If you are looking for an online church, whether because of lockdown, ill health, or any other reason, please consider St Barnabas Anglican Church in Atlanta, Georgia (USA). This church is not affiliated with the blog in any way, but has proved a source of comfort and fellowship to some of its members.
Saint Barnabas is an Anglo-Catholic church, which may be suitable for a number of readers of this blog, especially those who would like to attend something more traditional but feel unable to follow a Latin liturgy. St Barnabas broadcasts its services live and offers Zoom bible study sessions. Don’t forget to like and subscribe, so that you are notified of services in advance, and to visit their website. If you live in the UK, don’t forget the time-zone difference: the morning Sunday Eucharist service is broadcast at 15:55 UK time.
The intention of this post is not to recommend a particular church over another, and so contributors and readers of the blog are welcome to put links to other church services that they have found helpful in the comments below, whether of their main, pre-lockdown church, or one they discovered after the inception of the pandemic.
I am mindful that for many, their own normal church may not provide online services or they may feel that they were in any event looking to explore something different. This pandemic has given many of us pause and, indeed, forced some churches to close where they were not able to put sufficient financial support structures in place.
Online church is, of course, not the same as attending in person. For those of us in the UK who await in-person services again, the return to these, once authorised again, may not be straightforward. My own “mother church”, if you like, is Baptist. Accordingly, the return to in-person services, though led by the leadership team, will be in consultation and collaboration with the members, who elect the leaders and vote on important matters.
As we look forward to gathering once again, many of us will be pensive, reflecting on where our walk with God will lead, and what the communal aspect of that walk will look like. For some, the focus will be on receiving the sacraments again; for others it will be about the public worship of God through our prayers and hymns; for others still, it will be about outreach ministries in various forms.
But there will also be those who are new to the faith, nervous perhaps about attending a church in person for the first time (or the first time after a long absence). In addition, there will no doubt be those whose faith has been challenged by the pandemic (or had their pre-existing concerns forced to the surface by it). Returning to “normal life” for these two groups may mean attending an Alpha Course or some other appropriate structured meetings or sessions to learn the fundamentals of Christianity (or have them re-examined and re-affirmed).
I hope that this blog will be of use to people in all of the above circumstances and that we all continue to support one another in any way we can.
So here we are and the days are lengthening. Soon the clocks will go forward. Mothering Sunday approaches and daffodils are open or opening in our gardens. This is the time of year when the sky is a watery blue, and we crawl out of the wreckage of winter, cradling hope for something new, something better.
Perhaps more than many a previous year, we cling on, awaiting the easing of restrictions, a fall in infection and death rates, and an end to the caution, fear and anger that have riddled us. Soon it will be exactly a year since the first lockdown was imposed in the UK.
Hope is not an easy thing to keep hold of. It also comes unexpectedly upon us, returning like a ray of light penetrating a dark place. It reveals our vulnerabilities, the fact that we are in God’s hands. Yes, we make choices and are responsible for them – but much of life is beyond our control. Things happen to us and we are faced with the challenge of overcoming them, sometimes in ways that seem contrary to logic.
The martyrs, following the footsteps of Christ, have overcome evil with their own death. When one chants, hears, or recites the Litaniae Sanctorum, especially in the presence of icons or other images of the saints and the Saviour, one is struck by the amount of violent death in Christian history.
Saint Stephen was stoned. Under Nero, the Roman matryrs were burned as “torches” in the night and killed by beasts in the arena; Saint Peter was crucified upside down; and Saint Paul was beheaded. Saint Sebastian was pierced with arrows. Saint Ignatius was thrown to the beasts. Saint Polycarp was burned at the stake and pierced with a spear, and Saint Laurence is traditionally held to have been burned to death on a gridiron.
Martyrdom has persisted throughout the history of the Church. Today Christians suffer terrible persecution at the hands of Islamists and Communists and other totalitarians. Their witness haunts us and surrounds us – but in heaven they are seated with Christ in glory. Sometimes it is good to look at paintings and icons of them seated with Christ, inspired by the imagery of Revelation and other parts of Scripture, as a reminder to us that, though they suffered terrible things, they have obtained everlasting glory and will one day rule the earth with Christ when He returns.
