Monday, 5 December 2016

O that some Nehemiah might come in our own days...





On Sunday I heard a sermon that started from the Matins readings, and pointed to the Christological reading of these texts, and so I thought it was worth briefly commenting on how we think we should approach Scripture, particularly as we seek guidance on how to respond to the world around us.

In the Benedictine tradition of lectio divina which I  try to follow - which is really just that of the Fathers - there are, I think, three dimensions we need to think about when reading the Old Testament: the significance of the original historical context or teachings embodied in the literal meaning of the text; the Christological interpretation of the text; and the sense in which it foreshadows what is happening now, or is calling us to act.

All three of these dimensions of Scripture can have spiritual implications for us that need to be considered.

The literal sense

Old Testament events occurred for a reason; they are part of God's providential plan.  Accordingly, it is important to consider just why they happened, and what those events were and are meant to teach.

St Jerome notes that:
Even if one understands Holy Writ only as history, he has something useful for his soul. (Commentary on Psalm 1)
Isaiah's vision of heaven (chapter 6), for example, reminds us of the care God has shown for his people through history, sending prophets and teachers to guide them when needed.  It also reminds of the awe we should feel when we enter a Church and especially when we are in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

The spiritual senses of Scripture

All the same, while most contemporary commentaries effectively stop at this point, there is a lot more spiritual juice to be extracted!  We have to be careful in how we treat the Old Testament, interpreting it in the light of the New, for as St Bede says:
...the Lord 'investigated' God's law in that he rejected the traditions of the Pharisees and taught how Holy Scripture was to be understood mystically and what spiritual secrets it concealed beneath the veil of the letter, and because he showed that the decrees of the Gospel that he himself brought to the world were more perfect and pleasing to God the Father than the ones that he had sent earlier through Moses. (On Ezra and Nehemiah, pg 116-7)
Many people will be familiar with the four 'senses' of Scripture, viz literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical (or eschatological).  But I actually think it is useful to reconceptualise these a little, into the Christological and personal dimensions of Scripture.

The Christological sense

Emphasising the Christological sense of the Old Testament is particularly important in our time, for many have lost the sense that virtually every line of the Old Testament prophesies and foreshadows aspects of the Incarnation and life of Christ.

The Old Testament is filled with 'types' of Christ, of whom Isaiah is one: when 'God asks who shall I send?' the answer is indeed Christ, and this chapter can certainly be read as a prophesy of the Incarnation.  Cyril of Alexandria, for example, in his commentary on Isaiah says:
In announcing that the whole earth is full of his glory, the seraphim are predicting the mystery of the economy that will be brought to pass through Christ....  
St Cyril's commentary on Isaiah goes on to suggest that the vision points us to the realisation that through the Incarnation, true worship is inaugurated, since by becoming human, the world was filled with his glory.  Through the Incarnation, we have the gifts of the channels of grace such as the sacraments to aid us, and we should make full use of them.

The life of Christ, whether in shadow in the Old Testament, or directly in the New, is meant to be the central pole, the reference point that grounds our lives in our hope of heaven, so it is important always to keep it front and centre.  And of course, in Advent, we should rightly focus on the caoming of Our Lord.

For the world today, and us

That said, we cannot, in my view break off interpretation at this point, for history is not yet done!

The providential history of the world, embodied in typological events and people, can continue to provide guidance to us today in terms of what we are each called to do here and now.  We have to also ponder, for example, whether God is currently saying to us, Who will I send?  And if so, just what it is he wants us to do and say.

In his commentary on Esra and Nehemiah, for example, Bede keeps coming back to the importance of those who study Scripture and share their insights with others; to the importance of teachers and preachers to build up the Church.  He argues that it is only with the help of Holy Scripture that we can withstand the assault of the devil:
The pool built with great labour can be understood not inappropriately as Divine Scripture, which, composed as it was by the work of the Holy Spirit, supplies us with the bath to expiate our sins as well as with the cup of the taste of salvation, and which, if changed into wine for us by the Lord (that is, if it has been translated into the spiritual sense), intoxicates us with an even more pleasing sweetness of truth...all who are accustomed to being refreshed by the abundant streams of divine utterances by hearing and practising them are rendered strong and invincible against all attacks of the ancient enemy. (On Nehemiah 3:16, trans DeGregorio, pg 173)
Unsurprisingly given his own vocation as a Benedictine monk, he sees a big role for religious in meditating on Scripture, and sharing their insights with others.  He also, though, sees key roles for those in all other states of life, repeatedly finding parallels between the events he is commenting on in Scripture and his own times, saying for instance that:
We see that this occurs among us in the same manner everyday....Would that some Nehemiah (ie 'a consoler from the Lord') might come in our own days and retain our errors, kindle our breasts to love of the divine, and strengthen our hands by turning them away from our own pleasures to establishing Christ's city! (on Nehemiah 5:1-4, pg 184)

