Monday, 21 November 2016

Discernment in the flow of life, not black or white

Francis refugees

1873 words, 9 min read

On Friday morning, Pope Francis gave an interview to the Italian daily, L’Avvenire, in which he spoke at length about the Year of Mercy that concluded yesterday, about Christian unity and where he also addressed criticisms leveled at his last apostolic exhortation, Amoris Lætitia. Even though he does not name his critics, a letter published this week by four cardinals, who express “doubts” and ask for “clarification”, must have also been on Francis’ mind. What follows is my translation of parts of the interview, where I attempted to stay as close to the way Francis expresses himself in Italian, even at the expense of some of the phrases not sounding natively English (since they are not :).

Francis starts by speaking about what the Year of Mercy has meant for him:
“Those who discover that they are loved very much begin to exit a bad loneliness, a separation that brings one to hating others and oneself. I hope that many people have discovered that they are loved very much by Jesus and that they have let themselves be embraced by him. Mercy is the name of God and is also his weakness, his weak point. His mercy always leads him to forgiveness, to forgetting our sins. I like to think that the Almighty has bad memory. Once he forgives you, he forgets. Because he is happy to forgive. For me that is enough. Like with the adulterous woman of the Gospel, “whom He loved very much.” “Because He has loved very much.” The whole of Christianity is here.”
When Francis is then asked about whether his aims for the Year of Mercy had been achieved, his response shows a beautiful focus on discerning the will of God moment by moment:
“But I have not made a plan. I simply did what the Holy Spirit inspired me to do. Things just came along. I let myself be carried by the Spirit. It was only about being docile to the Holy Spirit, about letting Him act. The Church is the Gospel, it is the work of Jesus Christ. It is not journey of ideas, a tool for affirming them. And in the Church things come about when the time is ripe, when one offers oneself.”
In a response about the roots in the Year of Mercy being in the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis then speaks about the nature of the Church:
“Experiencing in one’s own life the forgiveness that embraces the entire human family is the grace that the apostolic ministry announces. The Church exists only as a tool for communicating to people the merciful plan of God. At the Council the Church felt the responsibility of being in the world as a living sign of the love of the Father. With Lumen Gentium she ascended to the sources of her nature, to the Gospel. This moves the axis of the concept of Christianity from a certain legalism, which can be ideological, to the Person of God that has made itself mercy in the incarnation of the Son. Some - think of certain responses to Amoris Laetitia - continue to not understand, either white or black, even though it is in the flow of life that one ought to discern. The Council has told us this, historians, however, tell us that that a Council needs a century to become well absorbed by the body of the Church ... We are halfway.”
Ecumenism was also addressed in the interview, where Francis first spoke about the continuity between his efforts and those of his predecessors and of the Council, before turing to his relationship with the heads of other Christian churches:
“I live it with a lot of brotherhood. Brotherhood can be felt. There is Jesus in the midst. To me they are all brothers. We bless one another, one brother blesses another. When with Patriarch Bartholomew and Hieronymus we went to Lesbos in Greece to meet the refugees we felt as one. We were one. One. When I went to see Patriarch Bartholomew at the Phanar in Istanbul for the feast of St Andrew, for me it was a great joy. In Georgia I met Patriarch Ilia who had not gone to Crete for the Orthodox Council. The spiritual harmony that I had with him was profound. I felt that I was in front of a saint, a man of God took my hand, told me beautiful things, more with gestures than with words. The patriarchs are monks. You see behind a conversation that they are men of prayer. Kirill is a man of prayer. Also the Coptic Patriarch Tawadros, whom I have met, took off his shoes as he entered the chapel and went to pray. The Patriarch Daniel of Romania a year ago gave me a book in Spanish by St. Sylvester of Mount Athos, I have already read about the life of this great holy monk in Buenos Aires: “To pray for humanity is to shed one’s own blood.” The Saints unite us inside the Church, making her mystery current. With our Orthodox brothers we on a journey, we are brothers, we love each other, we care together, they come to study here and with us. Bartholomew also studied here.”
When asked whether the Bishop of Rome shouldn’t focus on the Catholic Church full-time instead of spending time with the heads of other Churches, Francis proceeded to spell out first principles:
“Jesus himself prayed to the Father to ask that those who are his may be one, so that the world may believe. It is his prayer to the Father. Since always, the Bishop of Rome has been called to be a custodian of, to seek and to serve this unity. We also know that the wounds of our divisions are destroying the body of Christ, we cannot heal them by ourselves. So, it is not possible to impose plans or systems to become one again. To ask for unity among Christians we can only look to Jesus and ask that the Holy Spirit works among us. That it may be him to make unity. In the meeting in Lund with the Lutherans I have repeated the words of Jesus when he says to his disciples: “Without me you can do nothing.””
Another criticism leveled by some at Pope Francis’ ecumenical efforts is that he wants to “protestantize” the Catholic Church, to which his response is very simple:
“I don’t loose sleep over it. I continue on the road of those who have preceded me, I follow the Council. As for opinions, we must always distinguish the spirit in which they are said. When there isn’t a bad spirit, they also help on the journey. In other cases it can be seen straightaway that criticism are made here and there to justify a previously adopted position, they are not honest, they are made with a bad spirit to stir up division. It can be seen immediately that certain rigorisms stem from a lack, from a wanting to hide one’s sad dissatisfaction inside an armor. If you watch the movie Babette’s Feast, this rigid behavior can be seen there.”
Next, Francis is asked whether his focus on working together with other Churches for those who are in need isn’t a putting to one side of theological question and he again goes straight to the core:
“This is not a setting aside of something. Serving the poor means to serve Christ, because the poor are the flesh of Christ. And if we serve the poor together, it means that we Christians find ourselves united in touching the wounds of Christ. Here I think of the work that Caritas and Lutheran charitable organizations can do together after the meeting in Lund. It is not an institution, it is a journey. Certain ways of opposing the “things of doctrine” with the “things of pastoral charity” instead are not according to the Gospel and create confusion.”
In response to a question about what he meant when he spoke about unity being made while walking together, Francis said:
“Unit is not made because we agree among ourselves, but because we walk following Jesus. And while walking, by the working of the One we follow, we can discover ourselves united. It is the walking behind Jesus that unites. To convert ourselves means to let the Lord live and work in us. Like that we find ourselves united in our common mission of proclaiming the Gospel. Walking and working together, we realize that we are already united in the name of the Lord, and that, therefore, unity is not created by us. We realize that it is the Spirit who impels us and carries us ahead. If you are docile to the Spirit, it will be He who will tell you the step you can take, the rest is done by Him. It is not possible to walk behind Christ if you are not carried, if you do not pushed by Spirit with his strength. Because of this it is the Spirit who is the author of Christian unity. So, this is why I say that unity is made along a journey, because unity is a grace that you have to ask for, and also because I repeat that every proselytizing among Christians is sinful. The Church never grows by proselytizing but “by attraction,” as Benedict XVI wrote. Proselytism among Christians is therefore in itself a grave sin because it contradicts the very dynamics of how to become and remain Christian. The Church is not a football team that seeks fans.”
Speaking about the importance of baptism in response to a question about something that Francis said to Patriarch Kirill, he focuses on the importance of the incarnation as protection against ideologies:
“To rediscover our unity we don’t need to “go beyond” baptism. Having the same baptism means to confess together that the Word has made itself flesh: this saves us. All ideologies and theories are born of those who do not stop at this, who do not remain in the faith that recognizes Christ who has come in the flesh, and who want to “go beyond.” From there come all the positions that take the flesh away from the Church of Christ, which “de-flesh” the Church. If we look together at our shared baptism we are also freed from the temptation of Pelagianism, which wants to convince us that we are saved by our own strength, by our own activism. And staying at baptism also saves us from gnosis. This one distorts Christianity, reducing it to a path of knowledge, which can do without a real encounter with Christ.”
What strikes me most as I re-read Pope Francis’ words is his total focus on Jesus as the person whose presence among His followers is what unites them, what guides them and what is the basis of a discernment whose horizon is the present moment. This is a Christianity that is exciting, challenging and lived in direct relationship with God, who has made himself one of us to the point of also taking on our physical nature. Everything then follows from such a life - the Year of Mercy, ecumenism, dialogue, forgiveness and a pervasive sense of joy and openness.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Like a grain of dust that tips the scales

Dust

555 words, 3 min read

Sunday’s first reading, from the book of Wisdom (11:22-12:2), has been constantly on my mind since I first heard it. In fact, I could barely focus on the rest of the mass and I kept reading and re-reading it round and round. It stopped me dead in my tracks and made my wandering mind focus and delight.

