Author: thoughtfullydetached

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

Catholicism & the Feasts of Valhalla

Caravaggio emmaus

An event, action or object can be simultaneously real in itself and also symbolic of something beyond itself. While Catholics may, in principle, accept this statement they tend to become somewhat twitchy when it is applied to the Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

This reaction is understandable, for centuries insisting on the Real Presence of Jesus, body and blood, soul and divinity, under the appearance of bread and wine in the elements of Holy Communion has been an existential matter for the Church. To talk, then, about symbolism in this context can feel to many like a betrayal of the faith.

It remains nonetheless true that that an event, action or object however sacred can be understood at multiple levels of meaning. It takes nothing away from the dogma of Transubstantiation if we also look at the other things which the drama of the liturgy reveals to us about God, about the transcendent dimension and about ourselves.

The Eucharist, then, also stands as symbolic of a shared meal. As such it is a universal sign. Sharing food, breaking bread together, is a unifying ritual (as well as a pleasant way of taking on board nourishment) recognised across the whole world and throughout the span of human history. And any one such event has multiple resonances of other similar events, sharing with family members, sharing with friends, sharing in peace and hope with strangers.

These experiences of eating, taken together, are each of them simply visible manifestations of the unseen reality of love. Love realised with family and friends, love in potential when with strangers. So, considered either as an actual meal in ‘normal’ life or as a ritual meal in the Eucharist these communions with others represent a breaking through of the invisible into the world of the visible.

At a deeper level still the Mass represent an aspect of the unification of earth with heaven, the participation of time bound flesh in the eternal sharing of the transcendent dimension which is itself a reflection of the essence of the Trinitarian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who exchange their Love always. This heavenly dimension is made explicit in Catholic belief in a twofold way. Firstly it is believed that whenever the Mass is worthily celebrated the visible congregation is joined by invisible hosts of angels and saints who share in the rejoicing, Secondly Our Lord Himself spoke of a heavenly banquet in which we shall all share in the Kingdom of God and the Eucharist is recognised as a forerunner of this divine meal.

Though this specific warrant from Jesus exists it cannot be said that all the aspects of this vision, a meal which stands as a sign for both love as such and the uniting of earth with heaven, is a uniquely Christian one. It can be found in other belief systems. Among the Vikings it was believed that, after death, warriors would share with the gods in the feasts of Valhalla. The Olympians dined on ambrosia and nectar, food and drink so potent that any mortal given them would themselves become one of the immortals. Which is to say there is or has been a widespread religious belief in shared meals which unite the visible with the invisible. It is, in fact, a universal archetype.

This is another thing about which Catholics get twitchy; the description of aspects of the faith as ritual reenactments of universal archetypes. Such descriptions are often a preliminary to a statement, which is really a non-sequitur, that therefore Catholic ritual is based not on truth but upon a legend devised to meet the unconscious longing for an archetype.

However, universal archetypes exist for a reason. In the spiritual life of a person they express a deep rooted desire that the separation effected by our alienation from primordial unity be healed through a reunion with the One who is both source and end for each one of us who are of the many. And this desire is certainly reflected in many of the religious myths and legends anent shared meals and heavenly banquets.

Because of the Incarnation, though, the Christian feast, the Eucharist, is more than just a legend among legends. Christ united in Himself heaven and earth, temporal flesh with eternal Spirit. The Mass is not an enactment which like a play depicts the heavenly banquet, it is the heavenly banquet in our midst. The archetype is a reflection in human minds of a divine reality which the Eucharist makes present in the world. And if we share in the meal with a full openness to the action of the Spirit it is a lifting of us as flesh and blood into the Kingdom of Heaven for a moment of time which is also a participation in eternity.

The point, then, about the Mass as both reality and symbol is that what it symbolises is a universal longing and that what it is is a fulfillment, so far as is possible in this life, of that longing.

My *other* blog is thoughtfully detached 

The painting is Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio 

From There to Where?

From There to Where?

My previous blog, on Google, Catholic Scot is now at an end. I am not yet sure how to make use of this one. Ideally it should somehow live up to the thoughtfully catholic tag and be significantly different from its predecessor. Quite what that might mean in practice remains to be seen. Suggestions will be welcomed.


The picture is Christ in the house of Mary and Martha by Rembrandt.