Friday, 2 December 2016

Who will I send? St Jerome on the failure to teach.

Bible angels seraphim Isaiah 6 - Public Domain


Today's Matins readings are from Isaiah 6, which describes an awe-inspiring vision of  the heavenly temple:
In the year that king Ozias died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and elevated: and his train filled the temple.  Upon it stood the seraphims: the one had six wings, and the other had six wings: with two they covered his face, and with two they covered his feet, and with two they hew. And they cried one to another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of hosts, all the earth is full of his glory. And the lintels of the doors were moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. 
Isaiah then laments that he has failed to speak up in the face of the sin surrounding him: he has, St Jerome, explains, committed the sin  committed the sin of failing to teach.  Isaiah says:
And I said: Woe is me, because I have held my peace; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people that hath unclean lips, and I have seen with my eyes the King the Lord of hosts.
St Jerome comments:
Not because he had said anything that was contrary to the will of God, but because he had held his peace, deterred either by fear or modesty, and because he had not exercised the prerogative of a prophet, of condemning a sinful nation...if we keep silent about the truth, we are certainly committing a sin? (Against the Pelagians)
In Isaiah's vision, one of the seraphim touches a burning coal to his lips, cleansing him from his sins.  God then asks the key question, who will I send?
And I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: Whom shall I send? and who shall go for us? And I said: Lo, here am I, send me.  And he said: Go, and thou shalt say to this people: Hearing, hear, and understand not: and see the vision, and know it not.  Blind the heart of this people, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes: lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted and I heal them.
We don't need to have a vision of God in the heavenly temple to apply this to ourselves: it is a call to all to be converted, confess and do penance so that we are cleansed of our sins, and then speak up.

The obligation applies particularly, though, to those entrusted with the teaching Office in the Church.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Those who under the pretext of mercy, do unlawful sins...


laborers-in-the-field-11thcentbyzantine

Today's Matins readings, in the traditional lectionary for the Office, come from Isaiah 4 and 5.  The first reading, from Isaiah 4, has long been interpreted as a message to the Church.

It speaks of seven women (the seven Churches of the Book of Revelation) clinging to one man (Christ):
 And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying: We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel: only let us be called by thy name, take away our reproach.  In that day the bud of the Lord shall be in magnificence and glory, and the fruit of the earth shall be high, and a great joy to them that shall have escaped of Israel.  And it shall come to pass, that every one that shall be left in Sion, and that shall remain in Jerusalem, shall be called holy, every one that is written in life in Jerusalem.
One of the earliest Christians commentaries on it comes from Victorinus, who was martyred around 303 AD, who interprets the verse as a call for Christ to forgive the sins of his Church:
The one man is Christ, not born of seed; but the seven women are seven churches, receiving His bread, and clothed with his apparel, who ask that their reproach should be taken away, only that His name should be called upon them. The bread is the Holy Spirit, which nourishes to eternal life, promised to them, that is, by faith. And His garments wherewith they desire to be clothed are the glory of immortality, of which Paul the apostle says: For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 
 Moreover, they ask that their reproach may be taken away— that is, that they may be cleansed from their sins: for the reproach is the original sin which is taken away in baptism, and they begin to be called Christian men, which is, Let your name be called upon us. 
What are the particular sins he is focusing on? One of his key concerns is those who claim to be offering mercy, but are in fact leading the faithful astray:
Therefore in these seven churches, of one Catholic Church are believers, because it is one in seven by the quality of faith and election. Whether writing to them who labour in the world, and live of the frugality of their labours, and are patient, and when they see certain men in the Church wasters, and pernicious, they hear them, lest there should become dissension, he yet admonishes them by love, that in what respects their faith is deficient they should repent; or to those who dwell in cruel places among persecutors, that they should continue faithful; or to those who, under the pretext of mercy, do unlawful sins in the Church, and make them manifest to be done by others; or to those that are at ease in the Church; or to those who are negligent, and Christians only in name; or to those who are meekly instructed, that they may bravely persevere in faith; or to those who study the Scriptures, and labour to know the mysteries of their announcement, and are unwilling to do God's work that is mercy and love: to all he urges penitence, to all he declares judgment.
The form of the judgment comes in the verses from Isaiah 5, using eh allegory of the vineyard:
I will sing to my beloved the canticle of my cousin concerning his vineyard. My beloved had a vineyard on a hill in a fruitful place.  And he fenced it in, and picked the stones out of it, and planted it with the choicest vines, and built a tower in the midst thereof, and set up a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.  And now, O ye inhabitants of Jerusalem, and ye men of Juda, judge between me and my vineyard.  What is there that I ought to do more to my vineyard, that I have not done to it?
And now I will shew you what I will do to my vineyard. I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be wasted: I will break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down.  And I will make it desolate: it shall not be pruned, and it shall not be digged: but briers and thorns shall come up: and I will command the clouds to rain no rain upon it.  For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel: and the man of Juda, his pleasant plant: and I looked that he should do judgment, and behold iniquity: and do justice, and behold a cry.
The image of the beloved (Christ) and the vineyard (the Church) recurs frequently in Scripture.  It challenges us to consider: are we bringing forth good fruit or only wild grapes, fit only to allowed to fall desolate, dry and barren, left unpruned and open to wild animals?

St Ambrose comments:
And the Lord Himself spoke through Isaias, saying: 'My beloved had a vineyard  on a hill in a fruitful place. And I fenced it in and dug  around the vine of Sorech and I built a tower in the midst  thereof.' 
He fenced it in with a rampart, as it were of heavenly precepts and with the angels standing guard, for 'the angel of the lord shall encamp round about them that fear him. 
 He placed in the Church a tower, so to speak, of Apostles, Prophets, and Doctors ready to defend the peace of the Church. 
He dug around it, when He had freed it from the burden of earthly anxieties. For nothing burdens the mind more than solicitude for the world and cupidity either for wealth or for power...
It seems clear, therefore, that the example of the vine is designed, as this passage indicates, for the instruction of our lives. It is observed to bud in the mild warmth of early spring and next to produce fruit from the joints of the shoots, from which a grape is formed. This gradually increases in size, but it still retains its bitter taste. 
When, however, it is ripened and mellowed by the sun, it acquires its sweetness. Meanwhile, the vine is decked in green leaves by which it is protected in no slight manner from frosts and other injuries and is defended from the sun's heat. Is there any spectacle which is more pleasing or any fruit that is sweeter? What a joy to behold the rows of hanging grapes like so many jewels of a beautiful countryside, to pluck those grapes gleaming in colors of gold or purple!  (Hexameron, Day 3)

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The call to conversion




Today's Matins readings (in the traditional forms of the Office) are from Isaiah 2: 1-9.  The verses set for the day open with an invitation for us to allow Christ to teach us his ways.  They end though, with another strong warning: if we prefer earthly riches and the works that we ourselves create to those of God, then we will ultimately be condemned for it:
The word that Isaias the son of Amos saw, concerning Juda and Jerusalem. And in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be prepared on the top of mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it.  And many people shall go, and say: Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall come forth from Sion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
And he shall judge the Gentiles, and rebuke many people: and they shall turn their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into sickles: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they be exercised any more to war.  O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord.  For thou hast cast off thy people, the house of Jacob: because they are filled as in times past, and have had soothsayers as the Philistines, and have adhered to strange children.
Their land is filled with silver and gold: and there is no end of their treasures.  And their land is filled with horses: and their chariots are innumerable. Their land also is full of idols: they have adored the work of their own hands, which their own fingers have made.  And man hath bowed himself down, and man hath been debased: therefore forgive them not.
The promises of the Incarnation

The Fathers interpret these verses as the announcement of the Incarnation: Christ and his Church and the mountain of strength; and through him a new age of peace will be ushered in.

How do we ascend to Christ?  St Benedict points us to the image of Jacob's ladder, particularly apposite here given the repeated references to Jacob's house, where by we ascend by humility, and descend by self-exaltation.

St Bede links the degrees of humility with the key messages of the fifteen Gradual Psalms (which correspond to the fifteen steps to the top of the inner court of the Temple, and ten of which are said Tuesday to Saturday in the Benedictine Office), noting that:
For the steps that come down from the city of David to the lower parts of the city of Jerusalem are the aids of divine inspiration or protection by which we should ascend to his kingdom. For David made the steps by which we should ascend to his city when divine mercy taught us the order of the virtues by which we may seek heavenly things and when it granted us the gift of seeking these same virtues….Benedict, a father very reverend both in his name and in his life, realized that these steps especially consist in humility when, interpreting our journey to celestial things to be designated by the ladder shown to the Patriarch Jacob, by which angels ascended and descended, he distinguished in a very careful and pious examination the steps of the ladder itself as the increments and stages of good works that are performed through humility. (On Ezra and Nehemiah, trans DeGregorio, pg 172)
We need then, to return to Chapter 7 of the Benedictine Rule, and the Gradual Psalms (Psalm 119-133) and work on our ascent through humility, for only by converting ourselves can we convert others.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Stir up thy strength O Lord and come...

We live in a world where secularism reigns, and many in the Church seem bent on a policy of appeasement rather than defence of truth.  Scripture and the Fathers offer many warnings about the consequences of such a policy, not least in the readings set for Advent, when we contemplate not just the first coming of Christ, but also his return in judgment.

Today's readings for Matins in the 1962 form of the Office are from Isaiah chapter 1, and seem to me to be particularly apposite:
Wash yourselves clean, spare me the sight of your busy wickedness, of your wrong-doing take farewell. Learn, rather, how to do good, setting your hearts on justice, righting the wrong, protecting the orphan, giving the widow redress; then come back, says the Lord, and make trial of me.
Strange, that the city once so faithful, once so upright, has turned harlot; the haunt of murderers, that was the home of right! The silver in thee turned to dross, the wine grown watery to the taste, thy law-givers wanting loyalty, so that they make common cause with thieves! None of them but takes bribe and looks for profit, none will give the orphan redress, none listen to the plaint of the widow. 
What, then, does the Lord proclaim; he, the God of hosts, he, the Prince of Israel? Out upon it, I will rid myself of these rebels, my enemies shall have their deserts.  And then I will take thee in hand again, smelting thee till thou art free from dross, purging away all that base alloy. Once more I will give thee judges like the judges of old, counsellors like the counsellors of past days, and thou shalt be called the home of right, the faithful city.  Right and justice shall be done, when Sion is redeemed, when her exiles return;  with one blow, the wayward sinner shall be overthrown, by the Lord he has forsaken doomed to perish. 
And on the subject of law-givers and princes of the Church (though they mostly disdain that title these days),  The Catholic Thing has an interesting post well worth a read called The Silence of the Lions.  It poses the question of what would have happened if all the bishops, and not just one or two had stood firm at key points in history: if more had stood with St John Fisher against Henry VIII, or with Bishop von Galen against the Nazis for example.

Pray hard this Advent, for our bishops to arise.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Comments enabled...so let's not eat pasta!

It has been pointed out to me that comments on this blog were turned off (I turned them off when I stopped blogging here) - as I seem to have resumed operation, at least for the moment, I have turned them on again, and welcome contributions.

I reserve the right though, to reject any comments whatsoever - in particular I'm not going to enable trolls or heretics; genuine inquirers though of course are welcome.

Meanwhile the situation of the Church both locally and internationally remains deeply depressing.

Let them eat pasta?

I was personally appalled recently, when the first response to the news of the earthquake that devastated Norcia - at a time when the monks of St Benedict's birthplace were reportedly out searching for people needing the last rites (though providentially none were killed as it turned out) -  was a message urging us to eat pasta in honour of town:



We did all'amatriciana for Amatrice. Let's try alla norcina for Norcia. Pasta as the stillpoint of a trembling world.

I must confess my first thought was to wonder if the Archbishop had perhaps been reading up on the French Revolution, and thinking of Marie Antoinette's famous advice to the starving peasants, 'let them eat cake'.  I then wondered if perhaps he had converted to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and I wasn't much reassured when he responded to my comment that perhaps a call for prayer and fasting might be more appropriate, by accusing me of puritanism.

Really?

As a follower of Benedictine spirituality, I tend to see such events as a call to turn towards the Lord (facing East!) and serve the Lord in fear and trembling.

But hey, I'm probably just a self-absorbed, Promethean neo-Pelagian rigorist...

In fact my response, on reflection, was to turn off the Archbishop's twitter feed (not a big deal since I only rarely check twitter these days in any case ), and I do think this is the best approach when faced with this kind of thing.

Suspension of the Magisterium?

But I have to confess that I couldn't resist looking it up again (to my regret) when the one blog I do still read regularly, Fr Hunwicke, pointed to another tweet from the Archbishop's extraordinary twitter feed, viz this one:


 In reply to 
Not easy to balance the pastoral & the pontifical, especially when the professorial is also in the mix.


Fr Hunwicke's note on this is extremely short, but as ever witty and to the point, so do go read and enjoy (and to save you looking it up, Mark 10:12 reads "and if a woman puts away her husband and marries another, she is an adulteress").

I do particularly urge you though, to go read the slightly longer piece Fr Hunwicke offers on the problem we must all ponder of how to deal with the Magisterium when it chooses not to actually teach the faith.

Defending the citadel of virtue with unchanging dogma

Once again I want to conclude with a little wisdom from St Bede.

In Nehemiah 3:3, we are told that those rebuilding the walls and gates of Jerusalem added doors, bolts and bars, so that, St Bede comments, citizens might have a way of going in and out, and the enemy might be kept from entering.

So too, St Bede, urges, we must set a door in ourselves, first so that we can go out and do good works, thus leading others to God; but also so that we can defend the 'citadel of our virtue' against attacks and invasions of the enemy:
In the same way, therefore, doors of kindly provision should be placed in our good works so that, upon seeing them, our fellow citizens (ie our neighbours) might glorify our Father who is in heaven and by our examples learn also to go forward themselves and enter the walls of the virtues with us.  
Bolts and bars must also be set up against the attacks and invasions of enemies, namely so that by diligent industry we can defend ourselves on all sides lest by chance through our carelessness the ancient enemy be allowed to enter and storm the citadel of our virtue..
And just as the bars of cities strengthen the gates, in the same way the dogmas of the truth protect the churches throughout the world...Likewise set up the bolts and bars of our gate when we vigilantly take care not to betray the secrets of our faith to pigs or dogs (ie to unclean minds), or perform our acts of righteousness for the sake of human favour and allow people to enter and see our good works who bring more danger to us by praising them than they take salutary support from us by seeing them. (On Ezra and Nehemiah, trans Scott DeGregorio, pp 166-7)
As Fr Hunwicke urges, study history, for there are things we can learn from it.  And, I would add, also study Scripture, pray, and fast.

Friday, 25 November 2016

On the work of the four...

Ezekiel’s Vision
(Ezekiel 1:1-30) ‘Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. […] As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and...
Ezekiel 1: Nicolaus de Lyra super Bibliam, Italy ca. 1402.
John Rylands Library Latin MS 30


Continuing this little series on reflections from St Bede that seem particularly apposite to our times.

St Bede focuses in on the restoration of the sheep gate and the fishgate - pointing out that sheep and fish are symbols of the faithful entering in - and notes that though many leaders fall along the way, Christ has guaranteed that some will always point us to the true way:
...For he saw that both the faith and the works of teachers, through which it was proper that others should be rescued from the waves of this corruptible life and brought into the Holy Church, would be thrown to the ground by attacks of the ancient enemy - that is, would be deprived of celestial joys through an appetite for earthly pleasures.  ...he saw that both the outer works and the inner hearts of the neglectful were going to be overthrown by the devil's warfare.   
But since the Lord lifts up those who are dashed down, Nehemiah relates that this same Fish Gate, after a long period of ruin, was restored because, even though occasionally some preaches fall through sinning, nevertheless up to the end of the world there will be no lack of those who, following in the place of their precedessors, open the gates of righteousness through the Lord's aid by preaching to the faithful and living well. (On Ezra and Nehemiah, Trans DeGregorio, pg 166)