Freedom

A lot of asking what is freedom? and a lot of seeing the implications of freedom.

The conquest of death

On Easter Sunday, Jesus conquered death. We dare to taunt death, ‘O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’ [1 Cor 15:55]

Jesus didn’t just defeat death in His own case only, making Himself a special exception to the laws of life and death. He crushed death itself, abolishing its reign and dominion. He annihilated death at a metaphysical level.

The whole world was held in death’s grip, and no one could hope to escape it. It was known that eventually, each and every man, woman and child would come to be cut off from the land of the living and go down to join the dead. Everyone knew that this is simply our fate.

Everyone would eventually be cut off from the land of the living because we were all cut off already from God, the author of life. The body was subjected to corruption and death because the soul was subjected to sin. The death of the body was just a delayed reaction to the death of the soul.

But Jesus overcame both death and sin by uniting Himself to them. By becoming sin, identifying Himself perfectly with sinful humanity, and suffering death, He brought the fullness of love, and life, and righteousness down into the heart of sin and of death itself. He descended to the deepest existential depths of human misery and hopelessness, the darkness from which no one returns, and there He brought life to death and redemption to sin, utterly overcoming them from the inside.

As Christians we have already been baptised into Jesus’s death and resurrection. We have passed over from death to life already, and the grave will never hold us captive. Even after our bodily death, when we still await the resurrection of the body at the end of time, we will not be trapped in the grave, but alive in the spirit in Heaven.

‘O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’

Alleluia! God bless you!

Time

Yesterday morning the clocks went forwards an hour. Which sounds very dull, admittedly. But when you break down what is really happening, there’s something much more interesting going on.

Imagine if you didn’t understand our modern concept of time. If you understood time in terms of the natural rhythms of life, sunrise and sunset, full moon and new moon, birth and death. What would British summertime even mean? (and while we’re at it, what would British mean?)

It would mean that we all simultaneously agree to wake up one hour earlier/closer to sunrise, and move our schedules forwards an hour too. Incredibly, we all make this change at once, waking an hour earlier every day, so that we can enjoy one hour more of sunlight. Millions of people, most confessing that they are “not morning people”, all doing what they need to do to wake an hour earlier every single day.

It is astonishing that we think of it as losing an hour’s sleep and not as simply waking earlier every day. It says something about our separation from nature. For us, time has become something artificial, something primarily about other people’s rhythms, not the natural world’s. It has become something we create and define, a rhythm we dictate rather than dance to. In this note, thank God for the Church’s liturgical calendar, with its lumpy organic character, giving a bit of rhythm to the life of the soul. Thank God we don’t have a sterile religion, without feasts and seasons and God given rhythm.

We should also recognise the power of reframing our ideas. If we were all told to move our lives to be an hour earlier, we’d say no. If we asked those who wake up at 7 to suddenly start waking up at 6 each morning, they’d say it’s asking too much. But if we reframe it as just changing the clocks and missing one hour of sleep, we can all do that and we hardly even mention it (except for me, it seems). We have made a significant change consistently across a large population, just by a small change to our thinking, a slight shift to our frame of reference.

God bless you!

Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth

Is prayer a form of escape from the world? Is that the ultimate aim of Christian life – to leave this world behind and instead to dwell with God in heaven? Are we to live for the next life, and not for the present life?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, because we are made for God and for eternal life, and we must renounce all finite distractions that would keep us from Him. Our destiny is the fullness of life in God Himself and nothing less. We are told again and again to deny ourselves, to renounce the world, and to live for God alone. We must not fall into thinking that prayer or spirituality or the Christian faith are concerned primarily with improving this world and this life. The Christian faith has a far larger vision.

‘If then ye were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth. For ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.’ [Colossians 3:1-3]

But no, because Jesus came to save the world. He didn’t come to save us out of the world, He came to redeem the entirety of creation with us in it.

‘For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but by reason of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God.’ [Romans 8:20-21]

So then, how can we have both yes and no? We save the world with Jesus, but only in renouncing it with Him. ‘Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose it shall preserve it.’ [Lk 17:33] In the same way, whoever seeks to save the world will lose the world, but whoever shall renounce the world will save it.

Jesus saves us and saves the world by the sacrifice He made upon the cross, present at every mass. In this sacrifice, He renounces absolutely everything, His life, His body, His soul, everything He loves and cares for (including you and me), offering it all to the Father. It is in this offering that we are saved. We are sinners, and do not have the purity of heart to truly offer ourselves to God, except by being united to Jesus’s own self offering.

This is the goal of Christian life and the heart of Christian prayer and spirituality. We renounce ourselves and the whole world, and offer it all up to God, united to Jesus’s offering upon the cross. Or to express it differently, we let go of our selves, of every finite thing, of every desire to control and possess and consume, and we entrust it all to God, to Him who is eternal love, uniting ourselves and all the cosmos to the holy sacrifice of the mass.

So then, what does this renunciation and salvation look like? For now, it looks like loving the world, but refusing to grasp at it, even in thought. It looks like placing ourselves and everything in our lives into Love’s everlasting hands. And in the end, it looks like the resurrection of the entire universe.

God bless you.

On anger

“Our fourth struggle is against the demon of anger. We must, with God’s help, eradicate his deadly poison from the depths of our souls. So long as he dwells in our hearts and blinds the eyes of the heart with his sombre disorders, we can neither discriminate what is for our good, nor achieve spiritual knowledge, nor fulfill our good intentions, nor participate in true life: and our intellect will remain impervious to the contemplation of the true, divine light; for it is written, ‘For my eye is troubled because of anger’ (Ps. 6:7. LXX).”

St John Cassian
THE DEMON OF ANGER

The evil of anger for St John Cassian is that it blinds our souls and cuts us off from true life. ‘Anger is a desire for revenge.’ [CCC no. 2302] That is, it is to desire destruction or harm upon someone or something in response to a perceived injury received. It therefore blinds our souls because we see the other as evil/as an enemy, when in truth and in God’s eyes they are fundamentally good and beloved. It cuts us off from true life because we set ourselves against God’s beloved, and therefore against God Himself. Experience confirms that anger destroys reason and opposes prayer, without fail. I am sure we have all experienced “seeing red” and doing something we shouldn’t have.

Righteous anger?

“Listen to what St Paul enjoins: ‘Rid yourselves of all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, evil speaking and all malice’ (Eph. 4:31). In saying ‘all’ he leaves no excuse for regarding any anger as necessary or reasonable. If you want to correct your brother when he is doing wrong or to punish him, you must try to keep yourself calm; otherwise you yourself may catch the sickness you are seeking to cure and you may find that the words of the Gospel now apply to you: ‘Physician, heal yourself’ (Luke 4:23), or ‘Why do you look at the speck of dust in your brother’s eye, and not notice the rafter in your own eye?’ (Matt. 7:3).”

St John Cassian

St John is unequivocal: the only place for anger is against our own sins. However, the idea of righteous anger goes back at least to St Thomas Aquinas, and so deserves respectful consideration. What does St Thomas say, and can we reconcile the two saints?

“It is unlawful to desire vengeance considered as evil to the man who is to be punished, but it is praiseworthy to desire vengeance as a corrective of vice and for the good of justice”

ST II-II, Q. 158, art.1, reply obj.3

The difference between St Thomas and St John is just that St Thomas is willing to call this anger and St John is not. This desire for justice, for restitution and correction of vice, is utterly different to the desire for vengeance upon an enemy, to the point where we need another word for it. Righteous anger is as different to anger as chaste sexual desires are to lust.

The point I would like to emphasise here is, that we ought to keep calm even when we must correct or confront a brother. We may feel outrage over the transgression, but we must be calm and contain ourselves, and insist upon viewing our brother as a brother, and if we must confront a brother we must do so in charity.

The purpose of anger

“Our incensive power can be used in a way that is according to nature only when turned against our own impassioned or self-indulgent thoughts. This is what the Prophet teaches us when he says: ‘Be angry, and do not sin’ (Ps. 4:4. LXX) – that is, be angry with your own passions and with your malicious thoughts, and do not sin by carrying out their suggestions. What follows clearly confirms this interpretation: ‘As you lie in bed, repent of what you say in your heart’ (Ps. 4:4. LXX) – that is, when malicious thoughts enter your heart, expel them with anger, and then turn to compunction and repentance as if your soul were resting in a bed of stillness.”

St John Cassian

Our incensive power, our internal power of destruction, is of itself good, and is to be placed at God’s service. The issue is that we think our friends (our fellow creatures) are our enemies, and that our enemies (our vices and sins) are our friends. We must study the passions and learn to know and fight our true enemies.

We shouldn’t be kind or gentle on our vices or malicious thoughts. We should expel them with anger. We should dash their heads against the rock, that is, Christ. We must be patient with ourselves, but absolutely merciless with vice.

This brings us back to the question of righteous anger. This anger against our own sins is certainly righteous anger, and I would argue that righteous anger in the larger sense is actually the same thing, only within a community rather than an individual. That is why it belongs especially to those in positions of authority.

It is right for a community to have anger at its own injustices and sins, and so to root them out and purify itself. But it must never be a matter of seeking revenge against others. It must be an act of love for the community as a whole as well as for each of its members, desiring to free us all, and it must be as part of the community. But again, and I must emphasise this, it must be done out of love, and be consistent with love; if it is not, then you are in danger of judgment (Mt 5:22).

How to conquer anger

“The final cure for this sickness is to realize that we must not become angry for any reason whatsoever, whether just or unjust.”

St John Cassian

Anger will always pretend to be justified. Always. No one is ever angry without feeling they have a right to be.

But you do not have a right to be angry, ever. How do I know? Because Jesus Christ Himself, when mocked, slandered, tortured and executed unjustly, did not respond in anger.

If, therefore, you continually recall this with all your heart, the passion of bitterness, anger and wrath will not master you. For when the foundations constructed of the passion of pride are sapped through this recalling of Christ’s humiliation, the whole perverse edifice of anger, wrath and resentment automatically collapses. For can anyone keep perpetually in mind the humiliation that the Divinity of the only-begotten Son accepted for our sake, and all the sufferings that we have mentioned, and yet be so hard and stony-hearted as not to be shattered, humbled and filled with remorse? Will he not willingly become dust and ashes, trampled underfoot by all men?

St Mark the Ascetic

God bless you!

What to do with the statues?

In the wake of black lives matter protests, there’s been a lot of attention given to many statues. What do we do with our lovely statues of less than lovely people?

Firstly, we should acknowledge that statues aren’t merely a historical record, and taking them down is anything but erasing history. It’s insane that people (including the PM) even try to make this argument. Adolf Hitler had a significant effect on our history, but we don’t give him a statue. We use statues to celebrate and immortalise those we hold up as heroes. They’re usually raised up for us to literally look up to.

With that out of the way, what do we do? I think we should obviously remove statues of bad people. People who we don’t want to celebrate any more. People like Bristol’s Edward Colston, merchant, philanthropist, slave trader and Tory MP.

What about, say, Winston Churchill? Churchill was a hero for the British war effort, but also a terrible racist, and arguably responsible for the deaths of millions of Indians. He was incredibly racist, even by the standards of his day (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racial_views_of_Winston_Churchill). Should we continue to uphold him as a hero?

I think we need to acknowledge that Churchill played two different roles in two different stories. In one he was the hero, and in the other he was the villain. Does one story discount the other? Not entirely, but they can’t be neatly separated either. Was he a hero? I think it’s ok to say, “yes, but…”. Was he a villain? It’s ok to say “yes, despite…”.

In this, I think that Churchill epitomises the ambiguity of the British empire itself. An empire that did do much good, but also much evil. It’s ok to say it was both. I think the empire was more bad than good, but it’s ok to acknowledge and celebrate the good, so long as we also recognise the evil.

So should we take Churchill’s statues down? Would we be throwing out the baby with the bathwater? I don’t know. We’d take them down if he was a pedophile, so maybe we should take them down for him being a horrific racist; it’s maybe just a question of how much it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Can we celebrate him despite his racism and if we can, is that a bad sign about us?

I don’t know. Maybe Churchill doesn’t make the cut, and maybe he does. Maybe we have to learn to accept the contradictions of history and of life, and not be too quick to resolve them. If we have the patience to hold them in tension, we can learn and we can grow. The crucial thing is for us to learn, and learn from, both stories. History is complicated and the world isn’t neatly separated into good people and evil people. We need to grasp this if we are to make any progress.

God bless you!