Author: thoughtfullydetached

Wine to Gladden the Heart.

Les Trois Dames de Paris wine drinking

Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth,

 
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine,
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
(Psalm 104:15-16 RSV)

At a literal level this is clearly a song which blesses God for the fertility of the harvest and all the gifts which we as Man (male and female) derive from it. Because the psalms are divinely inspired works, though, the Church has always encouraged her children to look at the spiritual pearls which are buried in the field of Scripture. We might, for example, consider the three sacramental elements mentioned by the psalmist, wine, oil and bread, as representing the actions of the Father, Holy Spirit and Son respectively.

I shall leave you to meditate over that in your own way. Here I propose to look at the two heart relationships that are described. The divine gift which gladdens and the divine gift which strengthens. It is not fanciful to see in the wine divinity transcendent and in the bread divinity incarnate. Since these are not two divinities but the One God then responding to the one will lead us to the other. That is, loving and desiring the Transcendent One will lead us to love and desire His manifestation in the world which we physically inhabit, and not only does He have a name and a face here, Jesus Christ, but He is also present within all of us, so love of God in His illuminated transcendence leads us ineluctably to love of our neighbours. Conversely, when we have a disinterested, selfless love for our fellow creatures we will be led to love also the source of life that animates and then flows through them into the world, which is of course the Transcendent One.

Although it is the same God who is both transcendent and incarnate He is perceived by us to be operating in two different modes and so He has these two different effects upon our hearts, gladdening and strengthening. As the Transcendent One we see Him as being rather than as doing. So in gazing upon Him we are entranced by His beauty, His stillness, His silence, His infinite depth, His light, His pure love and so on. We, in a sense, drink Him in and He is a source for us of unending joy for so long as, being in a state of grace, we can contemplate Him or reminisce about our time in His presence.

As Emmanuel, God With Us, the Incarnate One has come down, so Jesus Himself tells us, as bread from heaven. In consuming Him we are strengthened, He Himself enters into us and we enter into Him. Because He is everything that we are, apart from sin, our weariness is His weariness, our sorrows are His sorrows, our weakness is His weakness. The strength that comes to us from Him lies in the truth that all of these frailties of ours proceed from our journey towards death but He is the Resurrected One, He has defeated death and lives forever and so long as we are in Him we too can share in His eternal victory starting here and now in this Today.

Insofar as love is real it is empty of Self and consists of a perpetual act of giving. Insofar as it is false it consists only of Self and aims at a perpetual state of receiving. The love of God for us, then, is an eternal giving of gifts, the wine that gladdens, the bread that strengthens. Our loving response cannot consist simply of a passive receiving but must be of the nature of a constant giving in return. St Catherine of Siena reports the Lord as saying “The service you cannot render me you must do for your neighbours.” That is, while we can directly give Him praise, thanks and worship the only way we can give Him consolation for His pain, water for His thirst and food for His hunger is through the good that we do to those whom we share the world with. So the gladness and the strength which we receive is not simply for our own benefit, so that we feel good, but for the benefit also of those around us to whom the divine gifts flow and overflow out of the abundance which we have received.

Now, you may think that all of the foregoing is mere inconsequential rambling. If so you quite possibly show good judgement. The point, however, is not how well I have carried out the exercise but the fact that I have carried it out at all. If this blog (and its predecessor Catholic Scot) has any purpose at all it is to rescue from disuse the practice of seeing Scripture as a multi-layered text which contains deep meanings that are not obvious at first glance.

Since the, ahem, changes inflicted on Christianity by Luther and his successors there has been a tendency to see literal readings of the Bible as the only legitimate form of interpretation. This has been compounded by the academic historical text criticism approach which seeks to limit Scriptural meanings to the historical context in which they were written, a context which archeology and other disciplines have increasingly recovered to a degree of fullness not previously known. All of this work is valuable and useful so far as it goes but it is too one-dimensional. The Spirit and spirituality flowed through the minds and fingers of the original authors of our sacred text. It contains depths and heights which go beyond the immediate context of their time, place and level of conscious awareness. They recorded on the pages of the books which they wrote not simply the things of which they were aware intellectually but also many things which they apprehended in ways beyond time, place and sequential thought. They left us, in the Bible, a great spiritual treasury and Christians, with the mind of the Church, should use all the tools at our disposal to unlock it.

