30 August 2008
I began, recently, to despair of overcoming one of my (many) bad habits (you may be pleased to know that I am not going to tell you what it is). I decided to try sacrifice. I don't seem to be have had any very clear idea about this whole business of sacrifice. Perhaps it is my Protestant background. I have, perhaps, an unexpressed idea of something like this: 1) Man sinned; 2) God 'decided' to punish man for his sin; 3) Jesus offered to 'pay' the punishment for man's sin, so that... 4) ...man gets 'forgiven' (let off his punishment) and can 'go' to Heaven. I think there are serious problems with such a view. I have, of course, often enough had Catholics talk to me about 'offering up' suffering, pain, even minor inconveniences. I confess I doesn't communicate very well with me. I think there is a lot of cultural stuff I have had to get used to. But with this particular bad habit, I decided really to pray at those times that I was trying to resist it, and to offer it as a sacrifice for a particular intention ('intention' - more of that strange Catholic language :-)) - that is, asking God for a particular favour - and resisting this bad habit as a kind of prayer for that favour. I wish I could tell you the favour had been granted, but it was a fairly long-term one and I won't know for a long time - perhaps not in this life. But I may say that the 'offering' made a tremendous difference in my experience. I was able better (not perfectly :-)) to resist the temptations. And I felt a very real sense of union with our Lord in the matter. I suppose I might modify my little 'salvation history.' As described above, it all sounds pretty impersonal - rather as though God and man inhabited a common context; as though God might have, if He had wished, 'let man off' with a warning, I suppose. I am very leery, though, of drawing up another little table. Too pat. But it seems to me that one could at least say this: that man is God's creature. Man's whole being has no independent existence. What is sin but the turning from God, thinking that one can, to some degree, "do it on one's own," so to speak. And what could a being whose life depends on Another do, if separated from that Other, but die? For we have wills. I do not wish to get into controversies about the freedom of the will. We have wills. That is certain. I can choose to obey God - or not. If that is not true, then ... well, then there is no point in talking about anything, I suppose. I think that turning back from sin must, in the nature of things, involve some pain, some negativity. For in sinning, I have made turned my habit precisely in the direction away from God, away from life, away from truth. But I cannot turn back from sin. The branch cannot reattach itself to the Vine. It needs help. It must be the Vine that brings it back. Yet the very nature of 'coming back' is willing against what I willed when I turned away. God in His grace offers me the 'turning back' - and for it to be a real turning back, a real choosing of Him - I need to say 'yes.' And that is sacrifice. I think that what I have written is so muddled! Yet I want to say that I feel I have found something precious. I have found that the meaning of Love is indeed choosing the Other. And I am a sinner. I have those 'bad habits.' Choosing the Other is the only gift I can give to Him - and somehow it reunites me to Him. That is love. And it is love, as the song says, that makes the world go 'round!
21 August 2008
I'm 65 years old - really almost 66, since my birthday is next month. I am very fortunate in my job. I like the people I work with. Although most of the work is pretty boring and frustrating at the same time, nevertheless I like getting the job - whatever it is - done. And I am aware that what I do is also a necessary service to help others in their work. And, by New Zealand standards, I am pretty well paid. Nonetheless, I think if this were not so - if my job were, say, working like mad at a petrol station - or having to be a night watchman with the combination of boredom and fear that that implied - I think even then I would choose working over retirement. Why is that? Work is a gift. I think it may be the greatest thing anyone can give us. A friend of mine wanted me to write - wanted me to start writing articles on various subjects. I said that I was unable to do so. The reason was that I could indeed write - had the ability to write, that is - when someone else wanted me to write something in particular. I don't think he really understood what I was getting at, and perhaps neither did I. He offered one or two topics that I could write about, but I now think that what I meant was that I wanted to believe that someone else was wanting me to write on a particular topic. I think this underlies the satisfaction of all work: someone else wants it done. Of course whether it satisfies depends on our attitude. And because the 'someone else' is always a fallible human being, sometimes we are conflicted in the business. Sometimes we are very conflicted and don't want to do the work at all. All work is the gift of God. Work is our part in His creative activity. And this helps. Sometimes it is all-important. For some work - the work I am doing in writing this, for example - the fact that one believes God wants one to do it is the only motivation for doing it. One day, nevertheless, I will no longer be able to work, at least at the University. Thank God we have no compulsory retirement age in New Zealand! Still, though I hope still to be working in five years, I cannot say about ten - or fifteen - or twenty. Age almost-86 does seem a little unlikely :-) Is this a punishment? A disaster? What is the reward for work? What is the payout? Is it just so many years' salary, and a thank-you at the end? Is the work done itself its own payout. The reward for work is rest. One must be cautious in making analogies between the life of God and the life of men. This is, of course, true without limit in the fact that God is infinite, whilst man is finite. The edge is given to this from man's sinfulness. Nonetheless, this is the pattern. "In the beginning God created the Heavens and the earth..." And so we are told of God's 6 days of labour. And on the seventh day God rested, from all His labour and work that He had done. There are rests now - 'breathers,' 're-creations' that we take in order to be able to work better. But "there remains yet a Sabbath rest for the people of God." That is the reward of our labour. As our work now, under the mark of sin, is painful, is hard for us to do, has to fight against thorns and thistles and obstacles, is true. Our rest from all our earthly labours is also marked by sin - and by the Cross. We must grow old. We become weak, ill, finally die. Nonetheless, the work we have been given to do - not only our paid employment, but our families, our friends, the labour we go through in order to raise our souls to God in prayer - all of it is God's gift. We will not earn our reward as a matter of right. The reward is the reward given to the 'good and faithful servant' to whom - God grant it! - is given the encomium 'well done.' But it is a reward, all the same. So we work and strive, especially, to overcome, not only thorns and thistles, but the sin that so easily slows us down - that we may arrive at the end, the rest, the Sabbath of God. Our work is not in vain in the Lord.
15 August 2008
What is marriage? Is it a partnership? Well, I suppose so. A partnership is a couple of people with an agreement between each other about sharing. Maybe they share labour, maybe they share money, maybe they share responsibility. So I suppose a marriage is a kind of partnership. But two people in a partnership don't share everything. So a marriage is more than a partnership. Is a marriage a sharing? Well, it is certainly that. What is mine is now my wife's; what is hers is now mine. And that is pretty total. Sometimes I think people don't really see that part of it, but it is true. Certainly I myself often don't see - or accept :-) - that side of things. A complete sharing comes much closer, but marriage is more than that. Marriage is a kind of surgical operation - a sort of transplant: (Genesis 2:21-25): 21And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; 22And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. 23And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. 24Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. 25And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed. This is hard to understand. After 39 years of knowing Susan and 36 years of marriage I am only beginning to get glimpses of what it means. It means not less than partnership, sharing, total sharing, and all the rest of it. But it means much more. It means that in a way I can no longer treat of Susan's interests and my interests - at least not simply. We are one. Alas, we often do not act as one. Yet this is the reality: "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." (Matthew 19:6). When there is an apparent conflict between experience and reality, I must choose to believe in the reality. It is, to be sure, a reality known by faith - but that is the real; what I experience is my attempt to live according to the real. Adele and Luke have chosen that reality: video of Luke's and Adele's wedding Picasa album of Luke's and Adele's wedding
05 August 2008
04 August 2008
A friend of Susan's was talking with her about the Church recently. The friend had been brought up a Catholic, but ceased to practise over the issue of artificial contraception. Now this person is considering coming back to the Church. The person in question is a woman, and is, I think, well beyond the age of child-bearing, so at least there is no practical issue. Her decision to leave the Church over the issue showed, it seems to me, more integrity than many. She did not simply decide that she and the Church would have to "agree to disagree." Perhaps she understood what it means to be a Catholic. The Protestant principle of authority is usually stated as sola scriptura - "by Scripture alone." I could say "been there, done that" but it wouldn't be as simple as that. Living by Scripture alone involves a variety of both logical and practical difficulties. How does one know which books are Scripture? What is the relation between the Old and New Testaments? Between apparent contradictions in Scripture? These are all difficulties, to be sure, but not, perhaps, to the person determined to try to follow God, genuine obstacles. One can readily enough determine - the principle of 'private interpretation' - that the New Testament, simply as historical documents, tell us of One Whom to follow must be life itself. For those not looking for obstacles, following Jesus by trying to take His Words, and those of His immediate followers, seriously, is not that puzzling. Not puzzling, but - in my own twenty-five years' experience as a Protestant - overwhelmingly difficult. This is, after all, not a comment on Protestantism nor on sola scriptura but on me and my own sinfulness. Nonetheless, my own experience since becoming a Catholic has been that I have received a source of help in beginning - only beginning, but nevertheless a real beginning - to overcome, if not my sinfulness, at least some of my sinful actions. This source of help is something which is available through - and only through - the Catholic Church. It is called 'grace.' "Hey!" I hear you protest, "are you saying that only Catholics experience the grace of God??!!" No, of course not. What I am saying is that all grace comes through the Catholic Church. The Church is the Body of Christ. The Church is the principle Sacrament - the physical means of spiritual grace - which God has given to the world. And the Church is the only means of grace. Grace, as Luther taught, is a change in God's relation to us. For the sake of Christ's merits, God now looks on us as if we possessed the righteousness of His Son - that righteousness which is reckoned to us for His sake. Well, fair enough, but I cannot go along with Luther at the next stage. Even the regenerate, he appears to have taught (I am open to correction if I am wrong) are still, even in their righteous acts, unacceptable to God - 'filthy rags' as Scripture puts it. God gives us more. Catholic 'infused grace' has been (inaccurately) caricaturised as like going to the petrol station to get a fill-up. If we have some of this magical 'infused grace' in us when we die - I have heard it caricaturised like this almost as an impersonal 'stuff' - then we 'go to Heaven.' Otherwise, we 'go to Hell.' I recall once, when a Reformed minister asked me, when I told him I had to become a Catholic, how I expected to be saved. I thought for a moment and gave an answer which I do not think I would change today. I will be saved - acceptable to God and in union with Him - the same way His Son is, humanly speaking: by being perfectly righteous. Whew! But I think that is right. I will not go on about this here. This has got too long already. God does pour His grace into us. This is His power to enable us to keep the law. He does indeed give this grace to those who, through no fault of their own, are not able to be members of the Catholic Church. He does this and yet ... well, my own experience is that it is very difficult to avail oneself of God's grace without ... ... the Sacraments. All Christians have the Sacrament of Baptism. By it they are born again of water and the Spirit. This is very garbled and I have not time to clean it up more, but I will say this, to tie it to the beginning. Grace is not magic. You cannot avail yourself of the fullness of the grace of the Sacraments by 'becoming a Catholic' without faith. Faith is the gift to understand and to believe that the Catholic Church is just what she claims: Christ's Body in the world, His appointed Teacher of men - and the main channel of His grace. You have to believe or you are just trying magic. Susan's friend mentioned above did well by deciding that she could not believe the Church because she could not believe one of the Church's teachings (she is now thinking of coming back to the Church, by the way). And I cannot be a Catholic simply by lining up a number of teachings, deciding on private interpretation that I believe them, and then 'joining.' A Catholic believes what the Church teaches because the Church teaches it. And then can receive the power available through the Sacraments. Somehow I believe that I have been given power to improve through: 1) Confirmation - the strengthening of the Holy Spirit 2) Matrimony - my bond with Susan is of a different nature now 3) Holy Eucharist - I receive the Body and Blood of the Risen Saviour into my body and my heart every day 4) Confession - the real forgiveness of God is poured out on me weekly I want to emphasise the latter here. Confession is sometimes seen just as a sort of counselling session. I was so totally overwhelmed the first time I went to Confession. Father may be personally a dull, witless person. Any advice he gives me may be way off the beam. He may not even believe in what he is doing, but if he gives me absolution, intending what the Church intends by the Sacrament then I receive not only forgiveness but real power to overcome sin. The contrast between that and mere counselling is the contrast between Heaven and earth.
02 August 2008
Theology alert! What follows has to do with the nature of the Catholic Mass. If you are not interested ... you have been warned! At our Wednesday evening Rosary group a couple of weeks ago, one of our members referred to the Mass as a meal. Well, of course, it is, isn't it? I mean, we all - or most of us, anyway- eat something and drink something. One person pointed out that if it was a meal, he, for one, would go away awfully hungry - one Communion Host wasn't really as much as his appetite normally desired! Ah, well, of course it is a symbolic meal. The reference is to the Last Supper. This is certainly the point of the Mass on Holy Thursday, which is called the "Mass of the Lord's Supper." At least one normal part of Holy Thursday Mass is explicitly a reference to the Last Supper - the washing of feet. And I have an idea that for most Protestant churches, their "Lord's Supper" is viewed strictly as a memorial of the Last Supper. Nevertheless, I confess I find myself somewhat uneasy at this description of the Mass as a meal - a very common one, by the way. I have done some thinking about the matter, and have had some discussions with better-informed persons than I am, and thought I would write down what I thought. It seems to me that to call the Mass a meal has at least the potential for being very misleading. The Mass is unquestionably a sacrifice. The language of every part of the "Liturgy of the Eucharist" speaks of its sacrificial character. It is for this reason that the priest says to us, the congrgation, "Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father," and we respond, "May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good, and the good of all his Church." But we normally partake, by eating, of the results of that Sacrifice. So the Catechism calls the Mass a "sacrificial meal." And it is indeed a sacrificial meal. I think that some in our discussion supposed me to be denying that it was a meal in that sense but I was not. What I think is important to realise is that the end, in the philosophical sense of the goal, of a meal is fundamentally different from the end of the Mass. The point of a meal - in the normal sense of the word 'meal' - is the eating. You can sit down at a table set with beautiful china and be served four courses, or you can eat a sausage at a barbecue. Both are a meal. But if you don't eat, I don't think you can be said to have had a meal. You could be present at a meal at which you eat nothing. Indeed, I suppose someone could lay out a meal which no one ate - but still, the point of the meal is the eating. The point - the 'end' - of the Mass is the Sacrifice of Our Lord on Calvary. This is not the place to go into the Catholic belief that at Mass, the original Sacrifice is made present; that the sacrifice of the Mass is not a new killing of Jesus but the representation of His death, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world. But this is what Catholics believe, and this is what the Mass is. OK, but what about the eating? Even if a priest offers Mass alone, he himself partakes of the holy food. And when the people are present - as is normally and ideally the case - they partake also. So eating is necessary. At a meal, the end of the meal is the eating. A necessary and normal consequence of the eating is digestion. Short of illness, this is what always happens at a meal. At Mass, the end of the rite is the Sacrifice. The eating is a necessary and normal consequence of the Sacrifice. If I attend a meal but do not eat, I have not had a meal. But if I attend Mass, even if I do not receive Communion, I have indeed participated in the Mass. It seems to me this distinction is especially important today. Susan has coelic disease and is not in fact able to receive the Host at Mass. She can only take the Cup. Though we believe the elements of the Sacrifice have become the Body and Blood of the Lord, their 'accidents' - their physical, chemical, nutritional, etc attributes - are unchanged. If Susan receives the Host, she becomes ill. Once recently we were to attend a large Mass at which the Cup could not be offered (because of the number of people). Sue commented to a friend that she would not be able to receive Communion. The friend responded, "But that's the whole point of going to Mass!" Here I think we see a change in outlook that genuinely misses the 'point' of Mass. I remember when I was first a Catholic realising, with a bit of a shock, that the high point of Mass was not Communion. That had been the climax of the Lord's Supper for me when I was a Protestant. But at Mass the high point is reached, in rather a literal sense, when the priest holds the Body and Blood of Christ on high, offering the slain Victim to God for his sins and for mine, and for yours, whoever you are. The Body of the Lamb is given to me to consume - and I am thereby identified with Him. I am given the privilege, and the awful honour, of then going into the world to offer my own body a 'living sacrifice' (Romans 12). That is an eating, to be sure, but an eating that leads to death - and through death to Resurrection and eternal life.