It opens with a beautiful, verbal equivalent of chiaroscuro:
11:22 In your sight, Lord, the whole world is like a grain of dust that tips the scales, like a drop of morning dew falling on the ground.
The world is but a grain of dust, yet it is not insignificant; it tips the scales. It is a nothing that makes a difference. It is like a single drop of water, by itself inconsequential, yet as part of the morning dew it sustains life. In this one line there is, at the same time, a powerful sense of imbalance between God and us, His creatures, and of the colossally disproportionate tenderness He has for us.
11:23 Yet you are merciful to all, because you can do all things and overlook men’s sins so that they can repent.
It is because of God’s omnipotence that He overlooks our failings. His mercy is a consequence of His all-powerfulness. His strength flourishes in overlooking, veiling our flaws. Wisdom peaks in willful ignorance, out of love.
11:24 Yes, you love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence, for had you hated anything, you would not have formed it.
Who are God’s chosen people? Who are His favorites? In whom does He delight? In all! In every single being. It could be no different, since it is He who has made all that is. “Through him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through him.” (John 1:3) And why would He make something He hates? Being by itself is proof of God’s love. I am because God loves me. You are because God loves you. Every single being is because God loves it.
11:25 And how, had you not willed it, could a thing persist, how be conserved if not called forth by you?
The very thought of something existing against God’s will is absurd. What blasphemy! What utter logical contradiction!
11:26 You spare all things because all things are yours, Lord, lover of life,
12:1 you whose imperishable spirit is in all.
To destroy His creatures, God would have to destroy His own imperishable self that inhabits and sustains them. He would have to pit His own irresistible force against the immovable object of His own self. What a silly, childish exercise that would be! God is no circus strongman, He is the lover of life!
12:2 Little by little, therefore, you correct those who offend, you admonish and remind them of how they have sinned, so that they may abstain from evil and trust in you, Lord.
What does love for His creatures look like? Does His love for all equal an anything-goes attitude? No. God wants all to choose Him, to love Him freely. So, instead of destroying them when they turn away from Him, He gently, little-by-little nudges, hints, coaxes us towards himself. He invites us to trust Him, as the antidote to evil.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

(Un)changeable

Optical Illusion Best Optical Illusion Online Black Dots 12 Black Dots Optical Illusion Optical Illusion Queensland Australia Op 651157

4426 words, 22 min read

I have recently come across the grandiosely-titled website: "Declaration of Fidelity to the Church's Unchangeable Teaching on Marriage and to Her Uninterrupted Discipline", signed by no less than three cardinals and by over 2600 others, whose ranks the website invites us to join. However much the company of cardinals may be enticing, what holds me back are the words of a certain carpenter, who once told his friends the following: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (John 16:12-13).

Instead of going over arguments previously laid out in this blog,1 let me just pull together a tasting menu of what the Church has said about marriage during the councils it held over the course of the last 2000 years (plus the so-called "Apostolic Canons" that predate them), so you can make up your own mind about whether it has been (un)changing.

  1. 4th century AD - Apostolic Canons:
    6. Let not a bishop, a priest, or a deacon cast off his own wife under pretence of piety; but if he does cast her off, let him be suspended. If he go on in it, let him be deprived.

    17. He who has been twice married after his baptism, or has had a concubine, cannot be made a bishop, or presbyter, or deacon, or indeed any one of the sacerdotal catalogue.

    18. He who has taken a widow, or a divorced woman, or an harlot, or a servant, or one belonging to the theatre, cannot be either a bishop, priest, or deacon, or indeed any one of the sacerdotal catalogue.

    19. He who has married two sisters, or his brother’s or sister’s daughter, cannot be a clergyman.

  2. 309 AD - Council of Elvira:
    16. Heretics, if they are unwilling to change over to the Catholic Church, are not to have Catholic girls given to them in marriage, nor shall they be given to Jews or heretics, since there can be no community for the faithful with the unfaithful. If parents act against this prohibition, they shall be kept out for five years.

    17. If any should somehow join their daughters in marriage to priests of idols, they shall not be given communion–even at the end.

  3. 325 AD (May 20-June 19) - First Council of Nicea:
    8. Concerning those who have given themselves the name of Cathars, and who from time to time come over publicly to the catholic and apostolic church, this holy and great synod decrees that they may remain among the clergy after receiving an imposition of hands. But before all this it is fitting that they give a written undertaking that they will accept and follow the decrees of the catholic church, namely that they will be in communion with those who have entered into a second marriage and with those who have lapsed in time of persecution and for whom a period [of penance] has been fixed and an occasion [for reconciliation] allotted, so as in all things to follow the decrees of the catholic and apostolic church.

  4. 451 AD (October 8-November 1) - Council of Chalcedon:
    14. Since in certain provinces readers and cantors have been allowed to marry, the sacred synod decrees that none of them is permitted to marry a wife of heterodox views. If those thus married have already had children, and if they have already had the children baptised among heretics, they are to bring them into the communion of the catholic church. If they have not been baptised, they may no longer have them baptised among heretics; nor indeed marry them to a heretic or a Jew or a Greek, unless of course the person who is to be married to the orthodox party promises to convert to the orthodox faith. If anyone transgresses this decree of the sacred synod, let him be subject to canonical penalty.

    15. No woman under forty years of age is to be ordained a deacon, and then only after close scrutiny. If after receiving ordination and spending some time in the ministry she despises God's grace and gets married, such a person is to be anathematised along with her spouse.

    16. It is not permitted for a virgin who has dedicated herself to the Lord God, or similarly for a monk, to contract marriage. If it is discovered that they have done so, let them be made excommunicate. However, we have decreed that the local bishop should have discretion to deal humanely with them.

  5. 1123 AD - First Lateran Council:
    21. We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons and monks to have concubines or to contract marriages. We adjudge, as the sacred canons have laid down, that marriage contracts between such persons should be made void and the persons ought to undergo penance.

  6. 1139 AD - Second Lateran Council:
    6. We also decree that those in the orders of subdeacon and above who have taken wives or concubines are to be deprived of their position and ecclesiastical benefice. For since they ought to be in fact and in name temples of God, vessels of the Lord and sanctuaries of the holy Spirit, it is unbecoming that they give themselves up to marriage and impurity.

    7. [N]obody is to hear the masses of those whom he knows to have wives or concubines. Indeed, that the law of continence and the purity pleasing to God might be propagated among ecclesiastical persons and those in holy orders, we decree that where bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, canons regular, monks and professed lay brothers have presumed to take wives and so transgress this holy precept, they are to be separated from their partners. For we do not deem there to be a marriage which, it is agreed, has been contracted against ecclesiastical law. Furthermore, when they have separated from each other, let them do a penance commensurate with such outrageous behaviour.

    8. We decree that the selfsame thing is to apply also to women religious if, God forbid, they attempt to marry.

  7. 1215 AD - Fourth Lateran Council:
    1. For not only virgins and the continent but also married persons find favour with God by right faith and good actions and deserve to attain to eternal blessedness.

    50. Prohibition of marriage is now perpetually restricted to the fourth degree. It should not be judged reprehensible if human decrees are sometimes changed according to changing circumstances, especially when urgent necessity or evident advantage demands it, since God himself changed in the new Testament some of the things which he had commanded in the old Testament. Since the prohibitions against contracting marriage in the second and third degree of affinity, and against uniting the offspring of a second marriage with the kindred of the first husband, often lead to difficulty and sometimes endanger souls, we therefore, in order that when the prohibition ceases the effect may also cease, revoke with the approval of this sacred council the constitutions published on this subject and we decree, by this present constitution, that henceforth contracting parties connected in these ways may freely be joined together. Moreover the prohibition against marriage shall not in future go beyond the fourth degree of consanguinity and of affinity, since the prohibition cannot now generally be observed to further degrees without grave harm. The number four agrees well with the prohibition concerning bodily union about which the Apostle says, that the husband does not rule over his body, but the wife does; and the wife does not rule over her body, but the husband does; for there are four humours in the body, which is composed of the four elements. Although the prohibition of marriage is now restricted to the fourth degree, we wish the prohibition to be perpetual, notwithstanding earlier decrees on this subject issued either by others or by us. If any persons dare to marry contrary to this prohibition, they shall not be protected by length of years, since the passage of time does not diminish sin but increases it, and the longer that faults hold the unfortunate soul in bondage the graver they are.

    51. Clandestine marriages forbidden. Since the prohibition against marriage in the three remotest degrees has been revoked, we wish it to be strictly observed in the other degrees. Following in the footsteps of our predecessors, we altogether forbid clandestine marriages and we forbid any priest to presume to be present at such a marriage. Extending the special custom of certain regions to other regions generally, we decree that when marriages are to be contracted they shall be publicly announced in the churches by priests, with a suitable time being fixed beforehand within which whoever wishes and is able to may adduce a lawful impediment. The priests themselves shall also investigate whether there is any impediment. When there appears a credible reason why the marriage should not be contracted, the contract shall be expressly forbidden until there has been established from clear documents what ought to be done in the matter. If any persons presume to enter into clandestine marriages of this kind, or forbidden marriages within a prohibited degree, even if done in ignorance, the offspring of the union shall be deemed illegitimate and shall have no help from their parents' ignorance, since the parents in contracting the marriage could be considered as not devoid of knowledge, or even as affecters of ignorance. Likewise the offspring shall be deemed illegitimate if both parents know of a legitimate impediment and yet dare to contract a marriage in the presence of the church, contrary to every prohibition.

    52. On rejecting evidence from hearsay at a matrimonial suit. It was at one time decided out of a certain necessity, but contrary to the normal practice, that hearsay evidence should be valid in reckoning the degrees of consanguinity and affinity, because on account of the shortness of human life witnesses would not be able to testify from first-hand knowledge in a reckoning as far as the seventh degree. However, because we have learned from many examples and definite proofs that many dangers to lawful marriages have arisen from this, we have decided that in future witnesses from hearsay shall not be accepted in this matter, since the prohibition does not now exceed the fourth degree, unless there are persons of weight who are trustworthy and who learnt from their elders, before the case was begun, the things that they testify: not indeed from one such person since one would not suffice even if he or she were alive, but from two at least, and not from persons who are of bad repute and suspect but from those who are trustworthy and above every objection, since it would appear rather absurd to admit in evidence those whose actions would be rejected. [... I]t is preferable to leave alone some people who have been united contrary to human decrees than to separate, contrary to the Lord's decrees, persons who have been joined together legitimately.

  8. 1311-1312 AD - Council of Vienne:
    8. We strictly command local ordinaries to admonish by name three times clerics who publicly and personally engage in the butcher's trade or conduct taverns, that they cease to do so within a reasonable time to be fixed by the ordinary and never resume such trades. If after admonition they do not leave off or if they resume them at any time, then as long as they persist in the above ways of life those who are married shall automatically lose all clerical privileges, and those who are unmarried shall automatically lose their clerical privileges relating to things, and if the latter go about in every way as laymen they shall also lose automatically their personal privileges as clerics. As for other clerics who apply themselves publicly to secular commerce and trade or any occupation inconsistent with the clerical state, or who carry arms, the ordinaries are to be diligent in observing the canons, so that these clerics may be restrained from such misconduct and they themselves may not be guilty of reprehensible negligence.

  9. 1431-45 AD - Council of Basel:
    The seventh is the sacrament of matrimony, which is a sign of the union of Christ and the church according to the words of the apostle: This sacrament is a great one, but I speak in Christ and in the church. The efficient cause of matrimony is usually mutual consent expressed in words about the present. A threefold good is attributed to matrimony. The first is the procreation and bringing up of children for the worship of God. The second is the mutual faithfulness of the spouses towards each other. The third is the indissolubility of marriage, since it signifies the indivisible union of Christ and the church. Although separation of bed is lawful on account of fornication, it is not lawful to contract another marriage, since the bond of a legitimately contracted marriage is perpetual.

    It is asserted that some people reject fourth marriages as condemned. Lest sin is attributed where it does not exist, since the apostle says that a wife on her husband's death is free from his law and free in the Lord to marry whom she wishes, and since no distinction is made between the deaths of the first, second and third husbands, we declare that not only second and third marriages but also fourth and further ones may lawfully be contracted, provided there is no canonical impediment. We say, however, that they would be more commendable if thereafter they abstain from marriage and persevere in chastity because we consider that, just as virginity is to be preferred in praise and merit to widowhood, so chaste widowhood is preferable to marriage.

  10. 1545-1563 AD - Council of Trent:
    On the Sacrament of Matrimony.

    Canon I.-If any one saith, that matrimony is not truly and properly one of the seven sacraments of the evangelic law, (a sacrament) instituted by Christ the Lord; but that it has been invented by men in the Church; and that it does not confer grace; let him be anathema.

    Canon II.-If any one saith, that it is lawful for Christians to have several wives at the same time, and that this is not prohibited by any divine law; let him be anathema.

    Canon III.-If any one saith, that those degrees only of consanguinity and affinity, which are set down in Leviticus, can hinder matrimony from being contracted, and dissolve it when contracted; and that the Church cannot dispense in some of those degrees, or establish that others may hinder and dissolve it ; let him be anathema.

    Canon IV.-If any one saith, that the Church could not establish impediments dissolving marriage; or that she has erred in establishing them; let him be anathema.

    Canon V.-If any one saith, that on account of heresy, or irksome cohabitation, or the affected absence of one of the parties, the bond of matrimony may be dissolved; let him be anathema.

    Canon VI.-If any one saith, that matrimony contracted, but not consummated, is not dissolved by the solemn profession of religion by one of the married parties; let him be anathema.

    Canon VII.-If any one saith, that the Church has erred, in that she hath taught, and doth teach, in accordance with the evangelical and apostolical doctrine, that the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery of one of the married parties; and that both, or even the innocent one who gave not occasion to the adultery, cannot contract another marriage, during the life-time of the other; and, that he is guilty of adultery, who, having put away the adulteress, shall take another wife, as also she, who, having put away the adulterer, shall take another husband; let him be anathema.

    Canon VIII.-If any one saith, that the Church errs, in that she declares that, for many causes, a separation may take place between husband and wife, in regard of bed, or in regard of cohabitation, for a determinate or for an indeterminate period; let him be anathema.

    Canon IX.-If any one saith, that clerics constituted in sacred orders, or Regulars, who have solemnly professed chastity, are able to contract marriage, and that being contracted it is valid, notwithstanding the ecclesiastical law, or vow; and that the contrary is no thing else than to condemn marriage; and, that all who do not feel that they have the gift of chastity, even though they have made a vow thereof, may contract marriage; let him be anathema: seeing that God refuses not that gift to those who ask for it rightly, neither does He suffer us to be tempted above that which we are able.

    Canon X.-If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.

    Canon XI.-If any one saith, that the prohibition of the solemnization of marriages at certain times of the year, is a tyrannical superstition, derived from the superstition of the heathen; or, condemn the benedictions and other ceremonies which the Church makes use of therein; let him be anathema.

    Canon XII.-If any one saith, that matrimonial causes do not belong to ecclesiastical judges; let him be anathema.

    Decree on the Reformation of Marriage.

    Chapter VII. Vagrants are to be married with caution. There are many persons who are vagrants, having no settled homes; and, being of a profligate character, they, after abandoning their first wife, marry another, and very often several in different places, during the life-time of the first. The holy Synod, being desirous to obviate this disorder, gives this fatherly admonition to all whom it may concern, not easily to admit this class of vagrants to marriage; and It also exhorts the civil magistrates to punish such persons severely. But It commands parish priests not to be present at the marriages of such persons, unless they have first made a careful inquiry, and, having reported the circumstance to the Ordinary, they shall have obtained permission from him for so doing.

    Chapter IX. Temporal lords, or magistrates, shall not attempt anything contrary to the liberty of marriage. Earthly affections and desires do for the most part so blind the eyes of the understanding of temporal lords and magistrates, as that, by threats and ill-usage, they compel both men and women, who live under their jurisdiction,-especially such as are rich, or who have expectations of a great inheritance,-to contract marriage against their inclination with those whom the said lords or magistrates may prescribe unto them. Wherefore, seeing that it is a thing especially execrable to violate the liberty of matrimony, and that wrong comes from those from whom right is looked for, the holy Synod enjoins on all, of whatsoever grade, dignity, and condition they may be, under pain of anathema to be ipso facto incurred, that they put no constraint, in any way whatever, either directly or indirectly, on those subject to them, or any others whomsoever, so as to hinder them from freely contracting marriage.

  11. 1962–1965 AD - Second Vatican Council:
    Lumen Gentium

    11. Christian spouses, in virtue of the sacrament of Matrimony, whereby they signify and partake of the mystery of that unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and His Church,(108) help each other to attain to holiness in their married life and in the rearing and education of their children. By reason of their state and rank in life they have their own special gift among the people of God. From the wedlock of Christians there comes the family, in which new citizens of human society are born, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit received in baptism are made children of God, thus perpetuating the people of God through the centuries. The family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them, fostering with special care vocation to a sacred state.

    29. With the consent of the Roman Pontiff, this diaconate can, in the future, be conferred upon men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state.

    35. In connection with the prophetic function is that state of life which is sanctified by a special sacrament obviously of great importance, namely, married and family life. For where Christianity pervades the entire mode of family life, and gradually transforms it, one will find there both the practice and an excellent school of the lay apostolate. In such a home husbands and wives find their proper vocation in being witnesses of the faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children. The Christian family loudly proclaims both the present virtues of the Kingdom of God and the hope of a blessed life to come. Thus by its example and its witness it accuses the world of sin and enlightens those who seek the truth.

    41. [M]arried couples and Christian parents should follow their own proper path (to holiness) by faithful love. They should sustain one another in grace throughout the entire length of their lives. They should embue their offspring, lovingly welcomed as God's gift, with Christian doctrine and the evangelical virtues. In this manner, they offer all men the example of unwearying and generous love; in this way they build up the brotherhood of charity; in so doing, they stand as the witnesses and cooperators in the fruitfulness of Holy Mother Church; by such lives, they are a sign and a participation in that very love, with which Christ loved His Bride and for which He delivered Himself up for her.

    Gaudium et Spes

    48. The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws, and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent. Hence by that human act whereby spouses mutually bestow and accept each other a relationship arises which by divine will and in the eyes of society too is a lasting one. For the good of the spouses and their off-springs as well as of society, the existence of the sacred bond no longer depends on human decisions alone. For, God Himself is the author of matrimony, endowed as it is with various benefits and purposes. All of these have a very decisive bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of the individual members of a family, and on the dignity, stability, peace and prosperity of the family itself and of human society as a whole. By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown. Thus a man and a woman, who by their compact of conjugal love "are no longer two, but one flesh" (Matt. 19:ff), render mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and of their actions. Through this union they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day. As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them. [...] Widowhood, accepted bravely as a continuation of the marriage vocation, should be esteemed by all.

    49. This love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the appropriate enterprise of matrimony. The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and a ready will. Sealed by mutual faithfulness and hallowed above all by Christ's sacrament, this love remains steadfastly true in body and in mind, in bright days or dark. It will never be profaned by adultery or divorce. Firmly established by the Lord, the unity of marriage will radiate from the equal personal dignity of wife and husband, a dignity acknowledged by mutual and total love. The constant fulfillment of the duties of this Christian vocation demands notable virtue. For this reason, strengthened by grace for holiness of life, the couple will painstakingly cultivate and pray for steadiness of love, large heartedness and the spirit of sacrifice.

    50. Marriage to be sure is not instituted solely for procreation; rather, its very nature as an unbreakable compact between persons, and the welfare of the children, both demand that the mutual love of the spouses be embodied in a rightly ordered manner, that it grow and ripen. Therefore, marriage persists as a whole manner and communion of life, and maintains its value and indissolubility, even when despite the often intense desire of the couple, offspring are lacking.

    Presbyterorum Ordinis

    16. Perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, commended by Christ the Lord and through the course of time as well as in our own days freely accepted and observed in a praiseworthy manner by many of the faithful, is held by the Church to be of great value in a special manner for the priestly life. It is at the same time a sign and a stimulus for pastoral charity and a special source of spiritual fecundity in the world. Indeed, it is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, as is apparent from the practice of the early Church and from the traditions of the Eastern Churches. where, besides those who with all the bishops, by a gift of grace, choose to observe celibacy, there are also married priests of highest merit. This holy synod, while it commends ecclesiastical celibacy, in no way intends to alter that different discipline which legitimately flourishes in the Eastern Churches. It permanently exhorts all those who have received the priesthood and marriage to persevere in their holy vocation so that they may fully and generously continue to expend themselves for the sake of the flock commended to them.

Yes, indeed, the Church has been (un)changing!



1 E.g., here (via Gödel), here (in the words of Schönborn), here (by Pope Francis), and in many other posts on this blog.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Humor in St. Matthew’s Gospel

Fishers of men

2105 words, 11 min read

The theory of humor is about as much use to humor as ornithology is to birds, to paraphrase Richard Feynman. Instead of setting out a preamble that contrasts Bergson’s attributing the comic to inflexibility with Kant’s focus on strained expectations being transformed into nothing, or with Freud’s view that it is a mechanism for psychological release, or reflecting on the importance of the non sequitur and the absurd, I will just say that what is labelled as humorous in the following is simply what made me laugh, chuckle or smile.

I am certainly not the first (and hopefully not the last either) to find comedy in Scripture, so there is no claim to novelty here. Instead, the following follows from a desire to share what I found when reading St. Matthew’s Gospel, back to back, with the aim of looking for humor in it.1 As a final preambulatory point, and one that ought to be redundant for recidivist readers of this blog, I believe humor to be a profoundly positive and deeply relationship-building trait, as a result of which its roots and its pinnacle are in God and their absence from Scripture would be a joke.

Even though it might not be obvious at first, St. Matthew’s Gospel opens with what to my mind is a very funny bit - the genealogy of Jesus (1:1-16). On the face of it, this is a formal piece, designed to legitimize Jesus’ lineage and rootedness in the people of Israel, since it presents a sequence of forty pillars of the community from Abraham, father of God’s chosen people, to St. Joseph, Jesus’ own earthly father. So far so serious, but what gives this résumé a nice, humorous twist is the mention of four women - St. Joseph’s great-great-... grandmothers:
  1. Tamar, who was mistaken for a prostitute by Jesus’ ancestor, Judah, who subsequently solicits her services and whose immorality is then publicly unmasked by her.
  2. Rahab, who was actually a prostitute.
  3. Ruth, who was a foreigner, a Moabite, member of a tribe with a tempestuous relationship with the Israelites, eventually destroyed by them.
  4. Bathsheba, who was a real looker and whose first husband, Uriah, was sent to his death by king David after he saw her naked, so that he could take her for himself.
St. Matthew could just have presented us with a dry list of the great and the good of Israel’s glorious history. Instead, he very much spices things up and I wonder whether his contemporaries laughed, or at least sniggered at the ladies he chose to parade alongside the gents who otherwise might have projected too much propriety.

Matthew also seems to have a nice, dry sense of humor, when, in Chapter 4 he tells us that Jesus “fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.” (4:2) A bit like the Black Knight telling King Arthur “It’s just a flesh wound,” after having both arms cut off in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

And it is not only Matthew, who has fun here. Jesus too played games when talking to the disciples and it seems like Matthew was only too happy to record them. In the same, fourth chapter we get this gem:
He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. (4:19-20)
Really? This guy shows up out of nowhere, tells a bunch of fishermen that he’ll make them “fishers of men” and they all jump up and ask where to sign up. What seems much more likely to me is that these guys would have followed Jesus no matter what he said, so he had some fun with them and delivered a line of beautiful absurd humor. “My hovercraft is full of eels.” might have been too much (although it is appropriately fishing-themed), so he went with “I will make you fishers of men.” I can imagine Jesus reminiscing with Peter about it after the resurrection and the two having a great laugh ...

The absurd is also well represented in the various exaggerations that Jesus uses, such as his invitation to schizophrenia when almsgiving:
“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret.” (6:3-4)
To typographical hair-splitting:
“Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” (5:18)
Or to wanton exaggeration in response to reasonable requests (“No, I won’t just count to infinity once, I’ll do it twice!” as Chuck Norris would add):
“If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles.” (5:40-41)
Jesus’s parables, as recounted by Matthew, are also a good source of humor, like the following one about light:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.” (5:14-15)
I can’t help but be reminded of the Sufi story of Mulla Nasreddin looking for his ring:
“Mulla had lost his ring in the living room. He searched for it for a while, but since he could not find it, he went out into the yard and began to look there. His wife, who saw what he was doing, asked: “Mulla, you lost your ring in the room, why are you looking for it in the yard?”

Mulla stroked his beard and said: “The room is too dark and I can’t see very well. I came out to the courtyard to look for my ring because there is much more light out here.””
The parable about the pearls too must have elicited some laughter, simply by virtue of the sharp simile it used:
“Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (7:6)
Neither dogs, who in some cultures today are treated like children, nor pigs, who were the very embodiment of uncleanliness, were epithets that one would have been happy about and their free application to those Jesus was critical of must have made his listeners chuckle.

And, the parable about the camel must also have made them laugh at the ridiculousness of what Jesus was delivering to them, presumably with a straight face:
“Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”” (19:24-26)
Eddie Izzard’s “If you’ve never seen an elephant ski, you’ve never been on acid,” comes to mind.

Jesus also happily used flowery language on another occasion:
“But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment,o and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” (5:22)
And, purely in the interest of clarity, remember that “Raqa” means div, dope, eejit, gobshite, plonker, tool, berk, wally, schmuck, pillock, thicko, numpty, ... - now, don’t tell me that didn’t at least make you smile!

Also, let’s not forget that Jesus quite happily self-applied humor and didn’t shy away from formulating what he perceived was a crowd’s attitude towards him using some choice words:
““To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by her works.”” (11:16-19)
Now, Jesus’ pulling his listener’s legs didn’t just end with the use of some juicy words. No, our Lord took it to the next level and wove entire stories to illustrate just how absurdly misguided some of his contemporaries were.

He accused them of being impotent:
“I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.” (5:34-36)
So self-obsessed as to be dangerous:
“Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye?” (7:3-4)
So entirely missing the magnitude of what he was presenting to them as to be stupid:
“Another of [his] disciples said to him, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But Jesus answered him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”” (8:21-22)
And, so completely back-to-front that their behavior, when transposed to a familiar scenario, would be criminal:
“Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread,or a snake when he asks for a fish?” (7:9-10)
Situational comedy wasn’t off the menu either, where the best example is a contribution to the universally-rich category pertaining to mothers-in-law:
“Jesus entered the house of Peter, and saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand, the fever left her, and she rose and waited on him.” (8:14-15)
No, no, he didn’t “just” cure her so she’d rustle up a nice dinner, it was for her own good ...

Jesus didn’t shy away from shock tactics either, going more for a nervous than a hearty laugh and intermingled with a sense of fear rather than Freud’s release:
“When he was going back to the city in the morning, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went over to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again.” And immediately the fig tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed and said, “How was it that the fig tree withered immediately?” Jesus said to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith and do not waver, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”” (21:18-22)
If the disciples didn’t think “This guy’s loco,” when Jesus made the fig three wither for not bearing fruit as Jesus passed by, then I’d eat my hat (if I wore one). I wonder whether nervous “ahaha”s filled the air as the tree - an inanimate object without will or the potential for culpability - was “punished” for not doing it’s job and whether some of the disciples took a couple of cautious steps back, away from their Master.

In what can only be seen as a case of Žižek’s post-hoc predestination proof points, applied to the Dead Parrot sketch, Jesus also delivers the following, perfect line:
“When Jesus arrived at the official’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd who were making a commotion, he said, “Go away! The girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they ridiculed him. When the crowd was put out, he came and took her by the hand, and the little girl arose.” (9:23-25)



1 Please, note that nothing could be further from my mind than to suggest that my reading of the following passages from the perspective of humor is a claim to their only meaning or interpretation being from that point of view.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Ravasi: God’s presence in innocent suffering

Autumn rhythm

4092 words, 21 min read

The following is my rough, English translation of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi’s opening talk, given during the meeting of the Courtyard of the Gentiles in Lecco on 14th June 2016, entitled “Innocent suffering”.



My reflection will be made up of, if you will a kind of diptych, two panels. One dark, sombre panel, and one that is a little bit more luminous, while not being able to remove the darkness altogether. But, before turning to these two, I would like to make a premise, if you will, the binding that holds together the two panels. And, I would like to label this premise with the title of a book by an American writer called Susan Sontag. This American writer, who was a Hebrew non-believer, of non-believing origin, was diagnosed with cancer around 1975. And in 1978 she published a book, significantly entitled “Illness as Metaphor” in which she represented and interpreted in her own flesh, but also in her experience as an intellectual, precisely this event that she has experienced, the event of being ill with a tumor. And the title is significant. [...]

So, illness as a metaphor, that is illness as a symbol, because of which it is not only a physiological, biological, psychophysical question. It is something more. The patient lives through an experience that is existential, sapiential, and also philosophical; it is fundamentally anthropological. Because of which, when facing illness, and more specifically a sick person (illness being an abstract term), what is not sufficient - it is necessary but not sufficient - is medical science. There is a need also for the humanities. Anatomy is not enough, there is a need also for spirituality, understood in the most general possible, non-denominational sense. Therapy is not enough, there is a need also for a more global vision of the person, a metaphor, because it is the representation of the human being that is limited, frail, fragile, imperfect. It is the experience of an entire being. So, this is what I would say is the binding that allows also for a Courtyard of the Gentiles like this one to happen, that has a welfare dimension and a scientific one, but that is - above all - a human experience.

Well, now we arrive at the two panels that I would like to call forth. The first panel, I have said, is the dark one. That is, illness in general. Suffering in general. But above all this: innocent suffering, which brings about a crisis of sense, a crisis of meaning.

It is curious to note, and maybe this is not sufficiently developed, not even among theologians, that theology as such is born as theodicy, which, literally, means to justify God. Why? Because of the question of suffering, of evil, of the world. This was the function of theology, because such an absence of sense is something we see represented very well - and here I will have to appeal more than once to the experience of those witnesses, who are believers or non-believers, who are - I would say - the most profound witnesses, who delve ... poets, writers, who live this experience. I started precisely with Sontag.

You all, I believe, have read that novel, which for this topic is fundamental: “La peste” [The Plague] by Camus.[...] You remember Camus’ La peste, but I would just like to remind you of that moment in which Dr. Rieux holds in his arms the child who has caught the plague, and he says: “I could never believe in a creation and in a creator God for as long as I hold in my arms a child sick with the plague.”1 We could say sick with cancer. The parents who embrace their child, sick with an illness that by then is making their life drip away towards its end, cannot but express this crisis of meaning. As I said, it is precisely like this that theology came about.

I would now like to share the curious witness of a philosopher, whom you all know at least by reputation, Epicurus. As far as Epicurus is concerned, his writings are not preserved, except as quotes or as fragments. Here we have a 4th century Christian writer, Lactantius, who was the tutor of Constantine’s son, quoting this syllogistic sequence, which fundamentally is an irresolvable contradiction, put by Epicurus as follows - and I’ll summarize it here, as it is a bit more articulate in Latin: “If God wants to remove evil, but can’t, he is impotent and therefore isn’t God. If God can remove evil but does not want to, he is “hostilis et invidus” - hostile and envious with regard to us. Third, if he wants to remove evil and can do it - as befits a God - then why is there evil?”2

You can see how the interweaving of these questions is consequential and it is this experience of the absence of sense, of darkness, that can be found, paradoxically for the believer, in the Bible itself. We have a book, like the book of Job, among others, one of the literary masterpieces of humanity, that poses this problem of innocent suffering. Job is caught up in this storm, and his theologian friends, to justify God, affirm the principle that is characteristic of many cultures, not only of the culture of the Bible, of the Old Testament, which is the principle of retribution. You have sinned, therefore you suffer. Crime - punishment. Which is a very simple explanation. But, obviously it clashes with a rising up of reality, with a rising up of this person who is aware of not being guilty. And this brings us to his challenge, and I am quoting from among the many possible pages of this protest against God. “I,” says Job, “would speak3 with the Almighty; I want to argue with God.” (Job 13:3).

You can see how it is courageous that a sacred text, which for believers has the seal of God, presents itself with this attack against God. It is also true that at a certain point, Job, slowly as his dialogue progresses, strays into cursing. And this blasphemy, in that moment, is a paradoxical profession of faith. Because he, once more, returns to that fundamental node, which is a theological node, in fact he accuses God: “But you are like a sadistic archer who pierces me in my heart and my kidneys. You are like a leopard who fixes his eyes on me to devour me. You are like a triumphant general who crushes my skull.” (cf. Job 16:12-14, Job 10:16).

As you can see it is a representation of the divine God as an enemy, as a monster, because of which, in his commentary on Job, and we say this in an ecumenical spirit, Luther uses a phrase that is truly dazzling from this point of view. [...] It is a phrase that is based precisely on Job: “God is pleased much more with the blasphemous cries of a desperate person than with the composed praises of a conformist on Sunday morning during a service.” This phrase is significant, because God listens more to Job than to his theologian friends, those perfect, impassive, impeccable theologians, as will be said at the end. Because, you know, at the end God says: “Job is the only one who spoke rightly about me.” (cf. Job 42:7)

That is why, at this point I think that innocent suffering is the highest, or most profound, point of the silence of God, of the incomprehensibility of the divine mystery. This is the first panel of the diptych.

The second panel, which, as I have said, is more luminous, but without being totally solar [...]. And this panel is that even in such pain, in pain in general, there is a revelation of sense, of meaning. [...] I don’t now want to present the history of humanity that has continuously been clashing against this citadel, this well-defended citadel that is the citadel of suffering, not even thinking of its heart, which is the citadel of innocent suffering. It has tried many explanations, ranging from the totally pessimistic ones, where what in the end becomes difficult to explain is the good and not evil, this being our condition. Here we can think of certain ideas at the margins of Buddhism, for example, where, practically, evil is the fundamental substance by which we are permeated.

On the other hand, there are entirely optimistic perspectives. Here let’s take a look at a very approximate, simplistic example, [...] the Hindu idea where we are part of the great ocean of God, an ocean that on the surface may have storms, but in its abyssal depths there is serenity, there is calm, there is peace. And therefore it suffices to enter into this kind of mysticism of depth.

Then there are these explanations, already in the Greek world, where Aeschylus says: “Wisdom is conquered only through suffering.” But he himself, Aeschylus, in The Persians, puts these words into the mouth of one of his characters: “Is there a God who answers from the shadow to the breath of pain that rises from the earth towards heaven?”4 And the question was left unanswered, that is, [the answer was] negative. And then he also maintained that pain has a paideic, cathartic function, but this is very problematic in the case of innocent suffering. I don’t want to enter here into the history of the hermeneutic, the interpretation of pain ...

The book of Job itself, to tell the truth, isn’t an attempt at an explanation of pain. It isn’t. If you pay attention to its conclusion - and I can’t now show what it actually is about - and if you see the last words that Job pronounces, leaving aside the final part which is a framing narrative quoted by the author and which was already known in previous literature ... No, let’s pause above all at the point of the true final poetry. Job is in front of God and God simply tells him: “All you see is just a small horizon of the mystery of being, of existence that is immense, and like one who, when looking at a painting, only sees a detail made of small brush strokes, of colors that don’t make sense, then it is obvious that it doesn’t have meaning.” Only God, and we too, when looking at the painting in its entirety, can succeed in understanding its meaning. Also this is an attempt at an explanation, that, however, has some very specific preconditions for acceptance. But, I wanted to say that Job, at the end, makes a statement that is substantially of another kind, of faith: “By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6)

So all is again as before, expect that he had now met God. And this is why it is possible to make a reflection, that I only sketch out here as it is very complex, about the Christology of suffering. That is, about a Christian explanation of suffering, which, naturally, has as its starting point a fundamental given for Christianity. The real, effective, concrete intertwining of the transcendent and the immanent, of the divine and the human. That great masterpiece that is the prologue of the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of St. John, as you know, has those fascinating verses [...] from 1:1 to 1:14. The Logos, which is perfect, which is the beginning, which is God, which is the cause of all being ... and the Logos became flesh. Precisely using the verb “to become.” Therefore here we have the specific concept of the entrance of the divine into the human, which is very well represented by the account of the Passion, where you can see that Christ traverses the full, dark spectrum of pain. The full range is there on purpose, from the fear of death (Father, take this cup from me, which in Biblical language means this - I am afraid of dying), then passing through the sweating of blood, then solitude, which is one of the great sufferings, the great pains; the betrayal by his friends, and then also physical torture, and then ascending that hill, ascending the cross, he, as God!, passes through the silence of God (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me), and then - at the end - death. Death, which is our ID card. Together with pain, but above all death, because God - by definition - is eternal, does not die. There, instead, and it is curious that the Gospels of Matthew and of Mark present the death of Christ, unlike those of Luke and John, who see divinity already shining through the corpse, the crucified corpse, they represent the death of Christ as an ugly death. He “cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50). The cry of a hand that raises up again and tries to grab the air one last time, while he is suffocating to death.

Here we arrive at the fundamental component of the Christian explanation. [Outside Christianity] God doesn’t die, does not suffer, (The suffering of God is something theologians have elaborated, but it has another meaning.) because these are human characteristics. Christianity says that God isn’t he who bends down like an impassive emperor and holds out his hand towards the suffering person, at times even healing them. Instead it is he who traverses the non-sense of dying. He as God, enters our horizon.

St. Paul has an expression in 2 Corinthians, chapter 5, which is very suggestive in this sense, even though it does not refer to suffering: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21). You see that he takes on himself another of the fundamental human characteristics: guilt, therefore not only pain but also guilt, and in that moment, naturally, he, when he is reduced to a corpse, when he has finally assumed all our identity, also in that moment he, however, does not cease to be God. And it is because of this that he plants in suffering, in evil, in guilt a seed of the eternal, of the infinite, a seed of redemption. And this is the meaning of the resurrection. It is simply to remember that the passage of God through human reality isn’t a passage that leaves it unaltered. And it is because of this that there is a tension towards redemption which is that of a divine that has traversed, while preserving its identity, our own identity, which is transient and weak.

You have surely heard about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was one of the famous theologians of the last century and was eliminated by Hitler. Note well the date of his death: 9th April 1945, when the Nazi monster was already in agony and it seems that the order came directly from the top to have him hanged at the camp in Flossenbürg where he was detained. During his imprisonment, he wrote [...] many notes among which there is this one, which is significant and which may seem - at first sight - a bit paradoxical. He said: “God in Christ does not save us by virtue of his omnipotence - otherwise he would remain above, in his prefect transcendence, in his golden horizon - God saves us in Christ by virtue of his impotence, because he enters and takes on also our quality.”

