Friday, March 10, 2006

Limbo

We covered this yesterday in my Instruction with regard to Christ's descent into hell, while he lay in the tomb.

The term is used in two contexts: the place where the souls of the just men of the Old Covenant (e.g. Adam, Abraham, Moses, etc.) abode after they died before Christ's Crucifixion made satisfaction for the Fall (called limbus patrum, limbo of the fathers); and the place where the souls of those who have not attained the age of reason, who die without being baptized (called limbus infantium, children's limbo). Both play a key rôle in Catholic theology with regards to Baptism and sin.

Limbus patrum was clearly necessary, since Heaven was closed to man after the Fall and could never merit it of himself. However, it would not be according to God's justice for all those who followed the commandments of God - either implicitly before they were solemnly proclaimed on Mount Sinai, or explicitly thereafter - and expected the promised Redeemer, to be condemned to Hell. St. Paul explicitly tells us that Abraham was justified before God, and it would be unreasonable to think that many others were not as well. Hence, there must have been a neutral place were their souls dwelt until Christ could proclaim their redemption. It is alluded to several times in the New Testament (as in Our Lord's parable of Lazarus and Dives) and explicitly so by St. Peter (I Peter 3:18-20). It is bound up in that wondrous verse from the Te Deum, "Tu devicto mortis aculeo: aperuisti credentibus regna caelorum", "Thou, having overcome the sting of death: didst open the kingdom of heaven to those who believe". It is explicit in the Apostles' and Athanasian Creeds, "Descendit ad inferos", "He descended into hell". But the Reformers, particularly Calvin, could not accept it, firstly because it did not accord with their view of God's justice as being merely vengeful and not merciful also, secondly because the admittance of one intermediate place between Heaven and Hell opened the possibility of another, that is Purgatory.

Once the Sacrament of Baptism was available, however, such a state was no longer required: whoever received it was freed from Original Sin and, if they thereafter died without stain of mortal sin, were assured of the beatific vision; those who died having knowingly rejected it would be punished in Hell (I will not speak of those who die, having attained reason, without having the opportunity to receive it - that is something of a theological minefield which I am not qualified to negotiate).

But what of those who, not having attained reason and therefore being incapable of committing sin, die without receiving Baptism? They cannot enter Heaven for the same reason as Abraham et al. could not: they are still stained with Original Sin. However, it would not be just for them to be punished in Hell since they have never done anything of themselves to deserve it. The early Fathers therefore said that their souls where in some state that was free from positive punishment (as in Hell), but were deprived of the happiness of God (in Heaven), some even allowing that they enjoy some sort of 'natural' happiness. Augustine (in his zealous refutation of Pelagius, a proto-sola fideist) denied this, saying that those souls participated in the punishment of the damned, allowing that it is perhaps very slight. Since then, the Doctors of the Church have gradually returned to the pre-Augustinian view.

It is worth noting that the nature of limbus infantium is speculation: the Church has no clear revelation on this matter. Its existence is, however, required by our understanding of the necessity of Baptism and God's justice. Needless to say, limbus patrum is not up for negotiation as it is clearly referenced in Scripture and the Creeds.

It is odd to think that many people's idea of Limbo as some featureless void with babies floating around in it. I prefer the idea that they are in some place where, ignorant of God since they have never had the ability to know him, they exist in happiness, as far as one can without God: blissful ignorance, if you like.

I hope that your Lenten disciplines are going well, and that they are leading you into a deeper and closer knowledge of Our Lord.

Gratia Dei et intercessione Sanctae Genetricis suae, sim semper frater dilectus tuus in Christo,
Joannes

Friday, March 03, 2006

Mystery in Catholicism

Following on from my second instructions session yesterday, where we looked at the nature of man and God, and the creation of the world, I thought that a short outline of the various aspects of mystery in Catholicism.

Our word, mystery, comes directly from Greek, μυστηριον, by way of Latin, mysterium. It signifies something hidden or concealed, but has come commonly to mean something not understood. Hence most Christians talk about the mystery of the Trinity, something so far beyond our comprehension that we can never fully understand it until we attain the beatific vision (it was in this connection that we discussed the word). It is in this way that the word is almost without exception (see below) used in Scripture, particularly by St. Paul when discussion the more profound areas of our Faith. Its use in the Apocalypse is significant, especially with regard to the woman who sits on the beast (and so a fig for the Protestants who dare to identify this with the Church of Rome), a book so full of mystery and things hidden that its use in the liturgy of the Church remains severely restricted for fear of misinterpretation.

The Greek is sometimes also translated into Latin as sacramentum, whence our word, sacrament. The Latin word also reinforces a sense of the sacred, which, while not excluded by the Greek, is not explicit. Hence we can comfortably speak of the seven sacraments as mysteries, because the combination of intention, form and matter to effect a change in a person or (in the case of the Eucharist) inanimate object seems, at least at first, contrary to our normal understanding. It is especially applied to the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, as this change of substance from bread and wine is the most radical of all the sacramental changes, and so was and remains a stumbling block to many non-Catholics (and even some Catholics). My reaction to St. Thomas Aquinas' detailed analysis of the sacraments and particularly of the Blessed Sacrament is that they are all very well and helpful for beginning to understanding them, and especially useful in apologetics, but we must in the end, as my instructor put it, 'fall down and silently adore the mystery'. Even St. Thomas himself did this in the end. One might argue that the Orthodox have taken this to an extreme of trying to define as little as possible with regard to the sacraments, again particularly with regard to the Eucharist, but it can be a helpful attitude if you find yourself tied in mental knots over sacramental theology.

The Reformers, of course, opposed the Catholic Church's teaching about the sacraments, to degrees varying from Zwingli's total denial of sacraments of any kind (at least in the form that the Church taught) to more nuanced rejections from Calvin and Luther, since they could not, to their minds, not find any justification (pardon the pun!) for it in Scripture. It was argued by many Catholics at the time of the Reformation, particularly the translators of the Rhemes New Testament, that St. Paul's use of the word in relation to marriage in Ephesians 5 was deliberate, and so was translated by Jerome as sacramentum, to reinforce the sacramental nature of matrimony: το μυστεριον τουτο μεγα εστιν, sacramentum hoc magnum est. Of the Protestant Bibles, the authorized Version alone dared even to translate it 'mystery', the others all saying 'secret'.

Mystery is hence intrinsically bound up in liturgy (since it is through the liturgical acts of the Church that the sacraments are administered). It has always been a great strength of all the Catholic rites, Eastern or Western, when properly carried out, that they reflect this. It should therefore be no surprise that the practical deconstruction of liturgical mystery over the last 30 years has led to Catholics being less ready to accept the theological mysteries, especially of the Blessed Sacrament. All Protestant liturgies either entirely lack mystery (as in most non-Conformist denominations), or turn it into an end in itself (as with ritualistic Anglo-Catholics). Only when mystery is accepted as being fundamental to one's Faith can mystery in the liturgy be seen as wonderful thing, rather than something which excludes.

We can therefore see that Catholicism is fundamentally 'mysterious', that is, it is founded on things that, while partly and acceptably explicable, cannot be fully understood this side of heaven. This is not a call for the sweeping away of theology (for it is thereby that the small understanding that we can attain is revealed), but a willingness, in the end, to submit to the Church's teaching, however hard it may be for our 'rational' minds to comprehend.

Gratia Dei et intercessione Sanctae Genetricis suae, sim semper frater dilectus tuus in Christo,

Joannes

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Secular Music

Many Catholics who write about music tend to concentrate on the sacred, since this is an integral part of the liturgy and (as I will argue below) evangelical mission of the Church. Secular music (that is, music not intended to be sung or played in Church) has such a huge impact on most people's lives (whether Catholic or not, Christian or not) that it deserves some thought.

As I write this, I am listening to Mahler's Sixth Symphony, a work of great drama and (ultimately) tragedy; one can see why Mahler never composed operas, since he saw the orchestra (occasionally with choral forces) as capable of expressing the full range of human emotion. It begins and ends in utter darkness: driving 'cellos at the beginning; an almighty A minor chord from the full orchestra, followed by the timpani sounding like a death drum, with a final stroke from the strings, often compared to 'the final nail in the coffin'. There is a lot of warmth, humour and joy elsewhere, but the underlying theme is 'vanitas vanitatum, omnis vanitas' as Ecclesiastes puts it.

Now, this is but a summary of what can be said about this 90 minute piece of music; but can this much be written about most contemporary music? Do not misunderstand me: while I do not own any non-classical music, I am quite happy to listen to it, if it is inoffensive (increasingly difficult) and has some subtlety and complexity to its message. Such music can be found on radio stations such as Radio 2 , and Radio 3 (which, as you can imagine, is my favourite) does some good programmes on jazz, and I inifintely prefer this to the pap pumped out by Classic FM. That station does not generally promote anything outside the 'nice, relaxing' category of classical music, which is tremendously limiting, and so they have to constantly recycle the same tunes. In addition, being a commercial station, they must have advertisement breaks at regular intervals, which limits the length of any one piece to about 5 minutes, so a lot of music is presented as 'bleeding chunks': single movements or even parts of movements, giving no idea of the context in which they were intended to be heard.

