An Immaculate Assumption


In the Douay Rheims version of the Gospel Our Lord’s sixth Beatitude is given as-
Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God
We are perhaps more familiar with the translations which render it as ‘pure in heart.’ You may think that contrasting ‘clean of‘ with ‘pure in‘ is making a distinction without a difference; and maybe you would be right.

For me, however, it serves as a reminder that the word ‘pure‘ has come to have more than one meaning. When applied to people we usually understand it as a synonym for virtuous. In relation to other things though- pure gold, purebred- it means without admixture of elements which do not properly belong to it. ‘Clean‘ has something of the same implication, things which are alien to a body have been washed away so that it is uncontaminated by what should not be attached to it. In that sense, then, the heart which can see God is the heart which is all light having no darkness in it, the heart, that is, which resembles the pre-lapsarian human condition.

The saints while still on earth can, to a degree, see the Lord because the action of grace together with their willing cooperation has washed away much of the dust of sin which attached to their pre-conversion heart. And the more that this is so the more perfectly can they see God. Yet it can never be a completely perfect vision because the wounds inflicted by Original Sin still leave their mark on even the most exalted of the saints. And this is a wound that none of the children of humankind have ever escaped. Except one.

Immaculately conceived in the womb of St Anne the blessed Virgin Mary was free from the stain of Original Sin and, through her cooperation with the Holy Spirit of God, all the days of her life she committed no actual sin. If any heart could be said to be pure or clean it would be hers. And it was precisely this that enabled her to see the Son, the Logos of the Father, within her breast during her dialogue with St Gabriel. The Word became flesh within Our Lady because the Immaculate Heart of Mary saw Him as He was in the bosom of the Father. He took His flesh from her because she, as it were, took her heart from Him.

The Beatitude is both a description of the present and a pledge for the future. What the clean of heart see through a glass darkly now they will know in full hereafter. The vision of God enjoyed by the Theotokos in her mortal life was the fullest that could possibly be. ‘He who sees me has seen the Father’ Jesus said. Who saw Our Lord more fully or for longer than His Blessed Mother? ‘Hail, full of grace’ said the Archangel, who was more united to the Holy Spirit than the Lady who was filled to overflowing with His grace? ‘You have found favour with God’ Gabriel added, who was closer to the Father than His favoured daughter Mary?

It is an article of the Catholic faith that the fullest possible happiness we can (and hopefully will) enjoy is to be in the presence of God while we are possessed of body, soul and spirit. That is, the resurrection to eternal life is the essential condition to our total fulfillment. The joy of the saints in heaven now is but a prelude to that which will come later. Then we will see Him face to face and know Him even as we are known. It is wholly fitting then that Mary, who because of her cleanness of heart saw God with the greatest possible clarity in this life, should become the first of us to see Him with the greatest possible clarity in the life to come.

To that end therefore ‘ the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory‘ (Munificentissimus Deus) We rejoice with Our Lady because we have joy that one whom we love so much and whom God loves infinitely is experiencing that total blessing which her Immaculate Heart leads her to. We are glad too because we have hope that Mary is now what we shall become later. And we have faith that it will the more likely be so because the Blessed Virgin intercedes on our behalf to make it so the more ardently we unite ourselves to her in prayer and petition. And so we have these three, faith hope and love and of the three love is the greatest. Rejoice and be glad Immaculate Mother, we your children love you now and forever!

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The painting is The Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin by Fra Angelico

Mountain of Transfiguration


In his book Jesus of Nazareth Pope Benedict XVI writes– “The mountain is the place of ascent – not only outward, but also inward ascent; it is a liberation from the burden of everyday life, a breathing in of the pure air of creation; it offers a view of the broad expanse of creation and its beauty; it gives one an inner peak to stand on and an intuitive sense of the creator.

And later he adds “The transfiguration is a prayer event; it displays visibly what happens when Jesus talks with his father: the profound interpenetration of his being with God, which then becomes pure light. In his oneness with the Father, Jesus is himself “light from light.””

If, for Our Lord, the Transfiguration was a prayer event the possibility is, for us, that our prayer can become a transfiguration event: if we precede it by ascending the mountain. But, you say, this is just the sort of thing people write in these annoying spiritual self-help books, what does it actually mean? Which is a fair question. Let me see if I can unpack it a little.

Usually when we start a period of prayer our minds are filled with the urgent necessities of mundane daily life- the children will demand to be fed shortly, the boss is insistent about the deadline being met, sharp artistic differences have emerged over that difficult second album- so we need to do something to change our focus. This is the beginning of the ascent. If we are Catholics we can start off by saying some of the prayers we have memorised, the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be is a favoured combination, in order to disassociate from our immediate worries. Of course as Catholics its perfectly possible we can gabble them out in auto-pilot mode without even slightly disengaging our minds from what lies behind let alone engaging them with what lies ahead.

A certain amount of effort then is required, try to pay attention to the words we are using, slow down our usual prayer rate to half-speed. If our worries about stuff are still at the forefront of our minds we shouldn’t hesitate to repeat prayers we have already said, perhaps adding others, like the Salve Regina, to them. Putting a crucifix or icon in front of our eyes can also help in the process of changing gear. If the world and its worries begins to fade into the background at least a little way then we have begun ascending.

In climbing we often have a split awareness. On the one hand we are largely absorbed in the physically demanding and often rather dreary business of putting one foot in front of another over challenging terrain and on the other we are somewhat aware of the vista beginning to unfold below as as we mount higher and higher. At this stage of our prayer time when the ‘burden of everyday life‘ is no longer so insistently present to our mind’s eye we can perhaps take up our beads and begin to meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary. Or maybe we can read a short passage from the Gospel or Epistles and then hold it in our minds. The emphasis here is on short, our concern in this exercise is not to be analysts of Scripture but recipients of the Spirit. That is, we should concentrate on accepting what He offers us now, today, at this moment, rather than working out elaborate ideas about this or that doctrine or aspect of theology.

Actually there are a whole host of things we could do during this stage of the ascent. We might follow the example of the good Jesuit St Ignatius Loyola and imaginatively envisage a Gospel episode to ourselves. We might repeat some aspirations which speak particularly to us (on my old blog I wrote about Frequent Ejaculation which might be helpful here.) Or we might express in our own words, directly or through our favourite saints, our need to offer praise, blessing, adoration, petition and intercession to Our Lord.

Whatever it is that we do it should hopefully be leading us into purer air. Ideas and thoughts about the mundane will still insistently present themselves before our consciousness but as soon as we become aware of their presence we can just let them go as they came, not engaging with or fighting against them, just noting that as they arose without our willed intent so they can easily depart the self same way.

It’s not always easy to know for certain when we have arrived at the peak. We may be continuing with our Rosary, we might be simply breathing in and out the names of Jesus and Mary, or perhaps we are silent, mind and voice both stilled. While some religious traditions aim at the experience of emptiness as such, for Christians the hope is only to be empty of self and to be filled with Christ. There are many ways He can come to us, indeed He is with us always if we are in a state of grace, prayer is the time when we can change our vision enough to perceive His presence and respond to it.

What we see from the mountain peak depends on our eyesight, on what is there to be seen and on the weather. This reflects the complex interplay between our capacity to know God, what He chooses to reveal of Himself to us at this moment, and our deep inner response to the action of grace in our heart. He may send us darkness to strengthen our patience. He may be the Light that makes all else appear darkness to us. Or He may send us any one of an infinite number of things but faith can tell us that whatever He sends or retains is just exactly what we need at this time. Sometimes it will be that prayer is indeed a transfiguration event for us but whether or no this is the case it will nevertheless always be a transformative event. Little by little, constantly repeated the daily act of prayer will reshape us more and more in the likeness of Him whom we adore.

