Saturday, 20 September 2014

Asking for it

Id Quod Volo - dogs are very good at it
Here's another piece for The Portal...

In one of the scurrilously brilliant Julian and Sandy sketches from the 1960s radio series Round The Horne, Kenneth Horne visits the Bona Gift Boutique. As he browses the shelves, Hugh Paddick's  character Julian counsels (in a tone which suggests that this is part of his philosophy of life), 'If you don't see what you want, Ducky, ask for it!'

Useful advice too (oh dear, this sounds like a particularly clunky sermon-opener!) for the life of prayer - or is it? St Ignatius Loyola tells us that one of the preludes to any time of prayer should be to 'ask for what I desire' - id quod volo. Of course, within the structure of the Spiritual Exercises we are told what this should be: joy, sorrow, compassion, etc. depending on where we are in the dynamic of the Exercises. If you don't see the grace you need in your life, ask for it. All well and good. But what about the things we actually desire? Is it all right to ask for them?

St Teresa of Avila says somewhere that petition - asking for things - is a good practice for beginners in prayer. The trouble is, when we read something like that, we can tend to imagine a kind of hierarchy of prayer; we don't notice that St Teresa includes herself among the 'beginners'. Naturally we will want to explore what we see as the enticing higher planes of the spiritual life. We become bored and impatient with the foothills - fine for children and new Christians, but we feel we should be capable of better.

Actually, I believe God is everywhere in the landscape. Anything, if it is brought into dialogue with God, can become real and precious prayer - even the humblest faltering petition. If I hear suddenly that someone I love is ill, or has been in an accident, I'm not likely to sit calmly down and do some Lectio Divina. My instinctive prayer will probably be nothing but a garbled 'please, please...'  That's prayer which is real, from the heart. A surrendered silence where I can listen to what God says in response may come later, but it's not better or higher prayer, or prayer more pleasing to God - just different. After all, who was it said we should become like little children (who know all about asking for things, and not so much about doing it elegantly or subtly), and who taught his friends a prayer full of petitions?

Yes, but... Prayer for healing or forgiveness is of course a good thing. What if 'that which I desire' is not quite so good? Am I still supposed to ask God for it? What if my desire right now is that X, who has hurt me, should meet with an unfortunate accident involving a sewage tanker; or that - well, you can supply your own examples: I don't want to give too much away about mine! When St Teresa said petitionary prayer was good for beginners she told us why: because when we hear ourselves speak our desires out loud we can allow God to change and purify them. After all, God already knows the depths of our hearts; it's when we suppress or deny what's there that it can fester and grow out of proportion. Shame is far more destructive than any desire.

And, before Teresa, St Augustine had come to realise that beneath all the disordered desires of his colourful youth was the one longing 'to love and be loved'.  It's true for us all, under even our most shabby desires. God will help us discover that truth, and answer our longing, if only we tell him about it. 

Pope Benedict on Creation

... A plug, in case anyone's interested. Here's the blurb for a day I shall be leading next month:

Saturday 11 October 2014, 11am - 4pm
From God's Good Earth:
A Day With Pope Benedict XVI on Creation
at the London Spirituality Centre, Lombard Street EC3V 9EA

"God created the universe in order to enter into a history of love with humankind."

"We must not in our day conceal our faith in creation. We may not conceal it, for only if it is true that the universe comes from freedom, love and reason, and that these are the real underlying powers, can we trust one another, go forward into the future, and live as human beings."

An invitation to engage heart and mind as we consider the theology and spirituality of creation under the guidance of Pope Benedict's homilies on Genesis, which he gave in 1981 as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.  This will be a day of recollection offering a balance of input and time for quiet personal reflection, as well as a chance for dialogue within the group.

See, email info[at] or call 020 7621 1391

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Angels of light and the winds of hell

 When I saw the title of Tim Muldoon's  recent post on the Ignatian Spirituality blog - 'Love in Hell' - I hoped it would be about Paolo and Francesca da Rimini in Dante's Inferno, and it was. Dante meets the two lovers in Hell, whirled about together by the fiery winds, and Francesca tells the story of how their love began with a kiss while they were reading chivalrous romances together. Rossetti's painting, shown here, illustrates the story (Dante and his guide Vergil are the two characters in the middle panel). 

Tim Muldoon uses the story of Paolo and Francesca as an example of Ignatius' teaching, in the Second Week Rules, about the 'enemy of our human nature' appearing as an angel of light: leading us, under the guise of good, away from God. (And Tim links to a thoughtful article by Rod Dreher which further explores this point - do read that too.) But, oh, the questions - can there be love in Hell? Isn't one of the definitions of Hell utter loneliness, forever cut off from love? And - dare one say - would it really be Hell to be forever in the embrace of the one I love?

No, I don't think there can be love in Hell, and that's the point. Does Francesca truly love Paolo? Or did she fall in love with an idea, an idol, of him as Lancelot, her imagination inflamed by a captivating story. Rod Dreher's article points out that, like other characters in Dante's Hell, Paolo and Francesca are not being 'punished' for erotic love. It's more subtle, and a more chilling lesson for us. You see,  I keep saying 'Paolo and Francesca' - Dante's readers would have known the story and therefore the names of the key players. But, in the text, Francesca never names him.  Indeed, he never speaks.  It struck me: is Paolo actually there at all? Or does Francesca merely clutch an idol, blown about like a withered leaf? In Rossetti's painting, even that first kiss looks awkward - their faces slightly distorted. The beginning of the deception? As they drift in the wind they clasp each other but their eyes are closed. They do not - cannot - gaze at one another and neither can we. 

