Tag: Jesus

What is the Point of Virtue?

napa vineyard

If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.
(Matthew, 19:17)

My mother’s sons turned their anger on me,
They made me look after the vineyards.
My own vineyard I had not looked after!
(Song of Solomon, 1:6)

The purpose of Our Lord’s mission is that we may have life more abundantly. One of the instruments which He offers to us in pursuit of this goal is the practice of virtue, that is, the keeping of His commandments. The promise is that if we do so not only shall we enter into His presence forever at the end of this mortal existence (which, to be sure, is a great assurance itself) but that even now, in this present time, we will experience an overflowing abundance of life.

How does that work? What is the connection between virtue and a life lived in primary colours? Catholics can offer an answer to these questions on two levels, that of Natural Law and that of Revealed Truth. On the first, where we use Reason unaided by Revelation, we can argue that virtue is intrinsically good and the source of good for each individual human person. Superadded to that we can argue from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition that a person in a state of grace receives, and gives to others, a degree of good from the practice of virtue which eye has not seen and ear has not heard.

In classical Greek philosophy it was argued that the practice of the virtues was necessary in order to achieve Eudaimonia. This is a concept often translated as ‘happiness’ but it has a richer depth of meaning than that. It carries an idea of ‘human flourishing’ and ‘fulfilment’ as well. We might think of it as having life abundantly. Aristotle in particular saw virtue as the perfect mean between excess on the one hand and defect on the other. Or, to put it in Goldilockian terms, virtue is that porridge which is neither too hot nor too cold but ‘just right‘ (I’m Scottish and writing this on St Andrew’s day, hence the porridge reference.)

Since the mean is in itself a form of perfection it follows that it must be nearer to a state of eudaimonia than any form of imperfection. More profoundly than that in order to consistently pursue such a path we must previously have secured a permanent victory in our internal civil war. Aristotle saw, with good reason, each person as being a house divided against itself. Within us we have three principle aspects of our human nature which can be understood hierarchically. At the least uniquely human is the desiring aspect which we share with the animals, from this proceeds lust, gluttony and the like. Above this is the irascible aspect which combines thought with desire, from this proceeds anger, envy, malice and the like. Top of the tree is the intellective aspect which is governed by Reason and is what makes us most distinctively human in relation to visible creation (though Reason is also a characteristic of angels.)

To be virtuous, then, and thus to enter into life, it is necessary for the intellective aspect of ourselves to battle with, and gain the mastery over, our appetitive and irascible aspects. Which brings us to the vineyards of Solomon. If our mother is the earth then the sons of the mother are of the earth earthy. That is, the passions which spring up from the lower part of our nature draw us away from the cultivation of our intellect which is of its Father, spirit not matter. In tending to the passions, nourishing them and lending our intellect to justify and rationalise their excesses and defects increasingly our own vineyard becomes, as Hamlet might put it-
…an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely
(Hamlet Act 1, Scene 2)

Yet, to experience life fully we should use that which is most characteristically human in us, the intellect, to its maximum extent. We can thus control and direct our lower aspects, desire and irascibility, so that they function to their full potential as part of a creature which is rational. Neglecting the vineyard of the mind does not mean that it cannot function at all. If we cut through the weeds and brambles we can still harvest a crop from it but they will be, to coin a phrase, sour grapes. Enough to intoxicate us perhaps, or bring us to oblivion but not of a nature to gives us the pleasure of their taste or the delight of a wine which gladdens the heart. Therefore, we should direct our energies towards the vineyard of the mind so that a rich vintage can be harvested from it. One whose taste we can enjoy while drinking it and whose effect will not be frenzy and distraction but mellow pleasure shared with friends.