The Exodus and Cherubim
I have been watching videos on the YouTube channel, “Ancient Egypt and the Bible“, which are put out at least once per week. The host is an academic and holds to a Ramesside date for the Exodus (Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age). The videos are interesting and reminded me to re-examine a depiction of the Ramesses II’s camp tent, as many scholars consider that to be useful as context for understanding the Tabernacle of Meeting raised by Moses.
It is interesting to note that the cartouche of the Pharaoh in the inner room of the tent (which analogically corresponds to the Holy of Holies) is flanked, or “overshadowed” by two falcons (representing Horus) with open wings. The terms “Cherubim” is essentially a functional one referring to the spirits that surround the throne of God and draw His chariot.
They are described in different ways in Scripture, which suggests that, although the basic concept of what they are remained static, the conceptualisation of their appearance was most likely conditioned by cultural context. Accordingly, having spent years in Egypt, the Israelites most likely conceived of their appearance in Egyptian iconographic terms following the Exodus and for many years after (i.e. as sphinxes, falcons, Isis and Nephthys, etc.). (Similarly, the “Seraphim” of Isaiah were most likely imagined in Egyptian terms because of the cultural influence of Egypt over Judah in the days of Isaiah. Seals from the period have images of cobras with many wings, derived from the Egyptian uraeus.) By contrast, during the Babylonian Exile, Ezekiel’s Cherubim clearly owe more to Mesopotamian iconography than they do to Egyptian. It is also possible that Abraham, having come from Mesopotamia, conceived of these throne-guardians in similarly Mesopotamian imagery.
Josephus believed the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant resembled birds. One might naturally assume this, given the biblical text explicitly refers to their wings. However, this may be a tradition that accurately recorded the fact that they were modelled on the Egyptian falcon iconography. We may never know as the Bible says the Ark will never be built again, and it may never be recovered, if indeed it still exists.
During this Covid season, there has been much talk about how terrible ‘internet church’ is. There is, of course, nothing that takes the place of actually going (or being allowed to go) to church. Like the Bible – it’s one thing to hear stories from it, it’s an entirely different thing when one reads the Bible for one’s self. It is a living, breathing thing, as is the church.
I have no problem with internet church. It does what church is supposed to do – it reaches people. We always say that Jesus will meet you wherever you are – and that includes the internet. Long, long, long before covid, we’ve had our ‘shut ins’. They depended on the ability of the priest to make his rounds of visitations and then the shut-ins were alone again until the next month. Not so today. We are able to attend church even if we can’t attend church; we fellowship even if there are no coffee or cookies; we encourage each other even if we can’t reach out and pat someone’s hand in support and compassion.
My dearest friend Alys is in the UK and on lockdown – as is the whole country. She attends church with me on our church’s YouTube channel every week. We both attend Bible study with Bishop Chad via Zoom. We are doing Stations of the Cross every Friday at noon during Lent using Face Book video chat.
The chat feature is open on the church’s YT channel and if you promise not to tell the Bishop, I’ll tell you we chat – only during announcements of course (wink). I’ve been so pleased to be able to do Stations, I put my email address on the chat and invited anyone who is interested to join Alys and me when we do Stations. Sure enough – I received an email from a woman in Louisiana that wants to do Stations with us. In chatting back and forth via email, she mentioned she’s in hospice with stage four lung cancer. Going out is not an option for her. Were it not for the internet, she’d not be able to do Stations – I sent her the prayers so she can read a Station if she wants to or just follow along as Alys and I take turns with the readings.
There is no Holy Communion for us. Again, nothing takes the place of receiving Communion in both kinds. But the Church, in her wisdom, has given us a form for Spiritual Communion. Is it second to the real thing? Of course it is, but it is far, far better than to have nothing; ‘Spiritual Communion’ can be as fortifying as taking it – almost. But it is fulfilling and curbs the yearning in the heart for the real thing. Our friend in Louisiana did not have the form and just sort of waited online until the tech guy (God bless Dave and his devotion to serving the online congregation) comes back from receiving Communion and turns the church’s cameras back on. Now that she has the form, she, Alys, and I have our spiritual communion as the rest of the congregation have their actual communion. We are apart – but we are not apart. The congregation and the online congregation are one – we all pray together; that we are not sitting next to each other is meaningless. We are together.
