Friday, October 31, 2014

The Song of the Saints - Fr Stanton's sermon

Father Arthur Stanton was a leader of the Catholic Revival in the Church of England, a real "evangelical catholic" preacher who drew large crowds, and for 50 years he was a curate at St Alban's Holborn, London. He died at the age of 74 in 1913. This is the sermon he preached at St Alban's on All Saints' Day 1910. (From Father Stanton's Last Sermons in S. Albans, Holborn)

“Unto Him that loved us and washed us from our sins in His own Blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father, to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” - Revelation 1:5-6.

It is St John who is writing about his dear Master. There is no doubt whatever that John loved the Saviour. There is no doubt whatever that the Saviour loved John. When he speaks of the love of the Master, he cannot help himself, and he goes off at once into a doxology: “Unto Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” St John speaks here of the Blood - he has told us about the love of God before, but here he speaks about the Blood. St John is getting towards his end. He is nearing the river. Perhaps as he came near the river of death he caught the sounds of heaven’s sweet music: “Worthy is the Lamb that hath redeemed us by His Blood from all nations of the earth.” Sometimes, to those who love God, the songs of Zion sweep over heaven and come down on earth. He must have caught it. May God grant that as we get towards our end, we may hear something of the sweet music of the other side of the river. “Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own Blood . . . to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.”

Of course, dear brethren, it is the song of the redeemed; it is the song of those who came out of great tribulation. It is the sweet song of the saints themselves, of which they are never tired. It is the burden of all their music. It speaks of the free grace of God, who loved us and washed us while we were yet sinners. While we were still sinners, Christ loved us. There was Peter cursing and swearing in the hall, and the Lord looked at him. It was quite enough - He is the chief of the Apostles! There is the dying thief on the Cross. He has been reviling the Master, but he says: “Lord, remember me.” And the Saviour never will forget him! There is Paul! - injurious, breathing out slaughter - a blasphemer, and he becomes the great Apostle! Now just you mark this: it is not “He washed them first, and then loved them.” You might think that having washed us, and made us so beautiful by His Blood, He would love us. It is not that - it is, “He loved us, and washed us,” The love came first, the washing afterwards. “While we were yet sinners” Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6). I wonder when I say this that the whole congregation does not rise up and say: “To Him be all glory, might and dominion for ever and ever,” in a pure doxology of gratitude to God.

Well, then, I want you to notice this - the winsomeness of it. I know I can think of Almighty God as creating the world and all that is therein: “All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3). I can think of God as destroying all that is evil; or I can think of God’s power. “The Lord also thundered out of heaven, and the Highest gave his thunder: hail-stones, and coals of fire” (Psalm 108:13). But to think of our God as loving us and washing us in His Blood! “Who loved us, and washed us in His Blood.” And as we so think of Him, in a moment the whole thing comes before us of the Master having girded Himself, and kneeling down and washing the disciples’ feet, and telling us that as He has done to us, we ought to do the best service - heart service - to one another. Love must issue in service, and His service comes from His heart, “who loved us, and washed us in His Blood from all sin ” - laved and loved – 

“Wrap me in thy crimson cloak
And speak me of thy love.”

Well, then, I want you to know the costliness. He washed us in His own heart’s Blood. That is the meaning of all the Old Testament types. It is the meaning of all the holocausts of slain beasts in the temple, which made the gutters of the temple run with Blood. It means that. It is the meaning of the mercy seat sprinkled with the blood and all the vessels of the Sanctuary sprinkled with blood. It means that. St Paul tells us that we are made nigh to God by the Blood of Christ. There is no doubt about that. St Peter tells us that we are not redeemed with corruptible things like silver and gold, but by the “precious Blood” - that beautiful term we Catholics love so much: “the precious Blood of Christ,” that is Peter’s expression. St John tells us “the Blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin” - and, again, in the Revelation, he tells us that being “redeemed by Blood” is the Song of the Saints. Now I tell you plainly, under these circumstances, a Gospel that is without Blood is a Gospel that is without Christ. It is the Song of the Saints. He made us kings and priests to God, to Him be glory and dominion, henceforth, for ever and ever, Amen. Don’t you water it down. Don’t you make the Gospel of none effect. Don’t you give in to the twentieth-century absurd effeminate religion. He rescued us with the Blood which He took from the veins of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Well, then, again, I.want you to notice this: not only is it so precious, but it is so very effectual. The blood of no saint could do it. It is only the infinite Blood of God Himself. He came down on earth, and took His human nature of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that He might pour out every drop of Blood on Calvary for us. It is so effectual, nothing else can cleanse the heart and soul of men. All the waters of the sea, all the rivers of the land, they may cleanse the hands and the body, but nothing can cleanse the heart. The heart can be cleansed only by the Blood of God. “Make me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” The hands may be clean, the face may be clean, but the heart, the heart can only be cleansed by the Blood of Christ. Purge me with the hyssop dipped in blood and I shall be clean, Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”(Psalm 51) “Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own Blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father, to Him be glory, and dominion for ever and ever.” It is the eternal chorale of the saints.

And if it is so effectual, it is also so everlasting. When did He begin to love you? When do you think that He first loved you? When He saw you? When Jesus looked upon the multitude He had compassion on them. Is that the first time He ever saw them? When did He first begin to love you? From all eternity. He loved me before the foundations of the world were laid. There is an age of love! It is older than the hills; it is older than the sea, it is older than the worlds, it is older than the stars. He loved me from the very first. If you can believe that you can understand something of the joy of the saints. When God loves, He loves from all eternity. His love has no beginning, and no end. “Having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end” - unto the end of what? Unto the end of all things - unto the end of all their sins; unto the end of all their sorrows; unto the end of everything, for ever and ever, world without end. When we speak of our God, we are always saying: “For ever and ever, world without end.” It means this: that God is from everlasting to everlasting, and His love is from everlasting to everlasting, “He loved us, and washed us in His Blood from our sins, to Him be glory for ever and ever.” It’s a beautiful text. It contains the heart blood of the Gospel. It contains that heart Blood from the heart of Christ that should run from your heart and tinge your fingers as you hold them up in prayer, so that your heart might swell and you might praise God, and bless His Holy Name for ever and ever.

Then, there are two things I want to say this morning on the Feast of All Saints.

1. Never you be ashamed of the Blood of Christ. I know it is not the popular religion of the day. They will call it medievalism, but you know as well as possible that the whole Bible from cover to cover is incarminated, reddened, with the Blood of Christ. Never you be ashamed of the Blood of Christ. You are Blood-bought Christians. It is the song of the redeemed, of the saints, and of all Christians on earth -  redeemed by His Blood. You never be ashamed of it. The uniform we Christians wear is scarlet. If you are ashamed of your uniform, for goodness’ sake, man, leave the service. Oh! never be ashamed of Christ! That is the song of the redeemed:

“To  Him be glory and praise for ever and ever, Amen.”

2. And the second thing is this: Let us all remember that our religion is the religion of a personal Saviour. It is not a system of ethics, it is not a scheme of philosophy, it is not a conclusion of science, but it is personal love to a personal living Saviour - that is our religion! Why, you can hear the voice of Christ off the altar to-day at Mass, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” “You” and “Me.” “Don’t you forget Me here at the Altar” our Lord says to you – “I will never forget you - don’t you ever forget Me.” “Do this in remembrance of Me.” It is a personal religion, by which we can say, “He loved me, and gave Himself for me” -  “The life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). And then, in all your experiences, however deep they may be, when you enter the shadow of death, and go through the agony of the dissolution of your body - you can say: “He loved me, and gave Himself for me.” “He loved me and washed me from my sins in His Blood, to Him be glory and dominion and praise henceforth and for ever, Amen.”

Thursday, October 30, 2014

An All Saints' Day Sermon

Coronation of the Virgin by Jacobello del Fiore c. 1400-1439

I have dug out an old sermon for you today. I preached it on All Saints’ Day, 1995, my first Patronal Festival as Rector of All Saints’ Wickham Terrace in Brisbane (Australia):

I remember years ago celebrating an early morning Sunday Mass in a tiny wooden church, three quarters of an hour’s drive from the rectory into the glare of the rising sun. There was no town around this church; it stood in the middle of a wind-break of gum trees on the edge of a paddock.

Although the little church was full at Christmas and Easter when the relatives and friends of the tiny handful of Anglicans in the district escaped the city, quite often its congregation numbered only three, including the priest.

Such was the case on the Sunday in question. There were two women present, sitting – as they often did – towards the back. I must admit that, feeling a bit flat, I somewhat perfunctorily began the old Mass from the English Missal. 

But when I came to the Sursum Corda and the well-known words of the Preface, 

“Therefore, with angels and archangels, 
and with all the company of heaven, 
we laud and magnify thy holy name, 
evermore praising thee and saying . . .”, 

something happened to me. 

It’s hard to explain, but for me it was as if I had seen those words for the very first time. Their truth hit me. A door seemed to open, a door into heaven. A great aspect of the Catholic Faith that I had known in my head for most of my life made its way deep into my heart as our little murmured Mass in that unlikely place became for me a real participation in the worship of heaven. And since then, I have found it just about impossible to go to the altar of God without an awareness of being enveloped by the “other” world (which, of course, in Jesus, is not really “other” at all). 

I agree with those who say that being a Christian is a special way of seeing things. We see the same things that others see, but we see them differently; we see their inner, sometimes hidden, significance. And so, for us, our local Christian gathering for worship is the earthly showing forth of the great heavenly gathering around the risen Lord. It is THE SAME GATHERING. In the words of Orthodox Christianity, the Christian liturgy is the “earthly heaven.”


The Letter to the Hebrews is built around the idea of Jesus our great High Priest gathering the liturgical assembly of earth and heaven in the worship of the Father. Do you remember that marvellous passage in which the writer says to those early Christians accustomed to meeting for the Eucharist on earth:

“What you have (already) come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven. You have (already) come to God himself, the supreme Judge, and have (already) been placed with the spirits of the saints who have been made perfect; and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant . . .” (Hebrews 12:22-24) 

And so, however big or small the congregation is at Mass, we are always infinitely outnumbered by the great company of heaven, the communion of love, into whose fellowship and worship we are drawn by Jesus our High Priest. Today - this morning in this Mass - he will part that Eucharistic veil again; he will open heaven’s door again, and we will find ourselves gazing out upon that world of the saints, the angels, our departed loved ones, that world which is the eternity of God’s love.


Shortly after the experience I have just shared with you, I read F.B. Mackay’s biographical essay on Father Charles Lowder, a great priest of the Catholic revival in the Church of England, and who founded the parish of St Peter’s London Docks, as well as the Society of the Holy Cross. It describes the circumstances of Father Lowder’s first curacy in Somersetshire where he was remembered as 

“ . . . the kind young gentleman who used to come and see us very often, and who said the prayers in church every day by himself . . .

“Picture him, still the radiant boy, on a wet winter morning. He unlocks the damp, old country church, and enters the cold, musty place in the dark. He kindles a candle or two and puts on a surplice, the old square pews stretching around him into the darkness. The curate has tolled a few strokes on the bell, but no one responds. After a while, the fresh young voice breaks the hollow stillness, and the prayers are recited ‘to the four walls’, as the neighbours said, but really to the Most Holy Trinity, and with the angels, the archangels, and the whole company of heaven. Out of that acorn grew St Peter’s London Docks.” 