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The picture is Mount Tabor by Adrien Egron

Original Sin


You have never experienced perfect happiness. It is, indeed, not possible to do so in this life. Every experience of partial happiness is accompanied at some level with the awareness that it will come to an end and be succeeded by the experience of unhappiness or at least non-happiness. The fact of transience runs counter to an essential requirement of perfect happiness, that it should be infinitely prolonged (also it should be dynamic and expandable but we will leave those to one side for the purposes of this blog.)

If humans possess, as we do, the capacity to be happy then we must possess the capacity to be perfectly happy. That being so why does nature (or God) plant in us a faculty which it then renders us incapable of using to the fullest possible extent?

Numerous philosophical and religious theories have been proposed to meet this difficulty. For the sake of brevity I will concentrate on the Catholic one, which is the doctrine of Original Sin.

The effects of the phenomena are various. The universal ones, experienced by all creatures, are that every material thing which enters into life will also endure death. Presuming they do not die prematurely before this event they will also undergo a process of decay or, as the ancient writers put it, corruption. Humans, specifically, are additionally burdened with an inherent alienation from God which is present at the beginning of their life and is a persistent feature of it thereafter.

Consequently humans are inclined to spend their lives trying to deny, ignore or bypass the realities of death and decay and also to seek substitutes to fill the God sized gap in their existence. This inevitably produces actual sin. Individuals focus on themselves as the proper object of life and are inclined to see other persons and things as use objects which will help them to forget or avoid the reality of death, corruption and the absence of infinite love freely given and exchanged.

These three things, death, decay and alienation, form inescapable barriers which separate us from the possibility of perfect happiness. When we commit actual sin we ourselves create a fourth obstacle. The good news (to coin a phrase) which Christianity brings us, however, is that all of these barriers are removable through Christ the Son of God and Son of Mary. If we are reborn through water and the Spirit, repentance and contrition, then, clothed with Christ, we can overcome our alienation from God and after having once experienced the bitter taste of corruption and death we can put them behind us for all eternity as we experience the perfect happiness of the Beatific Vision of the Triune God.

This being the effect the question arises, both naturally and unnaturally, what is the cause? By unnaturally I mean that those who doubt the effect, thinking that we can experience perfect happiness, we don’t have an inherent inclination towards sin, we can through magic, alchemy or science escape the boundaries of mortality and corruption, will seek the cause simply in order to discredit it as a part of their campaign against the effect.

The natural question is, granting the effect why does a loving and just God permit or cause a situation where His creatures live their lives in exile from Him prey to suffering, death and the possibility of permanent exclusion from His presence?

All explanatory roads lead to Eden. The story of the Fall in Genesis 3. Whether you read this as a literal, metaphorical or mythical account the Church argues that, separated from accidents, the essence of this story tells us the truth about why our condition is what it is. As I understand it it goes something like this-

  • At some point in time humans gained or were gifted an awareness of themselves as individuals. This awareness implies the presence of language, memory, an ability to plan and foresee consequences of events or actions, and the ability to think about abstractions.
  • Simultanously with the perception of self as a self arises the awareness of the self in relation to ones surroundings-objects, creatures, other selves.
  • Crucially this awareness includes a knowledge of the presence of God by, as it were, sight and not by faith, there being no need for faith since no barriers exist between any one and the One.
  • As soon, however, as our ancestors chose to act for the gratification of the self without reference to any relationship with another self, particularly the Self these barriers immediately appeared. The selfish act shattered the relationship of perfect knowing between humans and God.
  • Happiness cannot be attained apart from God since He is eternity and anything not united to Him will perish but anything which perishes cannot experience other than a transient happiness, although possessing the faculty for perfect felicity.

Granting that our first ancestors earned their exclusion from the Garden the next question is why was that loss imparted to their descendants? That is, why did those who were alienated from God, mortal and corruptible not produce children who were immortal, incorruptible and united to God?