What does Revelation add to this picture? The Orthodox Saint Maximos the Confessor wrote-
The divine Logos of God the Father is mystically present in each of His commandments… Thus, he who receives a divine commandment and carries it out receives the Logos of God who is in it.
(Philokalia)
Which means that one who obeys the commandments for the sake of the Kingdom receives within themselves the Ruler of that Kingdom. Christ Himself dwells within those who fulfill His Will because He is His Will as He is Love and Truth and Justice and Mercy. And where the Son is so to is the Father and the Holy Spirit whose Temple we become if we do the will of the Son, as we do the will of the Son because we have become the Temple of the Holy Spirit. From Revelation we can deduce that the difference between the eudaimonia of the rationally virtuous and the abundancy of the Christianly virtuous is that the one is energised from within, by ourselves, and the other is energised from without, by the Blessed Trinity, which becomes a within by the power of the descending Holy Spirit and the indwelling Logos of God. Or, to put it another way, if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.

 

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The Time is Now Past

 

queen esther the persians

His disciples came to Him,

Saying,

This is a desert place,

And the time is now past

(Matthew 14:15)

 

Turn our sorrow into joy,

That we may live,

O Lord,

And praise thy name

(Esther 13:17)

 

To be in a desert place is to be without resources to draw upon. Neither within, in our heart and mind, nor without, in the people and things surrounding us, can we find that which we need to sustain us. We have arrived at bleakness, we live and move and have our being in bleakness. Our outward state may appear to be pleasant enough, career, family, the things of life might be going along exactly as the world tells us that they should but we do not find in them the happiness promised. Or we may have suffered loss, trauma or illness and we find that there is nothing which comes to hand that can give us the strength to escape from the legacy of despair which they have left behind in our souls.

 

Compounding this we look around and sense that for us the time is past. The wrongs which we have done cannot now be undone. The wrongs which have been done to us have left scars and wounds that are beyond any power that we are aware of to heal. More than that our vision is darkened by an incoming tide of blackness to which there seems no end. Night is coming upon us and we doubt that we can survive it.

 

Although Christians might argue that objectively this state, being in a desert place with time running out, is an accurate enough description of most people in the world most of the time such people rarely experience it within themselves as a subjective reality. Sometimes, though, they do, when events, like bereavement or war, or states of being, like adolescence or sickness, lead them to contemplate the deeper realities of being which underlie all the busy doing which makes up their normal mode of living in the world.

 

Such a situation faced the Jews during the time of the Queen Consort Esther. An edict providing for their destruction and the despoiling of their property was issued. Humanly speaking there was none to save them, their neighbours, after all, stood to benefit from their possessions after the act of what we now call genocide had been committed. More than that a Law of the Medes and Persians could not be revoked having once been passed. Facing this catastrophe they found that they had no resources within themselves or in their surroundings to deal with it by any normal means.

 

Since their was nothing possible to do they turned to two impossible things, which was really one impossible thing. That is, they prayed to God for a miracle to save them and they urged Esther who was a daughter of Zion and spouse of the Great King to intercede with him on their behalf. And the two were one because it was God, heeding the prayers of suffering Israel, who granted Esther the strength to ask for remission of the sentence, at the peril of her own life, and who moved the King to respond positively to her petition.

 

The disciples too recognised that they had nothing, that they were nothing, that they could do nothing and that they were soon to be overwhelmed by night. All that remained for them was Jesus, so it was to Him that they turned. He took the few elements which they did have, sorry little things that seemed too inadequate to meet the needs which they faced. And Jesus infused His power into them. He, as it were, gave them life, He multiplied them, they became pure gift not only for the disciples but for all who surrounded them. Their sorrow was turned to joy and they praised the name of the Lord.

 

This is the work which the Christ was sent to do. To redeem the time, to bring life into the midst of death, hope where there is despair, the gift of sharing where there is selfish hoarding, to turn base metals into pure gold. But for Him to accomplish His work in us we must first look around and see that we are in a desert place indeed and that the light around us is fading fast. Only when we both know and acknowledge fully to ourselves that we are burdened and that the burden wearies us can we accept the invitation which the Son of Mary issues to us-

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden,

And I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me;

For I am meek and lowly in heart:

And ye shall find rest unto your souls.

(Matthew 11:28-29)

 

 

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The picture is: Queen Esther begs King Ahasver for clemency towards the Persian Jews. Page from a Megillat Esther

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

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

image
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,