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.


Newman and the Essay

Blessed John Henry Newman
Blessed John Henry Newman

This morning I picked from my shelves a worn copy of Newman’s classic text, An Essay on Development of Christian Doctrine. It had made its way to me via various libraries, from its original location in the O’Brien Institute, by way of Carriglea Park, and then, more recently, from Synge Street where it resided until threatened with the ‘skip’. It is the 1846 Second Edition. It was published and printed only a short few years after Newman’s conversion to Catholicism. How it ended up in a Christian Brother library begs numerous questions. For the moment I am happy to be its guardian and keeper.

The opening section of the book is a lengthy detailing on Newman’s part of his many expressions of distaste for the Church of Rome. These essentially take the form of extracts from the Tracts.

His predominant feeling appears to have been an expression of an inner conflict, occasioned by his recognition that there was a time when the Church of Rome was not in error and for that reason it remains the ‘mother Church’ to whom filial affection is due. This feeling has to live with his more rational conviction that the Rome of his day was heir to all kinds of deviations, depravities, and the perpetrator of monstrous acts of monarchical power. The Church of Rome, he believed, had become a depraved distortion of its former ‘good’ self.

Yet, in this opening section he also cites an Anglican friend who chides him severely for his prejudices. His friend accuses Newman of indulging in sectarian populism, appealing to base emotional outbursts and irrational contradictions. It is a measure of Newman’s greatness and intellectual integrity that he was able to admit to all of this and put it out there in public view for all to see.

Newman’s is a voice from another age. Yet, there is a humility and integrity in that voice that still carries weight. His scholarship is deep, well-founded and considerable in its scope. One imagines his study, not extensive, I would imagine, but populated with original texts and well-thumbed volumes. What Newman represents above all is the quest for truth. He is unswerving in his devotion to this intellectual search. But his heart is also present and eventually appears to have won out. He’s a kind of English Pascal. I admire him greatly.

In the Introduction proper to the work I find the following (admittedly long) sentence revealing and pertinent:

Or again , it has been maintained, or implied, that all existing denominations of Christianity are wrong, none representing it as taught by Christ and His Apostles; that it died out of the world at its birth, and was forthwith succeeded by a counterfeit or counterfeits which assumed its name, though they inherited but a portion of its teaching; that it has existed indeed among men ever since, and exists at this day, but as a secret and hidden doctrine, which does but revive here and there under a supernatural influence in the hearts of individuals, and is manifested to the world only by glimpses or in gleams, according to the number or the station of the illuminated, and their connexion with the history of their times. Introduction, p. 2. ((1846 edition).

It is not difficult to recognise in that passage some of the currents of opinion that are found today. Perhaps it has always been this way. The search for an ‘original’ Jesus or a ‘pure’ Christianity can prove illusory. We then take refuge in ‘secret and hidden’ teachings, sometimes ascribed to the mystics. Or, nowadays, we appeal to TED talks.

It is in such times that we are brought up short, as we are at the present time, by the intense and honest debates within the Synod on the Family. The questions are perennial. Does the Church possess some inner dynamic of authority and truth that opens up for us the authentic voice of conscience? Newman was very strong on the ‘voice of conscience’.

It is interesting, as the Synod in Rome draws to a close, that it is to this ‘inner forum’ of the voice of conscience that appeal is made. Pope Francis’ ‘ who am I to judge’ can be interpreted by some as opening the floodgates of relativism while for others, including myself, it is a recognition that the judgment of personal conscience is supreme. But this conscience, as Newman would remind us, has to live organically within the lifeworld of the Church. It is not the judgment of the Nietzschean ego.

Since you Went Away

Autumn Leaves, Marino Institute of Education Campus, 2015
Autumn Leaves, Marino Institute of Education Campus, 2015

Everywhere I’ve gone in the last few days I find myself kicking around leaves or cycling through the late Autumn leaves. On the avenue where I live the trees are gradually being laid bare. This also coincides in the northern hemisphere (I live in Ireland) with darkness arriving earlier each evening. We are beginning that rapid descent into Winter. As we say in these parts, “The evenings are drawing in!”. We all know what it means. Time to hunker down, make the tea and watch the telly.

It is natural to be somewhat melancholy at this time of the year. The song by Nat King Cole, Autumn Leaves comes to mind.

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sun-burned hands I used to hold

Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall

It’s a song full of nostalgia, melancholy and longing. These are profound feelings. They come unbidden at those times when we miss people, either because they have gone away or, often, because they have passed away. Since you went away … I am missing you. Missing people is good. It tells us that our hearts are alive and well, even there is a hole there as big as a Dublin bus.

Often, such feelings coincide with us asking deeper questions about life. Maybe, we feel life is ‘passing us by’. Maybe we are unhappy in our present life choice. We feel it is time to ‘move on’. But to where?

Saint Augustine, that wise saint from the fourth century knew these feelings only too well. Augustine is regarded as one of the first great psychologists. He wrote with great insight into the human condition. He is also believed to be the first person in Western literature to have written his own life story in a book called simply, Confessions.

Right there, on the first page of that book, Augustine insightfully says:

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

Of course, a modern psychiatrist would tell us immediately that these feelings of longing and restlessness have nothing to do with God. Albert Camus, the French writer from North Africa, wrote about these feelings but expressed them in terms of existential angst. His solution for this was not entirely helpful. But we won’t go there.

For the person of faith, though, these feelings and thoughts often prompt the question whether God, the divine Spirit, is taking a personal hand in things. Perhaps we are experiencing the soul speak to us, as Carl Jung would have it. It’s all good. It’s all normal. But just maybe that still small voice is trying to get a word in amid the noise of everyday life.

Could be.

To be a Saint

Sitting quietly before evening Mass in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral yesterday evening my thoughts went towards the Feast we celebrate today, the Feast of All Saints. I reflected much on the inspirational lives of deceased members of my own family, some who had experienced World War I and had lived through the hardships of modern Ireland’s early years. All of those who came to mind during those moments were people I had known as devout prayerful Catholics living modest lives and caring for others, especially the poor in their respective parishes. There was no ‘social protection’ in those days. So much depended on the now much derided ‘Catholic charity’. All of them are, in my view truly saints.

The priest, the Canon of the Pro-Cathedral, gave an excellent, well-prepared homily in which he touched on similar points, evoking his own twin-sister, happily still alive and giving selflessly to the care of a daughter who lives with severe disability. As Canon O’Reilly pointed out to us, sanctity is about doing the ordinary things of life extraordinarily well. An old phrase but one that still rings with the truth it expresses.

In front of me in the pew there was a young Italian family who seemed either to have just arrived or were set to depart as they had their suitcases with them. I wondered about what drew them to the church, its proximity to O’Connell Street and the airport bus stop perhaps, or was it because of the church’s reputation for good music. I also wondered about their lives and what sanctity would mean for them. To attend Church today in modern Ireland is an act of cultural rebellion, a considered option that suggests awareness and conviction as well as deep faith.

And, it is, somewhere there that I discern the ‘holy’ dimension of what being a saint means. My own family experience, which I am certain is shared by many, suggests that being, or becoming, a ‘saint’ is about a commitment to living out our humanity fully in all its dimensions. Many people today opt to live humanly in a few dimensions: socially and culturally, but not spiritually, and certainly not religiously.

Somewhere in the back of my mind there was an echo of modern people in times past who had expressed the desire to be a saint. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux comes to mind, but also people like Etty Hillesum, Simone Weil and Dorothy Day. Thomas Merton, too, as I recall in his Seeds of Contemplation. I am sure they did not have in mind canonised sainthood, but the ordinary sainthood of living out our humanity fully in all its dimensions in imitation of Jesus of Nazareth. They also had in view the example of the lives of canonised saints whose stories once inspired us. Less so. now, for all the obvious reasons.

Robert Ellsberg has a wonderful article in America magazine where he explores this way of seeing what it is to be a saint. He takes as his focus the current campaign to have Dorothy Day declared a canonised saint. He takes on the criticism that Dorothy Day was not conventionally pious; she certainly was not so. But she witnessed to the kind of stout-hearted rough-hewn Catholicism that I admired in my own family. Peter Maurin, her mentor, often shared with Dorothy just such a notion of what it is to be saint. He put before her a model of heroism and selflessness that she certainly lived out in her work with the poor and the homeless.

