Prayer After “The World Spins Madly On”

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Almighty God,

You moved your servant to listen to “The World Spins Madly On” by the Weepies, that short, beautiful song of unfulfilled longing, broken promises, and utter helplessness in the face of this barbarian called life that you have let loose on us.

In this song you remind your servant that of all the contingencies of life, people, days, places, memories, words are just that – things that pass by us and are not meant to stay with us. You make us reflect on the only perennial thing in this contingent universe, mankind’s need to say goodbye to these contingencies. All these things, they come by our lives for but a moment.

But in the words of our father Augustine, we desire these temporary things to last an eternity. And in our efforts to make our own heavens on earth with the temporary things of this earth, we only render our heavens into foretastes of hell, creating glimpses of that separation that awaits those who, like those angels in ages past, declared their refusal to serve you, knew what it meant, and meant it with their hearts.

And in this song, O Lord, you cause us to ponder how the world does not care as these hells multiply, in our own lives and in lives all over its continents. Little wonder that we are jaded, O Lord, as our cries of agony of loss, small and large alike, are just met with the world simply moving on. Our world is so cold, and our search for comfort in this world for the pain of our loss only seems to compound this pain, as the sheer contingency of all things tears away our comforts that we have band-aided over our wounds.

But in your wisdom, you deign to heal our wounds borne from our bindings to those that would only leave us. And indeed, you deign to heal them with these very contingent things to which we cling, but in so doing you create your own portals to a truly eternal life. With water, oil, salt, bread, wine, bodies and words, you put together a vault of the sacramental life to immerse us in, thus showing viscerally to our own senses that our longing for the eternal can be fulfilled. Our recurring pain need not be the only eternal – nay it was merely an illusion – experience in this mad world, nor do they need to be meaningless knocks of fortune. Let these portals you have created, O Lord, take up these temporary things of this world gone absurd, such that they do not just get meaninglessly lost in the passage of the moments.

May it please you that, in the moment when moments march no more, you would in your mercy show us how every instance of loss and being lost in this life of ours – and yes, even the end of that life when we shall lie motionless in bed for the last time – forms the threads in this cosmic tapestry of your saving work.

For our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Praise be the name of the Lord, both now and forever.

 

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Lament as Neo-Genesis

In a previous post, mention was made of a quote by St. Isaac the Syrian, in which tears bore the capacity for renewing the self and the world. To paraphrase St. Isaac, the “place of tears” lays the foundations upon which the “path to a new age” can be paved.
It is arguable that such words come, not from mere mystical reflection, but upon an interface between one’s sufferings and the words of scripture, in particular the first two books of the Pentateuch. This becomes more apparent when one reads the first chapter of Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination.
To foreground his coverage of the prophetic literature, Brueggemann considered the narrative of the liberation of Israel, recorded in Book of Exodus. He noted how the process of liberation began with an act of grieving. To use Brueggemann’s words, he calls the Exodus a “primal scream that permits the beginning of history”. An act of grieving, he continues, is what stirs God into acting, freeing Israel from the yoke of Egypt.
But Brueggemann goes further than leaving the liberation narrative as just a liberation from slavery. He suggests that this episode is also an act of creation, a forging of a new reality, founded upon an act of lament. “Bringing hurt to public expression”, he writes, “is an important first tep in the dismantling criticism that permits a new reality”. Brueggemann then notes how the plagues that precede the final act of liberation, function as challenges to the gods of Egypt, exposing the limitations of Pharoah’s magicians and Egypt’s gods.
Why this is significant is because a similar act of challenging alien gods is taking place in an earlier narrative, in the first creation account of the Book of Genesis. The acts of creation are not just creating a new world, but also Israel’s narrative of putting alien gods in their place, as mere creations by the God of Israel.
Seen in this light, the Exodus narrative of liberation provides us with a comforting outlook as we enter the Advent season. The arrival of the Messiah is not just a time of liberation from sin. If we have cause to lament as a result of the fruit of our sin or the sins of others, we may do so in the confidence that we also play our part in laying the foundation of a new Genesical episode, a new act of creation which will end with the familiar refrain from the Book of Genesis, “indeed it was very good”.

A Recipe Against Overspirituality

A recent conference on Pope Francis was held in downtown Chicago entitled New World Pope, and was organised by DePaul University’s Centre for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology in conjunction with the Department of Catholic Studies.

One paper, presented by Emanuele Colombo, mentioned the Pope’s caution against what can be called the “over-spiritualising” of things. He cites the example of the 16th century Doctor of the Church St. Teresa of Avila, who is also one of the Church’s most famous mystics. St. Teresa is said to have heard a sister who, in well-intentioned but nonetheless misguided attempt to show her holiness, tried to recount the spiritual meaning of a supposed dream or vision. It is said that Teresa got to the heart of the issue very quickly, turned to the cook and said “Give her a steak”.

On a related and somewhat lighter note, the blog Catholic Cuisine has posted a recipe for chicken stew with dumplings, made in honour of Teresa on her feast day, which falls on 15th October.

True and False Martyrs

Below is an excerpt of Prayers by the Lake, written by the 19th-century Serbian Orthodox Monk Nikolai Vlimirovic, who is venerated as a Saint in the Serbian Orthodox Church. This excerpt is entitled “Martyrs of the True Faith”.

Your faith has brought you near to the radiant throne of glory, 
adorned with the shining seraphim and the overpowering cherubim. 
You are nearer to immortality than we, and your prayer is more pure and audible.

Remember us in your prayer also, so that you may be ever more acclaimed throughout heaven. 
Bring us with you also, and you will more swiftly and easily fly to the throne of glory. Whoever brings himself alone, walks more slowly and stumbles more often. The greater the load of your brothers you haul, the faster you fly.

I have said to people: You are all martyrs, but not all of one martyrdom. Martyrs for the true faith are not the same as martyrs for a false faith. Truly, their bones are similar but not the soul. For the soul transfers power and weakness even to the bones.

You who suffer for the true faith, are suffering for what your spiritual vision sees. You who suffer for a false faith, are suffering for what your physical eyes see. You former suffer for faith in reality and truth; you latter suffer for a dream and a fantasy.

Spiritual vision calls its knowledge by a humble name–faith. Physical eyes call their faith by a boastful name–knowledge. Both the one and the other are seeing: the first is a seeing of the peaceful and sparkling essence of creation; the second is a seeing of flickers of that essence through the darkness.

Your martyrdom is the most inevitable of all things, O sons of heaven and sons of earth. Your being martyred lies in your fleeing from light toward darkness. If you are fleeing from darkness toward light, you will stir up the world against yourself. If you are fleeing from light toward darkness, Heaven will remove itself from your convulsions and destruction.

The paths of the sons of men meet, and conflict is inevitable. For some are journeying toward the East, while the others are journeying toward the West. The Lord is merciful, and sends His angels to them all.

My soul is full of martyrs like a fertile field full of wheat and tares. The first are facing the East, while the others are facing the West.

I whisper to my soul at midnight: “How long will you be crucified between paradise and hell? Take hold of yourself, and face only the direction where the martyrs of the true faith have journeyed.”

I whisper to my neighbor at dawn: “Do not take the heavily traveled road, for many stinking corpses are strewn along it. Let us take the trail up the mountain, which is rugged but does not reek of corpses.”

I whisper morning and evening to you, O martyrs of the true faith: “Pray to God for us.”

Crying and the Life of the World to Come

 

Another year has passed, and with that comes the catharsis of committing yet another year to the realm of history. This catharsis would be particularly so if 2013 has been a year where causes for deep regret outweigh those for joyous celebration.
For those whose experience of 2013 was a veil of tears, there is a hope that 2014 not be a repeat of the travails of the year just past. The question to be asked is whether there is a legitimate basis for this hope beyond mere optimism. Furthermore, there is the question on whether the tears of yesteryear would be nothing more than a meaningless footnote with no bearing on the year to come.
A partial response was given in a previous post on the redemption of regret, but a more authoritative voice on this comes from the 8th century mystic St. Isaac the Syrian, for whom the subject of tears was an important part of the renewal of the Christian. Indeed, the Psalms speak of tears as the meeting point between heaven and earth (Psalm 34:18), and even the beginning of a time of the renewal of the creation (Psalm 126:6-7). Nowhere is this more vividly captured than in a passage where Isaac writes
The fruits of the inner man begin only with the shedding of tears. When you reach the place of tears, then know that your spirit has come out from the prison of this world and has set its foot upon the path that leads to the new age. Your spirit begins at this moment to breathe the wonderful air which is there, and it starts to shed tears. The moment for the birth of the spiritual child is now at hand…
Whether 2014 actually is the year where such renewal becomes a reality is yet to be seen, but we can find comfort in the reasonable hope that with the tears of 2013, we sow the real seeds for renewal in this life, and indeed herald the “life of the world to come”. 

When Coffee Gets Martyred

The first line of Psalm 19 says that the heavens declare the glory of the Lord. In a similar fashion, the saints declare the true (and heavenly) end of humankind, and in so doing witness to the Christ who brings humankind to that end. As a direct result of that witness, a select few suffer at the hands of those who do not want to hear about that end, or even want to act in a way that obliterates the end to which the saints give witness.
Because the saints share a sacramental link to the Christ that they witness, their lives and trials can give us a way to read and gauge some of the manifestations of our culture.
Take coffee, for instance. Most urban dwellers would have had the experience of bad coffee, where the humble coffee bean, declaring the noble telos of coffeehood, has been rendered into a substance that can be described as less than optimal at the hands of a barista that does not fully know the full potential of the venerable bean. In those experiences where the bean suffers, one is still able to detect some vestige of the bean’s nobility.
However, there are baristas that go beyond the mere failure to realise the bean’s true end, and actively work against that end. Indeed, as the martyr is taken to the city limits and executed by those who reject the Good News, some baristas actively work to eviscerate any trace of coffeehood within the bean, silencing the good news that the bean sought to bring to its audience. In such cases, the bean can be said to undergo a process of martyrdom, in a way that faintly echoes the martyrological experiences of the Saints.
Readers might think such a reflection bordering on the blasphemous, but it is important to note that, in the writings of the medieval Church Father St. Bonaventure, the salvation that Christ brings is not only humanistic or spiritual, but also cosmological. The entire cosmos is brought to its full heavenly telos by the examplar, first of Christ and secondarily by His saints. Conversely, however, the extent to which the cosmos is not brought to its true telos, is the extent to which, in the words of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the whole world groans and travails (Rom 8:22). And we see countless examples in a profit-driven commercial culture where elements of creation are actively worked on and even against, to render products that declare little or nothing of the creature’s noble origins or heavenly end.

 

Mary and the Power of God

Over the weekend, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the dogma of which was declared by Pope Pius IX in an 1854 papal Bull entitled Ineffabilis Deus. The elevation of this teaching to the status of dogma has often been decried as a Catholic attempt to recentre the economy of Divine grace away from Christ towards Mary, and indeed many Catholics have been guilty of regarding this and other Marian attributes as the result of exclusively Marian merit, in isolation of the salvific power of Christ.
In arguments over the justification of the Marian dogmas, what is often forgotten by many, Catholic or otherwise, is the actual wording of the 1854 definition by Pius IX. This is important because the wording demonstrates a papal intention to place Mary within the framework of grace instituted by Christ, and not without. Mary was born without the stain of original sin, said Pius, as the result of being preserved by an action of God, and “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race”.
Thus, Mary stands not as a counterpoint of the graces won by Christ. Rather, Mary demonstrates the fullest extent of the operations of Christ. In other words, as John Henry Newman once wrote, Mary stands as a figure as much in need of the saving power of Christ as everyone else. However, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception states that Mary is a unique recipient of Christ’s saving work. Thus, Mary does not diminish the power of Christ, but amplifies the saving power of God, particularly when read in an eschatological key. Mary stands as the embodiment of mankind in terms of what we are to become in Christ at the end of history, as opposed to what we became in Adam from the beginning. The joint Anglican and Roman Catholic mariological statement, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, explains it in this way in paragraph 59:
the eschatological perspective illuminates our understanding of Mary’s person and calling … Christ’s redeeming work reached back in Mary to the depths of her being and to her earliest beginnings. 
This dogma then is not about the aggrandisement of Mary at the expense of Christ. Rather, it demonstrates how nothing, not even the past – so often deemed as irreversible – can stand in the way of Christ’s salvific operations. Because of the kind of operations of grace at work in Mary’s past, Mary stands as a revolutionary figure. By this one means that the person of Mary demonstrates what is to be hoped for from the saving power of God in the future. This is most movingly articulated by her Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55, on which Ben Myers at Faith and Theology provided a most moving homily at Grace Brethren Church in the United States.
In short, the person of Mary is a declaration to the status quo. If God’s work can tear down even the impenetrable barriers of the past, those that have become arrogant by displays of power in the present better beware, for there is an even greater power coming that will tear down that seemingly impenetrable fortress, one who “casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly” (Lk 1:52).