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The picture is Les Trois Dames de Paris

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The First One Now Will Later Be Last

 

samuel anointing david 13thC manuscript

It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God

(Romans 9:8 NRSV)

 

There is a motif which runs through the Old Testament. Very often the first born son, who by custom and law was designated to inherit the role of family head and possessor of his father’s wealth, is surpassed or supplanted by a younger sibling. Abel is preferred before Cain, Jacob before Esau, Joseph and David get to headline their respective gigs way before their many older brothers. Christians have seen in this a type or figure of the election by God of a new People of God, the Church, in place of the old People of God, Israel. This is not merely a matter of historical interest. God does not change His way of operating over time so the same principle at work then is still at work in the world today.

 

What is this principle? It is often cast as a Divine preferential option for the poor but it might equally accurately be stated as a disdain for those who have a sense of entitlement. That is, if you think that you belong to a prosperous family or a favoured nation or that you are ‘on the right side of history’ because you personally deserve it then you are rubbing the Lord up the wrong way. Grace is seldom drawn down from heaven upon those who think that they are God’s gift to the world, it is more frequently given to those who see the world as God’s gift to them (and to all of their neighbours.)

 

The Lord is not unjust, it is not that He disfavours those who are born into privilege, a child of the bourgeoisie or of the West or of liberal minded media professionals has done nothing wrong. Possessing title deeds to a life of advantage is not a crime. Believing yourself to be a special and superior kind of person just because these things have descended to you is, however, a gravely sinful attitude. If, for example, you think that your country is Number One even if you are right it is no doing of yours, not something which you can congratulate yourself upon. Instead it imposes upon you a series of obligations. Firstly gratitude to the Divine Providence which has placed you in that nation at the (no doubt brief) time of its ascendency. Then you must earnestly consider why  it is number one, what qualities have put it there? If it is the result of frugality, honesty, cooperation across partisan and community lines, integrity and faithfulness to basic moral principles then you are obliged to practice the same things yourself if you are to become truly worthy of your inheritance.  Alternatively if your nation owes its place to arrogance, violence, a casual disregard for the children of a lesser god who inhabit other parts of the globe then your duty is to work against these things and reform your country, it is better to be good and Number Ten than bad and Number One. More probably you are coming into a mixed inheritance and you must consciously strengthen the good and weaken the bad.

 

The point is that if you accept the privileges, still more if you assert and insist upon them then you will be storing up damnation for yourself if you do not with equal or greater vigour insist upon fulfilling the obligations which come with that. The same principle is at work among those who, convinced of their absolute righteousness, despise the family members who share the table of friendship with them at Thanksgiving of Christmas feasts. The ideas which millennial liberals hold are not a warrant to scorn their kinsfolk as backward hicks in need of a long spell in reeducation camps. Even supposing the ideas of feminism or intersectionality or whatever to be true these are not something young people made for themselves, they are an inheritance passed on to them by the establishment which dominated their formative years. If their first fruits are arrogance and snobbery then they might themselves be flawed, at any rate those who hold them and behave in such ways are abandoning the path of humility.

 

The pattern of God’s work in the world is of a preference for the poor in spirit. Those who see themselves as small people in a big universe have a true grasp of the way things are whether they are the children of American millionaires or farmers tilling the fields of Albania. Those who puff themselves up to ten or twenty times their real size on the basis of their family, nation, culture, political tribe, ethnicity, sex, sexuality or anything material profoundly misunderstand themselves, the world they inhabit and the salvation offered through Jesus Christ who comes to us as the Son of humble Mary and the apprentice of the carpenter Joseph. To be great, Christianly speaking, you must be small. To succeed, Christianly speaking, you must fail. To truly live, Christianly speaking, you must first truly die.

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The picture shows the Prophet Samuel anointing the shepherd David as King. From a 13th Century manuscript.

The Prosaic God

I recently came across this line by the Australian poet Les Murray-

‘God is the poetry caught in any religion,

caught, not imprisoned’

This, I think, speaks to the image of God fostered by the nineteenth century Romantics. He is that which is nearly but not quite seen, almost grasped but never touched. The elusive, transcendent light that somehow inspires us to grow and to seek despite the dreariness of all else.

