Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Liberty and Obedience

Our faith is not founded upon empty words; nor are we carried away by mere caprice or beguiled by specious arguments. On the contrary, we put our faith in words spoken by the power of God, spoken by the Word himself at God’s command. God wished to win men back from disobedience, not by using force to reduce him to slavery but by addressing to his free will a call to liberty.

The Word spoke first of all through the prophets, but because the message was couched in such obscure language that it could be only dimly apprehended, in the last days the Father sent the Word in person, commanding him to show himself openly so that the world could see him and be saved.

We know that by taking a body from the Virgin he re-fashioned our fallen nature. We know that his manhood was of the same clay as our own; if this were not so, he would hardly have been a teacher who could expect to be imitated. If he were of a different substance from me, he would surely not have ordered me to do as he did, when by my very nature I am so weak. Such a demand could not be reconciled with his goodness and justice.

No. He wanted us to consider him as no different from ourselves, and so he worked, he was hungry and thirsty, he slept. Without protest he endured his passion, he submitted to death and revealed his resurrection. In all these ways he offered his own manhood as the first fruits of our race to keep us from losing heart when suffering comes our way, and to make us look forward to receiving the same reward as he did, since we know that we possess the same humanity…

So let us not be at enmity with ourselves, but change our way of life without delay. For Christ who is God, exalted above all creation, has taken away man’s sin and has re-fashioned our fallen nature. In the beginning God made man in his image and so gave proof of his love for us. If we obey his holy commands and learn to imitate his goodness, we shall be like him and he will honor us. God is not beggarly, and for the sake of his own glory he has given us a share in his divinity.
St. Hippolytus, Office of Readings, December 30

Reflection – This reading struck me when it came up in the Office yesterday, so I thought I would share it with you all.

We see in it quite a few of the central themes of the Christmas season. First, there is the realism of the Incarnation. It is not a fantasy or a myth or a ‘symbol’ (whatever that means). God really became man. It is all real, the Word becoming flesh, God sharing our humanity so that we might share his divinity.

Christianity does indeed call us to heroism, to heroic generosity and love, to totality of service, to an obedience that is willing to endure whatever hardship or sacrifice may come, even to the point of martyrdom. Hippolytus of course is writing in the age of martyrs, so this was not a vague abstraction for him. People he personally knew and loved had been killed for following Christ (it’s always good to remember that about the ante-Nicene fathers—these weren’t dusty academics writing treatises in libraries, but men who were preaching the Gospel in situations of imminent terror and death).

So if God didn’t really become a man, as some of the contemporary Gnostic versions of Christianity held, but it was all some kind of optical illusion or pretense, then what good could He be to us in our human struggles and weaknesses? But He did, and He is.

The other great theme here, even though it is just a short passing reference, is liberty. God came this way—making Himself one of us, so small, so humble, so tender—so that we might not be simply terrified and cowed into obedience, but moved by the gentle beautiful love of God to it. Liberty is for obedience, our freedom is to be exercised in the free and loving choice to obey God unreservedly.

But this obedience is not that of the slave, afraid of a beating, or of the wage-slave, looking for a paycheck. It is the obedience of the son, or rather of the Son, an obedience that comes out of total love and total trust in the goodness of the Father.

It is this that the Lord of Christmas wishes to bring us. This is why it is such a beautiful story, why He came with such light and loveliness. It is so that we could finally be persuaded, as we were persuaded otherwise in the garden, that God is good, that He does desire our happiness, that He is on our side, that He is with us.

And this is not to free us up so we can do any bloody foolish thing we choose, but so we can really choose to do what is good, true, and beautiful. Really choose God, ultimately, and welcome Him into our lives, our hearts, and allow Him to teach us and empower us to live good lives, ultimately to live so thoroughly through, with, and in Him that our lives may become a true sharing in his divine life and so bear us into eternal light and splendor with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Monday, December 30, 2013

God Was a Homeless Refugee

There fared a mother driven forth, Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless, All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand, With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand, Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes, And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land, Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes, And chance and honor and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies, Where the Yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable, Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless, Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know, But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show, Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale, And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough, For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings, And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings, Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening, Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden, And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star, To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless, And all men are at home.

GK Chesterton, The House of Christmas

Reflection – OK, I’m on a little bit of a GKC bender right now. It does seem to me, though, that Christmas drew something out of the big man that was most beautiful. His poetic muse in particular was stirred by the paradoxes and astonishing contradictions of the feast—poverty and richness, littleness and immensity, power and weakness, all meeting and combining in completely new ways in the stable at Bethlehem.

Here we have the realities of home and homelessness, and the fact—the solid, historical fact—that at least at the very event of his birth, God chose to enter the human experience of homelessness, as in the flight to Egypt he chose to enter the human experience of being a refugee.

This has been a matter of some controversy in the Catholic blogosphere this year, due perhaps to an over-politicization by some of the fact of God’s homelessness. It is never a good thing, on any end of the political spectrum, to take the sacred realities of our faith and turn them to serve some political agenda or other. One might even call it blasphemy to do so. In American terms, for example, God did not become a man so that either the Republicans or the Democrats could better turn out their base for the 2014 mid-terms, you know.

But that’s not what this is about, at all. The deeper reality is that every human being is homeless, in a certain sense. There is a dislocation, a displacement, a refugee status that applies to the whole human race. I have written about this at length. Even as I sit here gazing out the window at my beloved Combermere woods, I can feel it—not quite where I am meant to be, not quite home.

And God, in entering into that dislocation and displacement, establishes a home for humanity that is more solid and enduring than the mighty city of Rome, than the intellectual brilliance of Athens, the wealth and sophistication of New York, the culture of Paris, than any other effort of human beings to establish a lasting residence, a fixed address on earth.

The truth is, we have no fixed address. We are all of us drifters, vagabonds, bums. And the reason we are such is that we have lost our hearts in a million fugitive illusory things, and our heads are dedicated to chasing shadows and forgeries and pretences of the true, the good, the beautiful. We left home to look for something better and ended up washed up, flat broke and living rough on the streets—all of us, every one, no exceptions. It’s called sin, folks, and no one is exempt.

And so we have this little baby and this little mama and this little man Joseph, and the sheep, the cattle, the stable walls—all very provisional and fragile and temporary… and the most lasting home we have on this earth, the most solid and stable and deeply founded place to lay our heads until we go to our true home through that gateway called Death.

We are home where God is homeless, we are rich where God is poorest, we are strong where God is weakest. The great paradox of Christianity, and that is why we rejoice and are glad that God was a homeless refugee born in peril and want, to deliver us from peril and want. Merry Christmas, still, and don’t forget to ‘call home’ today.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Hope Starry, Frantic, Free

Late thou comest, little one, Snow is on the stones.
Earth is bitter, little one, Grey with mists and moans.
Thou art cold as we art cold, Huddled with the lost.
Star of winter, star of want, Crowned with the frost.

Bare thou comest, blessed one, Clean of rod or crown.
Stark and poor, beloved one, As God sends us down.
Thou art bare as we art bare. Bare as death and birth.
Naked as the stars and snows, We come upon the earth.

New thou comest, nascent one, Little hands astray
Where life formless lies, and void, As creation’s day
And though our hopes for man be wild, Starry, frantic, free
All things now are possible, Unto God and Thee.
GK Chesterton, Hymn of the Poor

Reflection – I have always loved this poem of GKC’s. The idea of the poor of the world at the stable, singing to the Christ Child, is a deep one. There is a bit more to the poem, and in fact I have seen variant texts of it with different stanzas here and there. But this is enough to give the sense of it.

There is something very beautiful about the whole spiritual reality of poverty as it is met by Christ here. There is nothing particularly praise-worthy about poverty in itself, we must realize. The simple fact of being hungry, cold, naked is not virtuous, nor (alas!) does it automatically render the poor one virtuous. If only it were that simple, eh?

Of course, neither is being rich virtuous nor does the possession of wealth render the possessor virtuous. I make these, which may seem rather obvious points, because there is an awful lot of nonsense floating around to the contrary on both sides.

Poverty is not a virtue, but poverty is something else that pertains deeply to the spiritual life, which is another way of saying poverty is deeply connected to the reality of true and lasting human happiness and flourishing. Namely, poverty is truth.

Poverty, real physical poverty and the want it delivers to us, plants us (whether we like it or not, whether everything in us seethes and rebels at it or not) in the deep truth of our humanity, which is our state of radical dependence. Every poor man, no matter what else is going on in his life, knows in his very flesh that he is not self-sufficient, that the cold can kill, that hunger is real, that we are not placed on this earth containing within ourselves everything that a human being needs for life.

This is where the poor have an advantage over the rich. The rich can fool themselves, can perhaps acknowledge in some vague abstract way the dependent nature of human life, but may never really experience it in any real sharp way.

So, back to Chesterton. The whole sense of this poem is that the poor of the world are marveling that God, coming as man, chooses to come as one of them, one of the cold, naked, needy ones. And in that coming of God as a Poor Man, poverty is revealed as something that is shared, not only among the poor, but with the stars and the snows, the elemental human realities of birth and death (we all are born poor, and die poor), and indeed creation itself springing eternally from the hand of God as total gift and gratuity, and as total contingent dependence.

And in this revelation of the poverty of God, something shifts on such a deep level that it is genuinely difficult to grasp the extent of the shift. The whole poor-rich dynamic dominates our human world to such a huge and tragic extent. Greed and envy, injustice and crime, exploitation and violence—all of this is the bitter fruit of so much of the have/have-not juxtaposition of humanity.

But God has come as a poor baby, naked, shivering, hungry. And everything shifts in this. Everything is a little different, because of that fact. And this is the whole mysterious shift in that final stanza, which may seem a bit random and rushed. ‘Though our hopes for man be wild, starry, frantic, free, all things now are possible, unto God and thee.’

It is not simply, although it is certainly part of it, that God has taken the side of the poor. That is undoubtedly true, and Scripture bears united witness to it. But rather, in becoming poor in his Incarnation, God shows that poverty is the doorway to the ‘all things’ that God in Christ is doing and will do for humanity.

To know our weakness, our vulnerability, our utter dependence, to not just know it notionally and vaguely while all the while we grab as big a piece of the pie as we can and wrap ourselves in layers of comfort and wealth, but to really know it, to taste it, to feel it, to shiver from it, to be all weak and wobbly the way we are when we are really hungry—this is the gateway to the kingdom of God.

And this kingdom is where are hopes run wild, where the starry, frantic, free action of grace can move in its perfect freedom, and where all things truly are possible. It is not just a frantic grubby grab for the big money and the big life, but something much better, much more joyous, much more lasting. And this is something the poor are at least better situated to know about than the rich, and that is why the Lord Himself calls them ‘blessed.’

Saturday, December 28, 2013

An Artist in the Laundry of the World

OK, I’m back! Now, it’s still Christmas, right? Our house has been filled with guests this year, celebrating the feast with us, and one of them remarked to me how wonderful it was to be in a place where Christmas began on December 25 and kept going until Epiphany. Yes, indeed. And since this blog is written on Madonna House time, I will keep on with some Christmas themed material for the next little bit. Because it’s still Christmas, whatever the secular world might have to say about the matter.

I want to share with you one of the great gifts we received in MH this year. I don’t have a photograph of it (will add one later if I can get my hands on it), unfortunately. We have a long term guest with us now who is quite an accomplished artist. Her art often consists in fashioning discarded items, the refuse and detritus of our over-stuffed society, into beautiful art pieces.

This has proved to be a challenge for her in MH, where nothing gets thrown out until it is really, truly junk. But she was assigned to our laundry, and found there the material she needed to fashion a complete crèche set.

Namely, dryer lint. And scraps of fabric, themselves too worn and frayed even for patches. And a broken, torn rubber glove. And a rubbishy pair of coveralls. Other materials came from various sources: candy wrappers and a melted piece of aluminum. And from these odd bits of nothing she fashioned an exquisitely beautiful manger scene, complete with camel and horse, sheep, angel, star (that was the melted metal). The magi’s gifts are shaped from the candy wrappers. All the figures are made of pieces of dryer lint cunningly layered and fashioned and shaped, and clothed in bits and pieces of cloth. The blanket on the camel is from the rubber glove.

It sounds cheesy and tacky; it is, in fact, exquisitely delicate and beautiful. Hauntingly beautiful, indeed, with its subdued gray palette and odd piecemeal composition. I will indeed add a picture of it as soon as I can.

Now the moral of the story could be, ‘Well, ya put an artist in the laundry and this is what ya get!’ But today is the feast of the Holy Innocents, and I think there is a deeper word yet being spoken here.

Some people are, or seem to be, marble, gold, fine wood, stone, stained glass. Some are simply born with some measure of wealth, health, beauty, intelligence, charm, privilege. Some lives are clearly ordained to make something beautiful from the very beginning. But some are, or at least feel themselves to be, basically dryer lint. Rags. Discarded candy wrappers. A melted slag of metal. Fit for nothing but to be thrown aside. Not wanted, and so nothing, useless, trash. The poor of the world, but that poverty can take manifold forms.

Disposable waste, ‘lives not worth living’, as the Nazis termed them (and no, I don’t think we’re all that far from the Nazis in our enlightened world today). Lint. But if there is an artist in the laundry… something else happens. And as it turns out, there is an Artist in the world’s laundry, and that’s kind of the whole point of Christmas, isn’t it?

The Holy Innocents were babies who posed a threat to the status quo, and so had to be killed. So many millions of babies are killed today because they pose a threat to the status quo. And the tragedy of abortion in our day is that so very many of the women who seek abortion are themselves in desperate straits, themselves poor and disadvantaged, themselves have quite often been treated as disposable matter, ‘dryer lint,’ candy wrappers to be cast aside once the inner sweetness has been exhausted.

And there are so many lives blighted by this same spirit of disposability, this same contempt and scorning of human dignity. The poor, the wretched, the disfavored in various ways, the victims of the world, the losers.

Can something beautiful come out of these lives? Can these lives, too, be fashioned into a manger, a shepherd, a mother, a father, an angel, a star? Can the candy wrapper become a gift of gold, the threadbare rag a swaddling cloth for the Baby?

Only if an Artist is at work among us can this be possible. But this is my Christmas word for all of you. There is such an artist, and He is at work in the world. And beauty can break out in the strangest places, from the most unlikely material. The Holy Innocents, mere victims of a ruthless cruel tyrant, whose lives were brutally ended before they could even begin, are honored as saints of God, and there is a deep word of life and truth here for all of us.

God came to make each life something beautiful. God did this strange, strange thing we call the Incarnation, so that a power is at work in the world, the power of the Holy Spirit, and wherever there is an opening, the Spirit is at work drawing together, layering, shaping, folding, arranging, to make this life, this person, these circumstances a thing of beauty.

Someone asked me, on Christmas Day, ‘Where is God when the s--- goes down?’ (yes, I am now quoting Insane Clown Posse lyrics – and for those who don’t know what I’m talking about – good!). But that’s where God is when the s--- goes down. He is right there in it, and in it to make of it something hauntingly, exquisitely, devastatingly beautiful. Only an Artist can do that, and that kind of artistry and beauty has been our great Christmas gift at MH this year. Factually, the Artist Himself has gifted us that way every day of every year, and yes, it is radiantly, triumphantly beautiful.

Added: a photo of the creche. I must say, though, the photo doesn't quite do justice to it. But here it is, nonetheless: