One of the things that I learnt over the last month was that the methods I have been using to follow God’s will are very difficult to apply when on holiday. Actually they are very difficult to apply at any time - but virtually impossible on holiday!
Instead I learned a very simple way of keeping myself on the right path. That was to ask myself regularly throughout the day “Is this God’s will?” without seeking for a precise answer. What I found was that my actions would change in response to the question, a bit like a sailing boat responding to the helm. It proved to be very effective, but now I have to use it in the very different circumstances of my ordinary life and work.
I said that I should ask myself the question regularly throughout the day. How often is “regularly”? As a guideline for myself, I laid down the following:
- Whenever I have a choice of things to do.
- Whenever I start to experience a negative emotion.
- Whenever I am conscious of sin.
- Any other time I feel like asking the question.
Now back from my month away, I was interested to see that the readership statistics for this blog showed, as expected, a drop for September. However bearing in mind that there were no postings at all during September the drop was much smaller than I had expected. August was a record month but September still exceeded the total for July.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this, except that a blog is as permanent as a website and therefore attracts many readers who are not necessarily following the latest entry.
I’m going away for a month’s holiday, so there will be no more entries in this blog until at least the beginning of October.
I don’t know why I’ve got the bit between my teeth about the atheistic belief system when I’m supposed to be packing for my imminent departure on holiday, but here goes again.
I remember quite a number of years ago watching a lecture on TV by none other than Richard Dawkins. He was speaking to an audience of young people about the nature of belief v. scientific knowledge. During the course of the lecture he produced a most impressive demonstration about what he meant by knowledge. There was a a large metal ball suspended from the ceiling to form a pendulum. Dawkins pulled the pendulum over to one side until he was holding the ball against his forehead. Then he let it go and stood standing rigidly to attention waiting for the pendulum to swing back in his direction. The pendulum accelerated away from him, got to the end of its swing, stopped and then accelerated back towards him. As it shot past the central point, it was aiming straight for his head. The whole audience (including me) gasped and flinched, but Dawkins just stood there. The ball stopped just an inch from his head and swung back the other way. He didn’t even blink. “That is what I mean by scientific knowledge”, he said, “That’s what one can trust, knowledge not faith”.
Even though I was an atheist myself at the time I remember thinking “I hope he doesn’t apply that sort of logic to his wife!” (I hasten to add that I have no knowledge whatever of Professor Dawkins’ family circumstances).
The fact is of course that Dawkins and all the rest of us have to spend our lives taking an awful lot of things on faith. I believe certains things about the way my wife is likely to behave, but I have absolutely no proof of it - and sometimes I get it completely wrong. I believe that my car will start in the morning, but sometimes it doesn’t. If we demanded absolute proof of everything we would never be able to do anything.
Basically we believe something because our experience leads us to predict that reality will act in a certain way in the future. Scientific knowledge is only an extension of that - it is not a completely different way of looking at the world. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. But in normal circumstances, most of the time we get it right. My wife usually does behave the way I expect her to, my car does usually start in the morning. We are, in short, pretty good interpreters of reality, living our lives on the basis of faith derived from experience.
What I am saying is that the atheist has to live his or her life on the basis of faith, just as much as the rest of us do. Faith is not believing something without any evidence. Faith is seeing the future in the light of what we have experienced in the past. I believe in God not because someone has provided a logical proof of God’s existence (though I think such proofs exist) but because of my experience of what life is like when I believe in God and act accordingly, versus what it is like when I do not believe in God and act accordingly.
I can’t resist another posting on weird beliefs before I go on holiday!
The ultimate weird atheist belief is that evolution is all about survival of the fittest.
Number of bacteria in one gram of fertile soil: 100,000,000
Number of human beings in the entire United Kingdom: 58,000,000
If evolution is about survival, shouldn’t we be evolving into bacteria?
Atheists are very good at holding their beliefs in spite of living right in the middle of very obvious evidence to the contrary. So, as I said in my last post, they claim that the universe is incapable of intelligent design while being surrounded on every side by things which are intelligently designed - designed by what? By entities which according to the atheists are merely the result of random forces within the universe. Hmmm….
