Author: thoughtfullydetached

Nunc Dimittis

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In ancient Israel it was believed, and rightly believed, that no one could see God and live. Thus when old Simeon saw clearly in the infant before him the person of the Deity he knew that his time on earth was at an end. Yet he responded not with fear but with gratitude, ahead of him he saw light not darkness, joy was to be his portion in eternity however much sorrow he may have experienced in time.

It was with faith and by the power of the Spirit that Simeon was enabled to see in Jesus the Logos of God. Others who saw Him did not discern it. Even Cephas and the Boanerges on the Mountain of Transfiguration could not discern in the shining figure before them what Simeon had seen in Mary’s child, both the glory and the Cross. It is only by grace through faith that a person can see God. There is no effort we can make by ourselves alone, no straining of our spiritual eyes, which will give us the ability to see the Holy One. There are things, like prayer and fasting, which we can do to prepare ourselves for the encounter as Simeon and Anna did, but then we must wait in patience before the Lord whose good will may be to remain hidden from us in this life.

The Christ inaugurated a new covenant, to enter which we must be born again. This means that when we see Him for who He is we must die indeed but once we have died we will come to a new life in and through Him. Saul of Tarsus after his epiphany on the way to Damascus was buried in sightless darkness for three days, like his Master in the Holy Sepulchre he neither ate nor drank in all that time. Then the scales fell from his eyes and he could declare ‘And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me.’ St John of Patmos saw the vision of a man-
The hair of his head was as white as white wool or as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame.
His feet were like polished brass refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing water.
In his right hand he held seven stars.
A sharp two-edged sword came out of his mouth, and his face shone like the sun at its brightes
t.’
In response the Saint ‘fell down at his feet as though dead.’ But he was brought back from death by the Alpha and the Omega “then he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not.” 

This cycle of vision, death and rebirth was not a phenomenon only of the biblical times but is an inheritance of the Church’s saints and will be until the end. St Catherine of Siena, for example, effectively buried herself in the tomb of her cell in the Benincasa household for three years before emerging to begin her public apostolate.  She thereby illustrated an important point. No Christian receives a vision of God (or of the Virgin) for themselves only. We are members of one another and the gifts we are given are for the benefit of the whole body. Even if called to the hermitage or the cloister the impetus that a grace-filled vision provides is for building up the house of God through prayer and contemplation or through prayer and active service not through private enjoyment.

Yet however active our life might be, however deeply we are immersed in the activities and needs of the Church-in-the-world, we are never of the world. Visionaries in particular retain a nostalgia for the transcendent throughout all their time in the mundane. A part of them did, in fact, fully and finally die to this life when they saw and understood Him for the first time. That part ever longs to return to Him and to be with Him forever. With Solomon it sings-
O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
your anointing oils are fragrant,
your name is oil poured out;
therefore the virgins love you.’

This mystical nostalgia always enjoys the final victory. The desire for the world and the things of the world is gradually slain, the flesh is conquered, the spirit reigns supreme. And in the end God calls His saint home. What seems like a final defeat to the worldly who observe it is, in truth final victory because Jesus triumphs through death.

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The Spirit of Antichrist

Saint John the Evangelist Writing German, about 1340

Anyone who has had the great patience, or the great misfortune, to have read as many as half-a-dozen or so of my posts on this blog or its predecessor, Catholic Scot, might think that I have an obsession with the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. Personally I prefer to think that I am possessed by, rather than obsessed with, this fundamental tenet of the faith. There is a key text from St John the Theologian which, I think, justifies this singular focus of mine, to wit-
How will you recognize the spirit of God?
Any spirit recognizing Jesus as the Christ who has taken our flesh is of God.
But any spirit which does not recognize Jesus is not from God, it is the spirit of the antichrist.
You have heard of his coming and even now he is in the world.
You, my dear children, are of God and you have already overcome these people, because the one who is in you is more powerful than he who is in the world.
They are of the world and the world inspires them and those of the world listen to them.
We are of God and those who know God listen to us, but those who are not of God ignore us. This is how we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error as well.
(1 John, 4 )

There are and have been many inside and outside the Church who have recognised something about Jesus but not the thing, the one thing necessary. Namely that He is ‘the Christ who has taken our flesh.’ From Gnostics and Arians through to Anthroposophists and theological Modernists He has been proclaimed anything from an emanation of the Deity clothed in the appearance of flesh through to a great teacher of Wisdom who was nonetheless culturally conditioned and thus limited in His ability to see what ‘everybody knows’ in this present era.

Yet St John hits the nail firmly on the head in his advice to us. Jesus is fully and entirely the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, the Logos of God who has been with the Father from ‘the beginning,’ begotten not made, Light from Light. He is also fully and entirely the Son of Mary, flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood, dependant upon her in the womb, requiring the milk of her breasts in infancy. He is both these things at the same time, and because He is both these things, and only because He is both these things, He can come to us fully present in the material elements of the Eucharist and feed our souls.

The world cannot understand such a doctrine and rejects it as incomprehensible. Which is why the Theologian says that those who fail to recognise Jesus for who He is but who instead teach another Jesus, a false Jesus of their own devising, are inspired by the world. The wish to conform to the beliefs and prejudices of our neighbours overwhelms the little seed within which prompts us to conform instead to the Christ who has taken our flesh and who, in that flesh, was crucified.

Even among those who formally adhere the the Nicene Creed there are many who disbelieve in practice what they proclaim in theory, making void their profession. This can be seen in the qualifications with which they attempt to surround and hedge in our Saviour so that they can radically reinterpret Him in the light of the era in which they happen to live; as if the Son of God had lacked the capacity to once for all deliver a message to all the ages and for all the ages of human history.

Some translations, such as the Douay-Rheims, make the point even more explicitly-
Every spirit that dissolveth Jesus, is not of God: and this is Antichrist
To dissolve Jesus is to separate the Divinity of the Logos from the flesh of Mary’s Son. The result of such an operation not only diminishes Him it also diminishes us. If the Christ has not taken our flesh then our flesh has not achieved the consummation of perfection, a perfection which we can share if we clothe ourselves with Christ. If Mary is not the Mother of God then the death of her Son in the flesh has not won our Redemption, it has simply been another tragic episode in the long history of human cruelty, worse than some perhaps but not of such a nature as to change the entire fabric of the cosmos forever. If the Jesus who rose from the grave is not fully Man as well as fully God then death has not been defeated and it yet retains its sting.

When the doctrine of Incarnation is fully accepted, that is, when it is truly known and not simply known about, then it is a radically life changing truth. A radicalism that goes beyond the merely political categories that each generation clothes it with as if they were being daringly original. It is a radicalism that strikes deep into the category known as ‘me.’ And into every ‘me’ that ever lived. It is life changing because it teaches us the truth both that this ‘me’ killed God and that this God thinks me so lovable that He willingly embraced both my life and His death. If the 200 000 or so words I have written in my Catholic blogs have convinced anyone of the importance of this truth then it has been, at any rate, a magnificent obsession
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The picture of St John the Evangelist writing is from a 14th century manuscript in the Getty collection.

Jesus & the Marginalised: A Case Study

calling of st matthew caravaggio

There is a tendency within Christianity which argues that the primary purpose of Jesus’ mission was to affirm the marginalised and the excluded. Such a narrative does not fully account for the appeal which He had to wealthy and/or influential people like Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Joseph of Arimathea, the Sanhedrin member, or Nicodemus, the leading Pharisee. It is true, nonetheless, that among His closest followers were a disproportionate number of those who might be called outcasts. I have noticed though that those who emphasise that Our Lord had a particular focus on the marginalised and the excluded seldom ask the, to me obvious, follow through questions ‘marginalised by whom?’ and ‘excluded for what?’

The case of St Matthew (also named Levi) can give us some answers to these questions. He was a tax collector when Jesus called Him to become an Apostle. What, specifically did that mean? In his reflections on the subject Pope Benedict XVI summarised it thus
Matthew, in fact, not only handled money deemed impure because of its provenance from people foreign to the People of God, but he also collaborated with an alien and despicably greedy authority whose tributes moreover, could be arbitrarily determined.”

If we were to recast it in contemporary (2017) terms then Matthew would be an African-American employed by the GOP to administer (as their opponents see it) voter suppression. Or he would be a Palestinian Muslim serving as an Army officer in the Israel Defence Forces. Or he would be a German born Labour MP campaigning in favour of Brexit. That is, he would be someone that everyone who thought of themselves as being ‘on the right side of history’ would despise. By including Matthew in His inner circle Jesus would appear to be expressing a preferential option for traitors, collaborators and oppressors, and in a sense so He did.

Jesus did not simply have a mission to those people whom others exclude and marginalise. He has a mission to those whom you personally exclude and marginalise. He didn’t just call  a Frodo and an Eowyn He also called a Gollum and a Grima Wormtongue. And however much you might like to think that Judas Iscariot came from whatever the 1st century equivalent of white male conservative privilege was he might be just as likely to have been akin to a queer black liberal Democrat.

Our Lord called those who were excluded and rejected by the oppressed. He called those who were marginalised by campaigners for social justice. And He did that for the same reason that He called the poor and the victims of oppression. Pope Benedict expresses it like this-
..he rose and followed him! In this “he rose”, it is legitimate to read detachment from a sinful situation and at the same time, a conscious attachment to a new, upright life in communion with Jesus.

Jesus did not come to ‘affirm’ anyone. He came to convert everyone. Whether you campaign for or against abortion you require conversion. Whether you are in favour of or opposed to gun control you require conversion. If you support the European Union you require just as much conversion as the person who opposes it. And that means you must spend time focussing on your own sinfulness and inclination to evil. If you spend more time being angry at others than being angry at yourself the chances are you are doing Christianity wrongly.

If conservative Christians have a duty to be welcoming to LGBT people, refugees, illegal migrants, victims of racism and the disabled (which they do) then liberal Christians have an equal duty to be welcoming to Wall St speculators, white nationalists, racist police officers and misogynists. And if you marginalise people because they are oppressors then you are taking the same attitude that the Jews who marginalised St Matthew did and for similar reasons. No doubt you feel as justified as they did and can put forward a good case. But Jesus was more justified and had better reasons for His action.

We, each one of us, marginalise and exclude ourselves from the Kingdom of God. We do this because we are attracted to greed, to self-centredness, to the rewards of sensual satisfaction and praise. The purpose of Our Lord is to end this marginalisation and exclusion which we have inflicted upon ourselves by effecting a total change of mind and heart, a reorientation away from love of self towards love of the Other, beginning with God and through Him extending to each one of our neighbours. To achieve His purpose He calls each person who has alienated their affections from the Father and His preference is for those who have most so alienated themselves. Such persons may very well be millionaires or racists or homophobic trolls. They might equally well be people of colour who have spent a lifetime of advocacy for women’s rights or lesbians who have been hurt by a cruel rejection from their externally religious family. Jesus looks at what is inside a person, not what is on the outside. He judges that each one of us is worth dying for. We are called to judge as He judges and in no other way.
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The picture is The Calling of St Matthew by Caravaggio.

Christian Mysticism & the Incarnation

Simone dei Crocifissi Christ on the Cross with the Virgin the Magdalen and St John

Plotinus, a Neoplatonist philosopher, spoke for many different religious and philosophical belief systems when he described the vocation of the mystic as-
The flight of the alone to the Alone.
By which is meant the journey of an individual, particularly the spirit or mind (broadly defined) of that individual, towards God or the universal ground of being or the primordial Buddha nature or whatever label particular traditions apply to their goal. If successful this process culminates in a Union of Man (male or female) with God.

If most mystical traditions propose a pilgrimage from, as it were, Earth to Heaven Christianity with its doctrine of Incarnation reverses the direction of travel and offers a Union of Man with God achieved through the conception of the Logos of God in the womb of Mary. This Union grows and develops from its human side throughout the life of Jesus but is always supremely perfect in its Divine aspect. Christianity further proposes that what Jesus achieved by nature His followers can also achieve by Grace through participation.

Christian mystical tradition looks in particular at three exemplars of perfect Union with the Divine. The Blessed Virgin who achieved perfection primarily through reflection, as a mirror of the Blessed Trinity. St Mary Magdalene whose primary path was intense devotional love of the person of Jesus (what Hindus might call Bhakti Yoga.) And the Apostle St John who primarily achieved Union through direct intellectual apprehension or noetic wisdom (Jnana Yoga.) In this context ‘primary‘ does not mean exclusive, each of the three shared to a degree the approaches of the others but one particular way predominated for them. It is no coincidence that each of these persons was intimately involved in the drama of Christ’s Crucifixion, a point to which I shall return.

It would, however, be too simplistic to suggest that non-Christian mysticism is about Man’s journey to God while Christian mysticism is about His journey to us. All the great mystical traditions affirm that, in this life at any rate, the ultimate destination is the same as the original starting point. That is, because God indwells each one of us we are already in a state of Union with Him. The pilgrimage to enlightenment is a process of stripping away the veils which prevent us from realising (making real) an already existing truth. This idea has been illustrated in numerous texts, perhaps most strikingly in the classic Sufi work ‘The Conference of the Birds.

Christianity does not deny this truth, once again though the Incarnation makes a crucial difference as to how we perceive it. In the other traditions His Spirit unites to our spirit and our liberation consists in us becoming all spirit and only spirit (or Mind) and leaving everything material behind. For Christians flesh as well as spirit has been divinised because the Logos became the Son of Mary as well as the Son of the Father. This means that the Union with God which we must realise involves the whole of who we are, our bodies, our emotions, our hunger, thirst, cold and tiredness as well as our spirit because God Himself by nature through Jesus is united to these things. If we by grace participate in what He by nature is then we cannot take flight from any part of ourselves, except sin.

A key illustration of the significance this has for mysticism is to be found in the phenomenon of suffering. The Divinity as Divinity, or ground of being or Buddha nature or whatever cannot suffer. Therefore in the path to realising the Union with God suffering is a thing to be bypassed or left behind or somehow destroyed. Yet the supreme moment of most perfect Union which the Blessed Virgin, the Magdalene and the Evangelist achieved with God was precisely during those hours they spent at the foot of the Cross fully entering into the agony and death of Jesus. It was there, where Christ experienced extreme suffering and death that His Union with Man arrived at its total consummation, perfection and completion.

In order to be fully united with God it is not necessary that the mystic herself experiences suffering; it is necessary though that God goes through that experience. This is because the capacity to suffer and the certainty of death are not incidental to our human nature, they are a part of its essence. Union consists of a fusion between our essence and His essence and without a God who suffers and dies such a Union is necessarily incomplete and imperfect. The Incarnation, then, may be characterised as a flight of the Alone to the alone (there are theological grounds to quibble about the word ‘alone’ in this context but that would require more space than I have here.) It is precisely this flight which opens the possibility of the fullness of Union and it is precisely those who, through Grace, most closely identify with the suffering Christ that can enter into it.

The paradoxical elements of mysticism, that it involves a journey to a point at an infinite distance from ourselves and that everything we require is already fully present within us, are resolved through the self-emptying of the Son. He it is who makes the infinite journey, and He it is, dwelling within us, who has already plumbed the depths and scaled the heights of all that it essentially means to be a fully human person. The task of the Christian mystic is simply to make real our ‘Yes‘ to Jesus.
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The painting, by Simone dei Crocifissi, is Christ on the Cross with the Virgin, Mary Magdalen and St John.

Our Lady of Sorrows

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There is an ancient Catholic devotion known as The Seven Joys of the Virgin, often associated with a prayer called The Franciscan Crown or Seraphic Rosary. As Our Lady of Light and the mother of the One who is the source of all joy there is no doubt that Mary experienced much happiness in her earthly life. Yet it is as Our Lady of Sorrows that many Catholics most love to think of her. There is wisdom in this; all the joys we can experience in time are but a foretaste or shadow of the state of joy which eternity provides. Only in time do we experience the fullness of the reality of sorrow (the damned are regretful, not sorrowful.)

The sadnesses of Mary’s life, like those of her Son, the Man of Sorrows, were cups which she drank to the bitter dregs just as we do. Her earthly sorrow was like our earthly sorrow. The only difference being that with her perfect faith in, perfect hope about and perfect love for Jesus she was able wholly to unite her sorrows to His and offer them through the Spirit to the Father as an oblation of charity for sinners, the most effective of all intercessory prayers.

Surely the most poignant of Mary’s sorrows was that occasioned by the encounter which tradition tells us that she had with her Cross-bearing Son on the Via Dolorosa. This was to be the last time, before death had its brief triumph, that they would meet. The last time that she would touch Him. Perhaps she held His hands in hers, or gently stroked that bruised, bleeding and thorn-pierced face which she had loved with all her heart for over thirty years.

It may be they exchanged a few words. If all she said was “My Son! My Son!” and all He said was “Mother!” it would, nonetheless be one of the most profound and heartrending conversations ever to take place on this earth. Most of all they would have looked into each other’s eyes one final time. What would they see? In the eyes of Our Lord there would of course be pain, the pain of betrayal and abandonment as well as that caused by scourging and the weight of the Cross. There would too be fear, the coming agony on Golgotha was something from which His flesh shrank. No doubt also there would be compassion, compassion for His betrayer, for His faithless friends, for His torturers and executioners, for all whose weakness and sin had brought Him to this Way of the Cross. Above all there would be compassion for His afflicted mother whose presence both strengthened and weakened Him, such is the paradox of love.

And in the eyes of Mary? Anguish, of course, who can be more anguished than a mother watching her child going towards agony and death? And such a child! Such a mother! There would be love too, the motherlove that sees not only the big picture but the tiny details, blood trickling towards a blackened eye, a body trembling under the weight of the hard and heavy Cross. More than that, deep down there would be a look of trust. Like her ancestor Abraham on Mount Moriah Mary could not doubt that the Father would be faithful to His promises. Somehow what the Archangel had said- “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end.“- would come true despite all the horrors that she was witnessing on that first Good Friday.

Sorrow also would be visible in the eyes both of the suffering Son and of his distressed mother. A sorrow for loss and for the sin which brought this particular loss into the world. But it would not be sorrow without hope, sorrow without end, sorrow without consolation. Our Lady is a symbol to us of a great truth. The Christian life promises no exemption from suffering and death, pain and bereavement. It certainly makes no promise of prosperity or worldly success. What it promises is that no night is without an end, no death without a resurrection and no desolation need be endured alone. If we are with Him as she was with Him, if we love Him as she loves Him, then these things which we cannot escape will be transmuted, if not in time then in eternity, and our sorrow will become gladness, our mourning will turn into joy.
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On my old blog Catholic Scot I also wrote about this- The Fourth Sorrow of Mary: She Meets Jesus Bearing His Cross

The painting, by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, is Christ Bearing the Cross,

Mary: Strength of the Weak

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Recently I’ve been working a lot with this prayer-
O Mary, teach me to fly to you for help.
If you’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with Marian prayer you might prefer to use Jesus’ name. Since Our Lady is almoner to Our Lord the net spiritual effect is liable to be the same either way. However that may be, like many good prayers this one is multipurpose but for this blog I will focus on its helpfulness in relation to temptation.

Christian tradition identifies temptation as a process which goes through several distinct stages each of which is more difficult to resist than its predecessor. St John of Damascus outlines seven (count them, seven) such stages but for the sake of brevity I will use the model proposed by Hesychios of Sinai who mentions four phases-

(46) The provocation comes first, then our coupling with it, or the mingling of our thoughts with those of the wicked demons. Third comes our assent to the provocation, with both sets of intermingling thoughts contriving how to commit sin in practice. Fourth comes the concrete action–that is, the sin itself

Tradition also identifies the three great enemies within ourselves which prevent us effectively resisting temptation and these are: Ignorance, Forgetfulness and Laziness. Because of them we do not know, cannot remember or will not use the aids against temptation offered to us by the grace of God and by Holy Church. My personal experience is that Forgetfulness comes in the form of temporary amnesia. That is, before I am tempted by, and immediately after I have yielded to, sin I can remember perfectly clearly what I should do to resist it. During the actual contest with the tempter, however, it is like a thick veil has been thrown over the eyes of my mind and not only can I not see what I in fact should see clearly but I do not even look. Historically this kind of thing has been attributed to the work of demons, today we may say it is the effect of our unconscious Id baffling our conscious Ego. For all practical purposes it is a distinction without a difference.

It is because of this ‘forgetfulness’ of mine (which might also be laziness) that the ‘teach me‘ part of the prayer is so important. You may think that it is a tad redundant since I am asking to be taught something which I have evidently already learned. There is, however, a huge difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘knowing about.’ The latter form is simply a bunch of words which exist in the conscious part of my mind and which I have access to, if forgetfulness or laziness don’t prevent me, the former is to all intents and purposes an integral part of myself gained through both experience and thought. I ‘know’ my parents and so they are always with me, although they have died, I ‘know about’ my cousins in Colorado but I seldom think of them, although they are alive. I therefore ask the Blessed Virgin through both her teaching office and her maternal role to truly make me know that I can and must turn to her in times of trial. In this way the demons of Forgetfulness and Laziness can be slain.

The words ‘to fly‘ are crucial because the earlier in the temptative process we seek help the more chance we have of success. The provocation essentially proceeds from a source external to us. An image or idea suddenly pops into our minds from we know not where, again we can nominate either demons or the unconscious for blame. Although we are aware of it our awareness has not produced it. At this point temptation is at its weakest and most vulnerable. Weak as it is though we are weaker still and can only defeat it if we immediately run for help to the one source who can help us, Almighty God, and He often chooses to act through spiritual agents like Angels, Saints, our mother the Church, and above all the Blessed Virgin Mary.

If Forgetfulness or Laziness intervene at this point we will engage with the idea or image, perhaps fantasising about it or working out how to carry it into effect. All is not yet lost because we have not given consent. If at this point the veil falls away we can rush to Mary and seek her help. Although the struggle and effort will be harder and last for longer than if we had acted immediately nonetheless by the grace of God it can still end with the head of the serpent being trampled underfoot.

What, concretely, does flight to Mary entail? Well, if, for example, we have reached stage three and given our assent to the provocation but our conscience has kicked in before acting upon our intention we can take ourselves urgently to prayer. We may use whatever words come to mind and most suit our current need. Or, being Catholic, we may more likely turn to prayers we have often used and are familiar with. The Sub tuum praesidium is a handy emergency prayer- “WE fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.” The desperate straits we find ourselves in will impel us, no matter how often we have spoken such prayers before, to say them with great urgency, or as the English might phrase it ‘put some Oomph into them.’ Also or additionally we can turn our eyes to an image of the Virgin and in gazing upon her be reminded of all that she is and represents, this too may draw us back from the brink. And, of course, if we have a rosary to hand (as we should) we can take that up and immerse ourselves in the Mysteries, particularly in the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

What is the help that Mary can provide us with? A great deal, and that at every stage. If it should happen that we have fallen and feel a desire to rise again then we should fly to her every bit as urgently as we should have done before we fell. Our Lady is Mediatrix of All Graces, the healing balm of the Holy Spirit flows through her hands and can descend into us if we invoke her aid. Less obviously but no less potently she enables us to not just ‘know about’ her but to actually know her as Mother, Friend, Sister, Fellow Pilgrim. Which means we can make her a part of ourselves, she lives in our mind and heart at all times whether she be present or absent. And from her strength we can draw as from an inexhaustible resource. Her virtue can become our virtue, her patience in times of trial our patience and above all her love of Jesus can become our love of Jesus than which there can be no surer  foundation.
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The picture is the Toulouse Schutzmantel a 15th century painting “Pope and king, clergy and laity, rich and poor gather under Mary’s mantle. An angel tries to shoot arrows of justice at the crowd, but they break on her mantle.” 

 

Imageless Prayer

Divine Mercy by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski

 

The 4th century Christian monk and mystic Evagrios the Solitary wrote-
The divine splendour only appears to the intellect during prayer, when the intellect is free from conceptions of sensory objects
Does this contradict or complement the idea of using images in prayer, about which I recently blogged? It is, I think, one of these things like ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom‘ (Sirach 1:16) and ‘perfect love casteth out fear‘ (1 John 4:18) where we need to bear in mind that the Christian life is a pilgrimage, a process of transformation, not a single conversion event where everything becomes fully clear and wholly resolved in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.

The insight of Julian of Norwich “to focus on the goodness of God is the highest form of prayer” helps us to understand something about this pilgrimage as it relates to how we could or should pray. God in His essence is goodness itself, He manifests that goodness throughout His whole creation and He incarnates that goodness in the person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully Man.

It is through His incarnated life that this goodness is most easily accessible to, and understandable by, us. Therefore it is with our eyes on Jesus that most of us, when led by grace to pray, will begin. This is illustrated by the saint of Lisieux who chose for her name in religion Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. Her prayer life began because her heart was drawn to the Divinity who made Himself a tiny vulnerable infant, protected only by the loving arms of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and also by the suffering Christ whose image was preserved during His Way of the Cross by St Veronica.

Jesus did all things well because of His hidden inner Divinity and perfect goodness. Sometimes our eyes will be drawn beyond His outward actions to His inward Sacred Heart, the source from which everything He did flowed. This is illustrated by, for example, St Faustina who’s vision of the Divine Mercy which pours out from Him to us always invites us to a form of prayer based more upon who He is than upon what He has done during His earthly mission.

Behind God who acts in His creation is God as He is in Himself, that is, His essence. He dwells in inaccessible light, a light so bright that it appears to us as darkness. He has no shape, or form, or structure that we can grasp with our minds and envisage. All we can do is empty ourselves of ourselves and wait for Him, if He so wills, to imprint His imageless image on our minds. The challenge we face, as philosopher Simone Weil put it, is that ‘The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass’ Our limited, physical brains abhor a vacuum and when nothing real exists to fill it will make stuff up (or permit demons to do so in the traditional formulation) and try to pass it off as being God. ‘The imagination, filler up of the void, is essentially a liar

So, to practice the form of prayer described by Evagrios we must, again in Professor Weil’s words, ‘continually suspend the work of the imagination filling the void within ourselves.’ This is an incredibly difficult task and only an extraordinary grace united to a very particular ascetic religious life has any chance of succeeding. Which is to say that this kind of contemplative prayer may be objectively superior to all other forms of prayer, in that it draws a person into the internal life of the Blessed Trinity, but it does not at all follow that this is the kind of prayer which all Christians are called upon to perform. Focussing upon the goodness of God in the way which best suits our talents and most fully responds to the particular individual vocation we have received from the Spirit is the best form of prayer for us. To aspire to forms of prayer to which we are not suited is as great an error in its way as to refuse to accept a way of prayer when grace opens a path for us into it.

Even if we believe ourselves to be drawn to contemplative, mystical prayer it is important not to confuse the end with the beginning. That is, we must start with what, or rather Whom, we know which is Jesus Christ and Him Crucified. If He wishes to draw us beyond gazing upon His Passion and His Five Sacred Wounds then He shall but we cannot decide for ourselves that such devotion is for little people and we ourselves are too grand for it. God has a preference for little people, for the foolish, for the humble. Before we can be great we must be small, before we can fly we must lie at the foot of the Cross, before we can see the ‘Divine Splendour’ we must adore the Son of Mary in His humanity as much as in His Divinity.
@stevhep

thoughtfully catholic has a Facebook page.

My *other* blog is thoughtfully detached.

The painting is Divine Mercy by  Eugeniusz Kazimirowski