At this point it can be understood also that at the center of the heart of Christianity there is a problem. Certainly, as you see it is an option, an option of faith, to recognize the center of the incarnation, the word that makes itself flesh, flesh that is fragile, transient, weak. And, let’s think of those words, and I’ll only quote a few lines to you from “Il dolore” (“Grief”) by Ungaretti, which he wrote because of the death of his son Antonietto:5

Christ, brother, you who immolate yourself
perennially to rebuild
man humanly
Holy, Holy, Holy6 you who suffer
And it is in this way that brotherhood with us comes about. [...] I would say that all believers and non-believers can take on the subtle, implied component that justifies this Christology of suffering. God does not want to - we can’t say that he can’t, but he doesn’t want to, he does not manage to as the rabbinic tradition says, impede that which is also structurally required. The creature as such must be limited, finite, transient ... [...] Beyond this, in the interior of this incarnation, there is a fundamental dimension which is one that can be put into practice also by us. At the basis there is, as Ungaretti said: “Christ, brother, you who immolate yourself to rebuild man.” There is solidarity. There is love.

And here I would like to remember, above all, a miracle. Usually we look at miracles as if they were magical gestures. Let’s never forget that Christ, instead, requires for them to be done in silence, hiding their spectacular aspect. The miracle I have in mind is that of the leper. Hansen’s disease is an illness like many others, but in the oriental world it is seen as the compendium of all suffering, because it wasn’t only a physical suffering, the flesh that would disintegrate, but it was also a social and moral condemnation. It was an excommunication. The leper had to have committed such a terrible transgression that this is the punishment they received. It was thought to be the most infectious disease - even though that is not true - because of which they had to live separately from the community. The book of Leviticus says that the leper has to signal their presence to others, because it is a polluting presence, and has to shout so that the other would not cross their path. What does Christ do? And this is underlined by the Evangelists. Not only does he go to meet the leper, he goes to speak to him - asking him what he wants - and then Christ touches him and tells him: “I will do it. Be made clean.” (Matthew 8:3). He touches him. You see, it is the gesture of assumption. The gesture of fraternity. The gesture of love. [...]

I’d like to conclude by giving the word to two people, whom I’d ideally summon here, two figures of history, of culture of the last century. Different from each other, one a believer the other a non-believer.

Let’s start with the believer, the poet Paul Claudel [...]. He writes: “God didn’t come to explain suffering, but to fill it with his presence. God, therefore, doesn’t protect us from suffering, but sustains us in every suffering.” Because he too entered there. Also he, with his human impotence, but precisely because he does not cease to be God, sustains us. And the other, and this is why I say that this act of solidarity, can be performed by all and can be a principle of - in quotes - “healing”, not necessarily of physical healing.

When doctors enter a corridor, a hospital, the room of a patient - and it was Susan Sontag who noted this, when she said: “They arrived and all stood there in front of me and I was lying in bed.” You see the profound difference between the two positions, because, standing up is the position of the living, lying down the position of the dead, of the absolutely impotent. It is also true that standing up has been the hallmark not only of the living, but of the greatness of the human person. From evolution we know that it is much more logical to walk on all fours like animals do, also for the distribution of weight. Humans, as a result of evolution, use their posture, that is rather improbable from the point of view of statics - to carry all of their weight on such a small base. But they have done it so that, from this position, they could dominate the horizon of all other living beings and of all being.

So, in that moment comes this profound difference, because of which - evidently - the gesture of love, of solidarity that isn’t just a matter of bowing down but of bringing one’s own understanding and one’s alliance, one’s harmony, one’s closeness, even if the sick person is burdensome and pedantic, because their horizon is deprived of meaning and they are in their world, looking for sense. We must accompany them without sneaking glances at our watches.

So, this act of solidarity is possible for all and it is represented well by the last person whom I’d like to summon here, ideally, and whom I quote often. He is an agnostic, lay, anticlerical writer - Ennio Flaiano, also the screenwriter of some of Fellini’s movies.

During his life it was specifically this topic [innocent suffering] that was before his eyes, because one of his daughters was born with an epileptic encephalopathy. This daughter survived him. He would never speak about her. He also saw her as a metaphor, a symbol of guilt. [...] But, he never spoke about her. After his death, among his papers, they found a text, a rough draft and it wasn’t clear whether it was for a novel or a screenplay.

This text is truly significant, because it is written by a non-believer. He imagines that Christ returns to earth. And, as soon as he returns and the news spreads, he is surrounded by a crowd of the sick who huddle around him and ask for miracles. They ask for healing. And he is uneasy, because now there is something that wasn’t there before - there is television, cinema, the press, advertising, which he doesn’t want. He’d like signs of a different kind and even though he cures them, he does so unhappily. One day he finally manages to free himself from the crowd and retreat along a path. And as he walks along this path to find solitude and pray to the Father, he sees the outline of a strange couple on the horizon. A father who drags his shaky daughter by he hand, as she walks beside him. When Christ sees them, he is ready to perform. He says to himself that he’ll do it one more time, but at least this one is in solitude. However, when this father and his daughter are in front of Christ, and Christ is about to perform his miraculous gesture, that father says: “No, I don’t want you to heal her. I would like you to love her.” And so, Christ takes this little girl, kisses her, and say this phrase, which is the concluding phrase: “In truth, in truth I tell you, this man has asked of me that which I truly want to and can give.”





1 Cardinal Ravasi may be paraphrasing this sentence from The Plague: “I have a different notion of love; and to the day I die I shall refuse to love this creation in which children are tortured.”
2 The full text of that quote is: ““God,” he [Epicurus] says, “either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can. If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful which is equally foreign to god’s nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?” Lactantius, On the Anger of God, 13.19”
3 In the Italian translation quoted by Ravasi, the verb is “accuse” or “incriminate” rather than “speak”.
4 Maybe a reference to the following lines:
“Hears the honour’d godlike king?
These barbaric notes of wo,
Taught in descant sad to ring,
Hears he in the shades below?”
5 Since I couldn’t find an English translation of “Mio fiume anche tu” from which Ravasi quotes, this is my attempt at a verbatim translation - a crime when applied to poetry but it will have to do in the absence of anything else.
6 Ravasi here adds an extra “Holy” that is not in Ungaretti’s text.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Marriage after death

Adam

1621 words, 8 min read

Last Saturday I attended a wedding during which the priest conducting the ceremony started his sermon by addressing the bride and groom with: “Today is the greatest day of your lives.” While this was undoubtedly well intentioned and said in the spirit of underlining the goodness of marriage and the joy of the occasion, my mind - and I am not proud of this - immediately transformed itself into a hatchet and shredded that statement to smithereens. “Do you mean that it is downhill from here?” “They haven’t even gotten married yet and you are telling them that any attempt at growth and development is doomed?”

Thankfully I then turned to one of my favorite kōans that I reached for with the intention of weaponizing it (not a nice thing to do to a kōan), but whose memory derailed my rage as I remembered it’s beautiful twist.

The kōan in question is about a famous general, who went to see a zen master to ask him for a nice piece of calligraphy to use as interior decoration. The zen master happily agreed and, when the general returned a week later, presented him with a beautifully executed inscription that read: “Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.” The general exploded with rage, drew his sword and, before cleaving the zen master in half, gave him an opportunity to explain himself. The zen master, all surprised, looked at the general and said: “What don’t you like about the inscription? Would you prefer to see your son die and for your father to see both his and your death? What I have written for you is the natural progression of life, which is true happiness and prosperity.” The general, ashamed about his hasty rage, left with his sword unused and grateful for the master’s good wishes.

Suitably calmed, and recognizing a fellowship with the kōanic general, I asked myself what I would have wished the couple to be their greatest day - if I had to, although that is not something that would have come to me naturally. And I arrived at: “May the greatest day of your marriage be the day one of you dies.” Thankfully I wasn’t asked for my opinion and, even if I had been and if I had said what I thought, the bride and groom are, to the best of my knowledge, not versed in martial arts or marksmanship. Nonetheless, if I had been asked and if there had been the inevitable, outraged call for an explanation, I would have pointed to my wish being one for maximum greatness. Wishing for the last day of a marriage to be its greatest is both a wish for continuous growth in greatness and, at the same time, a suggestion that every day of a marriage contains the greatness of all the days that preceded it and that the last day is therefore going to be the greatest by definition.

This lead me to thinking about the end of marriage, which the Catholic Church teaches comes with the death of one of the spouses,1 and to wondering about what that meant. How do I, a married person, relate to my spouse once they or I die? Is that it? In the next life, will we, who are one flesh now, be strangers? If I survive my spouse, will they, who have already passed into life everlasting, be there without being one with me? Somehow that did not seem right at all, since it violates the central Christian understanding of who God is. The God who is Love and who is Three and One. How could the God of Love dissolve the bond of love that marriage effects? How could the God of unity wish for the oneness of husband and wife to be annulled at the point of unity with Him? No, that didn’t seem right at all.

The obvious thing to do was to go back to where Jesus spoke about marriage to the Sadducees, who tried to set him a trap by running a hypothetical scenario past him and asking him a question designed to undermine the idea of the resurrection:

“Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up descendants for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died and, having no descendants, left his wife to his brother. The same happened with the second and the third, through all seven. Finally the woman died. Now at the resurrection, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had been married to her.” (Matthew 22:24-28)
What a nice, little trap! If Jesus says that she is the wife of all of the brothers, he says that in the next life there is polyandry, which, like polygamy, was against the Law, and he therefore undermines the credibility of the resurrection that the Sadducees denied. Alternatively, if he says that she isn’t anyone’s wife (or only the wife of one of the brothers) then he puts the solidity of marriage into question, which is also enshrined in the Law, and the Sadducees win again.

So, let’s see what Jesus said to them in reply:
“You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:29-30)
Now, the way this is typically read is to say that there is no marriage in Paradise, however, I would like to argue, that such an interpretation is not a particularly close reading of Jesus’ words. Jesus didn’t say “At the resurrection she won’t be anyone’s wife.” Instead, he said: “At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” In other words, no marriage is contracted in the next life. And, let’s not forget his admonition: “You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God.” I.e., the way you are looking at marriage is not from God’s point of view.

I believe that there is another reading of what Jesus’ words about marriage mean, which we can get to by the light of St. Paul saying:
“For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:29-32)
Notice how St. Paul parallels first, a person’s love for their own flesh, second, Christ’s love for the Church, who is His flesh (body), made up by us, and, third, husband and wife becoming one flesh in marriage. This, indeed is the sacrament of marriage, that the “one flesh” of married spouses is sacrament (“efficacious sign of grace”2) of the “one body” of Christ and us, His Church.

Therefore, I believe that what happens at the death of one of the spouses is that the unity of flesh that previously resided in the created, passes, with the now ever-alive spouse, into the uncreated, where the unity of Christ’s Body dwells. Instead of suggesting that the bond, which ontologically makes the spouses one, breaks at the point of one of their deaths, I believe that Jesus’ and St. Paul’s words point to another reading: that this bond persists; no longer only as a bond between the spouses, but now also as an eternal constituent of the Body of Christ. The bond of marriage, contracted on Earth, remains both the force that made the spouses one here and, at the same time, becomes like the bonds of unity that in Paradise will bind us to Christ and to all other members of his body.

Finally, I also believe that the above reading is consistent with what the Church teaches, since it does not argue for a multiplicity of marriage bonds on Earth, but only for a recognition of their persistence in and subsummation into the bonds that make up the Body of Christ in Paradise. What ends with death is the exclusivity of the bond of one man and one woman, but not the bond itself, which now becomes one with the oneness of Christ and His Church.

So, maybe a better wish for newlyweds would be: “May every day be the greatest day of your lives.” The sequential days of chronos now, and the eternal day of kairos then.



1 “A marriage that is ratum et consummatum can be dissolved by no human power and by no cause, except death.” (Can. 1141) This is also related to St. Paul saying the following about death ending the bond of marriage: “Thus a married woman is bound by law to her living husband; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law in respect to her husband. Consequently, while her husband is alive she will be called an adulteress if she consorts with another man. But if her husband dies she is free from that law, and she is not an adulteress if she consorts with another man.” (Romans 7:2-3).
2 “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1131)

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Both+And

Wave particle duality

When I first read Søren Kierkegaard's Either/Or, in which he presents a choice between an aesthetic, inward-focused and an ethical life, lived for others, I was filled with joy both by the beauty of his writing and the goodness of the choices he proposed. In some sense, I had already then rejected his either/or perspective by my very reaction to his work. Nonetheless, I could clearly see the importance of the distinctions he presented and the value of making informed decisions about which option to select from among a set of alternatives. In another sense, therefore, I also fully identified with Either/Or. My reaction was a Both+And. I both recognized the importance of what Either/Or was proposing, and I saw the good in the two choices that it pitted against each other.

That was around twenty years ago and what followed has been a gradual emergence of what was initially only an implicit leaning towards Both+And, a Both+And that, I now see, also encompasses the Either/Or and that, with it, forms an infinitely nested structure, where Both+And = Both Both+And And Either/Or, which in turn makes Both+And both finite and infinite.

Forgive me if this is too abstract and, if you like, bear with me as I try to spell out some examples of what this means in more practical terms.

First, choices are both profoundly important and entirely inconsequential. Given that all that is open to me at any one moment is to choose from among the alternatives in front of me here and now (do I continue to write this piece, or do I get distracted, or do I go and unload the washing machine, or ...), every single choice attains paramount importance. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, my choice is one among a myriad as far as I am concerned and infinitesimal as far as humanity, history and statistics go, not to mention God in his infinity.

Second, knowledge is both the greatest good and its pursuit futile. The more I know, the better I understand what is, how things work, what consequences follow from events, the more closely I understand myself, others and the universe, the more fully I am part of existence and the better I can make choices, which - as we have already established - are both profoundly important and entirely inconsequential. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, my capacity for knowledge is virtually nil and my attempts at attaining anything that may properly be called knowledge are crippled by how I engage with the universe. All I see is tinted with myself and is merely the view through a filthy window (to use Panikkar's metaphor) or through a mirror, darkly (with a nod to St. Paul).

Third, loving others is both the greatest source of joy and a guarantee of suffering. Putting others before myself brings us closer together, triggers joy in the other, triggering joy in me and, challenges, fatigue, self-denial notwithstanding, leads to days lived in fullness and to relationships whose strength and depth exist and persist outside time and space. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, loving others makes their suffering my own and makes a lack of reciprocity even more keenly felt as a wound, a wound that indifference might have even been able to prevent with its padding.

Fourth, beauty is both the highest perfection and the first chip to trade. The greater my communion with beauty, and regardless of whether she displays herself unmediated or whether she hides behind what, at first sight, is wrongly categorized as ugliness, the more fully truth and goodness can breathe in me, unobstructed by the dust that otherwise accumulates on the soul (as Picasso saw so clearly). Beauty, who is both beautiful and beautifully ugly, also builds bonds that transcend language, understanding, context, prejudices and gives rest to all those who labor and are burdened (as Jesus - the Beautiful Shepherd - put it). At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, I would give up all the beauty in the world in exchange for the life of a starving child, an abandoned pensioner, a freezing homeless man.

Fifth, faith is both my lifeblood and wholly unnecessary. Having received it as a gift that permeates my every fibre, a life without feeling loved by God is as unimaginable to me as what it is like to be a bat (and here I find Nagel's view to be overly optimistic), and I wish it for every single person in this world. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, I see no lack in those who do not have faith, either because doubt takes its place (doubt that is a "both+and" part of faith) or because its place is taken by a sincere conviction that there is nothing beyond this world. Their capacity for love is in no way diminished and I can learn as much from them as from any other fellow human.

Sixth, God is both one and three, both human and divine, both finite and infinite, both interior intimo meo and superior summo meo (in St. Augustine's beautiful words), both all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent and scandalously suffering in abandoned failure.