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.

Original Sin

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I have just listened to BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Belief  (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07btlm7) which discussed this evening the doctrine of Original Sin. It consisted of a group of scholars (and a Jesuit priest) discussing the doctrine and their conclusions were effectively: St. Augustine is wrong, original sin is all about babies going to hell and it is responsible for all the problems of Western society. In response to this caricature, I wanted to provide my own discussion of original sin consisting mainly of a short exposition of the first chapters of Genesis. Sadly, this portion of the Scriptures is usually treated as an embarrassment to Christians – reserved for the Easter Vigil – and dismissed as silly whenever an atheist challenges ‘creationism’. However, I think the first few chapters of Genesis provide all the fundamental of the Christian life. In these chapters right at the beginning of the Scriptures we find in symbolic detail so much of the life of faith and the reality of things.

Perhaps the most significant verse for us now is Genesis 2.7:

‘Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being’.

God made us from the clay of the earth – affirming from the beginning that we are embodied realities. As I’ve said in a previous post, we as scientific people know even better than the Biblical writers that we are truly embodied – everything in us comes from stardust. We are made from the clay of the earth, the building blocks of the universe. This is very important because the problem we have (and we’ll get there) is not with our bodies! Heresies up and down the centuries, from Gnosticism to Puritanism have attempted to say that it our bodies that are the problem. They couldn’t be more wrong. Our bodies, our passions, our sexualities are not the problem – God made us from the clay of the earth and he ‘saw that it was good’.

But that’s not all. Into that good clay he breathes ‘the breath of life’ – the ruach in Hebrew or the spiritus in Latin. God breathes into this earthly stuff his own life, his own being. What this means is that there is in us an aspiration to God: our minds don’t just seek some truth, we seek the Truth; our minds don’t just look for goodness but the Good itself and our souls won’t rest until they’ve come to the Beautiful itself. In each one of us, created from clay, there is an aspiration, a longing for God. If gnosticism denies the body of claim then modern day secularism denies the breath of life! Secularism (and scientism) reduces everything to matter, scientifically testable matter – which means that the longing for truth and goodness is reduced to psychological fantasy or wish-fulfilling delusion. Secularism denies the breath of God which animates each one of us.

Before we get to the great problem of original sin, there is another observation from Genesis which is fruitful to remember, this time from Genesis 2.15: ‘the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden’. Human beings are placed in Eden, the garden full of delights to taste and experience and enjoy. The Lord gives us practically free reign – ‘eat of every tree of the garden’ except one (but we’ll get to that). But, before we look at the problem, look at the extraordinary permission given to us! God wants the people he has created to flourish in the garden. In ancient mythology, God and humans are always rivals but the true God cannot be threatened by creation – he needs nothing from it, he demands nothing for his own well being – he simply delights to see us fully alive. We are placed in a beautiful garden, not in the desert.

Augustine and the Church Fathers take this further – all the trees represent everything that makes life wonderful. ‘Every tree’ includes philosophy, art, science, friendship, sex, politics and music  – everything that makes life wonderful is represented here and God says, ‘eat of them all!’ God never seeks to limit the human project, to arbitrarily restrict our flourishing but says to us – your being fully alive is my glory. Eat, enjoy, play!

But, what about the prohibition? One tree is forbidden – ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ The Lord God is unconditioned Good, he is good in his own being and so, in his own being, is the measure of good and evil. Therefore, this prerogative belongs to God alone. Original Sin is nothing more and nothing less than making the prerogative of determine good and evil our own. The calamity of creation is that we seek to make our will the measure of good and evil rather than God’s. This is a subtle point – not a particular offence, like murder or theft, it’s much more fundamental – Original Sin is making ourselves into God, claiming we are the deciders of good and evil. Since this appropriation, human misery has followed – just read the first eleven chapters of Genesis to see this laid out; murder, pride and violence have followed this fundamental sin.

This is not abstract theological musing designed to frighten people, as Beyond Belief tried to say, it’s written into our culture. It’s seen as a basic liberty to determine the meaning of good and evil, to make my own meaning. Ask most people today and they’ll say, ‘right or wrong, that’s my personal decision’. And this attitude, before any particular sin is the disfunction introduced into the human condition.

How do Adam and Eve respond in this symbolic narrative – Adam says, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hide myself’ (Gen. 3.10). This isn’t being ashamed of the body, it is evidence of a deep and uncomfortable turning inwards. If goodness is found in God and the world he created, we turn into ourselves if we try to ignore this reality. Sin is turning oneself into God and the result is a turning in on yourself – no happiness can be true if you appropriate the divine life, you must receive it as a gift! The divine life is a gift, it exists in gift-form in the Trinity: the Father gives himself to the Son, the Son gives himself to the Father and the Spirit is the mutual giving of Father and Son! If you want the divine life, if you want to return the beatitude of the garden you can’t grasp the divine life, you receive it ‘on the fly’! As you receive it, you give it away! As it comes in, as you receive grace, it goes out. Then, and only then, does it really take root in you.

The best example of this is the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17.8-16). Elijah says to the women, ‘bring me bread’ and she tells him that she only has enough for one meal for her and her son and then they’re going to curl up and die. Elijah responds, ‘make me some bread.’ (Charming) She makes him the cake and the bread and oil never run out! The Scriptures tell this story over and over again – if you want the divine life, give it away, and as you give it away you get more and finally it becomes a fountain bubbling up in you to eternal life!

Original Sin is not a barbaric doctrine about the eternal damnation of children – it is central to who we are; children of God, filled with the breath of the divine life, but twisted inwards and in need of grace! It would take a lifetime to tell you how wonderful the grace of God that slowly turns us outwards – which polishes the diamond and returns us to the happiness for which we were made. But, to sum up this post – if you want to be happy, give yourself away! if you want the divine life, give it away! 

O LORD, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
– Collect for Quinquagesima Sunday (Book of Common Prayer)

Ascension Homily: Lord, Thou has raised our human nature…

Lord, Thou hast raised our human nature
to the clouds at God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places,
there with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
man with God is on the throne.
Mighty Lord, in thine Ascension
we by faith behold our own.

Bishop Christoper Wordsworth summed up the feast in his great hymn, which includes this great verse. He reminds us that the Ascension is a celebration of the extraordinary fact that our humanity, in all its vulnerability and all its variety, has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life. First of all then, the Ascension is Good News for humanity – this humanity we all share in, which we know all to well to be stained, wounded and imprisoned – this same humanity, yours and mine, is still capable of being embraced by God and to be received and welcomed into the burning heart of all reality – the throne of Godhead.

Jesus takes our human nature into the very heart of God and he speaks to God his Father in a ascensionlargehuman voice – this is an astonishing reality, in heaven, the language they speak is human and not just angelic. Our words, human words, are heard at the very centre of the burning heart of all reality. Saint Augustine reflected on this in his beautiful sermons on the Psalms because, like most of us, Augustine was rather worried about the fact that the Psalms are not always fit for polite company – they are full of rude, angry, violent, hateful remarks, not to mention protests against God and the most horrific ill-wishing towards human beings. In short, the Psalms are as human as it gets! So, Augustine asks, why would we recite them in public worship? Surely these are just reminders of the bits of our humanity best left out of God’s sight?

Augustine disagrees. We cannot leave bits of our humanity out of God’s sight and, more than that, God himself has taken the initiative and made our human language is own. When we pray the Psalms, we can imagine that Jesus is speaking them. It is Jesus who says, ‘where are you God?’, Jesus who says, ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me’ and Jesus saying, ‘happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’ Now, certainly, Jesus is not saying that any and every human cry is good – he doesn’t endorse this violence or anger – but Jesus treats us, our feelings and our tumultuous personalities as inherently real – he take us seriously, both when we’re moving towards one another and God in love and, amazingly, when we go the other way. He doesn’t forget us when we spiral away in anger, when we try to lock ourselves away in
the dark – he hears our rage, our violence, our pain – he hears them, he takes them, and, in the presence of the Father, he says that this is the humanity he has broughtto the heart of God. There’s nothing pretty about this, it’s not edifying or heroic to have our humanity with God – it’s just real and needy and confused. You and me, the humanity of us all, has been brought home to heaven and dropped into the burning heart of God for healing and transformation. This is how we read the Psalms, to be honest, it’s probably the only way to read the Psalms.
Today, the human life in which God was most visible and tangible disappears from the world in its bodily form and is somehow absorbed into the life of God – Jesus doesn’t slip out of his humanity to do this, our humanity, all of it, goes with Jesus. When St Paul speaks of Christ filling ‘all in all’ we must bear in mind that picture – Jesus’ humanity, including all the difficult and unpleasant bits of human nature, is taken up into the heart of love where they can be transformed and healed.

Just before his Ascension, the Lord tells his disciples to wait for the promise of the Father – wait for the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit of God will not only allow us to be a different kind of human being but it will also allow us to see human beings differently. The Holy Spirit, poured out upon us in the wind and the flame of Pentecost, gives us the life of Jesus – through it, we share some of his capacity to truly hear human beings – he gives us the power to see, with the eyes of Christ, the full range of what being human means, it does not shelter us from the rough truth of the world – it makes us vulnerable and more exposed. The Christian can never censor out any bits of the human voice, we are called to listen to the whole troubling symphony, which is so often filled with pain and anguish and violence.

But also can’t just say ‘oh, that’s human nature’ and forget about it – we must feel the edge, the anger, the ache of human pain and suffering and recognise that it can be taken into Christ, into the heart of the Father, where it can be healed and transfigured. Throughout his ministry, culminating on Good Friday, Jesus has gone before us into the darkest places of human reality and he has picked up the sounds he has heard. He knows the sound of the quiet cry of the abused child, the despairing shriek of the refugee denied refuge, the sighs of the hungry: he knows and makes his own the cynical dismissal of faith by many, while knowing their inner need; he makes his own the joy and thanksgiving of the human heart, which finds fulfilment in ordinary, prosaic love and faithfulness. All of this, the splendour and the pain, he carries to the Father’s heart and to the throne of heaven – all of these voices, the depths of our humanity, he carried into the burning truth at the centre of reality.

So, today is a celebration of human glory – the eternal potential, locked up in our middled, struggling lives – and it is also a great celebration of God’s ability to enter into the darkest, least glorious place of our nature and to sweep them up and drop them into his own burning heard, where they can be transformed and recreated. The Holy Spirit, whose outpouring we await at Pentecost, will teach our hearts if we let him, that nothing that is human is alien to us and to the life of Jesus – the promise of the Father today is that the love of Christ spreading through us and in us will bring the world home to the heart of God. We are the Church, the fullness of him who fills all in all, we have to hear with his ears and see with his eyes – in the midst of struggling, flailing humanity, we must remember that Christ has raised our human nature through the clouds to God’s right hand.

With this in mind, may our compassion be deepened a hundredfold; our understanding of pain and suffering be deepened a hundredfold and, please God, our hope deepened a thousandfold.

Holy Desire

For me, the influence of St. Augustine, a great friend to have (so to speak), has helped me understand this more than anyone. For Augustine, faith is not an experience of the constant and uninterrupted sense of God’s presence but is rather an experience of holy desire.

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