All good art must challenge the viewer or listener; it should contain something out-of-the-ordinary, something to lift the mind from the mundane. For the Catholic, this 'other' must be God; the subject need not be explicitly religious, but it should not be anti-religious, and if it is ambiguous, one should be able to discern the 'divine spark' in it. This has to be the litmus test for all art, but especially music, since sound is more pervasive: it is easier to ignore an image than it is a sound.

Now, sacred music has a role to play in this; I would argue that the overall exposure of most people to it has not changed that much in the last half-century, but the context in which it is heard has shifted from the church to the concert hall. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it keeps sacred music alive at a time when few churches are using it liturgically. However, there is surely a golden opportunity for churches with the resources to put on 'concerts spirituels', religious concerts, to do so. There is definitely a secular audience for such music, and if it is heard in a religious environment, it will plant a seed of desire to hear it in its proper (liturgical) context. It could be a series of organ recitals, or an a capella group performing music by related composers, or a choir and orchestra singing a full-blown Mozart Mass (appropriate in this his anniversary year). It would depend on the financial resources of a church how often such things occur, but it is definitely a question of priorities: money from both the music and evangelism budgets could be put towards such an enterprise.

These are just musings, not an action plan for change: it will take a lot of hard lobbying at parish, diocesan and bishops' conference level to effect such change on a widespread level, but it bears thinking about.

Gratia Dei et intercessione Sanctae Genetricis suae, sim semper frater dilectus tuus in Christo,

Joannes

Monday, February 27, 2006

The End of Man

This last weekend has been rather hectic, but good. I had my first instruction, went to St. Paul's, watched the rugby, and spent the whole of Sunday in the presence of Catholics.

Unfortunately, due to a mix-up, I was not expected by the priest who is instructing me. Nevertheless, he made time to have a chat about the Catholic Church and what had led me to it; I pretty much regurgitated the post below. Then he spent some time impressing on me that the instruction would be orthodox and intensive, and to this end, he would use the Baltimore Catechism. He gave me a copy thereof (with explanatory notes), and told me to read the first lesson (the title of this post) for the next session this Thursday.

Now, before anyone thinks this is about death and destruction - it is, a bit - 'end' here means 'purpose' or, in secular parlance, 'destiny': 'For what was man created?' Having a Christian upbringing, this was quite straightforward (the answer is 'To know God, to love him, and to serve him in the world, and to be happy with him in the next', in case anyone was wondering), but two things struck me, one general, the other specific: firstly, although it was clearly written for children, the language is technical and precise, harking back to a time (this Catechism was first published in 1891) when children didn't need to be patronized; secondly, although I knew it intellectually, I had never really thought of the human soul as immortal - immortality seems to be often associated with crazy scientists trying to achieve the impossible, or the constant striving of modern society to preserve youth - but God really did make us to live forever; the ambient temperature of where we end up is entirely up to us!

A good start then. The St. Paul's visit was with some friends from Cambridge, and was quite instructive. Having taken the decision to leave the Anglican church (and so being in an inter-communion no-man's land: 'of all churches, and of none'), I looked at the building, not as a place of worship (although it could be put to that use, one hopes, in the future), but as an architectural marvel. It truly is stunning both inside and out - admittedly, rather bare by Catholic standards, with statues of great statesmen and generals replacing those of saints - but a truly impressive high altar and a unity of purpose that few other churches in England from before the 19th century have. Being the first Protestant cathedral built in England (Christ Church, Oxford, doesn't really count as it was begun by Wolsey), it shows the ideals of Anglican cathedral worship very clearly. The view from the top of the dome is breathtaking (if you have any left after the long climb up), and this from someone with a more than small fear of heights. The asking price is steep (£9), and you are therefore contributing to a Protestant foundation, but Irationalizedd it by saying that they're just keeping it standing for when we reclaim it!

The less said about the rugby, the better, so I shall pass straight on to yesterday. Mass was good, with great singing, and a cogent sermon encapsulating 1 Corinthians 13 (well-known from many a wedding, but to hear it in Latin was novel) and healing of the blind man at Jericho. Holy Church instructs us to do penance during Lent by fasting and abstaining, and by doing more and greater acts of piety than at other times. Unless these are done with charity "nihil mihi prodest", it is of no advantage to me, so keep that uppermost in your mind. Then, when we come to Easter, our eyes shall be opened, and we will see anew the glories of our faith. I would encourage every Catholic to give up something and to take up something: things like alcohol or chocolate are commonly given up, but what about television? It would be instructive to see how much one really needs it, with so much offal being shown, and so many other (better) sources of news available. As for taking up, going to Mass more often or saying the Rosary every day are usual, but what about reading extracts from the Fathers (see http://www.churchyear.net/lentfathers.html for some help) or Papal encyclicals on certain topics?

