Archive for February, 2013

A fond farewell

February 27, 2013

I have not written anything about Pope Benedict XVI’s recent announcement that he will step down from the papal chair. I was surprised — more surprised than I should have been had I been paying closer attention — and I am still trying to decide what I think about it. It was a prudential decision, and I have no doubt that he believes this decision to be best for the Church at this time. But I am sorry to see him go; I have a great deal of affection for this Holy Father, and I am saddened at the thought that he has found his service to us to be too much for him in his old age.

I am in no position to offer a general appraisal or summation of this pontificate, but a few highlights stand out in my mind: his beatification of Blessed John Henry Newman in England in 2010; his canonization of St. Hildegard of Bingen in 2012; his dedication to a renewal of the Church’s liturgical life, especially by granting permission for the wide(r)spread celebration of the pre-Vatican II liturgical rites and his creation of the Anglican Ordinariate (which, besides being a bridge to greater Christian unity, also has the potential to make the so-called “Anglican Use” rite more widely available, which for English-speaking Catholics can only be a good thing); and his clear and courageous speeches on numerous occasions, especially those delivered in Regensburg in 2006 and in London in 2010. On a personal note, I had the joy of seeing Pope Benedict in person on two occasions, both times in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

Almost immediately after his announcement, pundits began speculating aloud about who might succeed him. Even people whom, I would have thought, were indifferent to or hostile to Catholicism were suddenly ready with advice. How very kind. As for myself, I have made a two-fold resolution: I am not going to read any (more) such speculations, which are too often simply self-serving wish lists, and, like Janet, I am going to begin praying now for the new pontiff, whoever he may be.

Much has been written about Benedict’s papacy in the last couple of weeks, and though I have not had time to read very much of it, here are a few of the better articles that I have come across:

  • John Milbank, the brilliant Anglican theologian, has written a substantial essay drawing mostly on Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate in which he explores the “erotic politics” of Benedict’s thought — that is, the way in which the Holy Father’s understanding of love, and especially of eros (widely understood), informs his thinking about politics and the public good.
  • Tracey Rowland, who has written a book on Pope Benedict’s theological thought, writes at Crisis about his intellectual milieu: his teachers and his students. This is a reminder of just how central Joseph Ratzinger has been to Catholic theology in the past fifty years. These shoes are going to be difficult to fill.
  • At the New York Times Ross Douthat raises a number of concerns about the Holy Father’s decision to step down, and I admit that they resonate with me. There is a real sense, he writes, in which this decision is at odds with the idea of the papacy:

    There is great symbolic significance in the fact that popes die rather than resign: It’s a reminder that the pontiff is supposed to be a spiritual father more than a chief executive (presidents leave office, but your parents are your parents till they die), a sign of absolute papal surrender to the divine will (after all, if God wants a new pope, He’ll get one), and a illustration of the theological point that the church is still supposed to be the church even when its human leadership isn’t at fighting trim, whether physically or intellectually or (for that matter) morally.

  • David Warren writes that Benedict may have taken this unusual step in order to devote himself to the spiritual, rather than to the merely administrative, responsibilities with which he has been entrusted:

    And in retiring to a life of prayer, this man elected Pope may be taking upon himself a Gethsemane that only he fully understands, in light of his direct experience of Church government. The weight of the malice directed towards Rome, from the world outside but also from within many Church quarters, is something that must be dealt with not only pastorally, & politically, but in a mystical way, & thus necessarily out of public view. Benedict discerns that all his waning physical powers must be concentrated on that task, leaving the governing, pastoral, & other functions (iconic, liturgical, &c) to a successor. He took the name “Benedict,” which belonged to the founder of European monasticism. It is entirely possible that he knows what he is doing.

I hope, and trust, that it is so.

Pope Benedict held his last general audience earlier today; here is video of the final sung Pater Noster and his last papal blessing. Look at that smile. How I would have loved to be there:

Once at a time

February 19, 2013

Work out your own salvation
with fear and trembling.
— Epistle to the Philippians —

In the context of a discussion of Kierkegaard, Etienne Gilson touches on a matter fit for Lenten reflection:

Christianity’s own goal and solemn promise is to give each man eternal beatitude. It is both that promise and the way to fulfill it. Such a promise is for man of a literally “infinite” interest, and the only way for him to welcome it is to experience an “infinite passion” for it. In terms of the religious life, this means that the only answer a man can give to God’s message is a passionate will to achieve his own salvation, that is, to achieve his own infinite beatitude. A half-hearted effort to such an end would be quite out of proportion with it; it would not at all be a will to that end; it would not be that will at all.

On the other hand, if such a will actually arises in any man, it has to be the will to his own salvation, because what God has promised is actually to save him. Whether or not he was aware of the fact, Kierkegaard himself was merely repeating Bernard of Clairvaux, when he said: “This problem concerns no one but me.” And such indeed is the case, if the problem actually is to know how I myself can share in that beatitude which Christianity promises.

True enough, the same problem arises for each and every man, so that for an infinite number of men its solution, which is Christianity itself, is bound to be the same, but this does not mean that there is a general solution to the problem. Quite the reverse. Out of its own nature, this is such a problem as requires to be solved, an infinite number of times, once at a time; to solve it differently is not to solve it at all.

Being and Some Philosophers

Laird: Into the Silent Land

February 5, 2013

Into the Silent Land
A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation
Martin Laird
(Oxford, 2006)
154 p.

In this short but substantial book, Martin Laird gives a practical introduction to Christian contemplative prayer. It is a difficult, because profound, subject, and an adequate treatment calls for humility and fidelity and, not least, personal experience. Insofar as I can judge, Laird is a faithful guide. He draws widely on the Christian tradition of prayer, from the Church Fathers, the Carmelite mystics, spiritual masters east and west, and from contemporary writers such as Simone Weil. Despite his academic credentials (Laird is a professor at Villanova University) he wears his learning lightly and the tone of the book is personal and pastoral.

The purpose of contemplative prayer is to dispose one to encounter God. I phrase it this way intentionally: contemplation is not a technique with a guaranteed outcome, but a practice that prepares one for a personal encounter that comes at a time and in a manner not of one’s own choosing. Laird uses the image of the sailor: there is nothing he can do to make the wind blow, but there are skills he can develop to take advantage when it does, and the Christian contemplative tradition is substantially about developing this receptive attitude.  For it is an illusion, says Laird, to think that we are separated from God; in Him we live and move and have our being, but we are not aware of this. Contemplation is about slowly “excavating the present moment” in order to become aware of and receptive to God’s loving presence.

The principal contemplative practice is the cultivation of an intentional silence, a silence of body and mind. In a sense, it is quite simple: “Preserve a loving attentiveness to God with no desire to feel or understand any particular thing concerning God,” says St. John of the Cross. But inevitably there are difficulties, and chief among them are distractions — wandering thoughts, worries, day-dreams, and so on, which prevent the mind being quiet and attentive. Laird is particularly helpful in describing how to deal with such problems. He describes controlled breathing exercises (which remind me of non-Christian meditative practices, but which he plausibly argues is a neglected part of our own tradition too) and, most importantly, the “prayer word” which is repeated quietly, over and over, as a way of maintaining focus. The most common “prayer word” in the Christian tradition is the Jesus Prayer — more common in the East than the West, it is true — but it is a personal choice. (I myself lean on fragments of Psalm 46:10 and Ezekiel 36:26, or something from St. Augustine.) Laird gives quite a lot of attention to psychological aspects of contemplative prayer — to the abandonment of false personae, encounters with old emotional wounds, and other stages of spiritual maturation that are typically encountered in a dedicated contemplative practice.

This book has been for me an encouragement. The contemplative tradition has always attracted me, and I know that it is my path, but I have not been diligent in walking it. At some level I am afraid of delving too deep and dredging up a spiritual crisis of some sort; this has happened before, and it rendered me largely unfit for anything else. These days I have more or less all-consuming family responsibilities and I haven’t the luxury of being unfit. Hence my hesitation. But this book has made me reconsider my situation. Perhaps it cannot hurt to take up the Jesus Prayer again and see what happens. It’s a baby step, but one in the right direction.

[St. Augustine]
The third commandment enjoins quietness of heart, tranquility of mind. This is holiness. Because here is the Spirit of God. This is what a true holiday means, quietness and rest. Unquiet people recoil from the Holy Spirit. They love quarreling. They love argument. In their restlessness they do not allow the silence of the Lord’s Sabbath to enter their lives. Against such restlessness we are offered a kind of Sabbath in the heart. As if God were saying ‘stop being so restless, quieten the uproar in your minds. Let go of the idle fantasies that fly around in your head.’ God is saying, ‘Be still and see that I am God.” (Ps 46) But you refuse to be still. You are like the Egyptians tormented by gnats. These tiniest of flies, always restless, flying about aimlessly, swarm at your eyes, giving no rest. They are back as soon as you drive them off. Just like the futile fantasies that swarm in our minds. Keep the commandment. Beware of this plague.