See this article here

Maurice Blondel

Maurice Blondel

When I was a student at the Institut Catholique in the 1980s, I participated in a course by Dominican priest, Bernard Quelquejeu, a course entitled, “Action”. My theological education at that point was eclectic that I failed, at least, initially to make the connection to Maurice Blondel’s 1893 seminal work of the same title. To this day, the word ‘action’ in this context leaves me confused. I had thought of the term as referring to ethics, to the how we answer questions about what is the good and just thing to do. That was a kind of Aristotelian response to my question. More recently, re-reading old essays of mine, I have begun to see that the term refers to some thing more like the ‘work of human hands’ in the liturgy. It is about the connection between the divine and the human in world of human affairs.

However, I now know that it is more precisely about the relationship of human subjectivity to the objectivity of divine revelation. One writer, William Portier, an American, refers to the Baltimore Catechism definition of faith: faith as the assent to revealed truths on the authority of God. My own Maynooth Catechism was equally a reflection of the Neo-Scholastic position on these matters. If I had read Garigou-Lagrange’s Reality (1949) I would have heard exactly the same definition of faith.

It seems that the question revolves around those twin poles of objectivity and subjectivity. On the one hand, the search for truth presumes that there are objectively knowable religious truths and on the other hand there is the human subject who appropriates these truths. It was Blondel’s historic insight to appreciate, probably one of the first to do so, the fundamental importance of the subject in the assent of faith. I am presuming that Newman was also on to the same thing.

The opposition to Blondel was in large measure prompted by the Church’s total opposition to the turn to the subject that took place in the nineteenth century, a reaction that was in large measure against Immanuel Kant. All of the calamities that the Church experienced in the nineteenth century were laid at the door of subjectivism. It was the Jesuits of La Fourvières in Lyon who were among the first to read Blondel sympathetically, among them the famous Henri de Lubac who published his famous Le Surnaturel in 1940. This book and de Lubac himself contributed significantly to Vatican II.

What I found interesting in reading Portier’s essay was the later connection to John Paul II’s encyclical Fiedes et Ratio which appeared in 1998. This encyclical was intended both to reconnect with De Lubac and also a rehabilitation of Blondel.

See William Portier’s Blondel paper in Communio here.

See the following for notes from Notre Dame on Fides et Ratio.

See also John Fagan’s commentary and summary of Fides et Ratio on the CERC site here.

Thinking about Marriage

The heady days preceding Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum seem very distant. Now the focus, from a Catholic perspective, is the Synod on the Family, currently taking place in Rome.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, referred to Ireland’s experience of the same-sex marriage debate in his three-minute intervention at the Synod which is reported in part in the Irish media and elsewhere. His main point concerns the issue of language. The success of the same-sex marriage campaign, he suggests, was because its advocates framed their case in language that was once that of the Church, the language of love, mercy, compassion and inclusion. By contrast, those who took up a contrary position came across as heartless and lacking empathy.

Another dimension highlighted by him and other Synod contributors focused on the contemporary experience of individualism. We no longer think conceptually in terms of moral principles. We think mainly in terms of the individual case, of the hard ones. We are moved by individual testimony rather than by abstract philosophical arguments. The strengthening case for euthanasia in Western countries derives its strength in great measure from the power of the individual stories of men and women confronting the reality of catastrophic illness. By contrast, abstract arguments based on moral and philosophical positions appear weak and lacking in humanity.

Complexity is a shared feature of most contemporary moral issues, whether it be issues to do with human sexuality, family life, end of life challenges, responding to the migrant crisis or, as in the case of the Synod, the family. It is interesting that the Synod participants, for the most part, are not only aware of this dimension of complexity but openly acknowledge it. How do you square the contemporary realities of diverse families with the moral perspectives of the Gospel, let alone those of the Church. Resolving this issue lies at the heart of the Synod’s dilemmas and debates. Traditionalists fear moral relativism. Synod progressives fear pastoral irrelevance.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s newsletter, The Pilot, in its current issue contains an article by writer Kathy Finley in which she reviews three books on marriage from an American perspective. One of them, Marriage Markets, despite the fact that it is from a non-faith perspective, she commends. In her article she suggests that in considering contemporary marriage and family we ignore the dimension of its complexity at our peril.

The authors of the book, June Carbone and Naomi Cahn, argue that contemporary family life is impacted significantly by the social reality of inequality. In the 1950s through to the 1970s when jobs for men were plentiful and salaries adequate a stable family was supported strongly by social and economic realities. With the increase in our times of social inequality due to the loss of traditional jobs in manufacture, the decline in the earning power of the middle-classes, and the widening gap between the poor and the rich, marriage and family life are both under severe threat. Marriage breakdown has increased. Family life is experiencing greater stress.

The writers observe:

At the bottom, men and women have lost ground in society. Their interests are largely unrepresented in the political system, and they enjoy less support than they once did from community and extended families.

The ultimate losers are the children involved in marriages that can’t make it because of economic challenges. This is clearly a dimension of the complexity shaping contemporary family life. And not just in the United States, but right throughout the Western world.

Kathy Finley, the reviewer, concludes:

One of the effects of a book like Marriage Markets is to challenge us to think differently about what is right before us, so that we remember to bring a sociological and economic lens to issues that have a faith and moral dimension to them and which aren’t all that simple, after all.

There is another, more in-depth from an economic analytical perspective, review in the Wall Street Journal. It can be found here.

Anthony Flew

I am coming a little late and a little slow to this topic. I must be one of the very few people on the planet who was not aware that Anthony Flew had moved on from his widely known rejection of belief in God. He had written an essay back in the 1990s, I think, where following people like A.J. Ayers, he had demonstrated that since the idea of God is not “falsifiable”, it is therefore an impossible concept. By definition, impossible. Reading over the week-end a 1991 book by Terry Miethe and, as usual, digging around on the web, I made my very belated discovery. All the more interesting for all that. I was also sorry to learn that he had died in 2010.

Flew revised his previous intellectual position from that of atheism to deism. By “deism” he meant his conversion to the God of Aristotle, God as “first mover”. He did not go further to espouse the idea of God from any particular religious position. This change of mind on his part took place in 2004 and he published his reasons for adopting a new position in his 2008 book, There is a God.

The following is a quote from an interview he gave in 2008 (on the web):

There were two factors in particular that were decisive. One was my growing empathy with the insight of Einstein and other noted scientists that there had to be an Intelligence behind the integrated complexity of the physical Universe. The second was my own insight that the integrated complexity of life itself—which is far more complex than the physical Universe—can only be explained in terms of an Intelligent Source. I believe that the origin of life and reproduction simply cannot be explained from a biological standpoint despite numerous efforts to do so. With every passing year, the more that was discovered about the richness and inherent intelligence of life, the less it seemed likely that a chemical soup could magically generate the genetic code. The difference between life and non-life, it became apparent to me, was ontological and not chemical. The best confirmation of this radical gulf is Richard Dawkins’ comical effort to argue in The God Delusion that the origin of life can be attributed to a “lucky chance.” If that’s the best argument you have, then the game is over. No, I did not hear a Voice. It was the evidence itself that led me to this conclusion.

In the same interview Flew takes up the question whether those who continue to believe in God are obscurantist and irrational in their continued adherence to the idea of God as the personal creator of all things, Flew notes that there are three questions that Dawkin’s position on theism has failed to address:

Two noted philosophers, one an agnostic (Anthony Kenny) and the other an atheist (Thomas Nagel), recently pointed out that Dawkins has failed to address three major issues that ground the rational case for God. As it happens, these are the very same issues that had driven me to accept the existence of a God: the laws of nature, life with its teleological organisation, and the existence of the Universe.

So the three questions are:

  • the laws of nature
  • life with its teleological organisation
  • the existence of the Universe

In relation to the problem of evil, which the interviewer rightly points out is often conflated with the issue of how things came to be Flew notes that he sees the problem of evil as different. It requires a different kind of answer. His believe is in the Aristotelian idea of a divine cause which he regards as personal.

I should clarify that I am a deist. I do not accept any claim of divine revelation though I would be happy to study any such claim (and continue to do so in the case of Christianity). For the deist, the existence of evil does not pose a problem because the deist God does not intervene in the affairs of the world. The religious theist, of course, can turn to the free-will defence (in fact I am the one who first coined the phrase free-will defence). Another relatively recent change in my philosophical views is my affirmation of the freedom of the will.

There is a link to a video in which Anthony Flew discusses his change of mind on philosophical atheism here.

Dr. Geisler Touches On Antony Flew's Change of Heart from Papa Giorgio on Vimeo.

In this short broadcast Dr. Norman Geisler talks about Antony Flew's conversion from atheist to God believer, to a step or two away from becoming a Christian. Good insights.

For more clear thinking like this from Dr. Norman Geisler, see his site:

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.

What should I do?


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


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”.