‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’

 

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Being in theological college – especially in a college not affiliated to any particular Anglican tradition – introduces you to a host of debates and tension within the Church; some of which I was never aware of! Do we read the Apocrypha at Evening Prayer or not? Should we wear vestments at the Eucharist? What is a priest for? How do we understand the Bible? One such conversation that I had recently was with someone who suggested that the Catholic tradition in general and me in particular had an unhealthy fascination with the gruesomeness of the crucifixion – a fixation on death, darkness and blood. We were discussing the Eucharist and this candidate argued that her worship was more interested in light, joy and the risen Lord – in their Church, the Cross was empty and Jesus was usually depicted as smiling, welcoming children, ascending to the Father, blessing. In her eyes, and in the eyes of many, we cling too much to the cross and fail to look beyond it.

‘…but we proclaim Christ crucified’ (1 Cor. 1.23)

I am almost tempted to agree with this criticism (indeed, it was a light-hearted discussion). The simple fact is, that all the jolly stuff is great and we must rejoice in the wonder of our Saviour, but it is in the Cross that I realised how much I am loved by God – when I am hurting, or see the world hurting, it is to the cross of Jesus that I turn.

Of course, all the joy and beauty of the world reveals God’s love to us – our lives, our families, our friends all show us God’s love. When we marvel at the beauty of nature, art and music we see reflected the beauty and love of the Creator. As Pope Benedict once beautifully explained in Verbum Domini:

All of creation reflects the eternal Word of God who created it and forms part of “a symphony of the word, … a single word expressed in multiple ways: ‘a polyphonic hymn’… [Yet] in this symphony one finds, at a certain point, what would be called in musical terms a ‘solo,’ a theme entrusted to a single instrument or voice which is so important that the meaning of the entire work depends on it. This ‘solo’ is Jesus”

Jesus is a ‘solo performance’ which speaks of the love of God and, within this solo, it is his Passion on the cross – embodied in countless crucifixes in churches and homes – that most fully reveals God’s love. Jesus in John’s Gospel talks about the Crucifixion as his moment of ‘glory’ – that is, the moment when God’s nature will be revealed, the presence of God most powerfully known. Every crucifix, in a direct and visceral way, re-presents the reality of God’s love for us embodied in Jesus.

For me, the crucifix is an unparalleled aid to contemplating the love of God. Many saints and missionaries have used the image to communicate the love of God beyond words to those who would listen. St. Paul of the Cross, whose feast day was last week, would always carry a crucifix with him to show people ‘the miracle of miracles of the love of God!’

During our times of emotional, physical or psychological suffering, we struggle to rationalise – struggle to ‘think straight’ – to understand the truth that others are trying to tell us, or to remember God’s goodness and blessing. But, when suffering overtakes us and rational arguments fail we gaze on upon the Cross, unfailing and unchanging for centuries, and know the visceral reality of God’s love. That Love which understands human suffering and redeems it.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12.1ff.

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Hoping Against Hope | The Witness of St. Monica

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‘For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’ (Rom. 8.24f.)

Yesterday I wrote a blogpost on my birth-saint and heavenly patron, St. Augustine, and now I wanted to say a word about his mother, St. Monica – who the Church commemorates today. Monica was probably born in the year 331AD and her death, recorded in Confessions, was sometime around 387 AD. Patricius, her husband, was a Roman citizen of (minor) nobility and Patricius and Monica had three children. Augustine would become one of the most influential converts to Christianity and his works of theology and spirituality are among the greatest of the Church’s treasure. However, as anyone who’s ever read Confessions will know, the journey from Augustine to Saint Augustine would not be straightforward or simple. Augustine spent most of his youth aggressively resisting Christ and the Church and this resistance caused his mother much in tears and turmoil.

St. Monica petitioned the Lord for years that he might intervene and bring her son into the Church. After years of prayer and countless tears, Augustine did come to know Christ and accepted a life as a member of the Church and Monica was overjoyed. Sadly, she new lived long enough to see the full flowering of Augustine’s faith and ministry as a bishop and spiritual teacher.

Prayers of intercession are at the centre of the Christian life and are the most common kind of prayer offered by all believers, yet it is perhaps the most mysterious and hard to understand. Of course, we know that the Lord knows our needs better than we do and nothing that we bring to of him in prayer tells God something he doesn’t know long before us. It’s also important to remember that our intercession, no matter how eloquent or persistent, has no power to force God to act and nothing we can say coerces God to do what we want. The mystery of prayer is that, while we ask God for many things, the deepest purpose of our intercession is not to get what we want, but to discern what God wants. St. Augustine’s conversion happened not because Monica’s prayers were particularly convincing, but because God longed to give him fullness of life.

Saint Monica’s prayers were a sign that of her belief that God in Christ would not abandon her son to the faithless and dissolute life he was living. She trusted that God’s purposes for her son’s life were greater than even he could perceive. It is St. Monica’s trust, which is a profound display of the theological virtue of hope, which became the crucible which sanctified Monica.

As Monica herself said, five days before her death:  “One thing only there was for which I desired to linger in this life: to see you a Catholic Christian before I died. And my God has granted this to me more lavishly than I could have hoped, letting me see even you spurning earthly happiness to be his servant. What am I still doing here?”

Monica and her son are both remembered in the calendar of saints because God’s purposes were as much accomplished in Monica’s willingness to live in the hope that God ultimately loved her son, even though he violently resisted that love, as his purposes were accomplished in Augustine’s conversion to Christ. It is not St. Augustine’s conversion that made Monica a saint, as if she was ‘sacred by association’ – Monica is a saint because of her willingness to surrender her will to Christ and in this surrender to abide in the hope that Christ’s purposes for Augustine would one day be fulfilled. By God’s grace, Monica lived to see her hope fulfilled – but, even if she had not, her sanctification would have been accomplished, although she may have been one of the great company of saints known only to Christ and without the Church’s official recognition.

I wanted to write this post because I believe that hope is one of the least remembered and worst understood of the three theological virtues (faith, hope and love). This is a great sadness in a world which is often so bereft of hope that people refuse to believe and refuse to love. However, hope is not merely optimism, but an act of genuine trust that the same God, who did not abandon Jesus to the powers of sin and death, will not abandon us. Hope dares to believe that God’s purposes will be fulfilled even if we cannot foresee how this will be possible or when this fulfilment will take place.

On this day, when the Church remembers the life and witness of Saint Monica, let us renew ourselves in the hope that Christ has poured into our hearts and our trust that he is faithful to his promise.

‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’ Romans 15.13

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Monica, pray that we may be filled with that same hope which sustained you on earth!

Chasing Heaven’s Hound | St. Augustine of Hippo

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Augustine of Hippo, ora pro nobis!

This weekend, the feast of St. Augustine is eclipsed by Sunday, but I could not let the opportunity pass to say something about this great saint – whose massive impact on Latin Christianity and Western Civilisation is beyond doubt.  As a Christian born on the Feast of St. Augustine, I feel a deep love for the Doctor of Grace and have often asked his prayers and turned to his writings for encouragement; support and wisdom. Augustine’s towering intellect and passionate spirit mean he has made decisive contributions to the study of just war; the separation of church and state; the relationship between grace and nature; methods of biblical interpretation; the nature of sin and the meaning of salvation as well as subjects ranging from the Trinity to epistemology; from the sacraments to human sexuality – all Western theology (and much work in other disciplines) is profoundly influenced by Augustine’s philosophical and theological work.

Despite his towering intellect, a well known story captures a different, but equally important facet of Augustine’s thought.

Augustine was walking one day along the seashore in Carthage, north Africa pondering his written work-in-progress on the mystery of the Holy Trinity, De Trinitate, when he saw a small boy running back and forth from the Mediterranean sea to a spot on the sandy seashore. The boy was using a sea shell to carry the water from the sea in order to pour it into a small hole in the sand.
Augustine approached him and asked, “My boy, what are doing?”
“I am trying to empty the sea into this hole,” the boy replied.
Augustine continued, “But that’s impossible, my dear child, the hole cannot contain all that water.’
The boy paused from his work, stood up, looked a the bishop, and replied, “It is no more impossible than what you are attempting, to comprehend the immensity of mystery in the Holy Trinity with your small mind.”
Augustine, amazed by the response averted his eyes for a moment, and when he glanced back to ask him something else, the boy had vanished.

In all his work, Augustine has a real appreciation of the limits of language before the wonder and immensity of God, while retaining a confidence in the capacity of language to break open our minds of clays to a real communion with divine Truth. That said, Augustine insists that only ‘humble and living faith working through an equally bold and living love’ can make our minds – made in ‘the image of the Trinity’ – capable of exploring the infinite wilderness of God’s threefold mystery. Augustine knew that, when we open ourselves up to the divine mystery, we find ourselves in Christ, set on fire with a love that plunges us deeper into that same mystery. In short, knowing God brings love alive in us, and love sparks the desire for more knowledge: a cycle of ever-increasing passion as we seek to explore more and more the wonder and mystery of the one God and are transformed into his likeness.

It is this loving, mysterious dynamic which is in the background of one of the most frequently quoted passages of the Confessions:

“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

Every Christian, inspired by the example of Augustine, should pray this weekend for the grace of a heart which burns for love of Christ and flames out in service to God and God’s people. But we must be aware that this fire will burn away all in us that is unworthy of the mind and heart of Jesus! If we open our hearts and minds to the mystery of God – in contemplation, the reading of scripture and the Eucharist – we must give all we have and all we are to this impassioned quest for Heaven’s Hound. I finish with the words of Pope Benedict when he revealed the Augustinian dynamism which sustained his own heroic career:

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St Augustine’s heart inflamed by the light of Truth

“When a person is conquered by the fire of His Gaze, no sacrifice seems too great to follow him.”

For more on this great saint and the theology of desire, see my previous post here.

St. Dominic | ‘Il Santo Atleta’

Born at Calaruega in Castile, of the ancient Guzman family in 1170, Dominic became an Augustinian or Austin Friar and led a disciplined life of prayer and penance. He became prior in 1201 but three years later, whilst on a trip to Denmark with his bishop, he passed through France and came across Cathars or Albigenses. They claimed to be Christians but held the heterodox belief that flesh and material things were evil, that the spirit was of God and that flesh and spirit were in permanent conflict. Dominic formed an Order of Preachers to combat this belief, although he would have nothing to do with the vengeful Crusade that began to be waged against the Albigenses. The Dominican Order spread to many countries in just a few years and did much to maintain the credibility of the orthodox faith in late-mediæval Europe. Dominic died on this day (August 8th) at Bologna in 1221.          – from Exciting Holiness

iturgaiz 01.jpgDante’s Paradisio speaks of my great name saint, Dominic, not only as a great preacher of the gospel or as a highly educated man but as a force of nature: ‘Then with both learning and zeal and with the apostolic office, he went forth like a torrent driven from a high spring.’ Dominic’s own friends and hearers recognised this torrential force during his own lifetime – one witness at the canonisation process remarked that Dominic was ‘so enthusiastic as a preacher that by day and by night, in churches, houses, fields, on the road, everywhere, he wanted to preach the word of the Lord and he encouraged the brethren to do the same and not to talk about anything except God.’ His compassion and desire to speak to people about God extended far beyond just the faithful, Dominic reached out ‘to pagans and unbelievers and even the damned in hell, and he wept a great deal for them.’

Santo Domingo, as he is known in Spanish, clearly possessed a strong instinct for adventure – Dante again calls him ‘il santo atleta’, the holy athlete. No matter how difficult or unforeseen the challenge of the hour, he was not afraid to take enormous risks for the sake of the Gospel. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that within a few years it could be said of the young friars (known as Dominicans) who followed in his wake, and whom he himself had sent far and wide to preach the gospel, that they had made the ocean their cloister.

When people think about Dominicans we often think about purely intellectual men, such as St. Thomas Aquinas. There is some truth in this; St. Dominic put a previously unseen focus on the place of study in the religious life – seeing it as the central and sacred task of his order, not as merely one facet of consecrated life. However, neither St. Dominic nor the friars who bear his name are detached intellectuals – their studies were shaped by the needs of the Church and of individuals. When St. Dominic founded his order, Cathars were spreading a dualistic (and heretical) understanding of the faith and Dominic recognised the need for a new order of religious to address the spiritual needs of large cities. The Dominican focus on study was a response to this crisis – not an attempt to become distant, learned monks in a cloister – but to care for the souls of faithful Christians by teaching them the Catholic faith.

As an ordinand who bears St. Dominic’s name with great pride, it is this twofold charism of the risk-taking, adventurous friar and the loving pastor who responds to the needs of the Church that I hope to imbibe. In Dominic we see a man fully alive in Christ, fired by grace to take bold risks for the sake of the Gospel and to guide and inspire the flock of Christ with the faith of the apostles. This is a model for the Church today: a learning Church, which knows its theology and can answer the questions and challenges of a sceptical world; and a passionate, adventurous Church, which is unafraid to speak about God to all who will listen and take risks to reach out to the world in love.

May God inspire the Church afresh with the example of St. Dominic and strengthen her with his unfailing intercession. Amen.

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From the Desert Fathers

A story from the tradition of the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said:

‘Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of sinful thoughts: now what more should I do?’

The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of flame.
He said: ‘Why not become completely fire?’

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Jesus and his friend, Abba Minas, a desert father