Firstly, I would suggest, God has willed to create a Law governed universe within which the principle of cause and effect holds sway. For mortal adults to produce immortal children this law would have to be suspended in every single case so that an act of Divine mercy intervenes as a standard part of human reproduction. This is clearly contrary to the law governed nature of God’s creation. Secondly, and linked to this, as we inferred above our ancestors possessed the ability to foresee the consequences of their actions and to think in abstract terms. They would then be aware that when they decided to turn their back on God that decision would necessarily have consequent effects upon their children. They willed the cause of alienation and so all of the effects, about which they knew or could deduce, resulted from the willed act. It would be contrary to justice to allow people to act freely and knowingly but to prevent them from receiving the fruits of those acts, however bitter such fruits might be.

Of course it would also be unjust to condemn free and intelligent creatures to certain unhappiness and eternal separation from God for an act in which they had no part. To balance these things out the Lord produced what might be called a Divine compromise. Each human produced by the normal act of generation, apart from the Blessed Virgin Mary, is born marked with the taint of Original Sin as a consequence of the primordial rebellion of our first parents. But each human is also born with the possibility of redemption through faith, implicit or explicit, in Jesus Christ the Incarnate Deity who through sharing our flesh and our death redeems it from the chains which bind it. A possibility open to each person who is reading this sentence.

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The picture is from the Missal of Bernhard von Rohr, Archbishop of Salzburg ca.1481

In Defence of the Creeds


In a world of macadamised roads, high speed rail links and (relatively) cheap air travel we tend to think of the sea as being a barrier between places or, at least, of maritime journeys as being the slowest and most inconvenient mode of travelling. Before the Industrial Age, however, in many places roads varied between terrible and non-existent. The sea, then, offered the quickest, cheapest and most effective way of moving people and things about.

This explains something which long puzzled me. In the modern era the Western Isles of Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany have often been considered to be remote, sparsely populated and backward. In the ancient and early medieval world, though, legend depicts them as lively centres of population, commerce, culture and learning, as well as being hotbeds of saintliness. It was their ease of access to navigable waters that allowed such a thriving family of communities to emerge. The sea gave them the equivalent of superfast broadband and bullet trains at the same time which, combined with Celtic flair, enabled them to flourish.

The same broad principle may lie behind the rise of Ancient Greece, a combination peninsula and archipelago, which not only grew rapidly but planted colonies on sea facing land masses around the Eastern Mediterranean. So, what moderns see as a barrier ancients saw in precisely opposite terms.

This has significant implications when we read texts from centuries or millennia ago. We cannot assume that just because we understand the words we therefore grasp the meaning that these words were intended to convey. Often, indeed, we may understand them in precisely the opposite sense to that which was in the author’s mind. Another example might be where Our Lord says that the Father sends sun and rain on the just and the unjust alike. Twenty-First Century urban dwellers who think of rain as a nuisance will read that as God sending both good and bad things but First Century agricultural workers would have seen both sun and rain as blessings, essential to life.

This gap between, on the one hand, the original and intended meaning of a text and, on the other hand, the imputed meaning which later readers give to it raises important questions when it comes to the most widely read of the ancient texts- the Christian Sacred Scriptures. It can convincingly be argued that the original meanings are lost beyond the hope of recovery. Ordinary readers at any rate can only take the text as they find it and use the interpretive tools their culture has given them upon it. Even scholars and academics can only tentatively reconstruct original meaning on the basis of more or less educated guesswork.

That being so the meaning which the text has for today (and for every new generation’s today) is simply that negotiated between the reader, with her contemporary understanding of the world, and the actual words of the book she is reading. So, if, to pick a random example, one generation reads the Bible as being against same-sex relationships and another reads it as affirming them both can be right for their own epoch because the original intention of the author(s) is lost.


There is, in fact, a way to recover meaning and it is to be found in the Creeds of the Catholic Church. How so? Let us return to Greece, which we left busily engaged in empire building and also in constructing a maritime based information superhighway. As befits such an enterprise they produced, as a Scottish politician might put it, lots and lots of texts. Among the writers were the Pythagoreans. It may be interesting to know why they formed a weird vegetarian cult with an aversion to beans but it is unnecessary to our understanding of their famous theorem about right-angled triangles. That is, formulae about abstract ideas are not bound by time, place or context.