That moves us neatly on to consider these entities which are supposedly merely the result of random forces - namely us. There is a very strange atheist belief that consciousness is simply the result of the way the brain is organised and that there is nothing else. Of course only an atheist would fail to notice that there is something else - something so obvious that it is easy to miss it if you keep your intelligence firmly shut up.
That something which your atheist has failed to notice is that the human race is divided into two unequal halves. If I look at it from my point of view, one half contains according to the very latest estimate 6,615,137,378 people. The other contains 1 person. That one person is me. That one person is the one that I am conscious of being.
Can the atheist tell me or anyone how this division in humanity comes about? I mean why not just one total of 6,615,137,379 people? Why has the universe produced this one odd person as well as the other 6,615,137,378 ? It’s never done it before and is never going to do it again. And as far as I can see there’s no reason why it should have done it now.
One of the weirdest beliefs of atheistic scientists is their absolute refusal to consider the possibility of design in the universe. I say that this belief is weird because it seems to me that there is a profound mental contradiction when someone sitting on a designed chair in a designed room in a designed house in a designed town writes on a designed computer that there is no possibility of design in nature.
“But hang on, these things weren’t designed by nature. They were designed by humans.”
But aren’t humans part of nature? They didn’t parachute in from some alternative reality. The fact that we know that at least one small corner of the universe is full of designed objects shows that design is a potentiality of the universe. And if that is so, how can one rule out the possibility of design from the discussion of any aspect of the universe?
I read a great quote today in Saturday’s Zenith newsletter from John Paul II in Centesimus Annus:
When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. Politics then becomes a ‘secular religion’ which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world.
One of the greatest lies that secularists propagate is that religion is responsible for most of the evils in the world, and that secularism is entirely beneficent. How beneficent we saw in the last century when the secularist philosophies of Fascism and Marxism managed to achieve body counts unimaginable even in the worst religiously inspired conflicts.
Here in Europe we have many signs of a new secularism arising that is becoming increasingly intolerant. One of the things that most distresses me about the European Union is the amount of deceit that seems to be built into its implementation. This appears to go far beyond the normal face-saving one expects from politicians, and to be a matter of deliberate and systematic deception. Not a good sign.
Being away from home last weekend, I attended Mass at one of the Cathedrals in southern England. Sadly I found it full of all my favourite bugbears. The congregation appeared to believe that their mission in life was to chatter with each other before the start of Mass, which they did with a volume of noise and abandon which I have rarely come across in any church - even a priest was chattering away at one side with a group of young people. The majority of the congregation were dressed for a day out beside the sea. The music consisted of the finalists in the Competion for the Most Banal Catholic Hymn. The sound system was terrible to a degree that only Catholic churches seem to be able to achieve. The celebrating priest improvised weird gestures throughout which made him seem more like a druid than a Catholic priest.
The only good thing about the way the Mass was conducted was the homily, which was by a visiting Italian priest from an African mission. Although his English was good, I had great difficulty making out what he was saying because of the terrible sound system. What I did manage to hear was very interesting, but he only spoke for about eight minutes. I learned afterwards that he had spoken for longer at an earlier Mass but had been told to keep it shorter!
Yet this turned out to be a wonderfully positive experience. I had a sudden realisation that what the Lord wanted of me was to give him all the negative thoughts I was having. If I offered them to him as they came to me, he would transform the dross into gold - there was a sense, more than a sense, that bringing my imperfect experience of the imperfect world to him would redeem the situation. He wanted me neither to deny my feelings nor to hold on to them. He wanted me to bring the whole of what I was experiencing to him as I experienced it.
I’m reading On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins at the moment in which he posits a model of how the human brain works. His theory is that what we think of as intelligence is basically memory leading to prediction. I’ll quote the book cover:
Hawkins develops a powerful theory of how the human brain works, explaining why computers are not intelligent. The brain is not a computer, but a memory system that stores experiences in a way that reflects the true structure of the world, remembering sequences of events and their nested relationships and making predictions based on those memories. It is this memory-prediction system that forms the basis of intelligence, perception, creativity, and even consciousness.