So many priests, evangelists, parish sisters, bush brothers, missionaries, and ordinary Christians trying to cope with the struggles of daily life and ministry, have been nourished in their loneliness and isolation - and strengthened in times of persecution - by that kind of lively sense of the communion of saints. It is my sincere belief that without it we live a shrunken Christian life.


And yet, since the upheavals of the sixteenth century many good and loyal Anglicans have had genuine difficulties with the saints, and especially with the idea of asking them to pray for us. Some of those difficulties may have been justifiable reactions to superstitious practices purportedly widespread in the medieval Church, but, sadly, there emerged a thinking, an attitude, a theology, and even a spirituality far worse than anything medieval - far worse than any “abuses” because it resulted in a truncated and less-than-Christian view of reality, and an iconoclasm that in England involved the mindless destruction of so many shrines, images and holy places, those visual reminders of the love and fellowship we share with ALL our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

It was sheer vandalism, equivalent to someone breaking into our home and destroying the photographs and mementos that have been handed down through the family and that help us feel connected to those who have gone before. It was a gigantic spiritual, emotional and psychological trauma from which English speaking Christianity has not recovered - even to this day -, despite the best efforts of the Catholic revival of the last 160 years to which this dear church bears witness. 

The result has been to find close to the heart of much Anglican worship a pinched, mean and miserable idea of the saints. They have been reduced to mere examples for us to follow. You know the kind of thing I mean . . . They led holy lives, and we should follow them, emulate them, and give thanks for them.


Well, that’s not enough. It’s not what the saints WERE that matters; it’s WHAT THEY ARE NOW. And WHAT THEY ARE DOING NOW. It is their prayer for us, their friendship with us, their fellowship and communion with us now that is important - not a history lesson about past their earthly lives! They are our friends, our prayer partners, and the sense of worshipping with them as we are swept up into the Lord’s great Offering in the Mass charges the dreariest human life with significance and joy.


I also want to say - especially in the light of tomorrow being All Souls’ Day - that reductionist ideas of the relationship between life here and in the hereafter spill over into our thinking about death, and have a disastrous effect on what happens at funerals. So many modern clergy say that at funerals we can do nothing for the dead, that we can only do something for those left behind. Well, let me tell you, that’s not the Gospel; that’s not a belief in the resurrection of the dead or the communion of saints - the great community of love bound together in Jesus. That’s not the Catholic Faith. 

As your priest I DO something. I pray for the dead. I offer the one perfect sufficient Sacrifice of Jesus for them. I affirm that the Church of Jesus straddles the boundary between this world and the next, with all reality being joined together in him. So, just as I am sure that those who have died continue praying for their family and loved ones on earth, we continue our prayers for them as they experience healing and cleansing on their journey to the fulness of God’s glory.


Let’s remember how that twelfth chapter of Hebrews begins: 

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2). 

The picture here is of a race for which many spectators have gathered. They line the route so as to follow the contest. They have run the same race themselves, but now they are there to cheer us on. 

Of course, we think of the Old Testament heroes from the previous chapter, the key chapter in the Bible about faith; but we also think of those holy men and women who followed Jesus and now gaze on his glory in heaven. They were saved by his grace as we are. They responded to the same Word of God that we hear. They belonged to the Catholic Church as we do. They were nourished by the same sacraments that God has given us. They grew in prayer by the working of the same Holy Spirit who dwells within us. They sometimes struggled with doubts and fears, tragedies and failure, as we do. Some of them were gentle souls. Some were grumpy some of the time. But all of them ran the race in this world, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, growing in his love. And in that great cloud of witnesses they love us as brothers and sisters, they pray for us, they urge us on to victory. How natural and right it is for us to seek their intercession! 

If you have ever been involved in the theatre or in musical productions, you will know the world of difference that there is between rehearsing in an empty hall and playing to an enthusiastic full house. Well, in our worship, in our prayer, in our struggles, and in our triumphs, we are playing to a full house. Imagine what our lives and our parish would be like if we really believed that!


Every Mass here on earth is an open door to heaven. Do you remember how St John the Divine, “in the Spirit” “on the Lord’s Day”, the day of the Eucharist, said, 

“After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door” (Revelation 4:1). 

We enter that door this morning. The Lord himself opens that door to enable us to share in his Offering. We gaze out into eternity, we see the throne. We see the four living creatures, the elders, the whole of creation praising and glorifying the Lamb that was slain. We are joined to the praise of that great company of the redeemed as they sing: 

“Worthy is the lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might, and honour and glory and blessing. And we hear every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and the sea and all that is in it saying: “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever.” (Revelation 5:12-13) 

We share in that great and glorious worship this morning. Let’s ask the Lord to open our eyes. 

Because he will!

I love the story, in the Second Book of Kings (2 Kings 6:15-17), of Elisha’s servant going out and seeing horses and chariots surrounding the city. Full of fear he ran inside and said, 

“Master, what shall we do?” Elisha said, “Fear not; for those who are for us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes that he may see.”

The Lord opened the young man’s eyes, and gazing into the spiritual realm he saw the great company of the Lord of Hosts surrounding them.


With our eyes wide open this morning, we see Jesus, our Lord and Saviour who has redeemed us with his precious blood; we also see blessed Mary, the mother of Jesus and our mother too; Mary immaculately conceived, and gloriously assumed into heaven. Mary, who believed the Word of God, who said “yes” to God, who stood at the foot of her Son’s Cross, and who rejoiced at his resurrection; Mary, now higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim, leading the praises of earth and heaven, but also our sister in Christ, supporting us with her love and prayers. We see the apostles, the evangelists, ancient saints like Ignatius, Agatha, Lucy, and Polycarp who faced martyrdom for Jesus. We see Benedict, Columba, Aidan, Bede, Dominic, Francis, Teresa, Clare and the other great religious saints. We see St John of the Cross and the other great directors of souls who still help us to cope with the ups and downs of the spiritual life. We see St Therese of Lisieux, St Maximilian Kolbe, Mother Maria Skobtsova, and the other saints of our own time. We see them, and so many others as well. 

With our eyes wide open this morning, we know that in the unity of the Holy Spirit this Eucharistic Mystery joins us to that 

“great multitude which no man can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!’ And all the angels stood round the throne and round the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’” (Revelation 7:9-12)

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Lev Gillet on obedience "to the heavenly vision"

I have written about the late Fr Lev Gillet before, as a search of this blog will indicate. His writings have inspired me for forty years, ever since I was given his little book On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, first published in 1949. Go to the following links if you want to be blessed!

Today I share with you a meditation of Fr Lev Gillet on what it means to have a “heavenly vision”, and the importance of pursuing that vision in today’s secular age. It is a powerful teaching he gave in Beirut for Theophany (“Epiphany”) in 1973, and originally published in “Syndesmos News”, an Orthodox youth publication.

“Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” 
-Acts 26:19

Let us place these words of the Apostle Paul within their historical context. Paul is a prisoner at Caesarea, in the hands of the Roman procurator Festus. Accused by the Jews, but privileged as a Roman citizen, he is to be transferred to Caesar’s tribunal in Rome. The coming to Caesarea of the Jewish King Agrippa and the princess Bernice provides Festus with the opportunity of elucidating a difficult case. Paul is therefore summoned before the procurator and his distinguished guests. He recalls to them the history of his life, putting both as a starting point and a center the vision that he had on the road to Damascus and that decided the further orientation of his existence. And he does not hesitate to sum up this last in a short, but extraordinarily loaded with meaning, sentence: “King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” (Acts 26:19)

It is on this theme - the vision - that I should like to say here a few words. What is this Vision we shall be referring to? I shall answer: any true, any genuine vision coming from God. By “Vision”, I do not mean a physical sensation, fit to be compared with those that may be expressed in words such as: I see this tree, I see that table. Nor do I mean a mere product of the imagination, a fiction of our mind. I am speaking of an inner impression, of an immaterial, incorporeal perception, more or less clear, more or less confused, brought to us from further on than ourselves, from higher than ourselves. The Vision I speak of is “supernatural.” It is something sent by God.

One may say that each philosophy, each global conception of the world, each work of art, starts with a certain image that a man carries with him, in him, and that he will but repeat with multiple variations and names. Even the “pure” line drawn by an “abstract painter” may become a durable and overruling inspiration. But the Vision I now refer to has a divine origin. It takes many forms, always slightly vague, always mixing light and shade in some indefiniteness. It may assume human features. It may raise before us a certain image of Christ. It may evoke other personages, or certain scenes always endowed with an ideal vague, a stimulus, a challenge, a violent rupture from the limited and narrow realities hardened by our selfishness.

The Vision introduces what is new. St. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus was a vision almost complete and perfect (I say “almost” because visions granted to men can never be perfect and complete). The Damascus vision united features or components that appear essential to a divine, authentic and far reaching vision. Paul is suddenly surrounded with light, but he at the same time becomes blind for a while. He falls down as thunderstruck, unconditionally self-surrendering to the unknown Power. He interrogates that Power: who are You? And, when the Lord answers: “I am Jesus”, Paul, trembling and astonished, says: “Lord, what do You want me to do?” (Acts 9:3-6)

Here we find all the elements present to the Vision (for visions are but modalities of the Vision): the light that makes everything new, the God-sent blindness which temporarily shuts us from what is alien to the Vision, the prostration or more exactly the lying flat on the ground that makes it impossible for humility to throw itself further down, the divine word which is heard and finally the decision, the act of radical and sacrificial obedience that confess to the Vision its practical value: What do you want me to do? This is the Vision almost perfect, almost complete, the highest Vision that can be given to a man. We are not Paul. But, in each God-given vision, whatever its form may be (and the Vision may take the most various aspects and even express itself through non-Christian symbols), we find the most fundamental elements of the Vision of Paul.

Let us for instance take the representation or inspiration (so mixed!) that the image of Jesus not seldom evokes in the minds of our hippies, of our drugged boys and girls, of our “sex perverts”, of the mass of men and women who refuse the definitions and structures of the Churches, but regard with some respect the Person of Jesus and even love Him in a confused way.  Let us think of the “Jesus movement” or, better said, Jesus movements and “Jesus kids”.  What do these youth think, whom do they see when they pronounce the name of Jesus? 

As far as my impression has been, they see in some indistinct appearance a kind of whiteness, a Purity, a welcoming Love, two arms, two hands extended towards men.  And there is the ocean of human suffering, the multitude of the heavy-laden whose troubled eyes look towards the Compassionate, the Merciful. Here is the Vision in the incipient state, a vision very imperfect, very incomplete, very intermittent.  It may come and disappear, but the Vision has been there, is there. Let us remember the words of the Gospel, “They shall look on Him whom they pierced.” (John 19:37)

Is the Vision before us? I believe that the Vision is offered to every one of us. I am persuaded that in the life of each one, there has been a minute when he had a glimpse of a reality that was both far above us and acting within us, even if we did not know how to name it. And he who experiences this vision cannot entirely forget it.  In the midst of many tumults, the inner voice continues to call: “The Master has come and is calling for you.” (John 11:28)

You are young. Thinking of you whom I don’t know, and who perhaps read these lines, I think of the words of Joel quoted by St. Peter on the day of Pentecost: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophecy; your young men shall see visions, and your old men sha1l dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17)

And the old man, in his “dream”, prays that the powerful blessed Vision should launch on the roads of the Ancient World and New World small groups of young people having had a personal experience of this unique Vision - not necessarily priests or theologians or preachers, but simple young laymen who, without discussing, would say: This is what I saw, will you too see it? They would not claim to be the Church, but only to actualize, according to their measure, in the power of Pentecost and with the blessing of the Church, the essence (not parasitic accretions) of what the Church proclaims. Of course, they would emphasize peace and justice and the liberation of man from all oppressions, but they would find again accents (now rare) to announce the Saviour, the Redeemer, the Master of the Vision. Is this impossible?

Only the Vision can give unity to our life - the Vision seen in our immediate circumstances and yet infinite. Shall we, when the end will come, be able to repeat the words of Paul: “I was not unfaithful to the Vision”?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Love Alone - Balthasar on the true Gospel

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988) a Swiss theologian and priest (who almost become a cardinal, but died before the ceremony) was a favourite theologian of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. He is considered by many to be one of the most important - and cultured - Christian thinkers of the 20th century. In fact, he is one of a handful of writers to whom I return for inspiration whenever I despair of the mindless lurching in all directions of so many modern Christian "teachers.” His writing is mystical, biblical and philosophical, with a lyrical beauty. Mind you, it can also be dense, requiring a fair bit of work on the part of the reader. But such work is always rewarded! 

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I have been particularly annoyed of late by what seems to be a widespread tendency in most traditions of western Christianity, to trivialise the Cross of Jesus to the point where it is no longer the “trysting place where heaven’s love and heaven’s justice meet.” Balthasar provided a stunning antidote to this reductionism in his book, Mysterium Paschale, which I have written about before. His other work that is relevant is Love Alone: The Way of Revelation, from which I share with you the following beautiful and startling passage (pages 81 to 86):    

The sign of Christ can only be deciphered if His human love and surrender ‘even unto death‘ is read as the manifestation of absolute love. His task, in love is to allow the sins of the world to enter into Him who is ‘dispossessed’ out of love of God - to become the ‘lamb of God who bears the guilt of the world (I John 1:29) and my sins. 

This is the dogma - the dogma of vicarious suffering, of ‘bearing the guilt of others’ - which in the last analysis determines whether a theology is anthropological or christocentric. But for this dogma, everything can be explained on the level of a knowledge discovered by man - no matter how much historical tradition may be incorporated in it. The real ‘scandal’ which it causes is due to the fact that it cannot be dissolved by gnostic explanations; and the fact that it scandalizes us is a sign and warning that we are at the beginning of an authentic faith. For it is precisely with this act that real, unaccountable, inconceivable love begins and ends; a love, more-over, which qua love is self-evidently divine. Ultimately, only in that act, can one believe absolutely; it alone, if performed, is absolute love, love as the absolute, an incomprehensible epitome of the totally-other God. ‘And we have known and believed the love God hath for us’ (1 John 4. I6). 

If this is true, then ‘the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). Faith here means my response to the love that has sacriced itself for me. An answer which consequently always comes too late, because God’s act in Christ, his bearing away of my sins, happened before any answer was possible, before it could even be considered; hence it is the pure gratuity of the act that proves the purity and absoluteness of that love: ‘but God commendeth (proves) his love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us . . . For when we were yet enemies of God, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son’ (Romans 5:8,I0). But how can an enemy be reconciled while he is still an enemy? With God, as we see, this is possible, and St Paul concludes from these inconceivable statements that by our justification through Christ’s death, which reconciled us and made us his friends, we will all the more certainly attain to peace with God through Christ’s life.

From this it becomes clear that faith is primarily directed upon the incomprehensibility of God’s love, which surpasses and forestalls our love. This is the one factual element, the only ‘that’ (Martin Buber) on which faith in the Christian sense is focused. Love alone can be believed - indeed it can and must be believed only as love. To recognise this absolute and its priority over everything, this is the achievement and ‘task’ of Faith: To believe that there is love, absolute love, and that there is nothing beyond it. To believe against all the probabilities of experience; (‘to believe against faith’ as one must ‘hope against hope’), against every so called ‘reasonable’ concept of God, that points to his impassibility or at best to his transparent goodness, but never to the incomprehensible and senseless God of the Christians. 

The first thing that must strike a non-Christian about a Christian’s faith is that it is all too daring. It is too beautiful to be true: The mystery of being, unveiled as absolute love, coming down to wash the feet and the souls of its creatures; a love that assumes the whole burden of our guilt and hate, that accepts the accusations that shower down; the disbelief that veils God again when he has revealed himself; all the scorn and contempt that nails down his incomprehensible movement of self-abasement - all this absolute love accepts in order to excuse his creature before himself and before the world. It is too much of a good thing; nothing in the world can justify a metaphysic of that order, and not therefore the sign called ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, isolated, so hard to decipher, so inadequately supported by history. To erect so magnificent a structure on such flimsy foundations is to go beyond the bounds of reason. Would it not be better to be satisfied, like Martin Buber, with the Old Testament, interpreted in humane, ecumenical terms, with its ‘open’ undogmatic faith? We should no longer need to distinguish between anthropological and theological discourse - we should have a faith identical with Jaspers’ ‘open reason’. But we should be declaring ourselves satisfied with ‘wisdom’ - we should have escaped once more by the skin of our teeth, from the absolute ‘scandal’ of the Cross.

Man is led into the open realm in which he can love by the love he believes in because he has understood its sign. If the Prodigal Son had not already believed in his father’s love, he would never have set out on his homeward journey - even though the love that received him back was beyond his dreams. The decisive thing is that the sinner has heard of a love that could be and actually is open to him: the initiative is not his; God has already seen in him the unloving sinner, the child he loves as his son, and it is in the light of his own love that God considers him and confers his dignity upon him.

No one can resolve this mystery into dry concepts: show how it is that God no longer sees my guilt in me but in his beloved Son who bears it for me; or how it is that God sees that guilt transformed by the sufferings of love and loves me because I am the one the Son loves in his suffering. That is why a purely forensic, legal justification is untenable; it is only valid in so far as it recognises that God’s love makes us into the person we are for him in the light of Christ. Attempts can be made to point out the psychological and theological stages of the endlessly mysterious process by which our representation in Christ becomes, through his grace, Christ’s representation in us, and the way in which his love for the Father and for us evokes a response from us - but these attempts reflect only fragments of the process. The deeper God’s justifying love penetrates our being as ‘sanctification’, the more it evokes and strengthens our freedom to love; it is a kind of ‘primal procreation’ that awakens in us the response of love which may be hesitant and inchoate in us but attains to its full stature through the mediation of the Son’s love (and therefore through complete faith in him). For in the Son human and divine love correspond perfectly, and this correspondence, as we have seen, he confers upon the Church in such a way that she can give birth to the Son and his brothers in the world (Revelation 12:17). We are incorporated into this ‘full measure’ (Ephesians 4:13) and to that extent our deficiencies are overcome; we are made able through sanctifying grace to bring to life through Christian action in faith, what we have seen we ought to be in God’s loving sight. The fact that the horizon of the love given to us always greatly exceeds our own, and that the disparity can never be wiped out in this life, justifies everything presented as the ‘dogmatic’ aspect of faith: it may remain immeasurably beyond our capacity to realise this love which is the truth, yet it is no inexistent ‘idea’, but the full reality from which (in Christ and the Church, his unspotted bride,) all our striving and strength stems; that is why our act of faith in an ever greater love is necessarily identical with our act of faith in an ever greater truth which we cannot understand gnostically with the help of reason since it is pure love, a gift which remains for us an inconceivable miracle.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Wisdom from Carlo Carretto (4) Keeping the right perspective

Here are two more passages from Carlo Carretto's God of the Impossible. They emphasise the Christian life as a way of seeing things, a basic orientation of faith with regard to all reality.

We must make ourselves small before God, as small as possible, as small as David who believed absolutely that he could not be beaten by Goliath, as small as Joseph who never disputed the angel’s orders, as small as Mary who accepted with unswerving simplicity the improbable betrothal of herself and the Spirit of God, the incredible conception within her of Jesus the Christ. “Blessed is she who believed” (Lk 1:45): therein lies Mary’s greatness – and ours too, if we learn to believe and hope. 

There is no other test of greatness. Looking at a piece of bread on the altar and saying “that is Christ”, is pure faith. Nothing and listing all the sins of the people of God and its leaders and still letting oneself be guided by the mystery of the Church and its infallibility is a formidable thing; knowing that our bodies rot in the grave and yet believing in the resurrection of the body is a tremendous last test of life. 

The successful candidate is the one who has made himself small and does not treat God’s mysteries as though they were coins in his pocket.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

One of the hardest battles in the spiritual life, perhaps I should say the hardest, is the struggle to see God in our trivial human happenings. How often we have to renew our act of faith! At first we are tempted to see only ourselves, to believe only in our selves, to value only ourselves. Then gradually we perceive that the thread of life has a rationale, a mysterious unity, and we are led to think that we meet God in its basic stages. 

Then again, as our religious experience grows, we begin to realize that we meet God not only in the big events of our lives but in all the events, however small and apparently insignificant. 

God is never absent from our lives, He cannot be, because “in Him we live, and move, and exist” (Acts 17:28). But it requires so much effort to turn this truth into a habit! 

We need repeated acts of faith before we learn to sail with confidence on the “immense and endless sea” which is God (St. Gregory Nazianzen), knowing that if we founder we do so in Him, the divine, eternal, ever-present God. How fortunate we are if we can learn to navigate our frail craft on this sea and remain serene even when the storm is raging! 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Response from Credo Cymru (Forward in Faith, Wales) to the Bishops’ Code of Practice of September 2014 14 Oct 2014

Among those churches of the Anglican Communion that are in a perilous state is the Church iin Wales. A particular feature of such churches is their “go it alone” attitude towards embracing every liberal protestant development that comes along, regardless of the discernment of the rest of the Church Catholic, East and West, of which our formularies say we are part. The “provision” being made by the Church of England for those women and men who in conscience are unable to say that women legally ordained are in fact priests or bishops is meagre enough. But the Church of Wales “Bishops’ Code of Practice” - as it stands so far - offers significantly less, resulting in the following response, which is a consise and helpful outline of our position:  

1. The Code enunciates principles, several of which are welcome to us and reflect some things we said in our submission. These state that the Bench wishes every member of the Church in Wales to feel valued and included in the life of the church, and for all legitimate varieties of churchmanship to flourish. Those who cannot accept that the ordination of women as bishops and priests are explicitly recognised as adhering to an acceptable interpretation of the Anglican heritage. However, the meagre nature of the concrete provision made comes then as an entire non sequitur; it simply does not achieve the apparently avowed end of enabling Traditionalists to flourish. There is a clear discontinuity between the initial principles and the actual provision.