The internet, just like any kind of technology, can be a blessing or a curse. I have found great blessing – and fellowship and encouragement – using the internet and the different technologies. So … no; I have no problem with the internet or internet church or internet fellowship. Wherever two or more are gathered in His name, there He is also.
They are at it again, I thought, when I read (and thank you C451) the Rev Marcus Walker’s stirring piece in The Critic on the Church of England. Not, I hasten to add, the good Reverend himself, who is a candle in the darkness, but the usual suspects.
After more than forty years presiding over a decline in parishes across the country, the Rev David John Keighley has come up with a cunning plan to reverse the decline – intensify the causes of it! I jest not, you can read it all here, though it would take a heart of stone not to alternate weeping and laughter. What does he want to do? There may be a familiar ring to it, so apologies to those suffering from PTSD on this: sell off many of the churches for housing (erm, I thought we’d been quietly doing that?); get rid of outdated doctrine and historic prejudices; (by which he seems to mean the idea of the bodily resurrection of Christ and the Virgin birth, and the miracles (erm, we’ve had forty years of doing that too – just saying); and he is convinced that:
the idea of God as some kindly, bearded patriarch sitting on high in Heaven, while the Devil resides below in Hell, is ill-suited to the modern, critical mind.
Golly, how original! Well it was back in the nineteenth century or so!
The good Rev appears to think that junking all of this will bring young people into the Church. Well I guess I am no longer “young” being in my late thirties, but this sort of stuff almost drove me out of the church when I was, and I can’t imagine it would bring anyone over the age of 70 into it!
The best antidote to this stuff is to read what Marcus Walker writes. It hits home. He rightly points out that:
If you find a priest crossing his fingers during the creed or wincing at the mention of the Virgin Birth it is likely he was ordained many decades ago and is now floating around the edge of retirement. It is also very likely that he is a he, as at the height of the modernist movement only men could be ordained in the Church of England.
That has certainly been my experience, and may well be part of why the Roman Catholic Church, which is full of such old men (including the Pope) has the same problem. What he writes next cheers me up and certainly reflects my own lived experience (as they say):
Younger priests just don’t have this affliction. They may be dripping wet, they may preach about Brexit or refugees, they may not know their way around the Prayer Book, but you really can’t say they don’t believe. The vision of the Church of England as primarily a social organisation is one which, while still live in the public imagination, simply does not match reality.
That is my experience. It boils down, as he says, to the fact that where, once upon a time there was a social cachet to being a member of the Church of England, that has quite vanished:
It has never been cool to go to church, but now it isn’t even really respectable. There is simply no market for a church which doesn’t really believe in God. If you’re going to take the social hit of admitting to being a Christian, you might as well actually be a Christian.
Quite so. It has been our younger priests who have been at the forefront of further efforts by the old men to go further down the modernist route – which is, as C451 once put it to me “a one way line to perdition”. More than not, it is often younger priests who oppose a continuation of the bankrupt policies of the past few decades:
And of the younger priests, it’s the gay ones who are often at the forefront of the battle to defend the creeds and Christian orthodoxy (if my more traditional readers can park, for a moment, their disbelief in the separation of questions of sexuality from orthodoxy). A study by the Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary showed that, across the American church, “our LGBT seminarians are not interested in a vacuous liberal theology that has no authority, no God, no Christ, and no sacraments”.
As Marcus Walker puts it:
Once again we see that if you’re going to embarrass yourself in front of your peers by being a Christian, you might as well actually find God in the process
This certainly matches my experience. The American “culture wars” is American, and I can’t speak for those experiencing it, but what I can testify to is that in the Church of England, not least among priests of my generation and younger, there is a real commitment to the Creeds. We don’t cross our fingers when reciting it, neither do we think that “science” has disproved God. I can’t quite get my head around a charitable explanation as to why a retired priest who believes that
the teachings of Jesus provides just one of many ways to experience ‘God’, and that progressive Christianity is focused on creating a community that is inclusive of all people, regardless of sexual identity and even if they are “questioning sceptics or agnostics”
stays in the Church. He imagines that the “product” behind the Church remains “woefully out of date”. I have bad news for him and those of his generation who think likewise – it is they who are out of date. Those of my readers who are of that generation are not, I know, of his persuasion, so take heart, the cause for which you have fought is alive and well and prospering, It may be that on some matters we look to you “unorthodox”, but when it comes to the Creeds and belief, we are Christians because we are. We stand here and can do no other because whatever the Rev David John might believe, we believe in God, the Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son … and all the rest of it.