I was struck forcibly while reading how often the Bible talks about remembering. We are told to remember God’s covenant, his mercies, and many other things. God too is depicted as remembering his promises. Jesus asks his disciples to remember his words and his miracles. At the Last Supper the apostles were told to “do this in memory of me”.
If Hawkins is right that memory is the foundation of intelligence, then it sounds as if it is the foundation of faith too. Forgetting is the way to lose faith, and consequently spiritual intelligence.
When in 1568, in the aftermath of the great Council of Trent, Saint Pius V promulgated the new Breviary there were no fewer than six people alive whom the Church would come to recognise as Doctors of the Church. This was the largest number since the 5th Century. Even today at least two of them are household names.
St Teresa of Avila, age 53
St Peter Canisius, age 47
St John of the Cross, age 26
St Robert Bellarmine, age 26
St Lawrence of Brindisi, age 9
St Francis de Sales, age 1
This extraordinary efflorescence of sanctity and intellect was all part of the true reformation of the Church which laid the foundation for the centuries to come.
When in 1970, in the wake of Vatican II, Paul VI promulgated the new Liturgy of the Hours, how many people were alive who will one day be recognised as Doctors of the Church? Just possibly our present Pope, I suppose. Are there any other candidates?
[Afternote: Since I wrote the above, St John of Avila has been added to the list, making 7 in total. He was 68 years of age.]
There’s a fun quiz at http://www.4degreez.com/misc/dante-inferno-test.mv which tells you which circle of Dante’s Inferno you will end up in.
“Through me the way into the suffering city,
Through me the way to the eternal pain,
Through me the way that runs among the lost.
Justice urged on my high artificer;
My maker was divine authority,
The highest wisdom, and the primal love.
Before me nothing but eternal things were made,
And I endure eternally.
Abandon every hope, ye who enter here.”
You can also make it to Purgatory, which I managed to do:
You have escaped damnation and made it to Purgatory, a place where the dew of repentance washes off the stain of sin and girds the spirit with humility. Through contrition, confession, and satisfaction by works of righteousness, you must make your way up the mountain. As the sins are cleansed from your soul, you will be illuminated by the Sun of Divine Grace, and you will join other souls, smiling and happy, upon the summit of this mountain. Before long you will know the joys of Paradise as you ascend to the ethereal realm of Heaven.
I won’t tell you which Circle of Hell I narrowly escaped ending up in because it would be extremely embarrassing!
Although this is presented as a fun quiz, the questions asked - and the conclusions drawn - are very serious.
One of the books I am reading at the moment is the much-needed Humility of Heart by Fr. Cajetan Mary da Bergamo (1660-1753). It was translated from the Italian in 1903 by Herbert Cardinal Vaughan.
One slightly irritating thing about the book is that the publisher has inserted some little notes in the text in square brackets to explain any long words or difficult expressions used by Fr. Cajetan or Cardinal Vaughan. An example of this would be "give way to a certain pusillanimous [cowardly] melancholy." Apart from raising the question of who would read a text like this who didn't either know what pusillanimous meant or how to use a dictionary, this is fairly harmless. But then I came across the following passage in which the author recommends the practice of meditating on the mystery of predestination:
"... when I meditate upon my eternal salvation I see that it does not depend [solely] upon the power of my own free-will [cooperating with God's grace], but [mainly] upon the divine mercy."
Now to my mind that statement, as altered, is very different from the original: "when I meditate upon my eternal salvation I see that it does not depend upon the power of my own free-will, but upon the divine mercy."
As St Therese of the Child Jesus said on her deathbed "It's all grace" (or was it the priest in Journal d'un curé de campagne? - probably both).
As far as I can make out, the square brackets were added for the 2006 republishing of the book. This would make a great essay subject:
"The life of the church over the 100 years since Vaughan's translation has been profoundly effected by the difference in theology represented by these two statements. Discuss with examples."
With great excitement I opened a mysterious parcel from the United States this morning, to find that it contained the first volume of St Vincent de Paul's complete correspondence and other documents.