 

He is those things certainly but He is more than that. God also ensures by His laws that toothpaste comes out of the tube (most of the time,) by His grace He enables mothers to cope kindly, even humorously, with fretful two year olds. He sends rain on to the new-mown grass and causes its scent to rise towards heaven. That is, He is the God of small things, the prose God as well as the poetry which we can catch at.

 

And for Christians He is in particular the Incarnate One, fully present in the world as the Son of Mary, Jesus Christ. He is the God who takes naps on boats, who feels hunger and thirst, who gets out of breath climbing steep hills, who feels love for His mother, who experiences the loneliness of abandonment, the pain of death. More than this of course He thinks sublime thoughts and gives us teachings of great beauty, healing is in His hands and on His tongue. He is poetry and prose and He walks among us.

 

So, if religion is that which catches the poetry that is God it is the religion of Christ which is uniquely able to catch and hold both the transcendent and the immanent One, the poetical God and the prosaic God who is one Divinity in three persons. This is, perhaps, especially clearly seen in the Catholic communion of Saints. If we honour the mystical saints like John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen who soared on the wings of love to the highest heights we honour no less the Vincent de Paul’s, Jeanne de Chantal’s, the Damien’s of Molokai and the Dorothy Day’s who immersed themselves in the dreary daily round of seemingly mundane tasks and through love transmuted their base metal into the pure gold of divine grace and divine gift.

 

We honour too those like Thérèse of Lisieux who though she lived a little life in a small world focussed on tiny details nonetheless by her death aged twenty-four had become a spiritual giant and a teacher of the universal Church. This was not despite her concentrated attention on the prosaic but because of it. She saw that poetry and prose are two things in Man (male and female) but one thing in God and through God. It is love which dissolves the barriers between the two. With her Little Way Thérèse saw that the tiniest of actions done with love becomes the greatest of symphonies. She synthesised what many knew in part so that now, through her by the grace of God, we can know it in full.

 

At the head of the communion of saints and our great exemplar in all this, as in so much else, is Mary the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven. She is the one who sang for us the great canticle of the Church the Magnificat and she is the one who fled into the night as a refugee with our Saviour, her Son, in her arms. She it was who pondered the deep things of God in her heart and she it was who saw the nails driven into the hands and feet of that same God, her Beloved One, her Jesus. If the religion of the Old Testament and the religion of Rome between them did really and truly imprison the One God it was the religion of Mary that shows us how to set Him free again, with faith, hope, love and the grace-filled promise that each Christian must offer up through every prose or poetry filled moment of their lives- Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.

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The Day of Small Things

I recently came across a couple of texts. In the ancient Orthodox collection known as the Philokalia I found-

‘Wisdom dwells in the hearts of the gentle’ (St Theodoros)

And in the prophecy of Zechariah-

‘Who hath despised the day of small things?’ (Chap 4:10)

It struck me that there was a connection of ideas between the two but I was puzzled as to what it might be. After some reflection (and prayer) it suddenly came to me. It goes something like this..

 

Although each of us experiences times of heightened awareness- personal things like weddings, births, bereavements, new jobs, moving house and so on, or more universal events like wars, earthquakes, unexpected election results and the like- these do not form the essential fabric of our existence. Life generally is made up of thousands and thousands of days of small things. We get out of bed then sixteen hours or so later we return to it and we may struggle to recall what we have actually done during those hours. Certainly if we try to recall one of the days of small things from last month or last year or last decade our memory is likely to come up blank or at best just provide us with a generic template of the things we must have done.

 

By contrast Wisdom is a very big thing indeed. It is eternal and infinite, a quality of divinity, a gift of the Holy Spirit and a notoriously difficult idea to pin down. Wisdom is more than knowledge, more than understanding and more than the sum of the parts of these two things combined. Theodoros, though, is surely right to identify gentleness as being a characteristic closely aligned to Wisdom.

 

Which brings us back to days of small things. Possessing a gentle heart is a way of making a bridge between Wisdom, as an abstraction, and everyday mundane existence, as the place where we most usually experience life as such. How so? If we infuse the quality of gentleness into all of our interactions with the things, people and, indeed, animals who surround us then we make a day of small things into the ground upon which Wisdom does its work.

 

Forgiveness is an expression of gentleness and Jesus, in Matthew 18:35, urges us to forgive our neighbours “from your hearts.” Now, big ticket reasons for forgiveness probably only spring up during the times of heightened awareness of which I have spoken, the occasions when friends stab us in the back or spouses betray us or our house gets burgled. On the days of small things we will likely face nothing but minor annoyances and no rational reasons for resentment. Nonetheless lots of irrational reasons will likely spring up. The person who stands in front of the supermarket shelf you want to look at, the people who dither so long over buying a ticket that you miss your train, the couple gossiping noisily when you are trying to concentrate on an important problem (or a game on your smartphone.) Strictly speaking none of these require to be forgiven since they have, actually, done nothing wrong, it’s not as if they have deliberately set about trying to obstruct you in the fulfilment of your daily functions. Nonetheless, we do get angry at them and sometimes seek to get back at them somehow. As soon as we notice that we are feeling this way we can allow the gentleness inhabiting our heart to kick in and assuage our anger, replacing it with forgiveness. If an opportunity for revenge then pops up we can eschew it and opt for a pleasant smile and an act of helpfulness instead. In this way Wisdom will have invaded and occupied a significant part of our day of small things.

 

We can multiply such examples indefinitely. Almost everything we do during the course of a day can be accompanied by an internal or external act of gentleness and therefore also of Wisdom. The problem, however, is that few, if any, of us are gentle by nature. We simply will not remember to act gently until after the event when it is already too late. To deal with this difficulty the Catholic Church has traditionally (by which I mean prior to the Second Vatican Council) proposed a spiritual day of small things to be enfolded within the material day of small things which we will have to live through in any event. That is, a series of more or less tiny reminders dotted throughout our waking day which will serve to recall to our minds (and hearts) that we are, by virtue of our baptism, inhabited by the Holy Spirit; which is the Spirit of Wisdom.

 

If our first thought in the morning and the last at night is a prayer then they can bracket a day of small prayers. We can say grace before meals and thanksgiving after them. We can pray the rosary, and while travelling we can add a few more decades to it instead of idly looking out the window or listening to our privatised music. Three times a day we can pause and say the Angelus. At any point in the day when our mind is otherwise idle or liable to be filled by nonsense we can quietly say to ourselves a short aspiration or ejaculatory prayer such as, for example, Oh that today you would listen to His voice, harden not your hearts, we can set aside five minutes to read from the Gospel. Ideally too we can find (or make) time to visit a church possibly for daily Mass or just to sit in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament or at least to light a candle and offer a few words of thanks and praise.

 

The net effect of these small things within a small day could and should be to continuously remind us of our vocation to gentleness and to bringing the fruits of Wisdom from out of the realm of abstraction and concretely into the lives of each of the persons whom we meet this day. Certainly such a regime of little devotions can become a mere formalism, automatically repeated in a way external to our heart and intellect. But the way to avert that danger surely is to find ways to re-dedicate and rejuvenate them. It seems to me that the post-Conciliar Church has done foolishly in allowing such practices to die away for lack of encouragement. It is almost as if, to pick a purely random hypothetical example, highly educated Jesuit priests who mingle with the secularised intelligentsia are too embarrassed to practice or even defend such little pieties and so let them go by the wayside rather than face the ridicule of the bourgeois elites.

 

If I were being curmudgeonly I might suggest that part of the answer to the question “Who hath despised the day of small things?” would be ‘the spirit of Vatican II.’ More profoundly though, and a more enduring feature of human history, the answer lies in those who see the days of small things as a competitive field to secure victory over those whom they encounter and those who see them as a weariness without end and without redeeming features. That is, all those for whom a day is simply a material reality with nothing beyond it but another series of days all more or less the same. If we are Christians, if we have received the gifts of the Spirit and are strengthened by the sacraments then we owe these, our neighbours, the fruits of gentleness so that the light of Wisdom becomes the feature of every small day bringing with it at least the hope that maybe the days aren’t so small after all.

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The Psalmist, Solomon & the Swedish Supergroup

abba

 

I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.

(Psalm 109:22, Authorised Version)

 

There are any number of things which are obvious (to a Catholic mind) to say about this line. The problem is that those would be ideas and what the psalmist is conveying, at least to me, is a feeling. So, although all the ideas may be correct and appropriate they somehow miss the point, they, as it were, come in at the wrong level. The best response, then, would be something which is more lyrical than it is didactic. Poetically Mary Sidney rendered the same line thus-

For want and woe my life their object make

And in my breast my heart doth wounded sit.

This captures something of the poignancy and sense of unfulfilled longing that I think the psalm tries to convey. Which brings me to Abba.

 

In their song The Day Before You Came Agnetha sings about her life before she meets ‘the One.’

I must have left my house at eight, because I always do

My train, I’m certain, left the station just when it was due

I must have read the morning paper going into town

And having gotten through the editorial, no doubt I must have frowned

What she describes are hours filled with dull routine and activities aimed at distracting her mind (she avidly watches soap operas and reads romantic novels.) It is all desperately unsatisfactory

..at the time I never even noticed I was blue

I must have kept on dragging through the business of the day

Without really knowing anything, I hid a part of me away

Although the unsatisfactoriness is is buried beneath all the rubble she has piled up to hide it it is clearly there. Agnetha does not actually remember doing any of the things she describes because they so failed to touch her. But the one external factor which she twice mentions is the weather-

..And still on top of this I’m pretty sure it must have rained…

…And rattling on the roof I must have heard the sound of rain

It seems to her that in the ‘before’ phase of her life it always rained because it was a life without light or warmth.

 

Now clearly this is a song about romantic love and its transformative power. Yet it is relevant to the psalms not simply because both are songs but also because religious tradition sees romance and marriage as reflections in the material form of an essential spiritual activity. For Christians this includes the mutual love of each of the three persons of the Trinity and also that between the Church and God as well as the individual believer and God. In any event the relationship between the two kinds of love is sufficiently close to allow for a song or poem apparently about the one to be actually about the other. We can see this in Sufi Muslim poetry and in Hindu legends about Krishna and the milkmaids.

 

The Biblical manifestation of this form is the Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs or Canticles.) Some critics talk as if it is a collection of Jewish erotic poetry which has ‘accidentally’ fallen into the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity by some technical oversight of the original editors. Yet practically all of known human history up to and including the present has shown that there is never a shortage of poetically, philosophically, mystically or artistically minded Jews who are more than able to transform their metaphysical beliefs into some form of creative product. The Song then may be as ambiguous as the average George Harrison lyric but that does not mean that spiritual readings of it are an artificial gloss alien to the original poet’s intentions.

 

However all of that may be, Solomon writes-

By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth:

I sought him, but I found him not.

I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets,

And in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth:

I sought him, but I found him not.

(Canticles 3:1-2)

Where Agnetha is needy and heart-wounded but not consciously aware of it and the psalmist is both and aware of both Solomon has experience of the solution as well as the problem. The Lover must find and be united with her Beloved

I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him, and would not let him go

(Canticles 3:4)

Christian mysticism has always identified the Lover as an individual human soul (always personified as female) and the Beloved as God, specifically as Jesus who is God Incarnate. So the wound in the heart is both inflicted and cured by Him. His absence from us causes the unbearable pain and our union with Him causes the sweetest of all possible pains. This union is not something to be deferred to an afterlife but can begin to be experienced now through our encounters with Christ in this life.

 

The more resolutely and single-mindedly we pursue Him the deeper our encounters with Him will be. This does not mean that they will be frequent or uninterrupted-

I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.

(Canticles 5:6)

Into our lives, like Agnetha’s, rain will certainly fall but now we will know not only about the sun beyond the clouds we will actually know the sun itself face to face as it were. That knowledge, that memory, that hope, will sustain all our journeys; the day after He came is internally a very different thing from the day before He came however much the external details remain the same. So long as we can say “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me.” (Canticles 7:10) then our life has changed utterly and forever. In relation to Him we are needy and glad to be needy, by Him we have been heart-wounded and glad to be so. Our life ceases to be a slowly revolving circle and becomes an upward moving spiral, and I thank God for it.

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Bruno the Carthusian: Gentle Authority

girolamo marchesi saint bruno

My brothers, I am most serious in this request, at once both humble and insistent, that you manifest by your deeds the love you bear in your heart for your prior and beloved father by kindly and attentively providing him with everything he needs for the various requirements of his health. He may be unwilling to agree to what your loving solicitude may dictate, preferring to jeopardize his health and life rather than be found lacking in some point of external observance. This is after all normally not permitted, and he, since he holds the first place among you, might be ashamed to fail in these matters, fearing lest some of you become negligent or lukewarm on his account. Yet I think there is hardly any danger of that, and so I hereby grant you the necessary authority to take my place in this regard and to respectfully compel him to accept whatever you accord him for his health.

(Letter to Chartreuse)

 

I think that in this message from St Bruno to the community at Chartreuse, which he himself had founded, we can get a glimpse of the charisma with which he was able to persuade so many people to join the most austere of all the Catholic monastic orders. Landwin (or Landuino) the prior of Chartreuse had travelled to the Saint in Calabria, a difficult and dangerous journey in lawless times, to see him and get instructions from him. This trip had taken its toll on the prior who was in precarious health anyway. Bruno compassionating his friend and subordinate wished to keep him in Calabria to spare him the hardship of the long return journey and the strain of managing a community upon his return, Bruno had, moreover, the authority to order him to stay. Nonetheless seeing the sorrow that Landwin felt at his separation from the brethren the Saint found an ingenious and loving way to allow him to return to his own Charterhouse yet at the same time ensure that he was properly cared for.

 

Effectively he sent Landwin off bearing a letter which authorised his own monks to mutiny against him if he failed to take care of himself. We must bear in mind that obedience is the essence of monastic religious life. Indeed, earlier in the letter the Saint commends the brethren for being so assiduous in precisely this virtue- “you are careful and zealous to observe a genuine obedience conceived not only as the carrying out of God’s commands but as the original key to the spiritual life and its final stamp of authenticity as well, demanding as it does deep humility and outstanding patience.” Yet although they are pledged to obey their prior in all things they owe an even greater obedience, not so much to Bruno in distant Calabria as to the the Law of Love. If Landwin, in seeking to set a good example, fails to take care of himself the brothers will compel him to do so against his will.

 

What this tells us about the Saint is that he was willing to set aside his own will in the service of others. His desire was to keep Landwin by his side but this pleasure he forewent because it would have given so much pain to his friend. Yet in permitting the beloved prior to return to his beloved monastery he solicitously took steps to ensure that Landwin would be preserved from the effects of too much zeal so that his health, so far as was possible, would be preserved. Another aspect of Bruno revealed here is the great trust he has in the community. He sets high standards, not least by his own example, and his monks even at great distance follow these standards in part because they know that the Saint had confidence in them to do so. Here he gives a licence to rebel knowing perfectly well that Carthusians will not in any way abuse such a licence, and they, knowing the faith he puts in them, will not, in fact, be guilty of any such abuse.

 

A further evidence of Bruno’s delicate sensibility can be seen in his reference to ‘external observance.’ He is well aware that ascetic practices are not in themselves virtues. They possess value as tools which are used to achieve a particular end, that is, to lead a person to realise that bodily demands are secondary to spiritual ones. For Carthusians fasting and long night vigils serve the purpose of leading souls away from the world of things into the world of God’s presence. Yet sometimes the good Lord imposes His own form of ascetic labour onto His disciples in the form of illness or frailty. It then is not only superfluous to add self-chosen austerities on top of sickness it is also a form of presumption (as well as being unhealthy.) Again the Saint has confidence, this time in his prior, that he will not use illness to close in on himself and be egocentric as sometimes happens with the sick but shall offer his sufferings to God as a part of his monastic vocation on behalf of the Church. And Bruno extends his confidence in the brethren to include the certainty that they will not, seeing their leader exempted from ‘external observance,’ slacken off their own labours in consequence.

 

So we see from this letter a St Bruno who is committed to the contemplative path but not as some mechanical process which disdains and disregards the flesh. Far from it he is careful of the well being of those in his charge, tender towards their sufferings and trusting in their sincerity and commitment. Austerity and obedience are the core of Carthusian practice but love and compassion are the reasons for the practices and unlike too many other ascetics St Bruno never forgets the cause for the action in ensuring the carrying out of the action. So much so, in fact, that he suspends the act where it conflicts with its cause. This balance between too much and not enough strictness is always a difficult one to strike. The history of the Carthusian Order, ‘never reformed because never deformed’ suggests that he got that balance just right and in this letter we can see some of the ways in which he managed it.

