar were turned up into four horns. It was on this altar where the sacrifices for sin were made by the priests, and the flesh of the offerings was shared by priest and people. Before Jesus has even been born, Zechariah, the priest of the Old Covenant, is prophesying the sacrifice of the Divine High Priest of the New Covenant on the altar of the Cross. In the icon, Christ's pierced feet stand astride the Gates of Death, which lie in the shape of a cross behind the Tabernacle, where His flesh, consecrated on the altar, is waiting to be shared by priest and people.

Having explored the composition, I began to notice the colours. Colours are like a special vocabulary in iconography; different colours mean different things. A prominent colour in this Resurrection scene is blue - the sky is a very dark blue, and the mandelion (literally, almond) behind Christ is blue. In iconography, blue is the colour of the divine. God is above all, and present everywhere, even in this place, hence the blue of the sky. I personally like to think of the mandelion as a tear in fabric. Think about it - if you stretch a piece of fabric tight, then slit it in the middle, you'll end up with a tear which is roughly this shape. Here, the fabric of the old created order has been torn open by the death of Christ, and He bursts through to snatch Adam and Eve from death to eternal life through the mandelion, which to me looks like a portal to another world in a sci-fi movie. Except, of course, this one's real. sky; blue mandelion in which stands Christ, a bridge between the Divine and the human [cf. 1 Tm 2:5]. But there is more blue in the picture which I didn't notice at first, because it isn't obviously related to a divine subject. On the left we can see that beneath Adam's brown cloak (brown representing 'earthiness', as in "For dust you are, and into dust you shall return") is a blue tunic, and beneath this are sleeves as white as Christ's! In the picture of Eve it is even more subtle, with barely a glimpse of two blue sleeves beneath another earthy, ochre coloured robe. Adam's brown cloak also looks to me like it's falling away as he is being yanked out of the grave by Christ.

Here, the iconographer, or rather the Church, is reminding us of something fundamental to our fallen, earthly, turns-into-dust-when-you-die nature. Beneath all that, we are truly made in the image and likeness of God. That likeness, which was compromised by Original Sin, is still a part of us, a deeper part than the sins which cling to us like dust and lead to death. Even more fundamental still, this image and likeness of God is not an ethereal, wishy-washy nicety. Perhaps Adam's white sleeves are a sign that we are made in the image and likeness of someone real, the same Someone who now stretches out His scarred, white-sleeved hands towards us. What a source of hope for us in our day-to-day lives, full of struggles and failings and strivings! One of the Prefaces to the Eucharist prays to the Father that He "may see and love in us, what you see and love in Christ." We may be covered by sin, but we are made to be like Christ, like God Himself, and even in the darkest places and times, that likeness lives on.

Further, God will not force eternal life on us. We have to co-operate with His grace. Our efforts, of course, are minimal compared with His, but let's face it, He's much stronger than we are! Our little bit of exertion is puny, but it takes a lot of effort to do even that. This is an important part of our Faith, because it means we must walk the walk, as well as talk the talk - the way we live our lives has an impact on our eternal life (cf. the parables of the Sheep and the Goats, and the Prodigal Son). Adam plants his foot on the edge of the grave, adding his own little strength to Christ's might. 

After all this meditation on what it means to be human, I began to ponder on what it means to be me. I've been exploring my vocation for the last year, and I suppose this was on my mind as I looked at the icon. Blessed John Henry Newman wrote a prayer in 'Meditations on Christian Doctrine' which says, "God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another." [March 7, section 2] We all have a vocation, and like much in life, we struggle with it. It occurred to me that maybe if we reminded ourselves that there is something we're born to do, something which is simply a part of us, and this something is given by God, we wouldn't worry about it so much. 

Here, in my parish church, so large you can't miss it, is a colossal reminder about the nature of vocation.  On one side, John the Forerunner does what he was born to do, even here in the afterlife: he turns to Righteous Job, to the people of Israel who've been waiting for the Messiah, and points out to him "the lamb of God". On the other side stands King David, the man God called "a man according to his own heart" [1 Sam 13:14]. Pressure, much? But God gave David everything he needed in order to be that man, and he wears a mantle in God's colour as a sign of His favour.

Praying with icons is a tried and tested method of deepening your relationship with Christ. I hope next time you're in a church you'll take time to gaze up at the icons and statues and stained glass, and savor the Word written in pictures.