To fall short of the standards which recommend us

For the religious to fall short of the standards [a standard is a type of flag ordinarily used as a type of identification], which recommends them to the world and to be found out is devastating in at least two ways. First, there is that terrible accusation of hypocrite and second, the expected attacks against their faith. Not only is the individual called a ‘fake’ but their long-held belief system is also called into question. The believer or the secularist for that matter who dares to go public with their moral standard is setting himself or herself up for the inevitable failure. In different but also in some very similar ways there is a resistance to both the believer and the non-believer who exists and moves about in the world. Moral excellence belongs to none. We are all works in progress saint and sinner alike. Who then is the perfect one ["as good as it is possible to be"] living and walking amongst us? The only question seems to be whether our transgressions remain secret or are exposed by some ‘accident’ of history; or a betrayal by a friend; or by our own digital footprint.[1] Nowadays, too, there is the added pressure and anxiety on the believer to appear ‘churchlike’ on account of the cynical view and increased scrutiny placed on faith-based communities, particularly by the progressively popular ‘anti-religion’ movements which ironically share demonstrable rudiments with religious fundamentalism.

Quotation: Satsuki Shibuya

Quotation: Satsuki Shibuya

So what to do especially during times when everybody seems to be on the lookout for ‘virtue signalling’? Human beings who are trying to practise some form of goodness within one of these faith-based communities are being more and more hunted out of existence as if some kind of sport. There is a hard choice to be made. Keep testifying to those things we hold of value knowing full well we shall fall short of our standard, or remain silent before an increasingly cynical world and say nothing that we might remain protected from scorn and likely ridicule. Writers for instance of such little and imperfect reflections as this present one are particularly susceptible, for compromises and contradictions knock everyday on their door. So then, it has been more than once that I have questioned myself whether I should stop uploading such entries. But I cannot stop. Even, if only for the entirely selfish reasons of self-therapy. And so the inner turmoil of being “mine own executioner” is the price I pay.

“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt. 6:12)

This anxiety of being ‘caught out’ [whether a religious or not] has the potential to paralyse the sensitive heart, to silence and to instil a sickening fear into the mind. It could leave a fellow human being in ruins as they go about trying to conquer their own private demons. Is it let's say hypocritical, to warn and to speak out on the shattering consequences of addiction if one is in secret fighting against an addiction himself or herself? Who knows more than the compulsive obsessive for example or the addicted of the limitless lure and ‘bloodletting’ of their diseases? Understanding the neuropsychology of addictive disorders is a lot harder than the easier option of a too hasty judgement. Our greatest teachers have been the “wounded healers” of our world who have dared speak when they themselves were near enough to burning.[2] Is he or she to keep silent, lest they be called out and labelled a ‘hypocrite’? It is a question which a large number of us will have to face. Whether and despite our imperfections and deviations from our ideal standards, for we are all broken in one way or another and we are [most of us at least] a walking quilt of patches, to keep on spiritually striving or to allow for the fear of falling short to dowse our spirit and so burying our authentic voice? We all want to appear credible and for our reputations to bear significance, the accusation of hypocrisy fills most of us with a sickening dread. Particularly in present times with that appalling association of ‘brand name’ to identity. It is for the individual to decide, to accept all manner of calumny if need be, or to be a crowd pleaser. “Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident,” writes Michael Josephson in a thought-provoking reflection. For there is little doubt that sooner or later we will hear that demoralising sound of stones crashing into our windows.

“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (Jn. 8:7)

It is a sad but undeniable truth that we fall, and fall ‘short of the mark’ daily. Transgression of one type or the other is our common lot. We also carry a big sack of contradictions which discourages and holds us down. But we should not despair nor disregard the intent of our hearts which point to the nobler side of ourselves. What things are these heart, and soul, and spirit? They are your inner voice [your conscience], and those invisible forces [of nature] which animate you and give you awareness, which differentiate between The Odyssey and the Apocalypse, that is, your consciousness.[3] It is vital we do not betray ourselves by giving up on what our soul whispers to us in the still of the night, when it reveals to us the truth of who we are called to become. Endurance will bring its own restoration. Every path worth taking is strewn with obstacles, but in essence that is what growth is all about: the ‘struggle’. This is the ongoing story behind all of the great odysseys in literature. Think also on the ‘lowly’ caterpillar which despite its unglamorous state continues on its journey to reveal itself one of nature’s most ethereal creatures, the butterfly. In terms of “us” this could be translated into the psychology of human development and the search for meaning.

To have tried our very best, to have remained vulnerable to attack, to struggle and to agonize [from the Gk. contest] over what it means to be a good person [when in truth none can be all good] even if ‘caught out’ for our transgressions, and to try to hold to the standards we have set ourselves right through to the last hours of our life, may well be our hardest and most beautiful work. More useful than any successful poem or grand score of music we might leave behind. It will certainly be our most enduring. It is what we would normally call our legacy. And so do not give up. The essence of life is growth. It is the ongoing process of broadening and heightening. Allow for no one to stop you from striving to reach the highest within you. As for perfection it is one of the great lies, it does not exist in the corruptible flesh, it’s a mythology in the service of the other ‘walking dead’. Pretending, that is being hypocritical, is very different to trying your very best.[4] The secret here is not to call out others by name. Here, as well, this is very different to fighting for justice instead of going after retribution. If we practise “true love” by forgiving “insults” directed at us, Saint Mark the Ascetic (5th cent. AD) encouragingly counsels, we have found a surer way of becoming “free from hypocrisy”.

There remains the real possibility we will continue to fight and struggle against our fetishes and failings and inconsistencies to our last breath, when we would have hoped to have loved more at the end than at the beginning. That is the glory then, even in the face of defeat to never give up on the ‘conquering’. I recollect here the story of a monk who had no intention of staying in his monastery after experiencing the rigours of the monastic life even after a few weeks. Every evening when alone in his cell he would remove his cassock to place it on the hook behind his door with the sincerest intention of leaving his vocation come morning. He went through this routine to the final days before his death, more than sixty years later. So he remained, he conquered. Was he right or wrong in his endurance? That is for him alone to know but his example is not without its merit. Is it worth it then, ‘wasting’ ourselves in the pursuit of our higher ideals? By ‘wasting’ I do not at all mean ‘destroying’ but giving up on those things which would in fact destroy us. Yes, as one of my favourite authors had once replied, it is worth it when it means stretching our human limitations and digging to the depths of our being even past “the darkness”. I am here referencing the much misunderstood Nikos Kazantzakis who was relentlessly driven to understand the purpose of life:

A command rings out within me: “Dig! What do you see?”
“Men and birds, water and stones.”
“Dig deeper! What do you see?”
“Ideas and dreams, fantasies and lightning flashes!”
“Dig deeper! What do you see?”
“I see nothing! A mute Night, as thick as death. It must be death.”
“Dig deeper!”
“Ah! I cannot penetrate the dark partition! I hear voices and weeping. I hear the flutter of wings on the other shore.”

“Don’t weep! Don’t weep! They are not on the other shore. The voices, the weeping, and the wings are your own heart.”[5]

To outwardly identify someone with their lapse, the reasons which we should probably never know, would be one of our cruelest acts. It is a denial of all their other possibilities. So let us practice compassion in its place. It does matter how we treat others. Love is a combination of many motivating qualities, both known and unknown, but it is compassion [to ‘suffer with’], which is its most recognizable expression. When people are crushed for air and the world around them seems to be falling apart their discernment can fracture into a thousand pieces. A man I once knew, a good man and a respected member of his believing community, had in one unthinkable moment lost all but one of his family in an automobile accident. He turned to alcohol for some years in a hopeless effort to numb the pain which could not be numbed. Yet all along he would say that he understood liquor was not the answer and would in his sober hours warn others of its uselessness. He remained accountable to himself. That was enough. So what was he then? Was he a grieving and suffering soul struggling to survive or was he an unrequited drunkard and a fake? So, yes, let us hold off from such quick judgements. Could we even for a minute put ourselves in the shoes of this modern day Job? To what shadowy places would our own desperation take us or has taken us already? He recovered, by the way, the best he could, to be a source of real hope for others. Even to this day his is one of the names which does help to sustain me.

“It is not what you are nor what you have been that God sees with His all-merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.” (The Cloud of Unknowing, anon.)

Do not rush to expose your brother or sister nor to find delight in their humbling. We are all in need of reproof during our times of carelessness but a gentle correction is very different to overlooking the log in your own eye. What if the multiplicity of your own secret transgressions were to be suddenly exposed to the world? I would want for the ground beneath my feet to open fast and to be quickly swallowed up. So let us, then, give the benefit of the doubt to those who struggle yet truly believe in the nobility of the better man or woman, and if they are caught out judge them not by their inglorious fall but rather consider whether they have spread a little more compassion and sunlight into their community. Therefore we should also be very careful of value judgements, that is, judging others based on our own standards and priorities. And let us ask ourselves the following question why is that we do not hold to a similar account the more famous amongst us? We punish the everyday man or woman to the point of persecution, but the celebrity or the powerful we admire and elevate even more when they fall short of those ideals which we would normally consider inviolate. Amazingly, it is as if our idolizing is an inoculation against the charge of hypocrisy against the ‘stars’. If we do not worship the Creator we will worship the created order. We will elevate the corrupt and the decaying material body to a space it cannot survive. We are hurting ourselves and those around us by drinking in the opiate of superficiality, and by lowering our standards we are also selling short the future of our children’s generations. We teach them that success belongs to others and that to them is bequeathed the measure of mediocrity. Because you are wounded, because you have fallen, because you have made a trainload of mistakes, these are not good enough reasons to give up on the person you have been called to become. You are a unique presence in this world “made of star stuff” as Carl Sagan once famously quipped and for the community of believers the very temple of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1Cor. 6:19f). Do not allow for the stone throwers to diminish your self-worth.

To keep trying to be human till your death, this would be a life well lived. This is then, too, what it means to try to be good. Each day is an opportunity to grow deeper into that eternal potential breathed into us from the moment of our creation and to live out in greatly richer expressions the radiance of compassion. Therefore this is the hardest truth, to “die daily” (1Cor. 15:31). This is the geography of the “unseen warfare”. Ultimately, what really matters in this everyday struggle of ours with all of its ups and downs, is that God alone knows and discerns the true intent of “the hearts of all the children of men” (1Kgs 8:39).

“Dear Lord, you know I am not perfect, too often I have been anxious that I would be found out to have fallen short of the mark, scared of being held to account for not being perfect to my word, yet allow for me to be at peace in the knowledge that trying my best will be my chief and most enduring work.”

[1] By transgression here and throughout, I am referring to a personal moral lapse or weakness, and not to any crime which might have to do with a violence inflicted upon another. This is another matter altogether and would require a different and more immediate response.

[2] Henri J. M. Nouwen’s famously insightful reflection on the healer as wounded himself or herself yet in the service of ministering to others has rarely left my side: https://www.amazon.com/Wounded-Healer-Ministry-Contemporary-Society/dp/0385148038

[3] This is a truly huge topic, even when it comes to definitions with many disciplines contributing to our understanding of self and the question of human spirituality, which then naturally spills into the complex connection between the mind and matter. A good start would be with an initial introduction to these subjects from the reliable Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/about.html

[4] Of all places I came across a marvellously discerning article in The Guardian addressing hypocrisy in the modern context [and how we can accuse people wrongly] very useful and certainly worth sharing: https://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2016/nov/17/its-only-wrong-when-you-do-it-the-psychology-of-hypocrisy

[5] https://www.lifemasteryhacker.com/blog/nikos-kazantzakis-on-life-death-and-the-meaning-of-it-all

Sorrow Comes to All

“Christ offers us, not a way round suffering, but a way through it; not a substitution, but saving companionship.” (Kallistos Ware)

http://meetville.com/images/quotes/

http://meetville.com/images/quotes/

Where is God during these times? Where is He when bad things happen to good people? How do the words of a preacher help or heal those who have lost their homes, who have lost their families, those who are alone in prison, or in a hospital dying of cancer? The mother whose child is dying in her arms because it is sick or hungry? “Where is God?” ask the poor and the abandoned. “Where is He now?” asks the young person about to put an end to his or her life. The words of no individual, however great, cannot ever eliminate the pain nor explain away the suffering. We would be deluded to think that our words, even though genuine and caring, could wipe away the multitude of tears. And yet, by pointing to divine revelation, that is, witnessing to Scripture and to the “Word” (the eternal LOGOS who was from the “beginning” Jn. 1:1), a sorrowful heart can be shown that there is, indeed, a way through the suffering. However desperate and improbable our situation, always there is hope for we have been “begotten” to a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1Pet. 1:3). God is there, sharing in our common humanity, “taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7), experiencing our pain, empathizing with our humiliation, feeling our rejection, suffering with us in a meaningful and enduring way. He does understand our grief and reveals to us the way through our sorrow.