Much the same could be said about the writings of Plato and Aristotle. While they contain much that is circumstantial and local, related to the beliefs and culture of classical Athens, whenever they summarised their conclusions they reached into the realm of the universal. Their ideas, abstracted from immediate context, speak to things which exist and operate independently of any particular location of place or history which is why they are still central to Western culture in 2017. The philosophical schools of ancient Greece among their other activities engaged in the process of extracting the essential from the accidental in their propositions and establishing principles and maxims which they believed, often quite rightly, to be of a value which endured for all humans for all time.

Several centuries later their spiritual descendants the bishops of the Greek Church, steeped in Hellenic culture and philosophy and making use of the convenient sea spent several decades in coming together at various Councils and synods to settle questions of the Christian faith. Since the time of the heresiarch Luther it has been commonplace to decry this activity as an unseemly deviation from what should be the ‘true’ activity of the Church. Certainly the arguments over abstract questions about the Deity or the number of vowels to use in certain words seems rather beside the Christian point.

The result though were the Orthodox formulae, the Creeds, agreed in Councils, approved by the Bishop of Rome. These also extracted the essence from the accidents. What we find in them is the faith of the ancient Church, that is the Apostolic faith, in summary form and without ambiguity. Thus, although it is of no little interest to know what the historical context of this or that letter of St Paul, say, might be we do not need to know it in order to deduce what he meant. Meaning of Scripture is recoverable from the Creeds because the Creeds formulate the timebound elements of the Bible into the timeless symbols of abstract and universal ideas.

It is the common aspiration of reformers to return to the faith of the Bible and of liberals to make Christianity relevant to the world today. The Creeds are the faith of the bible in its essence and their propositions are universally relevant and outside the boundaries of time. The Church of the Creeds is, was and always will be the one Church of Christ.

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The painting is a Fresco depicting the Third Ecumenical Council in the narthex of the Church of Saint Athanasius the Athonite in the Great Lavra on Holy Mount Athos

Procrustean Christians


Procrustes, in Greek mythology, was by way of being a nightmare host. When guests accepted his invitation to stay for the night he offered them an iron bed. Since none of them exactly fitted it he would stretch or amputate their limbs until they did so. Which unpleasant experience was usually the death of them.

In modern usage a Procrustean is a person who, in politics, philosophy or religion, has conceived a ‘beautiful idea’ and who proceeds to attempt the modification of human beings until their contours form exactly the shape which the idea prescribes for them.

On my other blog I have been writing about Salafi-Jihadism, a form of extreme Islamism which takes the Procrustean model to the extreme of chopping of limbs in real earnest. This has led me to reflect upon the relationship between the Idea, the Person and the various theological systems within Christianity. That is, I wonder to what extent Christianity is idea-centred rather than human-centred.

Many of you will be reaching for your keyboards to tell me that, by definition, Christianity is, or should be, Christ-centred. I think, though, that the faith has three centres-

  • The absolute Deity in Himself as Himself
  • The Logos of the Deity, Christ, active in the world
  • Humanity as both object and subject of dynamic Divine caritas.

Through the Incarnation these three centres converge on Jesus as a single centre who encompasses multiple strands. Christianity, then, has to be a thing of balance which contains and addresses each of these strands and all of them taken together.

In that sense it has to take humans as it finds them and insofar as it seeks to re-form them to do so working with the materials that actually exist within them not the materials that our beautiful ideas say should exist within them.

Taking Calvinism as an example of Christian Procrusteanism; a Calvinist might argue that since God is Spirit and seeks people to worship Him in spirit and truth then Art is forbidden within religion. Creations of Art, paintings, statues, elaborate music, poetry, literature and so on, are material not spiritual objects and serve at best to distract people from the Deity and at worst become objects of worship themselves.

Given power Calvinists might seek to disbar Christian people from access to such artefacts by destroying those which exist and by forbidding artists from creating new ones. Now, the problem with this is that it is perhaps true that people should seek to get close to the God who is Spirit through spiritual means alone but the unvarying experience of human history is that, with few exceptions, that is not how actual humans behave. (It might also be argued that since, in Jesus, God is both flesh and Spirit the Calvinist project is flawed in its initial concept.)

What is common for humans is that objects are used to form bridges uniting memory to current experience. A mother does not need her baby’s first shoe or first milk tooth or a picture of its first day in kindergarten in order to feel an abiding love for this child. Nonetheless it is a virtually universal experience that mothers will treasure such souvenirs and that they form at some level an indispensable part of the mother-child relationship. Similarly in our relationship with God we may not absolutely need artistic objects in order to love Him but so long as we remain embodied humans most of us simply cannot dispense with them.

A consequence of enforced Calvinism, apart from the destruction of beautiful artefacts and the stunting of the imagination, would be that although externally compliant with religion reluctant Calvinists would for the most part internally become practically irreligious. The very things that they need to form a connection to the idea and reality of deity are denied them so they conclude that religion as such can form no part of their mental, imaginative or emotional life.

Now, Calvinist are not wrong to say that God is Spirit, nor are they mistaken in saying that the highest possible form of worship is Spirit to spirit without image and in deepest silence. Equally it is true that material objects can become ends in themselves and so lead people into idolatries of one sort or another. Where they are mistaken is in assuming that humans can begin their lives in God at the highest possible level once they have received the true Gospel and the gift of the Paraclete. With rare exceptions we are not capable of doing any such thing and neither do the ordinary gifts of the Spirit enable us to do so from the moment of conversion.

A human centred Christianity begins with a frank acknowledgement of our flawed and unstable nature. The ideal of perfection held out to us by Jesus (and by the saints) is no less sublime for Catholics than  for Calvinists but Catholicism has more of the nature of pilgrimage about it. We travel by stages, often long slow stages, from imperfection to perfection. And since for much of the journey we need these material props which Calvinism kicks away at the outset the Church needs to find ways to creatively adapt them to the Christian purpose. An object, be it ever so beautiful, is just an object. The only value it possesses lies in the mind of the person beholding it not in itself. Therefore, the Church through catechism, teaching and preaching can so form the minds of the People of God that what was once an obstacle to the spiritual can become a super-highway leading to it.

Similar examples could be multiplied indefinitely, veneration of the saints, use of sacraments and so on, but the point will always remain the same. Adapting people to fit ideas does not work and is counter-productive, adapting ideas to fit people does not work for the opposite reason, that spiritual ideas end up as material practices. A human-centred Christianity starts with both the ideal of Christian perfection and the universal reality of human imperfection and creates or adapts bridges to lead people from lower states to higher ones through the use of the things which come most naturally to them. Only thus can the Church become truly catholic and remain so until the Lord should return.

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The picture comes from this brief account of the legend of Procrustes

Jesus & the Ring of Sauron

the ring of power sauron

In the Gospel Jesus says “you will not come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:40) This contains a promise ‘life‘ and the price that must be paid to receive the promise ‘come to me.‘ His words ‘you will not‘ are a true prophecy of every succeeding generation. For it is certain that in the 2000 years or so since He spoke them very few indeed are those among humans who have been willing to make that payment.

If asked most 21st century Westerners would say that since they don’t believe the promise they see no benefit to paying the price. Yet even in the centuries of faith when most Europeans ostensibly believed the promise hardly any of them clinched the bargain. In Our Lord’s very lifetime people who knew that the promise must be true through the power in Him whom they saw giving sight to the blind and raising the dead did not go to Him that they might have life.

So, if the excuses vary with the centuries but the behaviour remains the same it is the behaviour and not the excuses which tell us the most about human nature and thus we will gain most from examining it rather than them.