 

It is, perhaps, a sad footnote to add that poor Landwin never made it back to Chartreuse and so his monks never got the chance to exercise their right to stage a loving rebellion against him. He was waylaid on his journey home by agents of the antipope Guibert and held prisoner for months because he steadfastly professed loyalty to the legitimate Pope Urban II. Although eventually released he died within a week. Nonetheless, such was his commitment, and that of his companions, to ensuring that the will of St Bruno be carried out in all things the letter that he had carried was in the end safely delivered. Another indication of the love and loyalty this great saint inspired in those whom he encountered. His feast day is celebrated on the 6th of October.

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Three Texts

1

 

A man who is in two minds will find no rest wherever he goes

(James 1:8)

 

The only mind upon which I can reflect with any real degree of insight is my own. I shall, therefore, see to what extent this text applies to me.

 

Over the course of any given 12 hours, or 12 days or 12 weeks, two is a wholly inadequate number to express the variety of minds which contend for dominance within me. When it comes to fundamental drives, those forces aiming to travel in a particular more or less fixed direction, then, however, it would be accurate to say that there are only two. These are what underlie each particular mind as it presents itself to my consciousness.

 

One of these drives, the most easily accessible and often the most powerful, could be called my sensual self or, perhaps, ‘the pleasure principle.’ It is the part of me which seeks to gain satisfaction from the objects, including people, which are or might be within my grasp. That is, it seeks the sensations of pleasure which are generated by anything from a gourmet meal through to the exercise of power and domination over others. In this context the distinction sometimes made between immediate or deferred gratification is besides the point, they are tactically different approaches which may reflect the degree of intelligence or culture I possess but the aim either way is still a purely material one, gratification of my senses. This can be in a crude and obvious fashion or in a refined and aesthetic one, however it manifests itself the desire and the means I adopt to achieve it all spring from the same drive.

 

My second mind is more hidden and easily submerged, indeed all but drowned, by the incoming tide of urges and appetites generated by my sensual self. This mind has a longing, as distinct from a desire, for that which is neither material nor of the senses. The senses are many and their appetites are various but I perceive that there is not multiplicity but unity at the heart of all that is knowable and unknowable. I am separated from this primary unity because I submit to my own multiplicity. Through silencing the cacophony of my desires I can hope to encounter and merge with this primal unity. My longing is consummated in a union beyond desire, beyond the senses and beyond the boundaries of the knowable.

 

Possessing two such minds simultaneously it follows that the Apostle spoke the truth when he said that rest is not possible wherever I go. They are constantly contending with each other. But this means that, in this life, rest is never possible unless one mind is not only defeated but wholly expelled. The sensual self cannot be so defeated because it is linked to the senses and so long as I have those I will have sensuality, however attenuated it may be. This mind is undefeatable though it can be lulled to sleep for long periods. I cannot speak for others but for myself I have not found it possible to defeat my longing self either. The pleasures of this life are always ultimately unsatisfactory and almost invariably carry a sting in the tail whenever I attempt to enjoy them. Their image in the imagination always, always, always exceeds by a long way their reality when encountered in the flesh. Knowing this from long experience I constantly seek to get beyond the senses to that which truly delivers what it faithfully promises, the One behind the many.

 

In conclusion, then, rest is not possible in this life because being without two minds, two divergent and contrary drives, is not possible. Unless, that is, there is a factor which can be introduced from outside which will, when thoroughly assimilated, effect a victory on our behalf and with our cooperation.

 

2

 

Will you never cease setting your heart on shadows, following a lie?

(Psalm 4:3)

 

The psalmist asks a very pertinent question. Insofar as all energy devoted to the pursuit of sensual pleasure is a chasing after shadows then my answer must be that I have not ceased shadow hunting yet. Why, knowing that pleasure promises what it cannot deliver, do I continue in pursuit of it? Because the thing which it does deliver, transient satisfaction, is enjoyable in the moment it is experienced (and even more so in anticipation) and it is certainly achievable. That which is real not phantom and true not false cannot guarantee the same ‘hit.’ Moreover since it is not experienced through the organs of sensation but through the mind alone its impact, except on rare occasions, is more ethereal or even speculative and thus possesses less immediate power.  

