To see life as a whole

From Michael Dirda’s witty and astute article on the Catholic novelist Muriel Spark:


Spark tells us that reading John Henry Newman finally led her into the Catholic Church, “an important step for me, because from that time I began to see life as a whole rather than as a series of disconnected happenings.” She points out that Cardinal Newman’s “reasoning is so pure that it is revolutionary in form. He does not go forward from point to point; he leads the mind inward, probing the secret places of the subject in hand.” Elsewhere, she convincingly argues that Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” — her favorite novel — exhibits “something of a tremendous value to the Christian imagination, a sacramental view of life which is nothing more than a balanced regard for matter and spirit.”


Muriel Spark



Birth of St John the Baptist

Mid-winter here in the southern hemisphere, thinking of Mary’s journey to Elizabeth, the baby leaping in the womb. The prophet as a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Women walking across the hills, two pregnant women meeting, the mystery shared.


Arid times, slow prayer. Waking in the night to  say litanies and  old loved prayers, fight back fear, disbelief, lack of vision.


The images of Ireland I used to have, now  besmirched and muddled. From America:

The news from Ireland these days is more church horror: speculation of a septic tank filled with children’s skeletons at a home for women and children run by Bon Secours sisters. The media is in frenzy, the country’s bishops are struggling to respond sensitively and the world is again made aware of Ireland’s darker side. Then we heard that the story may be a convolution of truths that have been amplified by a media angry with the church, in line with their agenda. Whether they are true or not, these stories (and myths) remind people of the truth that many church leaders covered up crimes within the church for years.

What happened the bodies of 800 malnourished children is not the real focus of this story. We know that the child mortality rate in homes for unwed mothers and “illegitimate” children was significantly higher than elsewhere in Ireland at the time, due to malnourishment and other mistreatment. Sadly though, the truth is that this isn’t as much of a shock as we pretend. We know that many in the church acted in ways that stained not only the church but Irish society as a whole. We know that hundreds of priests, religious and lay people in church institutions abused vulnerable children and adults in mother and child homes, orphanages, schools and churches. We know that this was done in some collusion with the Irish government and supported by a society given over to a particular brand of Catholicism. Now we’re beginning to speak openly about how much was known publicly as it happened, but judged as proportionally acceptable.


John the Baptist, a wild man, an extremist, a visionary. Doing what he was called to do.


Old memories appearing like stray dogs at the roadside, a little unkempt and surly. The years  I spent attending  St Michael’s Catholic Church, the singing of hymns unfamiliar and  strange, the deaf priest scolding me during confession, the unfriendliness at times, the choir singing that moved me so, the brash down-to-earth homilies that made me feel guilty and not much else. Trying to glimpse God somewhere, trying to find a place to belong. South Africa under apartheid, oblivious,  depoliticised, the white suburbs going on as always, the smoke drifting over the Cape  Flats from burning buildings, the tanks and armoured vehicles grinding along main road. Nothing said about this in the church, the refusal of what was political and not spiritual. Single women regarded with suspicion, no  room for  a Justice & Peace group, nothing impinging on the  orderly and comfortable ways of the parish.

It is still like that, for all I know. Except that the past has been repudiated, a token nod to  something being wrong all those years…


The sacraments, the community, the struggle to participate even from a distance, the struggle to not-forget. And floundering, as if to be disoriented and  an outsider, asking hard questions and  straining to hear answers, as if this unbelonging might be my own path through the wilderness, a kind of calling.

After Pentecost

After Pentecost.

Feast of St Barnabus, born in Cyprus. He was one of the early converts in Jerusalem and vouched for St Paul when he appeared before the elders there. He accompanied Paul on his first missionary journey and later went to Cyprus with his cousin John Mark (Mark the evangelist) to preach the gospel there. Probably martyred in Cyprus before 61CE.

Dazzing sunshine, snow on the mountains, work going too slowly. Echoes of the  Veni Spiritus  Sanctus in my  mind, thinking of invisible tongues of flame shining but hardly discernible in the  sunlit chapel at Temenos, so many years ago.

Reading RS Thomas, an old favourite,  what Rowan Williams called an ‘articulator of  uneasy faith’. How we are drawn to pray  even without conscious faith, even when faith seems impossible.

In a Country Church
To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.

Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.
R. S. Thomas (1955)

Feast of the Visitation

A Marian  feast that goes back to the 13th or 14th century. It was established widely throughout the Church to pray for unity. The present date of celebration was set in 1969 in order to follow the Annunciation of the Lord (March 25) and precede the Nativity of John the Baptist (June 24).

As with most feasts of Mary, it points to Jesus and his saving work. The two women (see Luke 1:39-45) are Mary and Elizabeth, both pregnant. The unborn  infant Jesus makes the small being who will become John the Baptist leap with joy. Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and addresses words of praise to Mary, a gospel passage that affirms her special place in salvation history


Since early childhood I have loved the fire and beauty of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)., the promise made to the anawim, those poor in God who suffer and  fall into obscurity here on this earth but who will be redeemed by God.



‘Las profundas cavernas del sentido’

From St John of the Cross on the day after Ascension Thursday:

The caverns are the powers of the soul, memory, understanding, and will, and their depth is commensurate with their capacity for great good, because nothing less than the infinite can fill them. What they suffer when they are empty, shows in some measure the greatness of their delight when they are full of God; for contraries are known by contraries. In the first place, it is to be remembered that these caverns are not conscious of their extreme emptiness when they are not purified and cleansed from all affection for created things. In this life every trifle that enters them is enough to perplex them, to render them insensible to their loss, and unable to recognise the infinite good which is wanting, or their own capacity for it. It is assuredly a most wonderful thing how, notwithstanding their capacity for infinite good, a mere trifle perplexes them, so that they cannot become the recipients of that for which they are intended, till they are completely emptied. [III, 20]


And this too


Great, then, is the capacity of these caverns, because that which they are capable of containing is great and infinite, that is, God. Thus their capacity is in a certain sense infinite, their hunger and thirst infinite also, and their languishing and their pain, in their way, infinite. So when the soul is suffering this pain, though the pain be not so keen as in the other world, it seems to be a vivid image of that pain, because the soul is in a measure prepared to receive that which fills it, the privation of which is the greatest pain. Nevertheless the suffering belongs to another condition, for it abides in the depth of the will’s love; but in this life love does not alleviate the pain, because the greater it is the greater the soul’s impatience for the fruition of God, for which it hopes continually with intense desire. [III, 23]

Turning back to the past

Red leaves spinning down from the pin oaks lining the streets. Rust on the pelargonium,  the lavender’s subdued grey. If you stand in a sheltered spot in the sun, it is very hot but the  wind cuts through sweaters and rainjackets like ice.

Reflecting on the noise of social media, flattering, irrelevant, mildly amusing, a distraction. Noise — and turning to Marilynne Robinson. Picking up Guardini, Dom Chapman, looking further back for what is on the other side of  noise, what is still able to  convey meaning.



“Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought and art and literature. It was at the center of learning in the West for centuries—because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically, was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and then stand pat. I believe very strongly that this world, these billions of companions on earth that we know are God’s images, are to be loved, not only in their sins, but especially in all that is wonderful about them. And as God is God of the living, that means we ought to be open to the wonderful in all generations. These are my reasons for writing about Christian figures of the past. At present there is much praying on street corners. There are many loud declarations of personal piety, which my reading of the Gospels forbids me to take at face value. The media are drawn by noise, so it is difficult to get a sense of the actual state of things in American religious culture.”

Marilynne Robinson