2. We cannot accept that the Code as it stands is the last word on the matter. Fortunately the Code itself does not claim to be such. If it were, we would be unable to recommend that the members of Credo Cymru should continue their Christian life within the fellowship and structures of the Church in Wales. We would have sadly to express the conclusion that fully orthodox and catholic life could no longer be lived out under these circumstances, and that our members might well be advised to seek an alternative spiritual home within which to continue their Christian pilgrimage.

3. The Bench of Bishops of the Church in Wales should realise one fact, however unwelcome. If we are correct in believing that in the purpose of God the orders of bishop and priest ought not to be conferred on women (and, of course, we for our part recognise that that is a big ‘if viewed from the bishops’ perspective), then there is no bishop currently on the bench who is acting as an orthodox and catholic bishop should act. That is a large part of our problem. To offer any male bishop as a grudging sacramental stand-in for a female diocesan hardly meets our need to relate to a bishop whom we can recognise as being in the Great Tradition of the Church. It is not true to state, as the Presidential Address did, that we accept only bishops who happen to agree with our own views when, of course, it is the relationship to historic orthodoxy in which bishops stand, and not their ‘views’, which gives rise to the request for alternative episcopal oversight and care. It is quite improper to impute to a minority views which they do not hold and then to decline a request on the basis that those views are ‘uncatholic’.

4. As presented, the Code of Practice is seriously inadequate for Traditionalists who, in conscience, are unable to accept the ministry of women as bishops. We can only conclude from this that the Bench of Bishops have a fundamental difficulty in understanding our theological position.

5. At the least, Traditionalist members of the Church in Wales are going to have to look to bishops outside the current bench as the true pastors of their souls and as their link with continuing apostolicity. 

6. In view of the declining membership of the Church in Wales, perhaps we should all consider the real possibility that our Church currently stands under divine judgement, and that the unrelenting trend towards secular modernity in recent years has simply not benefitted us in any obvious way. These appear to us to have been years in which little serious attention has been given to the divine Word and the Tradition. To plunge on in the same unchecked direction might quite simply be disastrous.

8 October 2014

Wisdom from Carlo Carretto (3) - his testimony

Dear friends, I am so glad that many of you visit my blog each day. I know that sometimes you are so busy that the best you can do is to read quickly through whatever is there, or even just glance at it to see if anything of interest jumps out at you. 

Today, however, I would like you to find time to read this passage from Carlo Carretto (In Search of the Beyond) in a contemplative way. Those of you who are not Christians might begin to understand us. Those who focus just on the Church's institutionality with all of its scandals and evil might begin to see why we remain. And those who have not been to the foot of the Cross for some time might just experience a little renewal of love for the Saviour.

Jesus As The Truth and The Sacrament

I began to know Jesus as soon as I accepted Jesus as the truth; I found true peace when I actively sought his friendship; and above all I experienced joy, true joy, that stands above the vicissitudes of life, as soon as I tasted and experienced for myself the gift he came to bestow on us: eternal life.

But Jesus is not only the Image of the Father, the Revealer of the dark knowledge of God. That would be of little avail to me in my weakness and my sinfulness: he is also my Saviour.

On my journey towards him, I was completely worn out, unable to take another step forward. By my errors, my sinful rebellions, my desperate efforts to find joy far from his joy, I had reduced myself to a mass of virulent sores which repelled both Heaven and Earth.

What sin was there that I had not committed? Or what sin had I as yet not committed simply because the opportunity had not come my way?

Yet it was he, and he alone, who got down off his horse, like the good Samaritan on the way to Jericho; he alone had the courage to approach me in order to staunch with bandages the few drops of blood that still remained in my veins, blood that would certainly have flowed away, had he not intervened.

Jesus became a sacrament for me, the cause of my salvation, he brought my time in hell to an end, and put a stop to my inner disintegration. He washed me patiently in the waters of baptism, he filled me with the exhilarating joy of the Holy Spirit in confirmation, he nourished me with the bread of his word. Above all, he forgave me, he forgot everything, he did not even wish me to remember my past myself.

When, through my tears, I began to tell him something of the years during which I betrayed him, he lovingly placed his hand over my mouth in order to silence me. His one concern was that I should muster courage enough to pick myself up again, to try and carry on walking in spite of my weakness, and to believe in his love in spite of my fears. But there was one thing he did, the value of which cannot be measured, something truly unbelievable, something only God could do.

While I continued to have doubts about my own salvation, to tell him that my sins could not be forgiven, and that justice, too, had its rights, he appeared on the Cross before me one Friday towards midday.

I was at its foot, and found myself bathed with the blood which flowed from the gaping holes made in his flesh by the nails. He remained there for three hours until he expired.

I realized that he had died in order that I might stop turning to him with questions about justice, and believe instead, deep within myself, that the scales had come down overflowing on the side of love, and that even though all, through unbelief or madness, had offended him, he had conquered for ever, and drawn all things everlastingly to himself.

Then later, so that I should never forget that Friday and abandon the Cross, as one forgets a postcard on the table or a picture in the worn-out book that had been feeding one’s devotion, he led me on to discover that in order to be with me continually, not simply as an affectionate remembrance but as a living presence, he had devised the Eucharist.

What a discovery that was!

Under the sacramental sign of bread, Jesus was there each morning to renew the sacrifice of the Cross and make of it the living sacrifice of his bride, the church, a pure offering to the Divine Majesty.

And still that was not all.

He led me on to understand that the sign of bread testified to his hidden presence, not only during the Great Sacrifice, but at all times, since the Eucharist was not an isolated moment in my day, but a line which stretched over twenty-four hours: he is God-with-us, the realization of what had been foretold by the cloud that went before the people of God during their journey through the desert, and the darkness which filled the tabernacle in the temple at Jerusalem.

I must emphasize that this vital realization that the sign of bread concealed and pointed out for me the uninterrupted presence of Jesus beside me was a unique grace in my life. From that moment he led me along the path to intimacy, and friendship with himself.

I understood that he longed to be present like this beside each one of us.

Jesus was not only bread, he was a friend.

A home without bread is not a home, but a home without friendship is nothing.

That is why Jesus became a friend, concealed under the sign of bread. I learned to stay with him for hours on end, listening to the mysterious voices that welled up from the abysses of Being and to receive the rays of that light whose source was in the uncreated light of God.

I have experienced such sweetness in the eucharistic presence of Christ.

I have learned to appreciate why the saints remained in contemplation before this bread to beseech, to adore, and to love.

How I wish that everyone might take the Eucharist home, and having made a little oratory in some quiet corner, might find joy in sitting quietly before it, in order to make his dialogue with God easier and more immediate, in intimate union with Christ.

But still that was not enough.

Jesus did not overcome the insuperable obstacle presented by the divinity and enter the human sphere simply to be our Saviour. Had that been all, his work would have remained unfinished, his mission of love unfulfilled.

He broke through the wall surrounding the invisible, and came down into the visible world to bear witness to “the things that are above,” to reveal to us “the secrets of his Father’s house,” to give us in concrete form what he called eternal life.

What exactly is it, this famous “eternal life?”

He himself defined it in the Gospel: “And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)  So eternal life is, first and foremost, knowledge. It is a matter of knowing the Father, knowing Jesus. But it is not a question of any external, historical, analogical knowledge which we could more or less imagine, possess perhaps, even now; it is rather a question of real, supernatural knowledge which, although it is still surrounded here by the darkness of faith, is already the same as the knowledge we will have when the veil is torn aside and we see God face to face. It is a question of knowing God as he is, not as he may appear to us or as we may imagine him. This is the heart of the mystery I have tried to describe as the beyond, and which is the key to the secret of intimacy with God and the substance of contemplative prayer.

In giving us “eternal life,” Jesus gives us that knowledge of the Father which is already our first experience of living, here on Earth, the divine life; which is a vital participation, here and now, in the family of God; and which means that while we remain sons of man, we are at the same time sons of God.

Jesus is the Image of the Father, the center of the universe and of history.

Jesus is our salvation, the radiance of the God we cannot see, the unquenchable fire of love, the one for whom the angels sigh, the Holy one of God, the true adorer, the eternal High Priest, the Lord of the Ages, the glory of God.

Jesus is also our brother, and as such he takes his place beside us, to teach us the path we must follow to reach the invisible. And to make sure that we understand, he translates into visible terms the invisible things he has seen – as man he acts as God would act; he introduces the ways of the family of God on to the Earth and into the family of man.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Wisdom from Carlo Carretto (2)

These snippets are typical of Carlo Carretto at his best. Simple, yet truly profound.


Prayer is not so much a matter of talking as listening; contemplation is not watching but being watched. On the day when we realize this, we will have entered finally into possession of the truth, and prayer will have become a living reality. To be watched by God: that is how I would define contemplation, which is passive rather that active, more a matter of silence than of words, of waiting rather than of action. What am I before God? If He shuts, no one opens, and if He opens, no one shuts. He is the active principle of love, He is before all, He is the one who makes within me His own prayer, which then becomes my prayer . . . It was He who sought me in the first place, and it is He who continues to seek me.  (From God of the Impossible)

Personal prayer is the meeting place between the Eternal One and me; the Blessed Sacrament is the visible sign of my covenant with him.  That is why I believe in personal prayer, and why every day I wait to meet him in the Eucharist. To pray means to wait for the God who comes. Every prayer-filled day sees a meeting with the God who comes; every night which we faithfully put at his disposal is full of his presence.  And his coming and his presence are not only the result of our waiting or a prize for our efforts: they are his decision, based on his love freely poured out. His coming is bound to his promise, not to our works or virtue.  We have not earned the meeting with God because we have served him faithfully in our brethren, or because we have heaped up such a pile of virtue as to shine before Heaven. God is thrust onward by his love, not attracted by our beauty.  He comes even in moments when we have done everything wrong, when we have done nothing . . . when we have sinned. (From The God Who Comes)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Wisdom from Carlo Carretto (1)

Carlo Carretto (1910–1988) was an Italian spiritual writer inspired by Charles de Foucauld and others who have sought God in simplicity and solitude. He was a school teacher, and a worker with Catholic Action. Between 1954 and 1964 he lived as a hermit in the Sahara desert, settling eventually in Spello, Italy, where for the rest of his life he was a hermit and spiritual director. The English translations of his books became very popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Over the next few days I will share with you some passages from them. 


FAITH is neither a feeling nor a mental process; it is an act of self-surrender in the dark to a God who is indeed darkness as far as our human nature is concerned. And He is darkness not because of an absence of light, but rather because we are overwhelmed by the reverberations of a light to which we are yet unaccustomed, here in the restricted world of our own unfolding history. 

The area in which reason and faith operate, and in which there is an interplay of light and shadow belonging to the two clearly distinct worlds, the visible and the invisible, is a terribly complex one. When the light which emanates from the cloud of unknowing reaches the earth on which we are journeying, it forms, as it were, a mist (St. Paul) which surrounds everything and forces us to feel our way (Acts), putting us on our guard and inducing within us a continual state of anxious expectation. 

An expectation which obliges us to fix our gaze on what lies ahead, and gives us a glimpse of the unexpected patch of sunlight which is to come. And it is on this uneven terrain that, sooner or later, God will be waiting for us, as He waited for Abraham, as He waited for Moses, as He waited for Job.