So I wish you all a merry Carnival (eat lots of pancakes tomorrow!), and a holy Lent.

Gratia Dei et intercessione Sanctae Genetricis suae, sim semper frater dilectus tuus in Christo,

Joannes

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

And so we begin...

This weblog is intended to be a commentary on my spiritual journey. As you can see from my profile, I'm on my way but not there yet (so to speak!) I'll give a bit more detail here: having left university (at Cambridge) prematurely last summer (after having to deal with some very difficult stuff), I was forced to look in detail at my spiritual life and what I truly believed.

The (Anglican) church that I had been attending was (and is) very orthodox (for an Anglican church) - they oppose the 'ordination' of women, their liturgy is a slightly adapted form of the Book of Common Prayer, the preaching from the pulpit was always resolutely traditional ("the faith once given" as the Vicar put it) - but with the imminent 'consecration' of women to the episcopate, an irrevocable step that will put the Church of England beyond all hope of reunion with the Roman and Eastern Churches, there seemed no way for such a church to continue without converting to the Roman Church (which the Vicar said he would never do), going into schism with the C of E (not a really tenable position, if the church wished to still call itself Catholic), or capitulating.

Not wishing to risk the latter happening, I stopped attending last October and spent some time considering my own position; did I only believe what I did because I had been going to that church (so that they might change if I attended a different Anglican Church - remember that my experience of other elements of Anglicanism had been pretty limited), or were they my own true beliefs.

I set out to discover which it was by attending a different Anglican church which, although it used the BCP, was much more 'middle-of-the-road' in its theology and outlook. This was the first time in my life that I had been exposed to a view of church as little more than a social club, with some nice songs and a short 'thought for the day' from the Vicar. I was drawn in for a while (humans always like to have friends, and I was feeling rather lonely at that time), but I found myself disagreeing with both the Vicar and most of the congregation on so many points, that I could no longer face going there anymore. It seemed then that I had experienced all forms of Anglicanism (having already witnessed Evangelicalism at my parents' Baptist church, which seemed pretty indistinguishable from Anglican Evangelicalism), that approach seemed entirely unfeasible.

What about Orthodoxy? One Sunday was enough to convince me that while they seemed to most things right, the fact that my Greek (and Slavonic) is non-existent and I couldn't cope with the length of services (I know most people don't go to it all, but I just can't get my head around that) really meant that crossing the Bosporus wasn't an option either.

So that left Roman Catholicism. I had been a few times to the Oratory in London (Anglo-Catholics do have a predilection for decently-ordered liturgy, in whatever denomination it may be found), albeit only to Sunday Vespers, so I gave the Mass there a try. I went to both the early (Low) Old Rite, and the later (Solemn) Novus Ordo Masses: the former to see what it was like (I had never been to one before); the latter to get my musical fix. My Latin being pretty good and my knowledge of ceremonial and liturgical structure quite broad, I enjoyed both but found the 'bump' of having readings and intercessions in English at the Novus Ordo quite disconcerting. The revelation was the atmosphere of devotion: the Anglo-Catholic church had never lacked it, but the sheer awe with which everyone (congregation and clergy) approached the service lifted my heart and soul far above anything I had ever experienced. 'Terribilis est locus iste: hic domus Dei et porta caeli: et vocabitur aula Dei' said Jacob after his dream of the ladder: I couldn't agree more.

However, living as I do in south London, the weekly commute was rather arduous so I set about looking for somewhere more local. I chanced to have a conversation with one of the Chaplains, who told me about a church much nearer to me which had a Sung Old Rite Mass every week - the best of every world.

So this is where I have been going for the last three weeks, and have been co-opted into the choir there. Although not as visually impressive as the Oratory (few churches in England are), it has a comfortable feeling while still directing the eye to the Altar - the centerpiece of the liturgy and (as so much religious art has shown over the centuries) the doorway to heaven. I'll be starting instruction with one of the priests there this week, and so I shall truly begin the journey to the True Church.

As for the weblog, I'll try to keep it updated with how I'm getting on in my instruction, plus reaction to developments in the Anglican and Roman Churches. It is my fervent hope that it may provide encouragement to those following the same path, as well as a challenge to others on both sides of the divide. I may not have my theology fully worked out yet, nor will I ever have all the answers, but I know that this is the right path.

Gratia Dei et intercessione Sanctae Genetricis suae, sim semper frater dilectus tuus in Christo,

Joannes