Gaudete Sunday

Over sixty years ago about this December time of the year, I recall standing outside my childhood home in that moment before the hall door was opened as people searched for keys. It was following our return from what we then called ‘Saturday Night Confessions’. Looking up I was struck by the beauty of the night sky. It was a frosty night and the stars glistened in their pristine splendour hanging above the dark outline of a distant mountain. A frisson of awe ran down my spine and an intense joy filled my little childhood self. I understood then what it all meant. Christmas was near. Baby Jesus would be born in the stable and would appear soon in the splendid crib of our local church, the best Nativity Crib in our whole area. Santa Claus would be riding across the sky and all would be right with my little world.

It was easy to believe in the joy of Gaudete Sunday then. Now, in my later years, it’s not so transparently obvious.

The Melancholy of Time

Where is joy to be found in a world where everything is subject to the erosion of time? T. S. Eliot’s poem, Burnt Norton, explores this question of living in the flux of time.


Time present and time past.
Are both perhaps present in time future.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind.
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future.
What might have been and what has been.
Point to one end, which is always present.

T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Eliot seems to be evoking a sense of a timeless, eternal now in which something is present, something we cannot bear, a reality we cannot perceive, a mystery so dazzlingly real that we cannot bear its sight.

So much Reality we cannot Bear

This Third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, is traditionally focused on rejoicing in the anticipation of Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Saviour. Mind you, it is distinctly difficult to rejoice in these days as we learn daily of the passion of Aleppo, now in the final days of a Syrian, Russian and Iranian assault on the city. The lands where once emerged the great narratives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are undergoing brutal destruction and slaughter. And there are few hands innocent of this crime.

There is indeed much reality in our present time that we cannot bear with ease. Suffering, mass dislocation of peoples, cynical displays of military power, insane religiously-motivated violence, monstrous distortions of even the most ordinary truths, have all contributed to a sense that our wold is spinning out of control.

People ask: what does the future hold? Will peace, humanity, joy ever return? The readings of this Third Sunday are also focused on this question. But also seek to assure us that better days lie ahead. The blind will see, the lame will walk, the crops will once more grow, cities will be rebuilt and will enjoy a new flourishing.

We need the comfort of time future, however uncertain it may be. We hunger for our utopias . And if they are slow in coming, we do our best to imaginatively construct them. Or we go in search of them in a great odyssey of adventure like Gilgamesh, the forerunner of all who seek escape decline, decay and death. And like the Ithaca of Cavafy’s poem, our utopian dreams often disappoint.

The Dazzlement of Godness

A newsletter from a Christian Brother in India arrived in my mailbox this week-end. It was a reflection on his own faith-journey, the movement away from what he calls ‘the props of tradition’ to a more inclusive understanding of God, the gods, the universe, the ‘whole thing’ as he would name it. He says:

One gets blinded by the sheer profligacy of Godness, that this God from whom this Godness emanates dazzles us with Its dimensionlessness. We retreat to our minimalness, “I’m only human”, and feel good to be less than dazzled, to be in fact as blind as we choose to be so as to be freed from the relentless urge within us to aim ever higher. Sorry, deeper. Sorry, wider. Sorry, more cosmic. Sorry, more more.
Brother Brendan Mac Cárthaigh cfc, Kolkata, India

The Mystery

And to quote Eliot again, "the end of all our striving will be return to the place from which we began and know it for the first time." The striving is over, the relentless urge released, and something like peace has come. My writer friend describes it in terms of a new knowing, of facing towards the reality we cannot bear. Somewhere within this experience we encounter what Rahner calls ‘the Mystery’.

Perhaps, it is in the emergence of insight and the attainment of wisdom, like Gilgamesh, like Jesus, like Paul, that we come to the joy we celebrate in this Third Week of Advent.

In that wonderful little book, The Glenstal Book of Readings for the Seasons, the compiler provides us with a beautiful reading from Karl Rahner where he reflects on the sadness that descends upon us in late Autumn has we walk among the dead leaves.

Time, Rahner says, disappoints us, time future as much as time present and time past. Instead, we look more to what is really real, the eternity out of which time came. He says: “Here is the moment to conquer the melancholy of time, here is the moment to say softly and sincerely what we know by faith: ‘Gaudete, let us rejoice. I believe in the eternity of God who has entered into our time, my time.'”

In what can we Rejoice

The deep down Good News is that we live in God’s eternity. As Richard Rohr might put it, this is what the perennial wisdom teaches us. It is the mystery that is hidden from us. The apostle James, in the Sunday reading, calls it ‘the seed that is secretly growing’. We are living in the Now of God’s eternity. Rahner again: “A ‘now’ of eternity is in you. And this ‘now’ has already begun to gather together your earthly moments into itself” (Karl Rahner, The Eternal Year, 1964).

Thomas Merton understood this way of seeing. He experienced it in that moment, standing on the street in Louisville, Kentucky, on the corner of Fourth and Walnut when the ‘now’ of God’s eternity dazzled him with an intense mystical light. Of this moment he says:

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Here lies the joy of this Third Week of Advent, the realisation that we are not condemned to remain the victims of the ‘stupidities of the human condition’, that something lives in us that is utterly indestructible, that is not subject to the passage of time or the apparent oblivion of death. We are all of us bathed in that mystic light of Fourth and Walnut.

Someone this week described to me Advent as a progress from darkness to light. Perhaps now we can say that we live always in the light, bathed in all the light we cannot see.

For a Moment of Meditation

Enjoy a quiet moment of reflection on Advent. Reflect on how we can engage in soulful ways with bringing Advent Light to our immediate world of family and community.

There is a Way

Tidying my book shelves the other day I came across a set of books carefully lined up. All were books by the University of Notre Dame scholar, priest and spiritual guide, Father John S. Dunne csc. He died some years ago in 2013.

This past while I have also been immersed in a biography of Thomas Merton by Monica Furlong simply entitled Merton, A Biography, first published in the UK in 1980. Reading this book, and especially the biographer’s recounting of Merton’s later years, I was struck by so many parallels with John S. Dunne.

Both were American priests with a strong rootedness in American life. Merton was already dead when Dunne began writing. There were, however, literary and artistic relationships that wove them both into the same story: Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, T. S, Eliot, and so many writers and thinkers from the vast panorama of Western culture and philosophy. Both became fascinated early on by the contact with Eastern philosophy and mysticism. And both had been drawn into the late 20th century struggle for justice in Latin America. It was left to Dunne, however, to make the journey to Latin America that Merton never did.

An Awakened Spirit

What ultimately links both writers is their commitment to the inner life and their fascination with the journey of the self. This journey was a particularly modern one, albeit with roots in Augustine. Early in his writing John S. Dunne picks up this thread from Kierkegaard, Hegel and the poetry of Rilke. For Merton, the quest for authentic living was hard won in the teeth of opposition from religious authorities and the accepted limitations of his enclosed life as a Trappist monk. Dunne described the quest as shaped by the desire to become, as he said, ‘heart-free’.

Although Merton spoke much about solitude, he comes later to the insight that his ultimate quest is the ‘search for God. Oddly enough, this was the title of one of Dunne’s first books, A Search for God in Time and Memory (1977). Much of Dunne’s writing over the years was devoted to the nature of the spiritual quest. Had Merton been reading Dunne he would have been struck by the number of times that Dunne describes his work in terms of insight and discovery. Life is a process of making discoveries. Not too hard to discern the influence of Lonergan somewhere in the background here.

Becoming Heart Free

As a graduate student at the Institut Catholique in Paris, I undertook an analysis of Dunne’s corpus as it was at that time in the early 1980s. It took the form of a thesis, directed by the late Père Kowalski, and it took for its title, Becoming Heart-Free. I later fetched up at Notre Dame where I met John S. Dunne and many of his colleagues. He was a revered figure on campus, much sought after by young college students. His influence on their lives was obvious to all. He was a charismatic figure in the fullest sense. His place of ministry was the college lecture hall. But many flocked to see him for spiritual direction and advice. Like Merton, he spent much of time writing writing, thinking, contemplating. In a move similar to that of Merton’s, John sought to live closer to people by moving off campus to a simple house on the corner of a South Bend street.

Both men were seriously aroused in their spiritual core by aesthetic experience. Artists such as Klee, Rouault , Rothko, and Kandinsky resonated deeply with their spiritual imagination. Something in the artistic theme of the outsider, of the pilgrim, of the loner found in these works touched their psyches. Rilke, too, was an important poet who spoke to the experience of loneliness (or ‘aloneness’ as Dunne would say) that sharpened their spiritual sensibilities and eventually opened up for them the wider world of relationship. For men with a clear contemplative orientation this a path of discovery and insight that they both shared.