In His human nature, before His terrible crucifixion, the GodMan prays, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). He is there in every hospital and prison and orphanage and broken home and mourning heart. “I was naked and you clothed Me” (Matt. 25:36). The Father was there at Calvary when His only begotten Son cried unto Him, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46) There will come a day, Scripture tells us, a specific moment in history when all sorrow and all suffering will come to an end, “[a]nd God will wipe away every tear... there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying... no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). God promises, that similarly to Jesus, our pain will be redeemed and a higher understanding will come to us for “now we see in a mirror, dimly” (1Cor. 13:12). This does not lessen the brutality of our toughest battles, but it does mean our tears and suffering are not to be looked upon as ‘wastelands’. These experiences of sorrow ("feelings of deep distress") are not only commonplace in our lives, but often they are the only authentic way of communicating with each other. Real pain, unlike feigned pleasure, cannot be easily counterfeited. Fairy-tales and myths, from the earliest of years when the believing community was persecuted and torn asunder, had nothing to do with a faith ‘blind’ to the outside reality -but it was a belief tested and realized in the world and established in blood.

What may presently be inexplicable, will be made clear to us on that last day to which we do "not know what hour" (Matt. 24:42). We will see that our path, strewn with both joy and heartache, was our unique way through life and that it could not have been any different; in some tangible sense our spiritual DNA. And that He, our Lord, was there with us in ways that we could not ever have possibly imagined. That He was there during those times when sorrow might appear to be robbing us of breath and even of life itself- as the penitent thief himself discovered on Golgotha Hill when he asked the Lord to remember him in His kingdom, “[a]ssuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43).

Sorrow does not discriminate and it cares little for our religious convictions or philosophies. We all have to find a way through our suffering and to make sense of it. Our profoundest thinkers have encouraged us to not fight the provenance of our pain but to ask the meaningful question: What does this suffering mean for me and how can I use it? There is an assumption of reason here, that we are not dealing with “accident”. The Universe itself we are discovering is not without cause or order. If gravity is just slightly moved, then there is nothing. Physicists and cosmologists are all the more speaking of “fine-tuning” and moving away from theories of random behaviour. We, too, are the stuff of stardust. Let us at least, if we are not able to do anything else, bring comfort to those who are in deep distress. This alone might be one of our great successes as human beings.

“Dear Father, I still do not understand and I suffer at the awful horrors and unimaginable pain about me. How are these dreadful and abysmal things possible when every good thing has proceeded forth from Eternal Love? I weep at the impossibility for wherever I turn, I come back to you, and to you Alone. Yes, my Lord, if there is any small goodness within me, it is on account of my suffering, and if we have performed any good deed, that too, is on account of our suffering that we might learn something of compassion.”

Memory of Death

“Let the memory of death sleep and awake with you” (Saint John of Sinai).

Francisco de Zurbáran  St Francis  (c. 1660)

Francisco de Zurbáran St Francis (c. 1660)

We would do almost anything to push the actuality of our death further into the distance, to that place where ‘bad’ things do not happen. We will not die, death is for others, we tell ourselves. The noise and distraction we introduce into our lives makes it difficult to reflect, to go into the heart. And nowadays, too, the ‘spectacle’ via our connection to the electronic ether dulls us to the reality of our mortality even further. To paraphrase a spiritual writer, “It [death] is always nearer than you think.” We also try to remove traces of death in physical ways as well. We look to do this, for example, by attempting to banish the proofs of decay and death which surround us. We commit the elderly, our Mothers and Fathers (the reservoirs of wisdom and of magnificent stories) into exile, and we makeover our faces in futile efforts for eternal youth. Technology is seen as the solution to this dread that our walk upon this earth will one day come to an end. Those who argue we can live ‘forever’ (depending on the definition of existence) place their faith in the ingenuity of human beings. But does not nature itself, the laws of the physical universe, teach us that to all things there is a beginning and an end? Perhaps the key here is that to all things there is “change”.

It is not unnatural or ‘unhealthy’ to reflect upon and to have memory of death. It is one of the common lessons of the great religious traditions and even of our most profound humanist philosophies, to keep in mind that we shall die. It has not meant to go about being sad or morbid or raising the fist to heaven. In the Scriptures our mortality is considered one of the Creator’s providential miracles, that following in the example of Christ’s triumph over death, we will be raised up into new life which will be eternal and no longer subject to disease and corruption (Rev 21:4). The famous funerary text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is effectively one long reflection on death and why we should prepare for its inevitability with "examination" and "scrutiny". Nothing of this means that death is not ‘real’ or that its pain and horror should not touch us. It is in fact, precisely on account of its dreadfulness and inescapability that we should reflect upon it, and make it a daily exercise to confront and indeed to befriend it. So why should we have memory of death?

Whatever our goals or successes in life, it is the shadow of death which ultimately hangs over everything. For both ourselves and all we create, however beautiful or profound, will one day vanish. Great men and women have no immunity over mortality, and great civilizations have gone and are lost forever. And yet death need not be that awful and terrible ogre that we reckon it to be. What is common to those belonging to believing communities who hold to an afterlife but also for those who do not (yet who have reflected profoundly on their own passing), is the ultimate meaning of life. Our response to death in many ways determines how we understand and go through life. It defines the sanctity and purpose of our life goals, behaviour, and reactions to obstacles. And yes, our comprehension of transgression and sin. More directly, reflecting on our temporality gives meaning to even the simplest actions and fills them with a deeper significance. Though it is not possible for many of us who live in the ‘hustle and bustle’ of the city, we still can experience something of what the spiritual masters have long understood and have attempted to put into daily practice: the recognition our lives are fleeting presences, “Man is like a mere breath; His days are like a passing shadow” (Ps 144:4). For some of these spiritual masters every breath is precious, the very air we inhale and exhale. Earthly possessions and attainments are understood as temporal and illusory as the hours themselves which turn into years and then into centuries. And so paradoxically it is here, in this very fragility of our existence that our uniqueness and significance is to be discovered.

To rise up in the morning and make every effort to live that day as if it may be our last, is one of the mysteries to a rich and fulfilling life. All things are imbued with a more vibrant colour, the song of the Olive-backed Thrush is even sweeter, the rain upon the flesh and the water of the ocean about the feet inspire gratitude, great music and art and literature penetrate our spirits in new and unusual ways. We strive to perform turns of charity in secret. More importantly, we love almost to the point of a sweet and unbearable pain and we forgive with an ease of spirit, each and every contact with a fellow sojourner can be an encounter of consequence. My children and wife too, I see them in a different light. This does not make us dumb or unresponsive to the horrors which are unleashed about us daily, violence and poverty and disease. We find that we become more quickly compassionate and responsive because we have come to understand life is indeed rightly precious. Whether here, in this place, or before the judgement seat of God, there will be accountability for our deeds and actions. Saint Gregory the Theologian echoes the greatest philosopher of all time, Plato, when he counsels that the present life should be a “meditation upon death.”

And so when it is time for us to leave we hope for our acts, big or small, to have been positive and worthwhile. We pray that our contribution and legacy would have inspired and given aspiration to others. All this and more on account of our learning how to die, as did Saint Paul who “die[d] daily” (1Cor 15:31). Ultimately, this is true memory of death. If I was to die today  am I close or near enough to the man or woman I was meant to be.

“Dear Lord, grant me the priceless gift of the memory of death, allow for me to reflect daily on my mortality that I might discover the hidden wonders which surround me. Permit for my heart to rejoice in the everyday miracles of the small but beautiful things, and for my mind to comprehend that all things touch upon the eternal, that nothing is insignificant. Oh, how I pray, for that knowledge which goes beyond the physical eyes to reveal that in every day there is a lifecycle to be lived.” 

Not Tonight My Heart

“Hope is some extraordinary spiritual grace that God gives us to control our fears, not to oust them” (Vincent McNabb).

Marleen De Waele-De Bock's  Sadness  (2012)

Marleen De Waele-De Bock's Sadness (2012)

Not tonight my heart, this is not the night. If you should move your hand to extinguish the light, this light, it will all be finished, there will be no turning back. This was not how your life upon this earth was meant to end. What has brought you here, to this darkest of places. Who has robbed you of hope? Who has stolen your dreams? And who has sought to diminish your worth? Stay with me for a while. Let us keep each other company, at least until the morning hours. We need not talk, a few words might be all we need, stay with me, at least until the morning hours. If it grows cold, if it gets too dark, I am here, with you. What are you thinking? That no one understands? That people, even those you love, have stopped listening? I know it is what you are thinking. I know. It is frightening to feel completely alone. Yes, it hurts, in places too deep for names. Nameless places, there is no room for alphabets here, only sighs, and moans, and groans. Not even tears they were spent long ago. I know. Your thoughts are real, like a broken bone, but they are not you. Tonight especially you must distinguish between these thoughts, and your will to live. It is difficult to breathe, even to breathe, that too I understand. If only this pain would go away, if it would stop, at last. Your suffering has become unbearable, I can see this, any moment it can break you, break you into a thousand pieces. Is your agony greater now than it was an hour ago? You are still here, you see, all things are possible. I do not ask of you to take a leap of faith into the limitless abyss, but to be still and to incline your ear, listen, sometimes you need to say good-bye to the old self, and it can only happen on nights like these. On nights like these when you are tested, when you are brought to the scorching edge, to be forged, and to be made stronger. Do not allow for despair to swathe its binding around your eyes. Not tonight my heart, this is not the night. Understand pain for what it is; an invaluable helper to keep your spirit awake and alert that you might respond both to the light and to the fire of the Sun. Your fight is not with your pain, but it is a battle against your suffering. Pain is your hurting, but it is your suffering, it is this, which will give you meaning.

