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.

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.

What should I do?

dark_sky_overhead3

Sometimes it helps when others point out the way, even if the way is well known, signposted and staring one in the face. Like many others who read this blog I am aware that what is most needed to live this one life we have is an attitude of gratitude and a contemplative engagement with the world as it is. But sometimes the desire to change the world, make it better or fight against injustice just gets in the way.

Recently, in an evening meeting with some others, it was a colleague who himself is a very busy person, a committed high school teacher and deputy principal, reminded us all of the need to live our lives mindfully and to be intentional in what we do. It is good to be challenged and encouraged by others.

Just this morning Jack Saunsea, a prolific blogger and a kindred spirit, commented on my post regarding the recent untimely death of composer, John Tavener. I logged on to his blog and was astonished to discover someone who shares similar interests and concerns to myself. I would recommend readers of this blog to pop over to Jack’s blog, Artist of Compassion, and bookmark it. It is an amazing resource for anyone interested in contemplation, mindful living, and reading. Jack has a dream for establishing a contemplation centre in every major city in the world. There is such a centre already in the heart of Dublin. It is called The Living Room, an evocative name based on a subtle and multiple pun. It is not to be confused with the international dance club of the same name (No! I’ve not been there!).

Jack has written a wonderful piece on “What Should I do with my Life?” which you will find here. The “What should I do” question is one that has troubled thinking people from the beginning of time. The quotation from Kant in the graphic for this post captures it well. The starry sky above and the moral law within, both provoking profound questions about ‘what should I be’ and ‘what should I do’. The best thing is, the questions never go away!

Blessings to all!

Death of John Tavener

Tavener_Main

John Tavener, the English composer, died yesterday at the age of 69. As a composer he is often compared to Arvo Pärt. He will be remembered as one of the great spiritual searchers of modern times.

I heard on Monday in a Radio 4 interview with Andrew Marr in a discussion of the place of spirituality in modern life. His music is disarmingly simple, soulful, emotionally engaging and profound in its intensity.

His own personal journey took him from the default contemporary position of indifference through Orthodoxy and the world religions to a sense of the deeper mystery at the heart of the universe. He was admired by people as diverse as the Beatles, Pope Benedict XVI and Roger Scruton.

Of his music, it has been said , “it is the nearest we will get to the voice of God”.

The Burning of the Leaves

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In our part of the world at this time of the year leaves are gathered. Sometimes an industrial blower is used to push the leaves into a neat pile. More often than not the task requires the use of brushes, rakes and shovel. Leaves are binned, bagged and taken away by trucks. Careful householders who are ecologically aware pile the leaves into their compost heaps where next spring nutritious mulch will be produced for fertilising gardens. The cycle of life continues.

Some time ago I came across a poem, The Burning of the Leaves, by Lawrence Binyon. I greatly admired the verses and their theme of destruction, death, renewal and new life. Mistakenly, I had thought at first that the burning of the leaves referred to the annual autumnal leaf burning, a practice now forbidden on ecological grounds. It turns out, on closer reading, that the burning of the leaves refers, in fact, to a forest fire. We now know that forest fires contribute directly to the renewal of growth in a forest. Foresters engage deliberately in tree burning to promote new growth.

Lawrence Binyon was born to a distinguished Quaker family in Lancashire, England, in 1869. He went on to read classics at Oxford. He took up a position at the British Museum where he went on to become the Keeper of its Oriental Department. Following his marriage to Margaret Powell in 1904 he became acquainted with a circle of artists and poets, among whom were Ezra Pound and Walter Sickert.

HIs most famous poem, often cited at Remembrance Day services, at this time of the year is For the Fallen. Although written prior to the war, it has now become firmly associated with the commemoration of the dead of World War I. He himself participated in the war as an ambulance driver. Following the war, he resumed his work at the museum and continued to publish poetry. In the 1930s he was named Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard and on his return to England was honoured by further academic and literary honours. During World War II he was living in Athens and narrowly escaped the Germans when they invaded Greece. He returned to England where he died in 1943.

The poem, The Burning of the Leaves, was published posthumously in a book of poetry of the same name in 1944.

 

The Burning of the Leaves

Some verses from The Burning of the Leaves:

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves.
They go to the fire; the nostril pricks with smoke
Wandering slowly into a weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.

Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before:
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there;
Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.
The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.

The freshness of leaves is from them, and the springing of grass,
The juice of the apple, the rustle of ripening corn;
They know not the lust of destruction, the frenzy of spite;
They give and pervade, and possess not, but silently pass;
They perish not, though they be broken; continuing streams,
The same in the cloud and the glory, the night and the light.

 

For the Fallen

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam