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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

Immaculate Conception

No sooner had I written the heading for this blog post than I knew I was in trouble. Immaculate Conception. One word, the second, is non-problematic. A medical word. A human word. No problem. The preceding word, immaculate, in normal use is equally non-problematic. Put the two together and we enter a territory posted widely with advance warning signs.

To recap. For Catholics the two words, Immaculate Conception, refer to the scriptural and doctrinal teaching that Mary, a young woman in first-century Palestine was conceived, free from orignal sin. St. Augustine expended much intellectual energy and ink on the doctrine of original sin. However, he was less explicit about the idea of Mary having been born free of Adam’s original sin. He speaks of Mary having been “without sins“.

In the popular mind, however, this Augustinian inference which became dogma in the Catholic Church in 1950, is often conflated with the teaching on the virgin birth of Jesus. Today, December 8th, is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In Ireland, it is the traditional pre-Christian shopping day, acknowledged as such long before there was ever a Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

Of course, the idea of virgin birth, as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett would probably remind us, was a commonplace in the ancient mythologies, and elsewhere, too. I came across this view for the first time back in 1979 in John Hicks’ The Myth of God Incarnate. In the introductory essay to this book, Maurice Wiles, the noted liberal biblical scholar, suggested strongly that belief in the Incarnation was not an essential doctrine for Christianity. Many have argued as much since. However, it is true to say that for most Christians, this doctrine is still regarded as fundamental for their faith.

All of this was in my mind this morning as I prayed the liturgical Office of Readings. I expected the language of divine incarnation. But, unexpectedly, and perhaps because my theological antenna were acutely erect, I found myself drawn into the text and discovered a subterranean cluster of more contemporary ideas to which previously I had paid no attention.

The readings were from St Anselm and St Sophronius of Jerusalem. From St Anselm I read:

Yours was the privilege of carrying God into the world. (St Anselm)

Right there St Anselm pens in literary metaphor the traditional doctrine of the Church. I stumbled a little on the doctrine. But I admired the metaphor. And, then, thinking of a friend of mine whose baby is near term, I see the rightness of the language. What greater privilege is there for a woman than to bring a new human consciousness into the world. Men can’t do it. But focusing the new lenses of contemporary theological insight, there is a sense in which bringing a new human consciousness into the world is a birthing of the divine. Something akin to incarnation. It’s not just biological and evolutionary stuff.

To see human birth as a process through which the divine enters the world is an inheritance from the ancient world. Democritus, Epictetus and the Stoics, somewhat contemporaries of Jesus, believed this to be so. For them every human soul contained a spark of the divine. Equally, many of the Eastern religions see human beings as possessing the divine presence. Every human birth is an incarnation of the divine, they would say.

Today, we no longer believe that the human world alone is the locus of consciousness. From the work of people like David Chalmers (1995) we are invited to see consciousness as more widely present in the natural world than we hitherto believed. This remains disputed, of course. Nonetheless, many believe consciousness to be widespread and present throughout the natural world. John Feehan, among others, consistently stresses this insight (see his book, The Singing Heart of the World, 2012.

At the same time, self-consciousness is a defining feature of human identity (and not just reason as Kant would have it). On its own, the Universe cannot utter an “I”. Only with the emergence of the human has a consciousness of an “I” and a recognition of a “Thou” become possible. For this reason, many of our contemporaries understand evolution as the story of the Universe becoming conscious of itself.

Anselm of Canterbury
St. Anselm of Canterbury , died 1109

So, we can say, with St Anselm, that the human experience of giving birth participates in the transcendent mystery of the divine becoming present in the Universe. No wonder that he goes on to say:

The Universe rejoices with new and indefinable loveliness. Not only does it feel the unseen presence of God himself, its Creator, it sees him openly working and making it holy. These great blessings spring from the Blessed fruit of Mary’s womb.

Were these words from the pen of Matthew Fox or Brian Swimme we might not be surprised. But St Anselm of Canterbury! The Universe feels the presence of God. Strong language. And this presence is linked to Mary’s giving birth to Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, it is true that the divine presence in the Universe has existed by the very act of Creation itself. The Universe is sacred. But human consciousness introduces the capacity for that presence to be recognised and come to being. And, in that sense, God is born, the divine comes into being.

That is what Incarnation is about. It is a myth. It is a reality. It is a daily miracle. And it is more. We celebrate Mary’s role in this miracle on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Truly, in Mary, all nature is blessed.

Death of John Tavener

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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”.

Holy Week Retreat

CD Cover for Saint Matthew's Passion
J. S. Bach, Saint Matthew’s Passion

The Passion of Jesus of Nazareth

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, I participated in the liturgy at my local church. The Passion from Saint Luke was read in the usual fashion, two readers taking the parts of the narrator and other characters, with the priest taking the part of Jesus. It left me unmoved. Maybe it was the setting that undermined my emotional involvement: a large church with only a scattering of people in the congregation, a priest for whom English was not his first language and readers that were poorly prepared. I listened more out of duty than from any heightened sense of the drama being played out.

Later this week I hope to find time to read quietly the full story of the Passion in Saint John’s Gospel. It has been a tradition for me for many years, one that I continue to treasure and find helpful. I will also participate in the liturgical ceremonies. And, maybe, like last year I will take part in the public Carrying of the Cross through the streets of Dublin, from Christ Church Cathedral to the Catholic Pro-Cathedral. It is an ecumenical event that engages participants in an act of public witness that has its own intrinsic emotional appeal. It concludes with a Taizé night prayer which never fails to bring the mind and heart to a still place.

However, for me engagement with Holy Week is not complete without some time spent with two very special pieces of music, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and J. Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. Both pieces reach out to the soul and the emotions and confront them with the human reality of the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth. There is nothing cerebral or perfunctory in the treatment of what took place in Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago.

From time to time public events such as the assassination of an unarmed Garda in Dundalk some weeks ago, the tragic death of a young person in an act of despair, or the plight of children dying on the Syrian camps, punch through our emotional firewalls to bring us to tears and a churning of the heart. Truly, gut-wrenching experiences.

Time spent with Pergolesi and Bach has a similar effect.

Before their finely-pitched aesthetic voicing of intense sorrow, grief and outrage, we are wholly defenceless. We are invited to enter into solidarity with the suffering of Jesus, and through this experience, with the suffering of the world.

In recent years BBC Radio 4 has broadcast an occasional series called Soul Music (available as a podcast) in which people are invited to offer a reflection on how a particular piece of music has had an impact on their lives. The links below provide access to a recording of the Stabat Mater and Saint Matthew Passion episodes from this BBC Radio 4 series.

Perhaps, listening to these very moving stories and reflections may offer you some resources for your private retreat this Holy Week.

J.S.Bach, Saint Matthew’s Passion

Pergolesi, Stabat Mater

Pope Francis: Homily

pope_francis_inaugural_mass

Homily of Pope Francis from his Inauguration

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I thank the Lord that I can celebrate this Holy Mass for the inauguration of my Petrine ministry on the solemnity of Saint Joseph, the spouse of the Virgin Mary and the patron of the universal Church. It is a significant coincidence, and it is also the name-day of my venerable predecessor: we are close to him with our prayers, full of affection and gratitude.

I offer a warm greeting to my brother cardinals and bishops, the priests, deacons, men and women religious, and all the lay faithful. I thank the representatives of the other Churches and ecclesial Communities, as well as the representatives of the Jewish community and the other religious communities, for their presence. My cordial greetings go to the Heads of State and Government, the members of the official Delegations from many countries throughout the world, and the Diplomatic Corps.

In the Gospel we heard that “Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary as his wife” (Mt 1:24). These words already point to the mission which God entrusts to Joseph: he is to be the custos, the protector. The protector of whom? Of Mary and Jesus; but this protection is then extended to the Church, as Blessed John Paul II pointed out: “Just as Saint Joseph took loving care of Mary and gladly dedicated himself to Jesus Christ’s upbringing, he likewise watches over and protects Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, of which the Virgin Mary is the exemplar and model” (Redemptoris Custos, 1).

How does Joseph exercise his role as protector? Discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an unfailing presence and utter fidelity, even when he finds it hard to understand. From the time of his betrothal to Mary until the finding of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, he is there at every moment with loving care. As the spouse of Mary, he is at her side in good times and bad, on the journey to Bethlehem for the census and in the anxious and joyful hours when she gave birth; amid the drama of the flight into Egypt and during the frantic search for their child in the Temple; and later in the day-to-day life of the home of Nazareth, in the workshop where he taught his trade to Jesus.

How does Joseph respond to his calling to be the protector of Mary, Jesus and the Church? By being constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans, and not simply to his own. This is what God asked of David, as we heard in the first reading. God does not want a house built by men, but faithfulness to his word, to his plan. It is God himself who builds the house, but from living stones sealed by his Spirit. Joseph is a “protector” because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions. In him, dear friends, we learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly, but we also see the core of the Christian vocation, which is Christ! Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!

The vocation of being a “protector”, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!

Whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility, whenever we fail to care for creation and for our brothers and sisters, the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened. Tragically, in every period of history there are “Herods” who plot death, wreak havoc, and mar the countenance of men and women.

Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be “protectors” of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world! But to be “protectors”, we also have to keep watch over ourselves! Let us not forget that hatred, envy and pride defile our lives! Being protectors, then, also means keeping watch over our emotions, over our hearts, because they are the seat of good and evil intentions: intentions that build up and tear down! We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness!

Here I would add one more thing: caring, protecting, demands goodness, it calls for a certain tenderness. In the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!

Today, together with the feast of Saint Joseph, we are celebrating the beginning of the ministry of the new Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter, which also involves a certain power. Certainly, Jesus Christ conferred power upon Peter, but what sort of power was it? Jesus’ three questions to Peter about love are followed by three commands: feed my lambs, feed my sheep. Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross. He must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked Saint Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Only those who serve with love are able to protect!

In the second reading, Saint Paul speaks of Abraham, who, “hoping against hope, believed” (Rom 4:18). Hoping against hope! Today too, amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others. To protect creation, to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope; it is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds; it is to bring the warmth of hope! For believers, for us Christians, like Abraham, like Saint Joseph, the hope that we bring is set against the horizon of God, which has opened up before us in Christ. It is a hope built on the rock which is God.

To protect Jesus with Mary, to protect the whole of creation, to protect each person, especially the poorest, to protect ourselves: this is a service that the Bishop of Rome is called to carry out, yet one to which all of us are called, so that the star of hope will shine brightly. Let us protect with love all that God has given us!

I implore the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saints Peter and Paul, and Saint Francis, that the Holy Spirit may accompany my ministry, and I ask all of you to pray for me!

Amen.

A new hope has dawned

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Jesus and the Poor

It is a great joy that the Cardinal electors have chosen Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as our new Pope Francis. Like so many others, I watched the TV broadcasts on Wednesday night. We were at supper when the news came through that white smoke had issued from the Sistine Chapel. My heart sank. Early white smoke after one day of balloting can only mean one thing, I thought: the Curia have succeeded in getting their least worst option elected. I began to think someone Italian, probably Scola.

Later, as French Archbishop Traunon made the announcement in Latin, I was stunned as it dawned on me that whoever the new Pope was it was not Cardinal Scola. But who was this Cardinal Bergoglio. The TV screen went silent. Clearly, the commentators were just as puzzled as I was. I held my head in my hands as I thought to myself: “He’s Italian. It must be some obscure Curia hack. Oh no!” Then, somebody in the room more knowledgeable than I, said,”It’s the Buenos Aires guy!” I raised my hands in celebration. This man I knew. I was aware of his track record in Buenos Aires.

The Buenos Aires Poor

Our new Pope Francis follows his namesake in his care for and love of the poor. A few years ago I visited La Cava, a slum in the heart of one of Buenos Aires’ wealthiest districts, San Isidro. Students from the Cardinal Newman Christian Brothers College, a highly-regarded private college in the district, spend much of their free time with the people in La Cava. It was amazing to me that so much poverty could exist in an otherwise wealthy area. Later, I had the opportunity of visiting a rural barrio where there was also extreme poverty. Archbishop Bergoglio was a frequent visitor to the poor people in these places.

TROCAIRE Talk: Brother Philip Pinto

Brother Philip Pinto, the Congregation Leader of the Christian Brothers, is a kindred spirit to Pope Francis. Like him Brother Pinto sees the Gospel through the eyes of poor people. Recently, Brother Philip was invited to address an audience in Maynooth on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of TROCAIRE, the Irish version of CARITAS Internationalis. You can view his talk here on iCatholic. His talk was, “Who is my neighbour? Building a civilisation of love in an unequal world” (also available as a transcript from the i Catholic website).

We are entering upon a time of great Hope

This is a time of great blessing and new hope for our Church with people like Brother Pinto and Pope Francis as prophetic voices among us. It is time to end the ‘culture wars’ in the Church. It is time to return to the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth. It is time to listen to poor people and do our thinking from that place.

I listened to Sister Julie of the Congregation of Jesus on the BBC World Service on the evening of the election. She quoted Archbishop Tagle of Manila (who had attended the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 2012) as saying that what we need now is a Church that is humble, simple and listening. “Tonight,” she said, “we got all three.”

With our new pope, Pope Francis, there will be a release of new energy in the Church. His voice is authentic. His actions speak volumes. His spirituality is grounded in the Gospel. Don’t expect the kind of changes that the media have been interested in. Some of them will take place – in time. But do expect immediate action on a number of fronts. A man who has spoke out against corruption in Argentina is not likely to tolerate even a whiff of corruption in the Vatican.

Stanley Hauerwas on the new Pope

Stanley Hauerwas, a staunch methodist and highly-regarded ethicist, who once taught at Notre Dame and currently at Duke University, has provided one of the most trenchant and thoughtful interpretations of the implications of the election of Pope Francis for the Church. Hauerwas has little time for ‘liberal Christianity’ but has always been a promoter of ‘authentic Christianity’. Watch the video below to find out more.