So let's open the book at random and see what spiritual sustenance I can find from the pen of the saint:
I have heard that your bread was not well made. Please have it done by a baker, if you can find one, for the most important thing is to have good bread. It would also be well to vary the food sometimes - to relieve the strain on poor nature which tires of seeing the same things all the time. You would also be wise to recommend cleanliness and neatness to the brothers, both with regard to the kitchen and to the refectory.
To the Superior of the house in Toul, 1637
Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. (Matthew 24: 45, 46)
My recent posting on Vision and Reality resulted in comments from two regular readers, both of whom I respect highly, who suggested in effect that I was trying too hard.
One of the comments was a lengthy and thoughtful contribution from Aimee Milburn of Historical Christian. She also published the comment on her own blog. I respect Amee's writing immensely, but in this case I disagreed with her conclusions.
I think the easiest way to reply to Aimee's comment is to reproduce it here, and put my own comments in the body of the text. What follows in italics is Aimee's text, and my comments are in [bracketed bold type].
We tend to think of God’s will as always being specific actions, things He wants us to do, and so we need to discern them, what He would have us do. [I think what God is actually calling us to do is to be open to his grace. Without grace we can do nothing] And there is truth to that. But we also have a lot of freedoms. God does not dictate every moment – nor does He want to. He wants us to be free, as His children. We have freedom in Christ, the freedom of the children of God. [I don't think this is actually the correct meaning of "the glorious freedom of the children of God". The freedom which is our aim as Christians in this present world is freedom from the rule of sin in our lives. The bondage this puts us in is only too obvious in the world around us and in our own lives] A father wants to see his children running, playing, acting, growing, having fun, and in the long run maturing. So God wants for us.
What is the “will” in the first place? Theologically speaking, the will is not what you do, but how you love, and what you love. The will is love itself. Love in turn leads you to things you love, and to do things you love.
We are to be like God, because we were created in His image and likeness. And God is love. Therefore His will is love. So maybe “doing God’s will” means in the first place not doing, but being: being like God, loving how God loves, and the things God loves, while freely acting as His children. [One can never separate what one is from what one does. "Out of the abundance of the heart" come our words and actions, as Christ says. Paul talks about "faith expressing itself in love"]
That requires great purification of our wills, because we love the wrong things. Sin itself is a type of love, an attachment to things other than God, which we must be purified of. It takes effort – but in time our effort is taken over by God, and our purification accomplished by God.
The key to Christian life is not so much doing a bunch of things (though we can do a lot as Christians), [I take it as axiomatic that God will never ask us to do something without giving us the grace to do it, but if we don't discern what he's asking then we may miss the grace] but being transformed into the likeness of God [yes, but the likeness of God includes action – God's nature is Trinity in Unity - the Word is active] which in turn informs what we do, and how we do it. And we do that through studying the teaching of the Church so we know how to be according to God’s will, receiving the sacraments through which He lives and works in us, and taking time to pray, drawing closer to God in love, so that we have closer union with Him. [All of this is true, but the discerning of God's will in the present moment (i.e. what do I actually do right now?) is itself prayer, and following it consistently will transform our wills - "make every thought captive to Christ"]
Then, when we act, it is easier to act how He would have us act, and do what He would have us do, for it comes more naturally and spontaneously, through our loving union with Him and knowledge of Him. Then we don’t worry so much about the details, because love and knowledge impel us to do all sorts of things, freely and joyfully, in and for Him – in the right way, according to His wisdom. [This is a very attractive picture of what it's like to follow God's will - unfortunately it is almost completely at odds with how Our Lord and the saints actually lived their lives. Jesus was "the man of sorrows"; the struggles of the saints are legendary] Which also makes it easer, when the time comes, to discern His particular will for us, whether it is a vocation, or a specific action. [No, he who is faithful in the small things will be entrusted with the big things. We discern our vocation through the very process of being faithful in specific actions]
Just wanted to throw out a different perspective. Hope you don’t mind. I always enjoy your blog very much! God bless you. [Thank you, Aimee. As I've said before your blog is the one I most enjoy reading - especially when it's about me! ]
The Lord guided the righteous in right paths, shewed him the kingdom of God, and gave him knowledge of holy things: made him rich in his travels, and multiplied the fruit of his labours. (Wisdom 10.10)
I finished re-reading Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence by Fr. J.P. de Caussade, S.J. today. It's taken me a long time because it is not the sort of book which one can race through. It needs to be read slowly, with constant meditation and prayer.