And so ask yourself, this is not the time for half-truths and excuses, and so ask yourself, what has brought you here, to this valley of the shadow of death? Let go of things and places and people which are pulling at your soul, allow yourself the joy and lightness of heart which can only come with the great abandonment. Release your ego, it is weighing you down. Just for these next few minutes, allow for yourself to see through those swathes which are binding your eyes, just for these next few minutes. I will let you in on a simple secret, known to angels and anchorites of old, what is unspeakable can yet be lived. Let this suffering be your way to a deeper understanding of who you are, and who you are called to become. Tonight this could be that place of your greatest and most important discovery, here in this bloody battlefield, you are given your second chance. I know you have had this revelation of the ‘other self’ in the past. It is you, it really is you, do not be afraid of the splendor. “So do not fear, for I am with you.” (Is. 41:10) Hope cannot be taken away, it can only be surrendered. Dreams cannot be stolen, they can only be forgotten. Worth cannot be diminished, it is forever a measure of your dignity as a child of God. Your wounds, these great big wounds, which you think are beyond any possible healing let them become windows, dazzling openings to Love and Light. Become the refuge and the source of belief to others. You will have the most to teach.

Do not feel guilty it is all right to sometimes feel like this, for your soul to ask of you to nourish it with new meaning and content, it is shedding old skin. It refuses to become stone. It is good that you can still feel, even down to these very depths of your anguish, this is your proof, you believe in something. Hold tight onto this grace. Is it your own voice you are hearing? Wonderful, this is how the new day begins. Things will be much clearer, you will not have all the answers, but you will be closer to the reasons. You will have drawn nearer to your purpose determined even before the foundation of the brightest star. And so not tonight, this is not the night, let not your trembling hand turn to extinguish the light. I am here, with you. 

The Tremendous Mystery of God

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements - surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?” (Job 38:4-5).

Saint Basil the Great   St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Saint Basil the Great  St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Atheism is, of course, not new. Though the word can be traced to the sixteenth century (lifted from the Ancient Greek to mean “godless” or to “deny the gods”), its history is as old as some of our earliest materialist philosophies and indeed, religions themselves. But there are two particular periods for us ‘moderns’ that are especially noted for the argument that religion is a superstition with adherents who do not exercise reason, and who for the better part, are fanatics.  At the same time natural science renders any literal belief in the Bible indefensible. What is common to these eras, the Enlightenment or Age of Reason (late 17th and 18th century), and our present times is the great progress in the sciences. Religious have responded in various ways to such titanic movements, some plainly wrong. There have been those, however, who set the good example. They have done so by entering in to the debate, by accepting correction where correction was required, and acknowledging that the tremendous mystery of God rather than being extinguished by the huge strides of science, is made all the more profound and astonishing.

It is indeed right to admit as believers in an omnipotent and omniscient Creator, that we do not know everything, and there is nothing whatsoever to be lost in acknowledging that we can be enriched by others outside our own particular belief-system. Most of us are familiar with the Enlightenment and with its revolutionary contribution not only in the sphere of the sciences but also in the broader area of the humanities. The medieval world-view was effectively put to death and so the idea of the modern world came into being. But what is this ‘new atheism’ so prominently espoused in our days by some very famous and very passionate people?

New atheism is not so ‘new’ after all. It has roots in the cultural Marxism of the 1920’s, though it often claims to be “carrying out” the work of the Enlightenment. This movement above all strong in the 1960’s understood Christian religion as a force which blinded people, particularly the working class, of its true nature and purpose. And so the religion had to be destroyed. But not everything about this school of thought which understood culture as a tool of oppression, is so damning, for instance, its critique of unequal social relations. Nowadays however, the rapid advances of scientific exploration and the modern-day marvels of technology have added an additional prestige to this increasingly popular new atheism movement. Moreover, the open and free access to information has allowed for the abuses of power in some parts of faith-based communities to become exposed… and rightly so. This has further eroded in many minds the beliefs and claims of religious. So how do we respond to these solid attacks on those very things which we hold to be most precious, that is, our belief in a personal Creator, who is not only interested in our lives, but who also continues to act in history. It is not easy in the face of especially eloquent and persuasive arguments in support of the ‘death of God’, often by persons like the incomparable author and polemicist Christopher Hitchens or the charismatic and highly qualified astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Not all of us have the knowledge and the abilities of an Ernan McMullin or a William Lane Craig to answer back to the first, or of a Sir Robert Boyd or a J. Richard Gott to get back to the second. Most of us would fall down, flat on our faces. So what is it that we ‘lesser lights’ can do?

We can accept and learn. And then testify to whatever little shards of the Light we, ourselves, might possess. Sometimes we might surprise with words and insights we never knew we possessed- the legacy of Pentecost and those tongues "as of fire" (Acts 2:1-4). This is to accept it is natural for individuals to disagree on the ‘big’ questions and that people respond to evidence, whether documentary or physical, in different ways. We each possess diverse gifts and we should admire these talents in others without anxiety or fear that this would somehow diminish or weaken our faith and strengthen the arguments of those on the other side. The new atheists can teach us to be more determined and much better read when presenting to the world our principles of faith, and indeed, to consider what example of moral exemplars we are who claim our ethical foundations from divine revelation. Whether we are Christians or members of other faith-based communities let us not fear those attacks from high places. They are not all misplaced. Let us take what is good and profitable to the spirit, rather than becoming unduly defensive and fretful. We should allow for these strikes to make us more sensitive to our responsibilities as faith bearers, but also to understand that science is a discipline which can only bring to us a greater amazement at the wonderment and mysteries of God, or as others might prefer, primum movens, the ‘Prime Mover’.

It does not mean that we too, cannot take offence at arguments or positions which are either not correct or scientifically prejudicial. We can and should take offence when Saint Paul’s, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11) is flagrantly taken out of context, suggesting that the Apostle to the Gentiles outgrew his faith. This is not only patronizing to readers of the New Testament but also showing that even the best intellects are not immune from an arrant misinterpretation of sources. And also we need not remain silent when elite scientists tell us that religious are “wired” to believe as if that is some sort of crime or evolutionary deficiency. Are we then also to believe the reverse, that those who are “wired” to dis-believe are somehow superior? This position whatever the neurological or biochemical proofs, is not only arrogant but also a terribly dangerous ideology, with consequences too horrible to consider here.

Ultimately, let us go about our own business of trying to become better men and women, and if we believe in a Creator, fear nothing and hope for everything. There is a synthesis here, and it is good to finish in this way. Albert Einstein, who incidentally was not a believer in God- and religious do themselves a disservice by claiming as much for his private correspondence makes it very clear he was not- spoke of his “sense of god” as his “sense of wonder” about the universe. This truly limitless fascination should be a place where we can All meet allowing for the overwhelming awe which grips the heart of the other to inspire our thoughts and to excite our souls. Next to Einstein’s evocative reflection, we can as a community of believers point to a similar declaration from Saint Basil the Great in his Hexaemeron commenting on the cosmogony of Genesis 1:1: “I stop struck with admiration at this thought. What shall I first say? Where shall I begin my story?”

What is the Apocalypse?

"Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me" (Revelation 3:20).

The Book of Revelation  (circa 95 A.D.)

The Book of Revelation (circa 95 A.D.)

Apocalypse is a word which will normally stir feelings of anxiety and dread in our hearts. This is particularly true if the term is connected to the Book of Revelation, especially for those who have not read the book or who might have read it with little knowledge of the text’s rich history and literary context. To begin with, ‘apocalypse’ is from the Greek which means revelation, that is an “unveiling” of things not previously known. Apocalypse does not mean cataclysm or catastrophe, albeit the apocalyptic genre is also concerned with those subjects.

