Month: December 2013

Believing despite…

The point about faith is that it contradicts our bleak pessimistic contemporary realism. Especially at this time of year.


My housemate’s nursing colleague had her home burned  down. The home she worked so hard to get and to make decent.


Homeless, bereft.


My severely alcoholic brother on the other side of the globe was arrested for  ‘simple trespass’ which means he is living rough on the streets in a warm climate. I keep seeing him as a small pale-faced and freckled  little boy with red hair, earnest and occasionally excitable, anxious and a little bewildered. What happened to him? And nobody can help him until he wants to help himself.


But we go on in a reckless counter-rational hope. Thinking of a baby born to refugee parents, to a young woman who  may have been only 14 years old, going into labour without her mother, exhausted by travel and surrounded by  squalor and noisy animals, placing the hastily wrapped new-born into the dirty trough from which sheep and cattle drank.


And believing it would somehow be all right at the end of the journey or the end of the story.


Christmas Day

From Whispers in the Loggia, the Christmas homily of Pope Francis:
In our personal history too, there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows. If we love God and our brothers and sisters, we walk in the light; but if our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us. “Whoever hates his brother – writes the Apostle John – is in the darkness; he walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 Jn 2:11).

On this night, like a burst of brilliant light, there rings out the proclamation of the Apostle: “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race” (Tit 2:11).

The grace which was revealed in our world is Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God. He has entered our history; he has shared our journey. He came to free us from darkness and to grant us light. In him was revealed the grace, the mercy, and the tender love of the Father: Jesus is Love incarnate. He is not simply a teacher of wisdom, he is not an ideal for which we strive while knowing that we are hopelessly distant from it. He is the meaning of life and history, who has pitched his tent in our midst.


Madonna and Child Stushie Art


Image from Stushie Art here

an old phrase burning

V'dorp 19-12-13

December’s mild furnace of long hot days and  even hotter winds through the mountains. Many of the Xhosa farm workers have left for the Eastern Cape and the town is sleepy and quiet. Busy planting drifts of  Dietes grandiflora and  a succulent bush of spekboom (Portulacaria afra) on the  north side of the house, bought in a hurry from Marinda’s neglected  nursery because I must  cool down that wall. The little spekboom will grow to 2.5m high and reminds me of the  Karoo noorsveld, thickets of singing birds and  green even in the toughest drought . Great carbon sequestration too, and on the stoep I now have  newish secondhand pots filled with basil and  peppers.

Up before dawn to  chew my way through the  Office and  sit out listening to birds as the dawn turns yellow across the valley. Bothered by flies. A beautiful Advent all the same and reminded of this  favourite Advent poem from Patrick Kavanagh  when I saw it chosen by Carol Rumens in the Guardian.



We have tested and tasted too much, lover –
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning –
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and please
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour –
And Christ comes with a January flower.

Francis making a difference

Francis on subway


The difference is palpable and when  conservative commentators keep saying he is  cut from the same cloth as Benedict or John Paul II or John XXIII, the effect is jarring, as if apples and a large juicy  slightly bitter orange were being compared. Pope Francis is Third World, intuitive, Latin American, improvisational, passionate lover of Christ and moved primarily by the plight of the poor.


Francis: “We want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world.”


James Carroll, writing in the New Yorker:


Francis is the first Jesuit Pope in history, and his fierce conviction has the particular accent of a religious order that has redefined itself since Vatican II around “faith that promotes justice,” as Jesuits put it now. If Jorge Mario Bergoglio had a conversion moment, Daoust told me, it was probably at the 1974-75 Jesuit Congregation, the worldwide meeting in Rome of the society’s leadership that was summoned by Superior General Pedro Arrupe, of Spain, a controversial liberalizing figure. Arrupe’s priesthood had been defined by the experience of being in Hiroshima when the atom bomb fell, and as Superior he set a new course. Given what Bergoglio was facing in Buenos Aires, the gathering must have been tumultuous for him: his own positions were being challenged. The order embraced an unprecedented understanding of itself. “We can no longer pretend that the inequalities and injustices of our world must be borne as part of the inevitable order of things,” the Congregation declared. To be a Jesuit today “is to engage, under the standard of the Cross, in the crucial struggle of our time: the struggle for faith and that struggle for justice which it includes.” The Jesuits affirmed “belief in a God who is justice because he is love.”


It is still early days and Carroll takes on the ambivalence felt by  many as regards what Pope Francis has not done  might not do to change the position of women or   address fully the  sexual abuse scandals


And yet the change has been astounding and Carroll’s metaphor of the  prodigal’s father shows this shift.


I went to see Davíd Carrasco, the Harvard historian of religion. His high-ceilinged office at the Mesoamerican Archive, in the Peabody Museum, is dominated by an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He is a large middle-aged Latino, bearded and balding, and wears his hair nearly to his shoulders. Without any cue, he said of Francis’s papacy, “What came to me was the prodigal-son story, only here it’s the prodigal father! It’s not the prodigal son who’s gone out and is returning. It’s the prodigal father—the father of the Church who seemed to have gone away.” Carrasco added, “Away from so much of what John XXIII meant.” He went on, “It’s as though there’s a return of this father who is supposed to protect us, guide us, and love us.” A return from abuse, authoritarianism, misogyny—all the ways, beyond the Church, the fathers of this age have let us down.

Is that why the response to Pope Francis has been so outsized? Catholic enthusiasm is understandable, but the globe’s? Mary McAleese told me that even “kick the Pope” Orangemen in Northern Ireland love Pope Francis. The press is obsessed with him. Time recently named him Person of the Year. The Huffington Post reported the speculation that Francis, garbed as a lowly priest, steals out of the Vatican at night to care for Rome’s homeless. Legends like that suggest a new readiness to look at what a Pope can be. Francis is clearly a world figure, but a figure of what? “I would like us to make noise,” he told a throng of young people in Brazil in July. “I want the Church to be in the streets; I want us to defend ourselves against all that is worldliness, comfort, being closed and turned within. Parishes, colleges, and institutions must get out, otherwise they risk becoming N.G.O.s, and the Church is not a non-governmental organization.” But, of course, the Church is an N.G.O.—the largest in the world. Roman Catholicism is the only worldwide institution that crosses boundaries of north and south, east and west, affluence and abject poverty. Given that reach, how can the human family thrive without a reformed, critically minded, ethically responsible Catholic Church? Does Francis’s explicitly Christian message of a loving merciful God survive, even in the secular age, as an inchoate symbol of the human longing for transcendence?

The greatness of JF Powers

I read the novels of JF Powers when I was a convert, taken aback by the seedier and grittier moments, but  finding there something I had located in Greene and even Waugh, a world weariness combined with  sour perspicacity and loyalty to an older vision and faith commitment. A new appreciation by F X Feeney in the LA Review of Books:


Late in Wheat That Springeth Green, Joe offers a theological rumination that could apply to his creator’s view of literature, as much as life itself:

Religion was a weak force today, owing to a decline in human intelligence. It was now easy to see how the Church, though she’d endure to the end, as promised by Our Lord, would become a mere remnant of herself. In the meantime, though, a priest had to get on with his job, such as it was. As for feeling thwarted and useless, he knew that feeling, but he also knew what it meant. It meant that he was in touch with reality, and that was something these days.




If Powers hated the Sign of Peace, one can only imagine what he would have made of the worldwide sex abuse scandals involving priests that flared into the headlines just two years after his death. These have become — tragically; deservedly, given the long histories of pompous denial — so much the image of Catholicism outside the Church in the present century that, for the time being, it has thoroughly tarnished the image of the priesthood. The damage all around will need generations to undo. Yet Powers was always tuned in to the destructive force that is the potential of any priest: take Father Burner, viciously blasting that woman in the confessional, earlier; this is why the Catholic press so often attacked Powers while he was being honored elsewhere. He understood the abuse of authority at its core. He further understood that every possible evil rises out of that first abuse. However repressed or repressive he might have been as a father, he was free of sexual neurosis to a degree uncommon for a Catholic male of his day, and the priests he created in his fiction are similarly comfortable inside the armor of their own skins. I’ve emphasized the sexual passages in his work here precisely to underscore this healthy aspect of his vision. If the Church is morally underwater with the mass public at the moment, Powers’ truthful, unsparing, unsentimental creations are a lifeline of purest oxygen. They are also images of humanity made to last, Church or no Church, ripe for our discovery.




JF Powers

What is always possible

I first learned to read the works of St John of the Cross using commentaries by the Carmelite religious Ruth Burrows. Here she is writing in America on the paradoxes of prayer:

In Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross wrote: “Oh that someone might show us how to understand, practice and experience what this counsel is which our Saviour here gives us concerning the denial of ourselves, so that spiritual persons might see in how different a way they should conduct themselves upon this road than that which many of them think proper…. Oh that someone would tell us how far Our Lord desires this self-denial to be carried!” This lament is addressed to us “spiritual persons,” who claim to be Christ’s friends.

What Jesus asks is always possible. The stern, uncompromising injunction to “deny thyself” is not a call to strip ourselves of earthly goods, to take on a life of rigid austerity—the ego could grow fat on that sort of thing. It is not things but self that has to be denied. Our Lord addresses each one of us in our particularity. There can be no pattern. We must want to follow him, want what he wants for us and died to give us. Enlightenment is progressive. Once we really give our attention to the matter, we see more and more how powerful, how tenacious is our selfishness. Every day offers small occasions for surrendering self-interest, our own convenience and wishes for the sake of others; for accepting without fuss the disappointments, annoyances, setbacks, humiliations that frequently come our way. The battle is largely fought out in relations with other people. “By this we know love, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn 3:16).

Although Jesus’ word is addressed to all, historically his words often were addressed to those who were chosen to hold authority in the community he was creating, preoccupied as they were with precedence. There is nothing more contemptible than arrogant abuse of spiritual authority, and surely it is sacrilegious to use what has been given for the service of others to further self-interest. A careful, heart-searching reading of the Gospels and the New Testament letters is indispensable. Be servants of one another, we are told. Consider other people’s welfare rather than your own. Think of yourself as unimportant and other people and the reign of God all-important. Get rid of all anger and bitterness. Watch! Pay attention to thoughts, words, behavior. We soon realize how difficult it is to get rid of our innate self-centeredness. We find our ego lurking behind even our most generous efforts.

Paradoxically, to accept humbly and trustfully the impurity of our motives, seeing ourselves far from the loving selfless person we would like to be, is choosing to be little, admitting our helplessness and unimportance—provided, of course, that we are doing our utmost. Childlike, we surrender our autonomy to our Lord who, we now see, must do everything for us, and we find a happy freedom in the knowledge that he is everything we are not and he is all for us. When we no longer insist on being god to ourselves, every one of our doors is thrown open to the king of glory. Our sustained, earnest effort is important, but what God does is infinitely more important and decisive.

Genuine prayer—how poor and unsatisfactory it can seem!—never inflates the ego but always induces humility, revealing as it does our spiritual helplessness and dependence on grace. Patience, meekness, a lowly opinion of self and deep respect for others must always characterize the people God has chosen for his own. The Gospel of John shows us the inner reality of the Father’s perfect child. “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees his Father doing” (5:19). Jesus joyfully accepts to be powerless so that his Father can be all in him, and thus he is the perfect human expression of the Father. Through Jesus’ surrender the Father can achieve his loving purpose for humankind: “I do always the things that please him” (8:29).

St John of the Cross

John of the Cross



Feast of the great mystic St John of the Cross.


 Dark Night

              1. One dark night,
		fired with love's urgent longings
		  -- ah, the sheer grace! -- 
 		I went out unseen,
		my house being now all stilled.

		2. In darkness, and secure,
	  	by the secret ladder, disguised,
		 -- ah, the sheer grace! -- 
		in darkness and concealment,
		my house being now all stilled.

		3. On that glad night,
	  	in secret, for no one saw me,
		nor did I look at anything,
		with no other light or guide
		than the one that burned in my heart.

		4. This guided me
	     	more surely than the light of noon
		to where he was awaiting me
		 -- him I knew so well -- 
		there in a place where no one appeared.

		5. O guiding night!
	  	O night more lovely than the dawn!
		O night that has united
		the Lover with his beloved,
		transforming the beloved in her Lover.

		6. Upon my flowering breast
	  	which I kept wholly for him alone,
		there he lay sleeping,
		and I caressing him
		there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

		7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
	  	as I parted his hair,
	  	it wounded my neck
		with its gentle hand,
		suspending all my senses.

		8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
	  	laying my face on my Beloved;
		all things ceased; I went out from myself,
		leaving my cares
		forgotten among the lilies.