Thursday and Friday of the first week in Lent

Wednesday, I failed: wifi access in the hotel in Rome was too patchy. But Thursday and Friday, I posted. Copying the links, though, was been a challenge I was not  able to overcome. There is a link here to thinking coram Deo, if you want to catch up. My wi-fi access at the airport ran out before I could post this!

 

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Saturday after Ash Wednesday

I have been very grateful for the comments from Saintly Sages on previous posts. These Lenten reflections are simply a part of my own discipline. Blogging them is a form of accountability;  thanks to Wesley Hill, for sharing a link to thinking coram deo on Ash Wednesday and adding some incentive! 

I first tried something like this in 2009, on paper. Over the past 5 years, I have gradually typed up those daily meditations and shared them with others. I would love to make those available in published form, perhaps for next Lent. All the feedback and comments on the meditations on my blog will be of immense help as I revise that manuscript. So thanks, for reading and for commenting. Today’s post is at thinking coram deo as usual. 

 

Thinking coram Deo

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that reading Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology has had on my life. No, I am not a Barth scholar. Nor have I read through the Church Dogmatics as I thought I would when I was twenty-something. But in reading that little book of Barth’s I fell in love with theology. Oddly, it isn’t a book I re-read–I’ve read Middlemarch three or four times now, but Evangelical Theology just the once. I recommend it, I assign it, I return to bits of it.


If there is one bit I return to more than others, it is the description Barth gives of theological grammar. Theology is a response; we have been addressed by God, and our reply is necessarily in the second person. The object of my study is not an object at all, but a subject; not an “it” but a “you”.


Sometimes I forget that, at my peril. I forget that thinking about God isn’t really possible– I mean, thinking apart from God, with some sort of critical distance. There is no such thing as critical distance, here. We are always thinking coram Deo, thinking in the presence of God, who is more present to us than we are to ourselves. There is no place for idle speculation here, there are no ‘academic’ questions. That isn’t to say that it’s not important to think hard, to read attentively (thanks, Ben Myers), and to speak clearly. But it is to say that all the hard work in the world won’t get us closer to God than we already are, won’t show us God more clearly. Only God can do that.

So Barth would have agreed, perhaps, with Evagrius–the theologian is one who prays. Maybe somewhere in the pages of the Church Dogmatics I haven’t read, he says so. Either way, I am glad of the reminder that, however much I doubt my adequacy for the task of theology, I can do no better than to respond, and begin nowhere else but in prayer: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.


with angels and archangels

We never had a plan for taking the children to Mass, beyond taking them to Mass. I've read the strategies of really organized parents, in awe of their attention to detail and advance preparation. I am not that organized, and I take full responsibility for that. If walking around outside with the toddler is what it takes, then that's what we do. And we have had some pretty unpleasant moments with the children during Mass.
 
I remember going to church with my mom when I was a child. We always sat in the front row (effective, I think–at least there you're bound to notice something, as my kids sometimes do). She gave me lifesavers, tropical fruit flavor, which were really quite effective. (Banana and coconut were my favorite.) My kids don't particularly like sweets (which is otherwise great), so that's not really an option for me.
 
As they get older, the still-and-quiet routine gets easier. Getting them really to attend to what's happening, though–that's another story. One Sunday recently Iain (just before he turned 7) dug my iPhone out of my bag and started playing can knockdown during the liturgy of the Eucharist. However displeased I was, I wasn't willing to incite loud and angry protest in the front row. So he might have looked like he was kneeling piously….but no.
 
That's not to say I don't have certain hard-and-fast rules. Everyone stands and says the Our Father. And that makes me happy. (Honestly, it does.) I am always trying to strike a balance: on the one hand, I want the children to begin to grasp the significance of what's happening; on the other hand, I don't want to make the experience of going to Mass into an hour-long prison sentence every Sunday. And I find myself holding in tension the need to express my own spirituality by engaging with the Mass, and the need to attend to the children, who are engaging on a very different level.
 
Sometimes I fail. (Shocking, I know.) But those moment are the moments when I am most grateful for the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Last Sunday, between policing Iain on the iPhone and discouraging Anna from trying to engage the kids behind us in conversation, I completely lost track of where we were…until suddenly my attention was grabbed again, just in time to join in the Sanctus: '…with angels and archangels…'
 
Joining in. That's what it is about. It is about taking part in the ongoing praise of God that happens in eternity, for eternity. Not about perfectly behaved children, or about the quality of my singing (I'm terrible). I think some weeks I depend completely on the angels and archangels to glorify God, as I am working to keep my children from storming the sanctuary. 'Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church…' indeed: the faith of the Church, like the liturgy, does not depend on me. It is. However focused or distracted I am, the worship happens, the Mass happens. Knowing that is incredibly humbling as it is freeing.
 
In his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII wrote:
Jesus Christ burned with zeal for the divine glory; and the offering of His blood upon the cross rose to heaven in an odor of sweetness. To perpetuate this praise, the members of the Mystical Body are united with their divine Head in the Eucharistic sacrifice, and with Him, together with Angels and Archangels, they sing immortal praise to God and give all honor and glory to the Father Almighty (71).
 
'Zeal for the divine glory' seems pretty far from many of my Sunday experiences. If I am burning with anything, it is probably way less holy than that. But I know that's what it is about: participating in the self-offering of the Son to the Father, in the Holy Spirit. All we do is respond to the love of God as it comes to us through Jesus. And even our response is helped by the Spirit (my attention just happened to be drawn back to the liturgy at the Sanctus…).
 
Deo gratias.
 

Syria and St Augustine

A few weeks ago, my heart turned toward the situation in Syria in a new way. I thought: I don’t know very much about Syria, and I am neither politically nor militarily savvy. But I know that if my kids were fighting, and the stronger one(s) hurt the weaker one(s), my first move would be to attend to those who were hurt and keep the others away from them until I could sort it out. I was really worried about the prospects of a US military strike. On the same day, which just happened to be the feast of St Augustine, Lewis (who is much more knowledgeable about such things) offered the following: ‘…if we were prepared to do the dirty and get lots of boots on the ground and establish protected areas for civilian refugees with decent medical care inside Syria, I would say ‘great’. But this, no boots just bombing the bad guys so the bad guys can take over don’t seem wise. Damn, this is enough politics on facebook for about a year! As you know my attitude toward Turks and the French leaves much to be desired, but let’s hear a word for the Ottomans and for the French mandate after WWI. {Admitting that he isn’t against bombing in every case, he added:]  I’ll own up to the campaign in 2001 in Afghanistan and the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia as examples where (horrific as it of course was) it seemed to do the job. It’s a fallen world folks: Saint Augustine, pray for us.’

I was encouraged: if it isn’t just the mama in me talking, if this ‘looking after the injured’ is something that makes sense to someone like Lewis, well, maybe there is hope. But as the US moved towards a military strike, I faltered. What will become of Syria? and what will happen to the world? Even Jean Vanier, with whom a (nun) friend of mine had spoken last November, echoed what Lewis said: it’s a fallen world; these things happen.

In the most technical and articulate language: bummer.

So when Pope Francis called for prayer and fasting for Syria on the 7th of September, my heart leapt. Yes, I am that sort of person. I thought prayer (St Augustine’s and ours) was a clear and practical step in the right direction. I happened to be on retreat last weekend, which afforded me far greater opportunities for prayer than a Saturday at home would have, from vigils to compline, with an extra hour of adoration after vespers. I’ve no idea what I thought would happen; indeed I had no idea of what would count as an ‘answer’ to prayer.

On Monday, Lewis was in the kitchen criticizing Obama, for having had to change course in the face of Putin’s intervention. Stepping back made Obama look weak. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I did wonder: ‘But doesn’t it make God look strong?’

Maybe it is to the credit of Christians everywhere, who’ve prayed for Syria, and who joined the worldwide prayer vigil last Saturday, that no one is celebrating the triumph of our God. I’ve not heard a soul claiming that this change in the situation is an answer to prayer. But I see hope where before there seemed to be no hope, and in my experience, only God can do that.

I will keep praying for Syria and for the middle east, with hope in my heart, and giving thanks to God.

Deo gratias!

like that

It says something about me, and about where I am these weeks and months, that my last two posts begin with ‘some days are like that.’ Like what? These days are full of beauty that I can’t quite appreciate, joy that I know is there but just can’t feel, and love that knocks quietly but insistently on the door of my heart as I struggle with the lock.

I had this dream several nights ago in which I was insisting to a couple of colleagues that going through the motions is important. Developing habits consistent with the hope you ought to have, even when you don’t have that hope, is not a bad thing. What do you do, I asked, when the love of your life doesn’t feel like it did at the first? You do what you would do if it did, and maybe, if you’re lucky, you find that it is still there.

What I didn’t say in the dream, of course, because it was (after all) a dream, was how difficult it is to do. It is incredibly soul-wrenching work. I write about the character of Christian identity, in my life as an ‘academic’ theologian (whatever that is); I say that John Milbank is right: the heart of our Christian practice, our being and believing and acting Christianly in the world, is receiving life, and love, and our very being from God. Apart from God, we cannot persist. (See Colossians 1: 17, or listen to Rich Mullins’ song ‘All the way to kingdom come’ if you don’t believe me.) Feeling like we are apart, but acting on the certainty that we’re not…well, you get the picture.

These days are like that. I wonder, is this accedia? Is it depression? Or is it the ordinary bumps in the road, jarring me and knocking me off balance? Does it really matter what it is? What it does is make me irritable, jumpy, tired and inconsiderate. My dad might call me ‘temperamental’, as he used to when I was a teenager, by which he mostly meant ‘grumpy.’ I find the laundry exhausting and am driven to despair by wooden train track on the floor. Everything that happens seems to upset me, and everything that might happen worries me.

So why am I sharing my misery? I hate complaining. I usually take it as a sign that disappointment has won, and stands over me, triumphantly smug. That may be. That was certainly true when I got up this morning, because yesterday I was frustrated that the activity of resting in God was not available to me in the noise and commotion and mess of my cluttered house. Janet Martin Soskice came to me this morning, though (not in person, of course, though I would dearly love to meet her someday):

Most Christian women…think that what they do around the home is worthy in God’s service–they do not think, they have not been taught to think, of it as spiritual. And here, monastic figures who, apparently, found God over the washing up or sweeping the floor will be called to mind; but these are not really to the point, since servile tasks were recommended because they left the mind free to contemplate. What we want is a monk who finds God while cooking a meal with one child clamouring for a drink, another who needs a bottom wiped, and a baby throwing up over his shoulder (The Kindness of God, pp. 22-23).

That’s my failure. I think that because receptivity is active, that the sort of activity I should seek is quiet contemplation. No, no, no! It works both ways: the activity that is typical, ordinary, and ‘mindless’ is also–or can be–a form of receptivity. This is what the prescribed movements of Benedictine prayer should teach me. It is not that I need to do something different (‘you are in the right place NOW’–thanks Sr Catherine Wybourne), but I need grace to re-frame what I am doing. I need God to reveal himself to me in the wiping of noses and bottoms, and in the picking up of toys and clothes off of the floor.

For the moment, though, I am just going through those motions. But just a little, tiny bit of hope peeks out from beneath a pile of things to be sorted. And for that I am immensely grateful.

retreat

From Thursday to Sunday, I was on retreat, in silence, at Minster Abbey. I kept a record of my time there, and reproduce an excerpt here:

I realized as I sat in the chapel for Vigils this morning that I have hardly reflected at all on the Scripture in which I have been steeped since Thursday afternoon. At first this struck me as odd, since I have long been in the habit of reflecting on the Mass readings, and for many years previous, on the Psalms. So why, when seven times a day I pray the Psalms with the community here, do I not mention the words of the Psalms? As I came up the stairs back to my little room, I thought, because that’s not really what prayer is about. My reflections, daily or thereabouts (whether I write them down or not), are a part of my spiritual formation, to be sure, and a gift that God has given me to keep me close to Jesus. But praying the Psalms does not require that sort of reflection. There is a silence about that contemplation that is inward, and the words–strange as it may seem–give voice not to thoughts or reflections, but to a deep, inner silence. Praying the Psalms is not an act of cognition or emotion primarily, though both may be involved; praying the Psalms is rather an act of obedience. Why do I attend prayers regularly when I am here? No one expects me to come faithfully to Vigils, to stay until the close of adoration following Compline. I do it because it is the Benedictine way of life; it is, in a very real sense, what I have come to do. The daily timetable is an opportunity for an act of submission that is life-giving, that allows me to draw closer to God not by my feelings or my intellect, but by willing obedience.

So as much as I am inspired, cheered, or challenged, by the words I pray and hear in the chapel, I am more deeply restored by participation, by prayer itself. To stand, to sit, to kneel, to bow–in themselves these movements of the body are not significant. But in the daily office they become part of the prayer, they are the prayer. Contemplative prayer is an act of the whole body, in which the words spoken express a deeper silence, and the movements of the body tell of a more profound stillness. Would that all my words and actions were the fruit of such silence and stillness within me.