Traditionally apocalypses are created during periods of great upheaval and unrest, during times of natural disasters and war. The literature reflects the fears and hopes of its author and recipients, they have a dread that the world is coming to an end and they want to be saved from the impending doom. But there is much more to John’s apocalypse, more correctly the Revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev 1:1), than his references to seals, and plagues, and beasts, and final conflicts, and that infamous “666”. Importantly, too, apocalypses are not only about prophecy. And in John’s case his revelation is also a letter addressed to the seven churches which are in Asia (Rev. 1:4). This not only has the intent to announce the document’s universal significance, that is, its ‘catholicity’, but also to create a sense of intimacy which comes through the epistolary form. Unfortunately, it is the backdrop of the apocalyptic which will normally transfix readers and keep them anchored to the prophetic or ‘end-times’ scenarios alone. There is, however, something else happening in John’s book as well, outside its tempered use of the apocalyptic symbology (in contradistinction to the non-canonical apocalypses rejected by the early church), that the apocalypse is also a personal address. And it is this marvellous aspect to the book which we too often lose sight or fail to acknowledge as a community of believers.

How then can this ‘fantastic’ prophecy be read on an intimate level? We should remember that it is also a letter, and that in addressing church communities it is at the same time speaking to the individual members who comprise that community of believers. Whether in John’s times when the first Christians were undergoing persecution, or during the Great Wars and other global conflicts when we could destroy each other, or today when it seems unless we concede (if not directly contribute) to the deconstruction of religious faith, the book continues to speak to us. On a personal level most of us will have to live through our own little apocalypses and final judgements, we will enter into our own conflicts and battles and often enough feel that we cannot go on. The Book of Revelation can speak to us, revealing that however hopeless things might appear there is always a deliverance. Whatever the ‘beasts’ or ‘dragons’ we are dealing with, irrespective of any prognosis whether real or of our own making, however dark things might appear, an “overcoming” (Rev. 2:17) over any obstacle is not outside our reach. This does not necessarily mean that things will work out as we might want them, but that the Creator has seen to a better way to “wipe away every tear” (Rev. 21:4). For both the history of the world and our own little smaller individual histories, there will be redemption and unveiling of what it was all about and why it had to be that way.

Look at those who have achieved true greatness and who have brought joy and beauty and hope into the world. Have any of these men and women been exempt from the purgatorial fires of life? Have any of these souls been spared from suffering even of the worst kind? No. Viktor E. Frankl who survived the horror of the Nazi concentration camps sums it so very well, “What is to give light must endure burning.”

The Truth

“Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37).

Vincent van Gogh  The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix  (1890)

Vincent van Gogh The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix (1890)

Many of us are determined for our Truth to be the ultimate expression of the “supreme reality.” After all, we have invested so much time, and effort, and sacrifice to its defence. We have built our dreams and hopes on its sure foundation. One of the most difficult things is to faithfully hold onto this truth and to go about our life quietly, spreading a little of its light along the way. The danger is when we think we are the exclusive possessors of the revelation which has graciously come down to us. Often enough it is precisely that, our own personalized truth, and not even that of the church or religious community to which we profess to belong. Ever since Pontius Pilate asked the one who was about to be Crucified, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38), we have been challenged as to how we ourselves might respond. Ultimately, it is not so much by our confession that the truth we hold is revealed to the world, but more so by our practice of the virtues. This is wonderfully paradoxical given believers come to truth through faith. The most erudite and inspired theology in the world or indeed the profoundest comprehension of the various dimensions and expositions of truth in mathematics and philosophy, will not quench the thirst of a dying child nor heal the wounds of our neighbour. Often times, the only truths are visceral and come from our agonizing cries for help. The truth will, indeed, set us free, but only to the measure that we extend to it the same degree of grace. And so let us go about our own business of practising compassion through unqualified love, and permit for the Holy Spirit to go about his own simple work of saving.

Hope

“And you shall be secure, because there is hope; yes, you shall dig about you, and you shall take your rest in safety” (Job 11:18).

George Frederic Watts  Hope  (1886)

George Frederic Watts Hope (1886)

Hope is my favourite word. It has helped me survive and not give up looking for meaning during hard times when all appeared lost. It gave substance to the other great words which I needed to trust in: love, faith, and prayer. Why do we place such confidence in these profoundly spiritual expressions of life? I think one of the reasons is because of our 'expectation', that not only are these movements into grace possible, but also do-able. Outside the living-out of hope, this longing for delivery and restoration, how else are we to put into practice those other hope-inspired acts which give purpose and meaning to our lives? Hope is the opposite to despair. It means refusing to surrender or to believe there is no way out. Hope can change everything, and it usually does. Hope is “to bend your ear over your almost shattered lyre,” recollecting George Frederic Watts's evocative painting “Hope” (1886), “to catch the music from the last remaining string.” Needless to say, hope can be experienced in different ways, like our unique reaction to the ringing of a doorbell past midnight.