We have had much discussion here lately about the tensions between the ideas of God as Love and eternal damnation. It has been a good, well-mannered discussion which I hope has helped those of us reading it; it has helped me. Disagreement is a fact of Christian (as of other) life, and how we express that disagreement is a matter of great importance. How we disagree is also a witness to the faith that is within us.
With that in mind, and after biting my tongue and bridling my internet pen for a day of so, I want simply to say that the statement recently issued by the Anglican primate of Nigeria on “gays” is one of the most digraceful and shameful I have read from a Christian leader. Lest you think this is Jess getting all hyperbolic, let me quote:
A Gay is a Gay, they cannot be rightly described otherwise. In the same vein, we cannot describe people as ‘Christian Murderer’, ‘Christian Adulterer’ and ‘Christian terrorist’; neither should we even have ‘Gay Christian’ or ‘Gay Anglican’. “Without Holiness, no man shall see God” (Hebrews 12 :14).
It might be that the Archbishop might ponder that quotation from Hebrews next time he looks into a mirror. To imply that to be “gay” is to be in the same category as a murderer or a terrorist is simply disgraceful. But, in case that does not quite insult “gays” (really, does anyone still use that language?), he gets his JCB digger and goes deeper:
The deadly ‘virus’ of homosexuality has infiltrated ACNA. This is likened to a Yeast that should be urgently and radically expunged and excised lest it affects the whole dough (Luke 13:20-21; Gal. 5:9).
I make bread every third day at the moment, or did before I got ill again, and it maybe this is a woman/man thing, but I am charitably assuming that the Archbishop does not know that without yeast bread will not rise? But, how DARE the man liken other human beings to a “virus”! Chalcedon, historian that he is, always warns against likening anything to the unique evil of the Nazis, but here the parallel is striking:
“Today,” Hitler proclaimed in 1943, “international Jewry is the ferment of decomposition of peoples and states, just as it was in antiquity. It will remain that way as long as peoples do not find the strength to get rid of the virus.” Both the death camps (the gas chambers of which were modeled on delousing chambers) and the Einsatzgruppen (paramilitary death squads that roamed across Eastern Europe followed in the wake of the advancing German army) were responses to what the Nazis perceived to be a lethal pestilence.
Given the recent history of ISIS-inspired atrocities against Christians in Nigeria, one might have expected better of the Archbishop. When you live in a gunpowder arsenal, lighting naked matches seems, to put it mildly, unwise.
Same-sex attraction, same-sex marriages, sexuality in general remain hot issues in the Church, despite Our Lord saying rather little about them, and it is understandable that they do, but however strongly one feels, I cannot for the life of me see the justification for writing about other human beings in such terms. The “gays” love someone of their own gender, that is neither “murder” nor is it “terrorism”, and quite often it isn’t “adultery” either. We can, and do, disagree, but this is a prime example of how not to do it. Is anyone going to feel as though this sort of thing is going to change anyone’s mind? Of course not, it is a power-play, designed to say “I am in charge and this is how it ought to be”.
I will pray for the Archbishop as I am told to pray for those who “hate”, but more than that, I shall pray for all those whose “crime” is to love someone of their own gender. When an Archbishop equates love with crime in inflammable and hateful language, one does not have to enquire about the form of witness given. One can only pray for him and those who think that way – and pray for comfort for faithful Christians wounded by such words.
There have been calls for Archbishop Justin to disinvite the Archbishop from the Lambeth conference. That would be a bad way of responding. He should come, and should be open to a dialogue where he can explain how he thought he was helping the Church, and perhaps listen to those who think he was shooting himself in both feet.
We have seen controversy recently here at AATW with Jess’ and Chalcedon’s posts on Julian of Norwich. I think it is worth reminding ourselves that this medieval society was frequently reminded of the Last Judgment through daily prayers, liturgy, and images. Many a church featured a so-called “Judgment Portal”, which no doubt created anxiety in the minds of large numbers of people. Martin Luther, who lived in the transition from the Medieval to the Early Modern periods, struggled to find peace and love, perhaps exacerbated by what we would now call neurosis.
Figures like Julian of Norwich, who had visions and intense personal piety, seem to have risen up to proclaim the love of God to a society that struggled to feel and accept it. Although in many respects removed from the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Roman cultures that created their respective portions of the bible, medieval people could still in many ways relate to its narratives. This was an age that witnessed incredible brutality, abuse of power, refusal of justice, and religious hypocrisy and perversion. The man who would become Richard III had a taste of this during his time in the North in his younger years. A man was brutally killed and mutilated – yes mutilated – by highwaymen who managed to evade justice because they were protected by a powerful local lord. Richard of York tried to obtain justice for the man’s widow – but to no avail. The courts of equity were born in the medieval period as a consequence of the Crusades and, as their name suggests, they were created because the courts of law were no longer considered fair.
So we can understand the visionary figures who emphasised the love of God and devotion to Mother Mary in a world that, if it thought God was anything like the local lords and justices, feared the Last Judgment. They were taught about the eternal torment of Hell, and although Purgatory would eventually lead to Paradise, it too was feared. Prayers were said and pennies paid to hasten release of the dead from Purgatory. Nor could people openly question these doctrines, for fear of being excommunicated, tortured, and executed.
Underneath was a creeping anxiety that sometimes broke out, but only really emerged on a large scale during the Reformation, concerning a division between God and His Visible Church. On the one hand was personal piety and devotion to the Church caused many to feel that disobedience to the Church was disobedience to God, since the Church was Christ’s Body on earth. Those who knew the Scriptures would reinforce this with episodes such as David’s multiple refusals to kill Saul who, though corrupt and wicked by that point, was still the Lord’s Anointed in David’s eyes. On the other hand, when faced with abuses and cruelty, an inate sense of justice, the conscience, cried out for justice.
Though we live in different times, forms of these problems and questions do persist. Even stripping away our societal and personal concerns, we are faced with grim images of the afterlife of the damned in Scripture. These do not sit well with us for a few reasons.
Our natural pride and instinct for self-preservation clouds our judgment. We consider that, in general, people do not commit murder or other very grave sins (and we also lie to ourselves about the gravity of sin), and so we tell ourselves that eternal torment in hell is disproportionate.
The images of hell in Scripture frequently involve fire. Fire is one of the most painful forms of execution and torture known to man. Beheading is at least swift and brings an end. A fiery hell is not. It is everlasting and more painful than anything else. This causes fear and makes it hard to love God when contemplated frequently because in our sinful state, we tell ourselves that God is doing this to people. In that thinking, God is painted as a torturer. While our theology tells us that we put ourselves in hell and it is not God who does so, it takes discipline and a spiritual journey to accept that message and hold it firmly. Discipline and rigorous intellect do not sit well in our zeitgeist of emotionalism.
The Church has been given over to emotionalism in recent years, which feeds our mental instability and undermines a consistent approach to faith and Scripture. All denominations have been affected by this. They have all witnessed, to greater and lesser extents, the conversion of church from a scene of worship and focus on God into self-help seminars and opportunities for people to make themselves great. This takes various forms, but one of the more prominent ones has been people proclaiming themselves as prophets and flouting authority.
The images of hell are very vivid and often in the context of apocalyptic prophecy. There is often, therefore, a question as to the degree to which hyperbole and imagery are used to make a point. In our modern, post-Enlightenment world, it is common to dismiss metaphysical pronouncements of Scripture as so heavily conditioned by ancient mindsets that they are not useful in our context. This is fallacious, but nevertheless more common than we might care to admit. It is often strengthened by foolishness exhibited by sometimes well-meaning (sometimes not-so-well-meaning) fundamentalists in their readings of Genesis and other passages of Scripture. When Scripture or certain forms of its interpretation are made to look foolish, it becomes easier to start emptying Christianity of much of its content, such that it becomes a bland form of monotheism without anything of substance to say.
How are we to respond to all this? As I have stated before, Scripture teaches eternal conscious torment of the damned in hell. I do not see anyway around that. It would be one thing if we had only the ambiguous passages that can be interpreted in an anhiliationist manner – but the authors of Scripture did not leave that option open to us. Certain passages also imply that there definitely will be people cast into the Lake of Fire (at the very least the Beast and False Prophet of Revelation).
We have to accept that and find some way of living with that knowledge. Jock is right about the dangers of neurosis and various practices that have crept into the Church (he mentions Protestant churches generally, but they are also true of Catholicism, which has adopted many practices found in Protestant and Pentacostal churches). While he and I don’t agree on all things, I’m very much with him on this. To the extent necessary, therefore, we need to find a mental discipline and outward focus that allows us to trust God and devote ourselves to the mission in whatever form that may take, be it preaching the Gospel, serving others, or simply praying that God will save people and make right the wrongs of this world.
We also need to shun things that are harmful and beware of false prophets and false teachers within the Church. I am glad that these have been exposed in recent months (particularly those who prophesied that President Trump would win a second term). Scripture tells us not to fear false prophets and the like. That is something we need to take more to heart because these conmen do just that – cause people to fear by playing on the anxiety I described earlier above. “Disbelieve me, and you’re disbelieving God.” If the Scriptural approach over the experiential and emotional one has been criticised as Pharisaical, we can at least commend it for providing a better hedge against manipulation and abuse than the latter.
Jessica has written eloquently on a question deriving from Mother Julian’s “showings” – God’s wrath. If we take away the idea of God’s wrath then one might well ask why it was that Jesus died upon the Cross. If, as Mother Julian states:
God is the goodness that cannot be angry, for he is nothing but goodness
then our traditional theology needs a rethink.
One way of dealing with this dilemma is to do what both Mother Julian and Jessica do, which is to hold it in tension: we are sinners, God is love and loves us, how the two are reconicled by Jesus is a mystery; it is sufficient for us to know that it will be reconciled.
There is a level at which this must be true. It may be a “Man thing” but I want to worry away at it a little so bear with me.
Julian herself provides us with some clues for how we might proceed; so let us follow and see where, if anywhere, they might lead.
I saw no anger except on man’s part, and he forgives that in us; for anger is nothing else but a resistance and contrariness to peace and to love, and it comes either from lack of strength or lack of wisdom, or from lack of goodness – and this lack is not in God, but is on our part; for through sin and wretchedness we have in us a wretched and continual resistance to peace and to love, and he revealed this very often in his loving expression of pity and compassion.
We are in what might be called classic Romans 7 territory – however much we will the good, we do the opposite. We know that this, by our standards, deserves condemnation – after all we are very free in condemning bad bahviour in others, almost as free as we are imaginative in finding excuses for our own. We cannot be in eternal bliss, as she goes on to say in chapter 49, until “we are all at peace and love; that is to say, in full contentment with God, and with all his works”.
Only through the working of Grace can we be made humble and gentle enough to surrender our will to God’s will:
As we receive the Lord in the sacraments, as we pray to Him, as we meditate on his life and teachings, as we try to follow Him, we are directed where we need to be, recognising in His love and compassion that we are loved, and responding to Him in return. The Holy Spirit is at work in us, in the Church, and as Julian puts it:
… the Holy Spirit, who is endless life dwelling in our soul, protects us most securely, and effects a peace in the soul, and gives it comfort by Grace, and accords it to God, and makes it compliant. And this is his mercy and the path on which Our Lord continually leads us, as long as we are in this changeable life
God works with us in our daily lives, and so often it is here, rather than in the spaces we reserve for God, that we go wrong. Original sin, Chesterton said, is the one theological reality you can see by looking in the mirror. Is God wrathful, or do we, in our hearts, need Him to be because of our shame at our own sinful ways? Or is the idea of a wrathful God so central to our vision that even trying to understand what Julian is saying, is enough to cause wrath to rise at the very idea of a God who is not angry with us, but, saddened by our anger with ourselves, wishes to save us through Christ – to save us from ourselves and the work of sin within us?
There, I have worried away at it, not I think to any great result, but sometimes worrying away at things can be enough.
In the Facebook Lent Book Group one member has noted that Sheild Upjohn is very reluctant to take sides in the various theological issues she herself raises. In the chapter on “prayer” this is clearest on two issue which readers of this blog will recognise – praying the Rosary and praying with the Saints.
Our old correspondent, Bosco, was very hot on these issues. Like many Protestants of an Evangelical bent (if that is what he was), Bosco objected to praying the Rosary, reminding us that we had been warned against vain repetition, adding for good measure that we shouldn’t pray to the Holy Virgin (whose virginity he, in rather poor form even for him, denied) or the saints. Ms Upjohn’s delicacy is perhaps understandable. New readers here need only to put “Bosco” into the search bar on the blog to find some prime examples of prejudice uniformed by knowledge, allied to a firm refusual to rethink once informed. It’s a way of being, but not one which commends itself to anyone who does not already hold such views.
Catholic actually pray “with” the Saints, not to them; the same is true of the greatest of the Saints, Our Lady. If you do not believe there is a “great cloud of witnesses” then so be it, but at least do fellow Christians the courtesy of informing yourself what they say they believe. Can devotion be misinterpreted? It can, and those Anglo-Saxons who feel uneasy with overt displays of emotion, may well find themselves feeling that way about some of the devotions practised by those whose culture makes them very easy with such displays; but they might like to reflect that understanding requires more than observation uninformed by knowledge. Empathy matters, and before we rush to judge others, we might think to exercise it.
It raises the issue of what prayer is for? Mother Julian is a good guide here, writing in chapter 41:
Our Lord himself is the first to receive our prayer, as I see it. He takes it, full of thanks and joy, and he sends it up above, and sets it in the treasury, where it will never be lost. It is there before God and all his holy ones – continually heard, continually helping our needs. When we come to heaven, our prayers will be given to us as part of our delight – with endless joyful tasks from God.
I have found praying the Rosary whilst walking an excellent way of taking two forms of exercise, and I know Jessica has found it useful after I recommended it to her. In so praying it helps my mind focus on the Scriptural passages behind each part of the Rosary. The idea that it somehow raises Our Lady to divine status could, I suspect, be raised only by one who brought it with them because of a suspicion that Catholics do that. There has been a very long history of anti-Catholicsm in the Anglo-Saxon world, and even though we are now in a more secular age, traces of it linger, and added to that we have the aggressive secularism which finds all religion a survival of what it dismisses as medieval superstition, without ever understanding it.
Here, again, Julian is helpful. In chapter 25, Jesus offers her a vision of the Blessed Virgin in heaven:
And with this very same expression of gladness and joy, our good Lord looked down on his right side and brought my mind to where our Lady stood during his Passion, and he said, ‘Would you like to see her?’ … as if he had said, ‘Would you like to see how I love her, so that you can rejoice with me, in the love that I have for her and she for me? … Would you like to see in her how you are loved. For the love of you I made her so exalted, so noble and of such worth; and this delights me, and I want it to delight you.
Sheila Upjohn’s approach is irenic in the best way. Experience has taught he what it has taught others, which is that you cannot really argue about this issue, all you can do is to try to enter into an understanding of why, for so many of us, Our Lady is so loved. That is not a bad pattern for us during Lent.
“In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the One who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.“
St Isaac the Syrian Discourses II.38.1-2
Holy Church teaches me to believe that all these shall be condemned everlastingly to hell. And given all of this I thought it impossible that all manner of things should be well, as Our Lord revealed at the this time. And I receioved no other answer in showing from our Lord God but this: “what is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall keep my word in all things, and I shall make all things well.”
Revelation of Divine Love, Chapter 32
The best known of all Mother Julian’s sayings is that “all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well”. But we see here how conflicted she was after the “showings”. The Church taught one thing, the experience of God seemed to teach her another. Her anxiety is clear in chapters 32 and chapter 50. In the latter she wrote:
My good Lord, I see that you are truth itself and I know for certain that we sin every day and deserve to be bitterly blamed; and I can neither give up the knowledge of this truth, nor can I see that you show us any kind of blame. How can this be?
Revelation, Chapter 50
She could not find in any of the “showings” that the omniscient and omnipotent God was “angry” with his finite creation. Indeed for her, our very existence proved that God was not angry, not least since he could simply have annihilated all of us at a stroke:
It seems to me that if God could be even slightly angry we could never have any life, or place, or being
Revelation Chapter 49
If God is, as we are told, “love” then how can he also be angry and want to exact vengeance on us?
The image of God as vengeful father is one at odds with the image of him as a loving mother. Speaking personally, I have always had a problem with the idea of an angry God, and the first time I read Mother Julian, as with the first time I read St Issac the Syrian (whom I quote above) it made me crystallise my discomfort. Like Mother Julian I can do nothing with it, but what she taught me was that I don’t need to do anything with it.
This is where the fact that she was an “unlettered” woman helps. A Schoolman would have wanted to come to a resolution of the difficulty and would have ended by agreeing with the condemnation of Origen’s (supposed) teaching at the second council of Constantinople in 553, that we cannot believe in “universal salvation”. Mother Julian, not confined by the rules of debate, could. according to taste, do what mothers often do when it comes to their children and discipline, which is exercise what (to some men) looks like muddled thinking, or what (to others) is a sensible acknowledgement of limitations. She could not, and did not, go outside what the Church taught, any more than I could or would.
But what she could do was to express what she was shown, which is the God of love who fits St Paul’s definition of love:
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not [a]puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, [b]thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
If this is “love” then St Paul omits to mention that the God who is love is “angry’, and will wreak vengeance on those who fail him. That was as far as Mother Julian could go. But without ever having heard of St Isaac, she found herself in the same place in terms of how the God who is love would bring creation to a place where it would be true that “all shall be well”:
there is a deed which the Holy Trinity shall do on the last day, and when that deed shall be done and how it shall be done in unknown to all creatures under Christ and shall be until it has been done … This is the great deed ordained by our Lord God from eternity, treasured up and hidden in his blessed breast, only known to himself, and by this deed he shall make all things well; for just as the Holy Trinity made all things from nothing, so the Holy Trinity make all well that is not well.
Revelation, Chapter 32
Just as God made everything at the beginning of the world, like a mother birthing a child, so at the end of things he will match that with another motherly action. We do not know what it will be, and anyone who claims they do claims too much, but we know it will make “all things well.” And after all, when it comes to seeking comfort, it is, perhaps, more usual for a child to go to her mother for that than to go to her father.
Mother Julian goes no further than St Isaac. But both mystics did not see God as an angry father whom we should obey because of fear of punishment. That idea might, of course, pose a problem for some, and as Mother Julian was the first to acknowledge, cannot be squared with the official teaching of the Church. But I, for one, come to God because I can do no other than to respond to the love he has shown me. A God who would behave in a manner which, in an earthly father, would have him banged up for child abuse (“if you don’t behave you will burn forever”) is one who is too frail and human to die upon a Cross for me. That he did, that he did it because he loves me is why I love him; I can do no other.
As for hell, for sure, we have Scriptural authority for knowing it exists, but what is it? Here I quote St Isaac again:
As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.
That is what the torment of hell is in my opinion: remorse. But love inebriates the souls of the sons and daughters of heaven by its delectability.
St Isaac the Syrian, Ascetic Treatises, 84
What could be worse than cutting yourself off from love by closing your heart to it?
Mother Julian and St Isaac have a lot in common, and I just wish I had the time and the ability to compare and contrast, but for our purposes this Lent, perhaps this will suffice? To some I shall be thought to have said too much, to others I shall be held to have been too cautious. In these matters the latter is perhaps the better charge.
A Sermon by Pastor Gervase Charmley, Bethel, Hanley
Christ came to save sinners! The miracles of Christ are signs, and so are the signs of the Apostles. The healing of a disabled man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple was the prelude for a sermon about the sin of man and the salvation that is in Christ. The text is Acts 3