Monday, 20 August 2012

Mellifluous gifts

Today is the feast-day of St Bernard of Clairvaux, the "Mellifluous Doctor". Ignatius, in his Notes on Scruples [Spiritual Exercises #351] alludes to a story about Bernard which illustrates how the tempter seeks to undermine our use of God's gifts. Bernard, as his "Mellifluous" title suggests, was a preacher of great skill and beauty. Once, as he was in the middle of preaching with his usual eloquence and fervour, the evil spirit whispered to Bernard that he was doing it for all the wrong reasons: out of pride in his talents, a desire to impress and win hearts, the joy of hearing his own voice. Bernard's instant response was to round on the enemy with the words "I did not undertake this because of you, and I'm not going to give it up because of you!" Ignatius advises us to treat the tempter in the same way, when what we want to do is "in keeping with God's service, or at least not opposed to it."

Something to remember when (surprise, surprise!) I realise I've entered into something with mixed motives, and that there's pride caught up with my desire to use my gifts in God's service. Where do my gifts come from? The prodigal God of joy and love. So is it wrong to find joy in using them? Where does my vainglory come from? That same good and holy joy twisted by the enemy (and I'm so often my own worst enemy!) so that I end up looking at the more unsavoury aspects of myself rather than at God. So, given their respective provenance, to which should I pay more attention and in which should I invest more energy - the gifts or my vainglory? (once I've recognised it, of course - it has much more destructive power if it remains unconscious. That's all part of the subtlety of discernment, which Bernard called rara avis -  a "rare bird".)

I'm reminded of C S Lewis, in the person of Screwtape, writing of the true kind of humility God desires for us: God wants the human to be

"so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and
gratefully as in his neighbour's talents - or in a sunrise, an elephant or a waterfall.  He wants each [human], in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (including himself) as glorious and excellent things."

The long run - and so it will have to be. But wouldn't it be wonderful to have such a vision?

Oh, and in case you didn't know - it was Bernard of Clairvaux who coined the phrase "love me, love my dog": Qui me amat, amet et canem meum.

And I've still illustrated this post with a mediaeval manuscript rather than a picture of a big, shaggy dog with a barrel of brandy round its neck!

St Bernard in a 13th century manuscript, Wikipedia

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Lost Chord

So sad to hear of the death of the great and inimitable organist Carlo Curley at the weekend.  What an amazing, gracious musician! It was almost impossible to choose from the many clips on YouTube - check them out - but here he is talking about, and then playing his own transcription of, Sir Arthur Sullivan's The Lost Chord.  It's quieter than some of his more pyrotechnic performances, but still shows his unique passion.

  Rest in peace - but continue making wonderful music for the Lord!

Saturday, 11 August 2012


Yesterday I heard a quotation that caught my heart so strongly I decided I would simply post the words on their own today, without comment. But then as I was preparing for bed last night I heard news of the murder of a young schoolgirl, not hugely far from where I live, and that someone who should have been in a position of trust had been arrested for the crime. I can't begin to imagine the grief of her family (and those words seem such a clumsy cliche even as I write).

And that quotation? Last week in Castel Gandolfo Pope Benedict and his brother Georg were entertained by a group of musicians and dancers from their native Bavaria. Afterwards, the Holy Father said he wondered if some would think it wrong to pursue such simple joys when there was so much suffering in the world; he felt that to turn away from joy would serve only to increase the world's darkness. And then he said:

We know this definitely and concretely: yes, God is good and it is good to be human.

I've written this in large letters. I don't want to forget.

Friday, 10 August 2012

St Lawrence & green tomatoes

picture from this site
One of the great deacon saints of the Church.  I hadn't before considered his connection with tomatoes, but this morning I read about it in the iBenedictines blog. Like Digitalnun, I have no bright red tomatoes yet to remind me of St Lawrence's martyrdom. Mine are still green. So I'm thinking about the Celtic idea of green martyrdom.

Unlike red maryrdom, the shedding of blood for the Gospel, or white martyrdom, the life of peregrinatio or exile far from one's own land, green martyrdom happens at home. Ancient texts describe it as a way of life marked by fasting, "penitent labours" and "denial of desires". That sounds harsh - so how might we translate it today?
I don't believe we are called to deny our desires, rather to pay attention to them.  The perhaps painful, martyrdom bit, is to sift through our surface desires, which are often conflicting anyway, and seek the courage to connect with our truest, deepest desire (I say our; of course I mean my!)  At the heart this is nothing less than the desire for God and to live in tune with God's desire for me. The fasting is, in this sense, about patience - letting God be God and accepting that "it is what it is what it is". I can't demand a lovely salad of my own tomatoes just when I want it (and anyway, the slugs have eaten most of the basil). I am not the centre of the universe. "Penitent labour" might mean simply being, doing what is here for me to do right now: paying attention to the present moment, without being distracted by fantasies about the future of the past ("what if"s or "what might have been"s).

In his Principle and Foundation Ignatius reminds us that we are created to be in loving relationship with God in and through God's creation - to "live love" as we might say. Our desires for the other things in creation can either help us live love, or hinder us. Only by nurturing my deepest desire for God (and discovering God's desire for me - at the heart of things they are the same) can I learn, slowly and with many mistakes along the way, to tell the difference. So while I wait for my tomatoes to ripen God will have other gifts for me, if I care to look.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Fire and Water

picture from NASA
Some thoughts for the Feast of the Transfiguration...
There's something magical about sunsets over the sea. I can understand how some of the ancient philosophers believed that at the end of each day the sun melted into the ocean, to be created anew the next morning - that all is in a state of flux and re-creation. Well, we know better than that now, don't we? Only today the robot rover Curiosity landed on Mars and we shall know better than ever what the Red Planet is made of... but cue one of my favourite quotations from C S Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
"In our world," said Eustace, "a star is a huge ball of flaming gas."
"Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of."
(For what Mars might be in this Lewisian sense, see here...)
It's rather wonderful and, I think, divinely-given, that we have this ability (unique to us humans?) to hold two concepts together and see truth in them both. So as I watch the sunset I can know that this is happening because the Earth is spinning away from the star that provides its light and warmth. And at the same time I can wonder at how the Sun seems to become liquid and set the water ablaze. It's a powerful and comforting image to hold when I pray the Examen, the review of the day... comforting to see the Sun, the day, dissolve into the boundless ocean of God's love and mercy and be washed away; to know that the day to come will be completely new.
The Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, above all, believed that the whole of creation is in a state of flux.  "Everything is flowing", he said, and "you can never step into the same river twice". At this season, as the year's wheel turns towards autumn (where I live, anyway),the days begin to shorten and plants in the garden go to fruit and seed, it's easy to believe him.  And yet, something else is true too...
The disciples, who lived and ate, travelled and rested with Jesus, knew well what he was "made of", beautiful but fragile and changeable human flesh. At his Transfiguration Peter, James and John caught a glimpse of who he is - Lord of Life, Alpha and Omega. Both are true: truly human and truly divine.
Gerard Manley Hopkins understands this. In this poem he can delight in the change and flow of nature because of his faith in everlasting life.

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows  flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-

Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs they throng; they glitter in marches.

Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, wherever an elm arches,

Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long lashes lace, lance, and pair.

Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare

Of yestertempest's creases;  in pool and rut peel parches

Squandering ooze to squeezed dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches

Squadroned masks and manmarks treadmire toil there

Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, nature's bonfire burns on.

But quench her bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selvèd spark

Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone!

Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark

Drowned. O pity and indignation! Manshape, that shone

Sheer off, disseveral, a star, death blots black out; nor mark

Is any of him at all so stark

But vastness blurs and time  beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,

A heart's-clarion! Away grief's gasping,  joyless days, dejection.

Across my foundering deck shone

A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade, and mortal trash

Fall to the residuary worm; world's wildfire, leave but ash:

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond.