Tag: theology

Nunc Dimittis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Spirit of Antichrist

Saint John the Evangelist Writing German, about 1340

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus & the Marginalised: A Case Study

calling of st matthew caravaggio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Mysticism & the Incarnation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Empty Crosses & Crucifixes

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Catholics, generally speaking, are happy to use either empty crosses or crosses which have on them an image of the crucified Christ (a corpus) known as crucifixes. Those Protestants who have had their ideas formed to a significant degree by Calvinism tend to reject absolutely the use of crucifixes. Some evangelicals say, with what might be interpreted as malicious smugness, that they use empty crosses ‘because my Christ has risen from the dead.’

Is this one of these seemingly trivial sectarian differences that give unnecessary scandal to the world or is there something substantive at stake here? (I use the word ‘stake’ in its non ‘burnt-at-the’ sense.) Probably a bit of both really, the differences lie at a profound level of belief and it is good to be clear about what these are but the issue is not important enough to warrant bitter polemics or violent destruction.

The first point I’d make is more practical than theological. Insofar as these objects are used for purposes of devotion rather than as items of jewellery a crucifix works with the grain of the human mind. By contrast an empty cross runs the apparently paradoxical risk of encouraging what Aristotle would call excess and/or defect. That is, unless you are a hardcore ascetic the starkness of a bare cross will starve your mind of material with which to work or else it encourages your imagination to run riot and project all kinds of fantastic images onto the shape in front of you. A crucifix makes it easier for the mind to focus immediately and to stay focussed on the object of contemplation which is Christ and Him Crucified.

It is certainly possible to contemplate an austerely empty cross with great profit or to fritter away time spent in front of a crucifix. It is just, on average, easier for most people to pray appropriately in front of the latter than the former. I suspect fear of idolatry is at work in the Calvinists here, that people will end up worshipping the object itself rather than the thing which it represents. Again my response is practical rather than theological. If such a thing was going to happen it would have happened by now and if it hasn’t then it isn’t going to.

A second and more palpably theological point is that the Redemption was won for us not by Christ’s resurrection but by His death, specifically His execution as an innocent man condemned to a criminal’s death by hanging from a tree. If it was the Resurrection we wished to recall our symbol would be the empty tomb not the empty Cross. Certainly the Cross as such calls to mind that Divine sacrifice but more as an abstraction, as an event which is passed and done with. Yet it is not so, we crucify Him anew with every sin we commit. The corpus brings to mind not only the historical occasion it commemorates but our own living involvement in this drama which has not yet ended.

Related to this is a third point, namely that the Cross is not simply about Him, it is also about us in relation to Him. In contemplating the crucifix we see the nails we have driven, and are driving still, into His hands and feet. We see the wound we have made in His sacred heart. We see too the Crown of Thorns we have driven into His skull causing His sight of us to be obscured by the Precious Blood which we have shed. The corpus draws us into a truth about ourselves, we are sinners, we have made the innocent suffer and we will continue to do so unless we be converted, repent and accept that poor battered man hanging before our eyes into our hearts as our Guide, Teacher and Master.

The final point I would mention is about total love and total abandonment. The greatest possible distance in the universe is that between God in heaven and a man wholly forsaken by God dying the shameful and agonising death of a criminal. Only the greatest possible love can form a bridge over that greatest possible distance. The image of Christ Crucified is not that of mere anguish or mere death. It is an image of love at its highest possible point, it’s most perfect expression.

So to that (possibly) smug evangelical I would say ‘my Christ has risen too, it is His love for us which I remember most of all.’ The love stronger than death is what we see on a crucifix. It is for us to make it not simply an object for contemplation but also a mirror through which we are transformed into the likeness of Him whom we behold hanging there.
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The picture is a Tabernacle with Crucifixion Scene – wood mid or third quarter 14th century Made in probably the Veneto, Italy

An Immaculate Assumption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course it would also be unjust to condemn free and intelligent creatures to certain unhappiness and eternal separation from God for an act in which they had no part. To balance these things out the Lord produced what might be called a Divine compromise. Each human produced by the normal act of generation, apart from the Blessed Virgin Mary, is born marked with the taint of Original Sin as a consequence of the primordial rebellion of our first parents. But each human is also born with the possibility of redemption through faith, implicit or explicit, in Jesus Christ the Incarnate Deity who through sharing our flesh and our death redeems it from the chains which bind it. A possibility open to each person who is reading this sentence.
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The picture is from the Missal of Bernhard von Rohr, Archbishop of Salzburg ca.1481