On the principle of keeping the best to last, it finishes with a wonderful prayer by Fr. Caussade, which could almost become the motto of this blog:
O my God, when will it please you to give me the grace of remaining habitually in that union of my will with your adorable will, in which, without our saying anything, all is said, and in which we do everything by letting you act. In this perfect union of wills we perform immense tasks because we work more in conformity with your good pleasure; and yet we are dispensed from all toil because we place the care of everything in your hands, and think of nothing but reposing completely in you - a delightful state which even in the absense of all feelings of faith gives the soul an interior and altogether spiritual relish. Let me say then unceasingly through the habitual disposition of my heart: "Fiat! Yes, my God, yes, everything that you please. May your holy desires be fulfilled in everything. I give up my own which are blind, perverse and corrupted by that miserable self-love which is the mortal enemy of your grace and pure love, of your glory and my own sanctification.
After many long years in the wilderness I have started saying the rosary again. Yesterday was the Joyful Mysteries, always my favourite, and once again I was struck by the power and beauty of this way of praying. When I say "struck" I mean it reduced me to tears at least three times and I finished the last Gloria with a soaking wet handkerchief and my cheeks covered in water!
The inspiration that reduced me to tears was simply this: that God had on the face of it been inactive in Israel for centuries, and yet there were so many people waiting for him "to restore the kingdom to Israel", faithfully praying, faithfully watching, faithfully keeping the trust. In each of the joyful mysteries we meet more of them, first Mary, then Elizabeth, then the shepherds, then Anna and Simeon, then the doctors in the Temple and the bystanders. They are all sorts and types of people, priests, intellectuals, young women, old women, poor uneducated workers. And they all recognise that God has started to work again, that his promises are real and are coming to fruition, that their prayers have been answered and that their joy has arrived.
Each of those moments in time is surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses in spirit - all the countless people who have prayed and meditated on these scenes throughout the centuries, whether through the rosary or not. As we pray the rosary we are part of this witness; we are caught up into the heavenly chorus. We too will see the promises of God made real, our prayers answered, and our joy set before us.
Lord, over the last week I have begun to learn how by following you I can be a real light to the world. I found myself praying with people. On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I prayed with our new Anglican vicar first thing in the morning. And then on Friday I found myself praying with a fellow Catholic sitting on the steps of the Catholic church at 7 o'clock in the morning. And I have had some wonderful times of prayer with you on my own as well, Lord.
How unpredictable to us humans are your ways, Lord. Neither of those things would I have expected before they happened. They are not major events, but I feel they have a significance greater than appears on the surface. They are simply moments of your grace entering upon the world.
Lord, I suppose I am learning for the first time what it really means to love you. I am conscious both of how far I have come and how far there is to go. I have never been so conscious of the depth to which one can go. For so many years I have lived feeling that Christianity only touches the surface, and now I have come to the Catholic faith all that has changed. Suddenly everything is different. I think it was my prayer "Lord, I trust you to get me there somehow" that changed everything. I trusted in your grace, and I still trust in it. That must be my prayer continually.
This is your training school, Lord, and I feel as if I am still on Lesson 1 of a very long course. Do we go on learning throughout eternity? Formerly I didn't want to learn. I just wanted to rehash what I knew already. I thought I knew it all, and wouldn't do anything which might show me that I didn't know it all.
There is so much I am learning, so much about your glory, about your church, about your grace and your love. Get me there somehow, Lord!
I was delighted to see the July traffic figures for this blog. They show a gentle but continuous growth. These are the figures for unique visitors, not hits. 700 visitors a month may not sound much, but compare it with the congregation at the average church!