 

There are religious movements, like charismatic Christianity or Methodism in its early phase, which seek to offer spiritual excitement, enthusiasm, as a counterbalance to worldly stimulation. The frenzy of worship meetings delivers a degree of sensual pleasure through semi-hysterical acts and stirring music and the like. Yet this, I think, is simply feeding the sensual self without really reaching the longing self except, as it were, by accident and occasionally. To touch the One behind the many is not a pure act of self-will and cannot be produced to order. There is a lot of make-believe if people think that the Spirit descends upon them at precisely the same time every week provided they repeat the same recipe for inviting it (or Him) down.

 

It is not really a question of feeling at all. In the Catholic Eucharist, for example, the Spirit does descend and transform the elements of bread and wine into the Body and blood of Christ and it does so whether or not the priest, or I or anyone else feels His presence. The reality of the One is objective and independent of what we know, believe or feel about Him. In His essence He is silent and unmoving and we can most nearly approach Him through our own silence, internally and externally, and stillness. These two things, silence and stillness, are what our senses most abhor. Movement and sound is what stimulates them and they deeply desire to be stimulated at all times. These desires can be met in ways which are obvious or ways which are subtle but they are insistent that they be satiated. Against this constant drumbeat of demands, open and hidden, the longing which seeks to slip into the still and silent world of contact with the One is easily overwhelmed. It is a radically countercultural drive against my own personal culture and struggles against the powerful forces of appetite and habit which together can appear like a fixed and unchangeable nature.

 

In conclusion I would say that I will not cease from setting my heart on shadows so long as these shadows continue to set their hearts on me. That is, the still small voice at the centre of my being is too still and too small to finally conquer and defeat that which occupies all that is not the centre.

 

3

 

Like a bird rescued from the fowler’s snare; the snare is broken and we are safe

(Psalm 123:7)

 

When I was a novice in the English Charterhouse I noticed, one day, two little mice had got into the old chapter room. They were running around distractedly because, obviously, though they had found a way in they couldn’t find a way out. Using my old Boy Scout training I constructed a series of little ramps on the steps leading up from the room and into the cloister, then I stood back to observe. For a long time the mice could make nothing of my little effort. Every now and again one or other of them would run up the first and sometimes also the second of the ramps, rush around the step for a bit and then scamper back down to its companion. Eventually one of them (for some reason I think it was the girl mouse) made it to the top of the third ramp and disappeared at speed in the direction of the private chapels. Even with this example before it though the other (presumably boy) mouse still lingered miserably at the foot of the steps, where I left him to go to Vespers.

 

The next morning, sadly, I found my poor little boy mouse lying dead on the chapter room floor. He was some distance from my improvised escape route and facing completely in the opposite direction to it. So long as I am in two minds I resemble both of these mice simultaneously. Part of me has climbed the steps and is running free while the other, and greater part of me is still down below running in circles and doing precisely the wrong things to secure release.

 

Fortunately the psalmist talks about rescue which implies the existence and active intervention of a Rescuer. To some extent it does not matter if I am double-minded and restless. It does not even matter much that I set my heart on shadows, provided I know them to be shadows and there is no actual sin in them. It is always possible for me, like St Thérèse of Lisieux, to curl up at the foot of the steps, making myself as small as possible, and wait for the Divine Rescuer, Jesus my Lord, to stoop down and raise me up to be with Him.

 

To that end He Himself, through the Holy Spirit, has provided my longing self with three instruments which, if it uses them wisely, will succeed in bringing His help down upon me if I wait patiently enough for Him. I have faith that He is and that He wills to rescue me. I have hope that He will come in due time. And, whether He rescues me or not, I have love for Him just because He is who He is, love for Himself alone and through Him, because of Him, love for all whom He loves, which is everyone and all of Creation.

 

The more single minded I am the more rest of spirit I will experience in this life. The less I pursue shadows the nearer I will be to Truth itself. Yet even if I am divided and foolish nonetheless the snare is broken and I am safe. If I provide the Good Lord with the fulcrum of faith, hope and charity then He will use His lever, the Cross to raise me up to where He is, and Blessed be His Name.

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