Thursday, 21 November 2013

God's gift and Man's best friend

Last month I sadly lost one of my best friends. We'd been inseparable since I was 16, regularly going for walks in the parks and on the beaches around Swansea, playing in the garden after school or work, staying up late to watch Match of the Day or to pray the rosary. He was often the first to greet me in the morning and the last to say good night before I went to bed. When I was sad, he cheered me up. When I was stressed he helped me to relax. When I was in pain, he helped me bear the burden. When I was happy, he shared my joy. When he passed away, I sobbed for a good hour and though I have nothing but happy memories of our time together, I feel the loss most acutely in the little things. I can no longer expect to see him strolling up the drive to meet me after work or to literally chew the bacon on a Saturday morning nor can I pay him a visit when I'm troubled and can't sleep. His name was Buzz and he was the best of buddies.

Buzz in his prime
I get an immense amount of spiritual consolation from the natural world, be it in marvelling at the grandeur of the cosmos, the intricacies of the laws of physics, a beautiful panorama or amazing animal. This appreciation is so strong that for me, it is an irrefutable proof of God's existence. It is a grace which is not given to all but without which I may have struggled in my Faith. "Credo ut intelligam",  "I believe that I may understand", as St Anselm says.

Some of my favourite stories about the saints include their interaction with animals. St Francis is well known for his great love for nature and this love was expressed most beautifully in his Canticle of Creation, Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Saint Francis' inspiration for the canticle was undoubtedly Daniel 3:57-88, one of my favourite bible passages, where creation itself is called upon to worship the creator:

And you, sun and moon, O bless The Lord,
And you, the stars of the heavens, O bless The Lord,
And you, showers and rain, O bless The Lord.
To him be highest glory and praise forever.

The "Fioretti" or "little flowers" of Saint Francis, a collection of hagiographical stories on the life of the saint, are filled with anecdotes of his interaction with creation. My  favourite tales include the story of the Wolf of Gubbio who Francis convinced to protect rather than terrorise the local village by shaking its paw, a dance to music supplied by crickets and a sermon to the birds. The Franciscans have retained Francis' fascination with nature in their art and culture and I am reminded of a beautiful Franciscan Church in Rome (the name escapes me, as do the pictures I took of it) which has frescoes of the Stations of the Cross which depict animals tending to the wounds of Christ as he moves towards Cavalry. I like to think that we were originally designed to have a far deeper relationship with nature and creation but that bond has been damaged by the spiritual turmoil which ensued after The Fall. Saints like Francis offer us a glimpse of how we might have been, better able to interpret the natural world and act accordingly.

Buzz and Brother Snarf
One of the first things I remember studying as part of my Theology & Philosophy A-Level was St Thomas Aquinas' teachings on matter and form. We looked at the difference between anima or spirit and a rational soul and marvelled at the vagarious implications for the created order. For example, plants have spirits (which maybe why my father talks to his tomatoes and why children play with food) and each angel is effectively its own species. Contrary to received wisdom and with great concern, we learned that according to Aquinas, All Dogs Do Not Go to Heaven as this was the dwelling place of rational souls worthy of the beatific vision.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church suggests that "the seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity." [1] To put it briefly, the whole of creation is designed to give glory to God and serve mankind in its earthly existence. Man's dominion over nature is evidenced in the Genesis creation stories where each animal is brought forth to be named by Adam but this dominion is not inalienable - creation belongs first and foremost to God and Man's dominion therefore includes a duty of stewardship. The Catechism tells us that "God surrounds animals with his providential care" and that by their mere existence, they are able to bless and give Him glory. A dog can be no more or less a dog; it fulfills its nature of doginess perfectly. We therefore "owe animals our kindness" and it is "contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly". [2] It is however possible to anthropomorphise animals to such a degree that it undermines both human dignity and the dignity of animals within the created order. It is truly exasperating to see people treating animals like human babies or children. It is certainly possible to love animals without directing the kind of affection which is properly due to people.

So where does this leave Buzz? We do not know what the New Heaven and the New Earth will look like but we do know that the bodily resurrection applies only to those rational souls who have died in Christ. I like to think however that in the resurrection, we shall take with us all that is good in this life, having shed all that is bad. This would certainly include my memories of Buzz and the "good" of creation itself. Perhaps there is hope too from the Book of Revelation which describes the heavenly liturgy where "every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea...", cries out: "To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour, glory and power, forever and ever"[3] Maybe Buzz is sharing a truce with the glorious postmen of heaven, praising God before his throne. Failing that, I'll just imagine he is happy chasing squirrels in Elysium. I wonder what he will do if he ever catches one?

Buzz enjoying the snow

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Catholic Church, 2415
[2] ibid, 2416-2417
[3] Revelation 5:13

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The "New" Rite Mass: The Source of all evils?

Fellow compatriot Ragazza Gallese's most recent blog post [1] offers a lot of food for thought regarding the the relationship between good theology, catechisis and liturgical practice. In it, she exasperates that she is "sick to the back teeth of hearing people complain about clergy who turned (and continue to turn) a blind eye to abortion, contraception, cohabitation, divorce" but still "still regularly (and freely) attend a mass where [there] is ... clapping, ... singing of various dodgy hymns, Communion on the hand, immodest clothing worn by young (and some not so young) girls, ... no catechesis, where the priest celebrates mass with his back to the Blessed Sacrament, .. where lay people distribute Holy Communion as if they were themselves priests, where said lay people then stand around a table and drink what is left of the Precious Blood as if they were finishing off the last dregs of a pint, where confession is rarely available and where the Sanctuary (and indeed the whole church) has been stripped bare of anything that might remind you of the Holy Sacrifice".

I sympathise with much of what she has to say post but am alarmed by the prospect of creating a two tier church of "us and them", a profoundly un-Catholic concept for a Universal Church. I am well aware that there is a de facto split in the Church, largely centred around issues of morality, but allowing these differences to be entrenched in parish life will eventually lead to schism. I could never be an Anglican because accepting diametrically opposed theology makes absolutely no sense.

From my experience, orthodoxy and reverence are in no way intrinsically opposed to Mass in the New Rite. I accept that liturgical malpractice has proliferated under the reformed liturgy but it is disingenuous to suggest that they never occurred under the Old Rite. It is not beyond the realms of plausibility to suggest that it is the lack of belief and true understanding of the Mass that is responsible for the liturgical abuses - I'm quite sure if Rome decreed that every Mass should take place under the Old Rite then liturgical abuse would continue to take place.

One's own soul must take precedence in matters of salvation as one is unlikely to effect the salvation of others if one is in danger of losing Faith. If such a scenario were to arise over the type of Mass at one's local parish then finding a new parish would certainly be warranted. For those of us not in such a situation, if we want to effect change in the Church and promote a more appropriate liturgy which greater reflects the splendour and glory of what actually takes places at every Mass (reverent or irreverent thank God! [2]), then we need to be in our parishes, working for change. 

I suspect that poor catechesis for both priest and laity alike are at the root of these liturgical abuses. It would be impossible to perform poor liturgy if one has a true understanding of what take place at every Mass and this is where those who have received such a grace can help their fellow parishioners. After all, deliberate liturgical abuse is tantamount to "eating the bread", or "drinking the chalice of the Lord" unworthily, a sin which incurs the most grievous guilt of the body and of the blood of the Lord. To be truly culpable of such a sin is grave indeed. Without wishing to be condescending, those with greater depth of understanding regarding the Mass have a duty to help those who do not. If you are interested in developing your understanding of the Mass, I recommend starting with "What Happens at Mass" by Jeremy Driscoll OSB [3]. It's a short and very readable book, which is quite profound in its simplicity.

Speaking mainly as a thirty-something-singleton, I don't know where Ragazza Gallese's opinions on liturgy have been formed but perhaps she too feels left rather bereft by life as a Catholic in Wales. I regularly attend Mass in either one of two local parishes and, while I am thankful for two priests of excellent but different charisms, I cannot shake the feeling that we are rather impoverished in terms of cultural life when compared to some of the parishes I have attending when visiting friends in England. In this however I truly am to blame because I am not making any effort to affect change, nor have I gone out of my way to look for opportunities to support my Faith. Perhaps it's time I made a start...

In thinking more about the issues raised here, I was reminded of letter XVI in C.S. Lewis's Screwtape letters. There the erstwhile demon writes to his diabolical nephew:

Surely you know that if a man can't be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that "suits" him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.

... The parochial organisation should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction.

I have already written a little about my university experiences and how liturgy became a divisive topic in Oxford [4] and the final statement from Screwtape describes the results perfectly - certain individuals used the Church and the liturgy to develop their own exclusive club from which they could condescendingly regard those who were not part of it. I am not suggesting that this is the ultimate end for all those who start down the path but it is at least a possible destination. It is a temptation to which I have been guilty of indulging in the past, as I felt a certain superiority to liberal Catholics or Protestants. Thankfully, my University experience forced me to venture outside of the artificial bubble of orthodoxy to which I belonged and I met individuals in whom the Holy Spirit was clearly at work, even though I sometimes  had profound disagreements with their opinions on particular issues. I hope those experiences have remedied that fault in my character - one down and many more to go!


Monday, 18 November 2013

Red Card: The Tablet

It has long been known that The Tablet has been a mouth piece for dissent but it's most recent editorial appears to have broken new ground in relativism [1]. Having read it, words failed me so I looked for images to express how I felt:

The Picard Facepalm: Good, but not quite enough

The Triple Facepalm: Better, but still not suitably grace
The Ultimate Facepalm: Just right
Tablet bashing is a rather easy sport if one is so inclined but it is difficult to envisage how dialogue is possible with a publication which seems to delight in furthering dissent. We are all in need of salvation and the Church was made for sinners but to suggest that it change its teaching to match the majority view in the pews is profoundly un-Catholic. Christ meets us sinners with open arms, as he met the woman caught in adultery, and he addresses us in the same way :"I do not condemn thee: go, and sin no more." [2] The writers of the Tablet seem to revel in the former but refuse to accept the latter, the true hallmark of a Christian. They dress their rhetoric up in appeals to conscience and the primacy of social justice but they refuse to accept the heaviest burden of the cross, namely interior change and the moulding of the will to that of Christ. 

Jesus encountered many who found his teachings "intolerable language" but they at least had the grace to walk away, hopefully to return less hard of heart. The Tablet however, has committed a grave act of hubris in claiming the voice of dissent as Christ's own. It is difficult to view The Tablet, a true wolf in sheep's clothing with a fleece as woolly as its theology, as accepting "all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization" united "by the bonds constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion". Indeed, "even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not... persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but 'in body' not 'in heart.'"[4] Actively seeking out and promoting dissent is not the hallmark of an "International Catholic Weekly": it is time The Tablet had the grace to "walk away" and stop claiming to be a part of the Universal Church which it so clearly holds in disdain.

[2] John 8:11
[3] John 6:60-71
[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church 837