What is this ‘following Jesus’ that we are, most of us, so desperate to avoid? It is crucifying the flesh and its desires, taking up the Cross daily, a willingness to lay aside family and friends, ambitions, possessions, habits and careers if they should prove obstacles between us and Christ. Unless we are called to monastic life we do not positively have to discard these things but we must hold them only provisionally, that is we must be so detached from them for Christ’s sake that we can discard them if we must. Or, to put it in a more active voice, we must sever our bonds of attachment to everything that is not Jesus.

As an aside I would note that though we must destroy our attachments we must be careful not to destroy the objects of attachment. The persons and things which form barriers or obstacles to me may prove gateways to someone else. It is for this reason that neither Bilbo nor Gandalf nor Frodo nor even Sam killed Gollum when they had the chance. Which, as it turned out, was just as well.

In order to become detached from all but the Lord we must, in effect, destroy, de-create, annihilate the personality or Self which we have built up to act as a barrier between our fragile ego and the pain of recognising an objective universe of objects and people that do not find us to be the centre of the their existence. This is a painful task since this thing which we have built up with so much labour and which is so useful (as we think) has become precious to us. In that sense then it resembles the Ring of Sauron in that it is artificial but exerts real power over all that we think and do, we both hate and love it and wish to use it and also to destroy it.

It is a trope of religious writing that authors compares themselves and their readers to the worst case scenario so that they can say ‘thou miserable wretch.’ Whatever the reality might be with me as writer surely no one who is discerning enough to be reading this can fairly be said to closely resemble Gollum. No, gentle reader, you are more likely to be akin to Frodo. You are aware of the dangerous qualities of the Ring and you are willing to make great sacrifices in the cause of destroying it. But, when it comes to the point a thread, fine as gossamer and nearly invisible, binds you so strongly to the world that you cannot, in fact, cast the thing into the abyss. It has power over your mind and so your body obeys.

In the long history of the Ring only two persons, Bilbo and Sam, both possessed and used it while retaining the ability to freely give it away afterwards. Early in the Quest Frodo was able to offer to give it away but later he lost that ability. Why? The hobbits were small, insignificant and, in the eyes of the Wise, often foolish. Moreover they, the hobbits, knew these things about themselves therefore they were also humble. It was precisely these qualities which enabled them to discard, to be detached from, the Ring. During the course of his journey Frodo became one of the great. He was wise and heroic and strong, that is he grew, became significant and ceased to be foolish. No doubt he retained his humility but nonetheless his growth meant a loss of the qualities he needed to throw the golden thing into the furnace of Mount Doom.

Growth is normally a good thing and Frodo certainly grew in admirable ways, so what was the problem he encountered? Bilbo and Sam, in their different fashions, as they travelled through life gained knowledge and experience and wisdom but they never lost a childlike sense of wonder at the world they encountered. They remained, in Taoist terms, uncarved blocks or, more conventionally, they retained their innocence. They never thought that they were significant, that the universe paid attention to them. Frodo, in order to complete his task, had to think that it and therefore he was important. And the more he thought that, paradoxically, the more he became capable of reaching the end and the less he became capable of carrying out the task that had brought him there.

So, in the business of following Jesus, our role models cannot be courageous Aragorn, fiery Gandalf, wise Galadriel or anguished Frodo. They must be foolish old Bilbo and the gardener Sam. We must regain the potential to see ourselves as insignificant and the world as a source of wonder. More than that, Bilbo and Sam could give away the Ring to Frodo because they loved him more than they loved themselves. It is in loving others, and especially in loving Christ, that we can uncarve our block, de-create our Self and find the strength to follow Him who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

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Mary, Full of Grace


At the beginning of the Annunciation St Gabriel makes two positive assertions about Our Lady-

  1. She is full of grace, and,
  2. The Lord is with her.

The questions I look at here are- Were these two divinely attested realities permanent or temporary? And if temporary for what duration were they granted?

In finding an answer we need to consider for what purpose or purposes the Almighty conferred these gifts upon Mary. Ultimately divine motivation is inscrutable to us but reason suggests that there were two primary reasons for the bestowal of these things-

  1. To prepare Our Lady for the task, unique in human history, of being the mother of the Incarnate Son of God and author of Salvation.
  2. To enable Mary to give her free consent to her role in the economy of salvation, that is, as Eve freely chose to rebel Mary must freely choose to cooperate.

Granting that these two factors were at work how long would they have to be present to the young Virgin for them to be fully effective? No doubt as Omnipotent Being God could have brought about an instantaneous transformation in Mary so that His gifts were conferred at the same moment in which Gabriel appeared to her. However, consider the magnitude of the task she faced and the significance of the consent she would have to give. If we assume that she was simply a normal, average Galilean girl at the time of the Annunciation then we run into a problem.

Effectively, under those circumstances, a total or near total transformation of her personality would be required for her to leap from being ‘just a girl’ to being the mother of God and giving her consent to her role in the economy of salvation. Alternatively she would undertake this role being profoundly ignorant of its meaning and significance. Either way the concept of free will could not meaningfully be applied to her actions. In the first instance she would, in essence, have been created as a new creature precisely and only for the purpose of consenting, so God would be using a human life as a blind tool which could not choose to disobey Him and it is wholly contrary to His nature to so act. In the second instance He would be concealing from her, through her ignorance, the things she most needed to know, which would mean her consent was not informed and so not free.

Even if we discard these considerations we should note that that Archangel also said to Mary ‘You have found favour with God.’ This clearly must apply to the time before the Annunciation. So, how could Our Lady have found enough favour with God to be chosen as the singular vessel for the Son of the Father? Because she was full of grace and the Lord was with her. That is, Gabriel did not mean ‘You have been randomly chosen by God.

How long prior to the Annunciation would Mary have possessed these gifts? A week? A month? A year? A decade? Again we need to consider the magnitude of the task facing her and therefore the importance of her freely given consent. This was to be Mary’s vocation, her life’s work. From the moment of her conception in St Anne’s womb it was God’s purpose for her that she should be the Theotokos, therefore it is entirely reasonable to suppose that from that same moment she was full of grace and accompanied by the Lord.

Once the Annunciation event was accomplished would grace and the Lord’s accompanying presence be withdrawn? Well, simply being pregnant would not exhaust Our Lady’s responsibilities as mother of the Son of God nor the need for her continued free consent to the unfolding economy of universal salvation. Nor would they be ended by His birth, nor by any one of the events of His life. We can indeed see the presence of this fullness of grace in the Blessed Virgin’s role at the Cana Wedding and the strengthening presence of the Lord upholding her through those long hours spent standing at the foot of the Cross.

Would this fullness of grace and abiding presence of the Lord be withdrawn when the earthly life of the Lord ended? Well, upon the Cross He gave His beloved disciple into the care of His Mother as her new son. Only after this had been done could the evangelist say that ‘everything had been accomplished.’ Catholics, of course, believe that by this action the Church as Church was entrusted to the maternal care of the Blessed Virgin. Protestants, equally of course, deny this. What is beyond dispute, though, for those of us who accept the Scriptures is that Our Lady was charged with a new task, whatever it might have been, by Our Lord with almost His final breath. Is it probable, then, that at this precise moment the amount of grace she possessed would be reduced and the presence of the Lord by her side be withdrawn?

Taken together all the evidence from the Gospels seem to point to the Blessed Virgin being full of grace and accompanied by the Lord from the moment of her conception through to the moment her earthly life ended. As Christians, though, we know that a life lived in God does not end at this point. Mary continues alive in God even now. The treasures of grace in her heart and her nearness to the Lord have not diminished because she is in heaven, quite the reverse, they have infinitely expanded. But she does not need these gifts now for herself, they flow from her instead like a fountain of grace poured out by her upon the Church and upon each one of us who turn to her as Mother, Guide, Teacher and Advocate. And so, I pray that Mary, Theotokos, Queen of Angels, Star of the Sea and Strength of the Weak will pour these gifts upon this blog and especially upon each person who reads it.

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The picture is a Franco-Flemish Annunciation from about 1380