There is a Way

Each in his own way undertook an inner journey that called each away from the narrow conventions of 1950s America towards the wider horizons of a suffering world. In their respective journeys their dialogue partners were artists, poets, writers and contemplatives from many spiritual traditions. While, in a sense, Father Dunne travelled the world in imaginative ‘thought experiments’ without ever leaving Notre Dame, Merton did the same without leaving his monastic enclosure.

Everywhere John S. Dunne perceived the unity of the spiritual quest across time, across cultures and across the varieties of religious experience. In what is for me a favourite expression of his, he articulated this unity and universal dimension of experience when he repeated, as he did throughout his writing:

Things are meant.

There are signs.

There is a way.

Like Merton, Dunne’s search throughout his life was for the authentic path, the way of truth, that would lead him to an iner harmony of life, the world and the spirit. Merton perceived a similar resolution of his own spiritual quest when he said:

Coming to the monastery has been for me exactly the right kind of withdrawal. It has given me perspective. It has taught me how to live. And now I owe everyone else in the world a share of that life. My first duty is to start, for the first time, to live as a member of the human race which is no more (and no less) ridiculous than I am myself.

From the The Sign of Jonas, 1953.

Merton in England

I have concluded the first part of Monica Furlong’s very engaging biography of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, mystic and spiritual writer. Monica Furlong was an Anglican with a strong interest in what we now call Christian Socialism. She died in 2003. This book is from 1985. In it she has developed the biography from Merton’s own works, interviews with friends of his then alive and research in various Merton archives. She acknowledges specifically Brother Patrick Hart who was the keeper of Merton’s papers in Gethsemani.

I have enjoyed so far her account of Merton’s younger days in France, his deep love and appreciation for the France of the Languedoc, its rootedness in a long history of faith and civilisation. Merton’s England also communicates itself in these early extracts from Seven Story Mountain where he describes his life at Oakham school in the East Midlands, his escapades in London, and his descent into darkness during his largely failed undergraduate years at Clare College in Cambridge.

His relationship with his father is very moving, a father who had himself discovered religious faith through suffering (he died of a long struggle with a brain tumour). Something of this experience remained with Merton and undoubtedly influenced his later decisions and life-choices.

manton-507733

Merton’s intellectual life developed considerably through his exploration of modern literature and his travels in Europe. Furlong rightly compares him to a Merton contemporary, T. S. Eliot. But, as she notes, Merton already sensed the shallowness and hypocrisy of the English upper and professional classes of pre-war 1930s England. Some of this, by the way, is caught admirably in the BBC World War I series on the Royal Flying Corps, Wings. Oddly enough, Eliot, with his more austere early spiritual and poetic apprenticeship, seemed more in tune with English and Anglican sensibilities than Merton.

Merton’s life in England came to an abrupt end when he found himself as an eighteen year old caught up in a paternity case involving a girl in Cambridge by whom he fathered a child. Tom Bennett, Merton’s godfather following the death of his father, a Harley Street doctor, was brutally cold and confrontational with Merton in regard to the affair. He interrogated him at his consulting rooms and arranged a settlement out of court. Furlong notes that Merton perceived himself as treated very unjustly because, in leading a debauched life at Cambridge, Merton believed himself to be following the admired examples of happy hedonism laid out in the novels of D. H. Lawrence and Hemingway so admired by Bennett. Merton saw this as hypocrisy.

Merton cuts a very lonely figure at this point in his life. He has been wounded by his experimentation in expressing his sexuality and he has failed to find love. His understanding of love is both overly romanticised and shallow. He has no sense of human love as mutual relationship and care, something he might have learned from his parents, his grand-parents and, indeed, his guardians. Like everyone else, he was not spared the painful existential wasteland where life and love reveal themselves in their fullness.

The concluding paragraph at the end of the first section of the the book says it all:

Both the descriptions and the feelings are reminiscent of T. S. Eliot, another exiled American struggling with despair. Unlike Eliot, Merton passionately wanted to be a participant in life, not the fastidious observer. Part of him longed to be man of action, the Hemingway man with his women, liquor, fights and his easy knowledge of the world, and he had the courage and the nervous vitality for it. Another part, desperately vulnerable, wanted but was afraid of tenderness, kindness, love, some real authenticity of feeling, and was nauseated by the squalor of the ways in which men seek for this. An inviolable innocence remained, even in his despairing attempts to become the perfect man of ‘the world’.

Merton felt that England did not appreciate him. HIs good friend from that time Andrew Wisner, the son of an Anglican priest, with whom Merton had spent vacations, noted that Merton at times was, for his friends, embarrassingly ‘un-English’. The ‘muscular Christianity’ preached from the pulpit of Oakham College saw gentlemanly behaviour and doing the ‘decent thing’ as the epitome of Englishness and good Christian behaviour.

Merton was seen to fail in this. Hence, Bennett told him to stay in America when he left for the Summer vacation of 1932.

See this YouTube for a lecture at Merton’s old school, Oakham College, marking the centenary of Merton’s birth.

Ultimate Mystery

The Mystery we call God

From Karl Rahner we have received a contemporary understanding of God as ‘the mystery we call God’. Understanding God as ‘mystery’ is not unique to Rahner. Indeed, it is the very foundation of the Orthodox theological tradition. It was the Latin tradition that, unfortunately, began to focus on God as concept, reaching its climax in Anselm and Aquinas. Anselm was the one who spoke of God as ‘that which none greater can be thought’, by which he meant a concept rather than the personal God of biblical revelation. Aquinas spoke of God in terms of foundation and origin of all existence and existents. Rahner’s own reflections on the experience of God has much in common with Aquinas.

Rahner recovered an earlier biblical understanding of God as ‘event’ (Ereignis) within the horizon of human experience. Although formally, this approach is shaped by contemporary existential philosophy, it has many resonances with the biblical understanding of God. God is a person who speaks, questions and responds within our experience.

The mystery encounters us within the horizon of our reflective experience. It is not alien to us, or imposed upon us. It is not a mystery which does violence to our freedom as persons or as enquirers. Rather it is an event that has the character of invitation and call (an idea that has Ignatian spirituality written all over it!).

Here is what Rahner says:

Our existence is embraced by an ineffable mystery whom we call God. We can exclude him from our day-to-day awareness by the concerns and activity of our daily lives; we can drown the all-pervading silence of this mystery. But he is there: as the one comprehensive, all-bearing ground of all reality; as the comprehensive question that remains when all individual answers have been given; as the goal to which we reach beyond all individual goals and all individual good things of life; as the future which lies beyond all motion; as the ultimate guarantee that there is really a responsibility for our freedom which cannot be shifted on to someone else; which we cannot elude by leaping into nothingness; as the one truth in which all individual knowledge has its ultimate home and order; as the promise that selfless love will not be disappointed.

Quotation from The Heart of Rahner, Published by Burns and Oates, 1980, p. 33.

Peter Maurin

The article below is from Bishop Barron’s current Lenten Reflection series. For anyone who has interest in social action, the twin figures of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, offer a masterclass on what it means to link together social activism and a profound attachment to living the Gospel Message of Jesus of Nazareth. Today, they are somewhat forgotten. That remains a puzzle although in the United States, the Catholic Worker houses close to most university campuses remain active and committed. One point of clarification, Peter Maurin was educated by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, not the Irish ones. The inspiration for both congregations was broadly similar.

Dorothy Day’s canonisation is being actively promoted at the moment by the Archdiocese of New York

Bishop Barron on Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day

Today I’d like to highlight one of the great Catholic figures of the twentieth century, Peter Maurin. He was educated by the Christian Brothers and, early on, became deeply inspired by the example of St. Francis.

In 1909, Maurin sailed for North America and for about twenty years lived a sort of radical Franciscan life, performing manual labor during the day, sleeping in any bed he could find, dining in skid-row beaneries. Any money he made, he spent on books or gave to those less fortunate.

During these years, Maurin was trying to develop a coherent Catholic social philosophy. The main problem with society, he felt, was that sociology, economics, and politics had all been divorced from the Gospel. The Gospel was a private concern of “religious” people and had no discernible effect on the way the political, social, and economic realms were run.

In a word, he thought that society had lost its transcendent purpose. Life had come to be organised around the drive for production and the search for profits, rather than around the real spiritual development of the person.

Maurin knew that the Church had an answer to this, and it was the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Maurin’s program was what he called “a personalist revolution,” which meant the building of a new world within the shell of the old, rather than waiting for social circumstances to change. The Christian should simply begin living according to a new set of values.

Meeting Dorothy Day

In 1932, Peter Maurin met a young woman in New York named Dorothy Day. For some years, Dorothy had been trying to find her path, a way of reconciling her new-found Catholic faith with her deep commitment to social action. With the arrival of Peter Maurin, she felt that her prayers had been answered.

He told her to start a newspaper which would present Catholic social teaching and provide for greater clarity of thought, and then to open “houses of hospitality” where the works of mercy could be concretely practiced. And this is precisely what she did. Together Day and Maurin founded the Catholic Worker Movement. They operated soup kitchens and bread lines for the poor, and invited homeless people to stay with them.

Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day remind us that we simply cannot love Christ without concretely loving those most in need. Love of Christ and love of neighbour coincide. Heaven and earth must come together.

Bishop Robert Barron, Lent Reflections, Word on Fire Ministries

Ashes to Ashes

Ash Wednesday 2

This afternoon, sitting in the Avalon backpacker’s café I pondered Ash Wednesday and what it might mean. For many today it is a ritual devoid of relevance for life or faith. An RTE radio presenter said this morning, “I have no idea what it’s all about.” Time was when on this day the foreheads of passers by on the street splotched with the ritual ashes were a commonplace. Not so today.

I finished my coffee and headed into the nearby Carmelite church where I knew there was a priest on duty. The church was warm, welcoming and an oasis of quiet in the city. A priest, brown habited and clearly a man of many years, stood near the first pews. A sporadic trickle of people went up to him, crossed themselves, and received the ashes on the forehead. It was an ancient ritual, marked by the apparent casualness of habit but still retaining some connection to the faded beliefs of the past.

As I, too, crossed myself, I heard the priest say the words, “Remember that Thou art dust and unto dust you shall return,” as he signed the ashes on my forehead, I felt myself entering for a brief moment some coincidence of my past, my present and my future life beyond death. The priest said, “Thank you for coming” and prepared himself to welcome the next seeker of cleansing and consolation.

I was reminded of T. S. Eliot making his wartime visit to the village of East Coker in Somerset. A person of strong religious faith that found expression in his poetry, Eliot revealed in The Four Quartets, an acute sense of time, time present and time future, condensed into the discrete moments of transcendence. It was for him a kind of reaching out for the eternal, for cosmic wholeness, in today’s language. The famous often quoted words, “In my beginning is my end … “, echo the words of the Ash Wednesday ritual Are we secularised people still open to this fusion of time and eternity? Eliot thought so. Otherwise, to use his words, we would ‘miss the meaning’.

Ritual, at its best, opens up for us in the casual simplicity of a gesture an intimation of the cosmic eternal moment which alone makes the discrete discordances of our lived experience ultimately meaningful. It bestows a kind of redemption. Eliot sought redemption in language but his poetry often contains echoes religious ritual. He could discern the mystery of things in nature, in gesture, in the pain of life, with which he himself was personally familiar. A light shines in the darkness.

“Be still and let the darkness come upon you, which is the darkness of God” (T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets)

Something to Do
4QuartetsListen to Jeremy Irons read the Four Quartets here. It might help to ritualise this beginning of Lent in a quiet hour.

The Revealing

We are celebrating these days the Christian feast of the Epiphany. I heard someone, I think it was George Hooke on Ireland’s Newstalk radio show, describe it yesterday as about ‘three fellas on camels following a star’. Crude, but broadly accurate. The Gospel indeed tells a story about three wise men who followed a star and came to the place where Jesus, as a tiny infant, slept in a cave. Who knows where this myth/story was originally crafted? Who knows who originally told the story around a campfire or at a table? Who knows what unknown scribe first copied it out on papyrus? Who knows what tiny echo of a primitive Gospel tradition lies behind it? So many known unknowns!

What is important, though, is the message that we, some two thousand years hence, can discern in this story. This message is available to us because, as Christians, we live within a tradition that allows us to glimpse the intention of the original storytellers.

The Epiphany message opens up for us the cosmic dimensions of the story of Jesus, what we frequently call, the Incarnation. God has become manifest as intentionally present within the history of the world, of the cosmos, of the Universe (even the multiverse). This is not a ‘fact’ of history. It is what emerges in the mystery of the world’s coming to be. But although a mystery, the story is underlining for us that it is a ‘knowable’. Why? Because there are people who witness to it, not as a brute fact of history, but as mystery that which makes history possible in the first place. First the shepherds, then the wise men of the East, and now the two thousand year old history of Christian belief.

But this this mystery is finding it increasingly difficult to speak its name. The closed world of contemporary secularism will have nothing to do with it. Why? Because it is clearly preposterous. This argument is not new. St. Paul encountered it in the Agora of ancient Greece when he preached a sermon in Athens. The hellenised elites of his day mostly refused to hear him. Witnessing to the mystery was, as we say in contemporary parlance, a ‘tough ask’.

T. S. Eliot in his beautiful poem about the Epiphany, Journey of the Magi, offers a reflection on this contemporary reality. He was writing as a committed Anglican Christian in the full daylight of contemporary secular liberalism. In the poem he speaks of the ‘folly’ of following the Star of Bethlehem.

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
saying
That this was all folly.

Franz Rosenzweig, the Jewish philosopher, in his monumental classic, The Star of Redemption (1921), invites us to penetrate the intense life-affirming truth that is offered by the Jewish and Christian understanding of the divine mystery. Rosenzweig essentially challenges us to see creation, revelation and redemption as the ultimate categories for thinking about the cosmos.

So, the feast of the Epiphany with its outwardly simple story, is, in fact, a profound statement about ultimate reality. Reality. as we encounter it in our histories and experience, is open to rational scientific investigation, but it is also universally open to the mystical vision of stargazers, shepherds, wise men, street crazies, poets, artists, philosophers, believers and saints. It remains closed to ideologies based on the human will-to-power.

The Magi, Stained Glass Window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Patrick Comerford, 2016.
The Magi, Stained Glass Window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Patrick Comerford, 2016.

Biblical Interpretation

This morning I took down from my shelves the slim volume, The Bible without Illusions by the two Hanson Brothers, Bishop Richard and Professor A. T. Hanson (it was their last book together since Bishop Richard died before its publication in 1989). I purchased the book for €1 from Milltown Institute when it’s library closed in 2012.

The topic of the book is essentially biblical hermeneutics. It dispels early on the notion, popular among some fundamentalists, that a pure interpretation of the biblical text, unmediated by other forms of interpretation, is not only possible but is the only valid way to read the Bible. The authors are at pains to stress early on that there is no such thing as an un interpreted biblical text. There is no such thing as an un interpreted Bible.

It speaks to my poor knowledge of scriptural hermeneutics that I was until now largely unaware that the LXX introduced a certain accommodation of the original Hebrew text to the circumstances of the day in its translations. Hanson notes, for example, that the LXX translation of the Psalms tends to emphasise the universalist dimensions of revelation, a perspective more suited to the context of the spread of Judaism to the Diaspora and beyond. He also points out the ways in which the LXX sought to tone down the cruder anthropomorphises when referring to God in the Hebrew text. Clearly, we can see here the influence of the more philosophically aware prevailing Greek culture.

In the second chapter of the book he provides some examples of how the New Testament writers interpreted Old Testament texts from within the tradition of first century Judaism. Furthermore, he points out how Jesus himself did the same. The example in this regard is the discussion of the Sabbath where Jesus refers to a text from Samuel concerning David. Jesus speaks about David and his little band. However, the biblical text contains no mention of ‘a.little band of followers’. But this was the interpretative tradition in first century Judaism. Clearly, Jesus was aware of it, as were his hearers, and so it served to underpin the point he was making concerning the Sabbath.

The chapter refers to many other examples showing how the New Testament writers consistently interpreted the OT in light of the prevailing rabbinical tradition of their day. All of which reinforces the main point: there is no such thing as an uninterpreted bible.

At the end of the chapter Hanson notes the progress in the development of an ecumenical understanding of the Bible in the twentieth century. He refers to Pope Leo XIII’s attempt through the 1902 establishment of the Biblical Commission to provide authoritative interpretations of biblical texts that would assist Catholics who were confronted by the initial phase of post-Enlightenment thinking and the findings of historical criticism. In Hanson’s view this was a total failure. The Biblical Commission no longer exists and is incorporated into the Pontifical Institute with a relationship to the CDF.

On a more personal note I discovered that Father Fearghas O’Fearraill, the amiable and learned parish priest of Windgap in County Kilkenny, is a member of the Pontifical Institute.

All Things were Cast Down

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th. If you live in Ireland, you will know that this was a traditional pre-Christmas shopping day. People from ‘the country’ (that is anyplace outside the M50 Dublin motorway!) got on the train to come to Dublin to spend the day shopping and, hopefully, get home in time for tea. It was a happy day, full of expectation and warm feelings about family. Mothers, of course, were on the frontline braving queues and armed with Santa lists.

Theological Considerations

But there is also the deeper and more tangled side of this Feast of Our Lady.

There was a time when theologically the interpretation of the feast-day biblical and doctrinal texts all cohered and made sense in a way that the traditional school catechism could explain so clearly. That is the ‘clarity’ of the old days that many conservative Catholics miss so keenly. What was the basis of this clarity? It all went back to Adam and the original sin. Sin is the overarching category that casts a long shadow on everything. According to the catechism understanding what we celebrate today, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is the first sign of retreat of our ‘original condition of sin’ in the anticipation of the coming of Christ, the Saviour of the World, God Incarnate.

Today, words like ‘original sin’, ‘sin’, and ‘redemption’ are uncomfortable, to say the least. They drift through our minds like so much ancient debris from a great primeval flood.

Most of the time what we try to do with these concepts and ideas that seem no longer to fit is to either ignore them or refashion them into something more amenable, something less edgy. But they are difficult to set aside, especially, if, like me, you continue to pray in traditional forms, using traditional words, because they are familiar, because they have shaped one’s spiritual life, because in some inexplicable way they continue to nurture hope, faith and belonging. They are the words from our two thousand year old tradition. Still hanging around and unwilling to just drift away on the secular tide.

Anselm again, God help us!

This morning I looked at the texts from my Benedictine Daily Prayer with some trepidation, my mind expecting to fight with the words. But that did not happen. Instead, armed with all my recent reading on the story of the Universe, the story of evolution, my struggles with Richard Dawkins, and wonderful memories of time spent with John Feehan, geologist, botanist and author of The Singing Heart of the World, I found myself in a good space. To use contemporary hermeneutical speak, I began to pay attention to the text beyond the text. It was an opening to that ‘fusion of horizons’ which Gadamer described so well in his challenging work Truth and Method. When we see to understand something we alway bring to it our own ‘horizon of understanding’.

The Office of Readings has its first text the Discourse by Saint Anselm. I ‘bracketed’ my rejection of Anselm’s well-known atonement theory and allowed the text to speak within a new horizon, within the horizon of my awareness of cosmological time and of the evolutionary story of nature itself. Anselm had no clue of any of these things but probably had his suspicions.

Anselm says:

Heaven, stars, earth, day, night, and all that serves humankind has been raised up and newly graced in you, our Lady. All things died, as it were, for they had ceased to serve the needs and will of those who praise God, they were cast down and degraded to servants of idolaters.

All was cast down. Something has gone wrong with creation. Anselm goes on in the text to speak of Mary as the mother of ‘the new creation’.

A New Horizon of Understanding

Of course, the reflexes of my youth would prompt me to make a smooth transition to ‘catechism language’ but my new horizons allow me to see the new text emerging from behind the words. The text behind the text. There is always a text behind the text. And even a text ‘before’ the text, the new horizon of meaning.

I can sense Anselm’s joy in reflecting on the mystery of the Incarnation and Mary’s role in it. He summons a cosmological perspective, one limited by his own cultural and pre-scientific knowledge. Within that he intuits that something momentous is at work. He perceives it happening in the miracle of the Incarnation and the work of redemption. Everything is transformed, including nature itself. That perspective is one that Paul takes up in Romans 8 and it has informed Eastern theology ever since.

For me, as I read, I am aware of the struggles in Paris at the COP21 conference and I can still hear the fading murmur of Storm Desmond passing over Ireland. Anselm presents a picture of a fundamental alienation from the cosmos, from nature, and, indeed, from ourselves. Nature, he perceives, has become degraded, become simply an instrument for ‘idolators’. It is we humans, our human consciousness, that enslave the natural world and its species. It is our ‘degraded’, ‘unredeemed’ consciousness that is bringing about the death of the natural world.

Towards an Emerging Understanding

Were Anselm alive today I have no doubt that he would read the biblical texts with a different mindset. He would understand the absolute necessity for a new redeemed relationship with nature itself, one that cannot wait for the ‘end times’, but must take place now and be given expression now in the birth through a new ecological awareness of a new appreciation of our graced relationship with the totality of the natural world, and, indeed, with the universe itself.

This is a cosmic vision on a grand scale. In this feast of Our Lady we celebrate the possibility through the Incarnation of just such a new world. But we need to shed the prejudices and naïvetés of the past.

This is what John Feehan, along with Thomas Berry and others, articulates so beautifully and so clearly in The Singing Heart of the World. What is important is the new horizon of meaning that we bring to the text, from whatever age the text comes. Gadamer was correct when insisted on the inevitability of the hermeneutical challenge. Our texts remain at once both wonderfully original and provisional. And that is the reason why they can prompt a re-calibration of our own mindset.

Something happened to Benedict in the 1960s

A reflective Benedict XVI when he was Joseph Ratzinger
A reflective Benedict XVI when he was Joseph Ratzinger

With the outcomes from the current Synod on the Family, those of a more conservative bent are inclined to look back to the Benedict XVI years with more than nostalgia. The ambiguities arising in some of the Synod statements alarm those who recall Benedict’s Cartesian clarity and his commitment to clear speaking. Social and theological conservatives perceived him as the one person who could confront western liberalism with a heavy duty philosophical and theological arsenal. Francis is seen as popular, non-ideological, and reluctant to take sides. In that sense he is a clear counterpoint to the Ratzinger years. The contrast is inevitable.

I think Joseph Ratzinger will continue to fascinate us, all the more so now that he is secluded in retirement in a villa at the rear of the Vatican Gardens. This casts upon him an aura of a faintly shadowy figure who may be second-guessing Francis from the safety of his Vatican study. On the other hand, it is equally clear that the personal relations between Francis and Benedict are warm. One might wonder whether they have been seen walking together in the cool of a Roman summer evening? Frankly, I don’t know. But I would not rule this out.

There is no doubt that the man who became Benedict XVI in 2005 was a person marked by his past, both his family upbringing and, in particular, the events of 1968 in the university town of Tübingen. Germany’s youth was then in ferment. Those of an older generation will remember Danny the Red, now a respected European MEP.

The 1968 students were vocal, even aggressive, demanding change and unafraid to voice their opinions. One professor has remarked that when the University Senate agreed to meet with the students all the members stayed except one, Joseph Ratzinger, who gathered up his things and left the room (a recollection of Dietmar Mieth, today a Tübingen professor emeritus of ethics, currently teaching at the Catholic university in Erfurt). That image says it all. It suggests an independent-minded contrarian personality. Not someone who can ‘go with the flow’.

There is a very interesting 2005 New York Times article by Richard Bernstein on all of this which can be found here. This article by Bernstein, himself a renowned philosopher and sociology theorist from the States, which suggests that what happened to Joseph Ratzinger in Tübingen in 1968 left its mark. That it may have coloured his later thinking, however, may be somewhat wide of the mark. What is clear is that it reinforced tendencies towards caution in Benedict’s personality that already existed.

The New York Times article says:

The caution drew on his childhood in the fervently Catholic villages of Bavaria, where he saw Nazism firsthand. He attended a state-run school in Traunstein, which had Nazi teachers, but boarded at a church-run institution, St. Michael, where students lived in a seminary-like setting, under the tutelage of priests.

For a shy, bookish boy whose father was resolutely anti-Nazi, according to his elder brother, Georg, the church was a haven from Nazi propaganda. Both boys became priests. The church gave them educations, and, perhaps not incidentally, improved their social status.

”This was the family of a poor policeman in a Bavarian village, with extremely gifted children,” said Professor Obermair. The church was their ticket to social, intellectual, and even cultural advancement.

The Bernstein article paints a portrait of a shy, reclusive and serious-minded academic who was appalled at what he perceived as the excesses of the popular student movements of the time. What intrigues me are the recollection of the Tübingen students of the time, among them Professor Dieter Mieth, that Joseph Ratzinger. although admired for his scholarship, provoked sentiments of anger among the students. I can understand that this may well have been the case as the free-spirits of the sixties ran up against what they experienced as dogmatism. There is a certain irony in this in that Joseph Ratzinger was one of the more open-minded periti at the Second Vatican Council.

Some years ago I attended a concert in the Vatican. Benedict occupied the central place of honour on a raised white podium in the centre of the audience hall. The concert was given by a German orchestra and choir, whose name I have long forgotten. I also recall seeing Benedict’s brother, Georg, the Kapellmeister from Regensburg, now a Monsignor, who occupied one of the seats close to Benedict. Also attending was Benedict’s close female friend, a German physicist whose name I have also forgotten. There was something very human and very intimate about this trio, a reminder that Benedict, for all his reputation of aloof academic remoteness, had a demonstrable human side. This was also in evidence during his UK visit in 2012 when his grandfatherly manner endeared him to many and won over the British press.

Today, Benedict, as the Pope Emeritus, remains something of an enigma. Conspiracy theorists have cast him in a kind of Svengali role, a shadowy presence manipulating opposition to Francis. I, for one, have little time for this view. I think he remains plain Joseph Ratzinger, academic, classicist, musician and cat lover. To die with that inspiration on one’s grave would not be so bad.