And here's an even more chilling thought... Wouldn't it be true love, the highest form of love, to choose to enter Hell for the sake of the one I love? Isn't that the Easter love of Christ, after all? Ah, there's the angel of light par excellence. I am not Christ; I cannot, in my own strength, come anywhere near to loving like that. As 'angel of light', the enemy leads subtly into the lie of pride: I don't need a Saviour; I don't need God. And that's... Hell. What the Francesca in me is really saying is not, 'I will go into Hell for his sake', but 'I'll drag him into Hell with me (viz. I am like God: I can decide another's destiny).  And if I can't possess him (because ultimately I'm not God) I'll make an idol and to Hell with him (ha!) because I don't really care about the person he is...' That's the sin; that's the pride. And it's not beautiful, like two lovers forever held in one mutual embrace. It's sickeningly ugly.

This is the danger with any kind of love. If you want to see it in modern dress, read C S Lewis's The Great Divorce (steeped in ideas from Dante, of course)  There's a frightening description there of a mother's love distorted. And in today's Office of Readings there's a passage from St Augustine's Sermon to Pastors: how shepherds are nourished by the milk from their flock and clothed in their wool, and that's good; but there is a risk of the shepherd becoming so attached to what he gets from them that he loses sight of the sheep themselves and neglects those too sick and weak to give him anything, because they don't match the 'idol' of the perfect flock he's created. (I paraphrase, of course, but that's the connection for me).

We love, we desire, because we are made in the image of God. And we are fallen, and can all to easily be deceived. I think that's why Ignatius advises us to speak out our desires to God - all of them, unedited: to voice our id quod volo, whatever it may be, so that it's brought into the light. But that's for another post...

Augustine, Ignatius, Dante... Paolo and Francesca, wherever you are, pray for me.

Friday, 12 September 2014


There he was again tonight at Evening Prayer - Og the King of Basan (or Bashan).  Memories of giggling during the psalms in Evensong in my mis-spent youth. Apparently he's mentioned  22 times in the Bible.

Did you ever wonder who he was?  Have a look here or, for an entertaining read, here (including the picture above, and the story of how what was thought to be King Og's skeleton was in fact that of an elephant).

Let's hear it for Og...

Monday, 8 September 2014

Mary's Birthday

St Anne teaching the Virgin to read, British Library  
It's surely not unreasonable to imagine that the birth of a baby girl in the Middle East some 2000 years ago would have been seen as an event of little significance outside her immediate family (and even among some family members, dare one suggest?) Whatever the truth behind some of the beautiful stories surrounding this child's birth and childhood, they would have been treasured only in the hearts of those closest to her; creating, perhaps, a habit she would inherit. And yet...

Your birth, O Virgin Mother of God, announced joy to the whole world, for from you has risen the Sun of justice, Christ our God. He released us from the ancient curse and made us blessed; he destroyed death and gave us eternal life. (Benedictus antiphon from today's Morning Prayer)

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

St Gregory the Great

St Gregory and St Augustine (Westminster Cathedral)
For more images and some wise words, see Idle Speculations...

And here is a sermon on Ezekiel from St Gregory, from today's Office of Readings. I'm simply letting him speak for himself - words which should ring bells with any of us who have ever had pastoral responsibilities and been charged with being Praecones Evangelii - preachers of the Good News:

‘Son of man, I have appointed you as watchman to the house of Israel.’ Note that Ezekiel, whom the Lord sent to preach his word, is described as a watchman. Now a watchman always takes up his position on the heights so that he can see from a distance whatever approaches. Likewise whoever is appointed watchman to a people should live a life on the heights so that he can help them by taking a wide survey.
    These words are hard to utter, for when I speak it is myself that I am reproaching. I do not preach as I should nor does my life follow the principles I preach so inadequately.
    I do not deny that I am guilty, for I see my torpor and my negligence. Perhaps my very recognition of failure will win me pardon from a sympathetic judge. When I lived in a monastic community I was able to keep my tongue from idle topics and to devote my mind almost continually to the discipline of prayer. Since taking on my shoulders the burden of pastoral care, I have been unable to keep steadily recollected because my mind is distracted by many responsibilities.
    I am forced to consider questions affecting churches and monasteries and often I must judge the lives and actions of individuals; at one moment I am forced to take part in certain civil affairs, next I must worry over the incursions of barbarians and fear the wolves who menace the flock entrusted to my care; now I must accept political responsibility in order to give support to those who preserve the rule of law; now I must bear patiently the villainies of brigands, and then I must confront them, yet in all charity.
    My mind is sundered and torn to pieces by the many and serious things I have to think about. When I try to concentrate and gather all my intellectual resources for preaching, how can I do justice to the sacred ministry of the word? I am often compelled by the nature of my position to associate with men of the world and sometimes I relax the discipline of my speech. If I preserved the rigorously inflexible mode of utterance that my conscience dictates, I know that the weaker sort of men would recoil from me and that I could never attract them to the goal I desire for them. So I must frequently listen patiently to their aimless chatter. Because I am weak myself I am drawn gradually into idle talk and I find myself saying the kind of thing that I didn’t even care to listen to before. I enjoy lying back where I once was loath to stumble.
    Who am I — what kind of watchman am I? I do not stand on the pinnacle of achievement, I languish rather in the depths of my weakness. And yet the creator and redeemer of mankind can give me, unworthy though I be, the grace to see life whole and power to speak effectively of it. It is for love of him that I do not spare myself in preaching him.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies...

...When a new planet swims into his ken.

Keats would surely have benefitted from this very helpful diagnostic chart, from NASA APOD, one of my favourite sites.  If only I'd had it the other night; I'm sure those astronauts were waving...