Preparing for Christmas 1 December, 2007


The Nativity is the bringing forth of the secret that Mary has cherished within her for nine months – the face that God has fashioned for himself in the womb of the world. This is nothing less than a re-making of the world, for the world as it existed before was perishing, falling into nothingness, whereas now it is united through this tiny child with the divine life of the Trinity.

Into relation with this child all people and things are being drawn, and in this relationship they will pass through death into a new existence. The seed of this life began to grow in the earth’s soil at the Annunciation, but now it shows itself above ground, at Epiphany it will be acknowledged by the Wise, and on the Cross it will spread its branches over the earth.

In the image of Madonna and Child is represented the drama of the human personality, coming to birth in the meeting of two gazes and of two smiles, the mother’s smile kindling the child’s, the child’s spontaneous smile evoking this sign of love from the enfolding cosmos.

The text is an extract from a meditation on the Rosary from (mystagogy section).
The picture is a Maronite icon borrowed from
And for Christmas reading we recommend the blog by Fr Mark Kirby at

Meanwhile the long-awaited ninth issue of Second Spring, “The Genius of Woman”, is available from Thomas More College.

The Fight Against Slavery 7 November, 2007

If you scroll down you will find comments on topics such as ecology, bioethics and chimeras, Harry Potter, and the intensifying dialogue with Islam in the wake of Regensburg. (You can read the latest about the reception of the recent Islamic Message to Christian Leaders and present attempts to launch a constructive dialogue, here.) If you want a forum to discuss the reform of the Liturgy, or the meaning of life, or the Sufi influences on Led Zeppelin, go to our Events and Conversation pages.

An event I was happy to be able to attend recently was the seventh annual MERIOL TREVOR lecture, given this year by Fr Shay Cullen of the Columban Missionaries, under the auspices of the Catholic Chaplain in Bath, William McLoughlin OSM. Miss Trevor was a prolific biographer and novelist, best known for her important two-volume biography of John Henry Newman, and a series of historical fantasies based in an imaginary country called Letzenstein currently being published by Bethlehem Books, available in the UK through Family Publications. Her novel The Rose Round helped to inspire our girl’s group of the same name, and Meriol was a supporter of Second Spring during her last years of life. As a lover of children, she would have been delighted with the recent Lecture in her honour.

Since 1969, Fr Cullen has been fighting sex slavery and child abuse in the Philippines, where he discovered multitudes of women and children enslaved in subhuman conditions, living on the streets or in prison, suffering the most appalling treatment. Through the PREDA foundation, he and his team have rescued thousands from drugs, brothels and prisons, offering them a safe refuge with therapy and training that enables them to re-enter society with dignity. What they have achieved is truly remarkable, and they deserve every support.

In his newspaper column, Father Shay writes: “Christian love means sharing our wealth, and it is a love that that will conquer greed, selfishness, injustice and enslavement. It is that love that asks no payment, seeks no reward, other than to serve and not to be served. It is to liberate the poor and the oppressed, free the enslaved and the imprisoned and it never compromises with evil or injustice, it will not tolerate abuse, never turn away from human suffering or any cover up, any child or woman abuse or exploitation. It is this love of the poor and the enslaved that carried and sustained the early human rights campaigners that saw slavery as a contradiction of everything that Christianity stood for and moved by unshakable moral convictions ran the first human rights campaign to abolish slavery. This is what we need all the more today to confront the modern slavery that is an affront to the human race.

“Slavery today is the same as it always was, its human beings being reduced to a commodity, deprived of freedom, working for nothing, exploited for profit, owned like an animal, forced to grovel. And worst of all it is the slavery of children in the organized sex industry, a billion dollar business.”

The text of Fr Cullen’s Lecture is available on the PREDA web-site. Next year’s Meriol Trevor Lecture will be given by Dr Michael Waldstein. Details will be announced nearer the time.

Green Light from Rome 3 October, 2007

An important 5-year study by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) has just been published on the state of the global environment. Written by 390 scientists and reviewed by 1000 more, it argues that the real situation is approaching the catastrophic – not just in terms of climate change, but also species extinction, food supplies, energy consumption, and the availability of fresh water. This kind of doom-mongering drives many people into a rage, and it is true that we have heard dire warnings in the past which failed to come true. Nevertheless, we cannot simply look at the past for consolation. Our situation is unprecedented in so many ways that it would be foolish to pretend we can continue as we are. This year is the first in human history when more people lives in cities than in rural areas. Many thousands of species are becoming extinct each year. The UN report coincides with growing concern in the UK over our expanding population due largely to immigration, which may necessitate building the equivalent to two new cities the size of London by 2050 on top of existing countryside.

Whether or not the rumour is true that Pope Benedict is to issue a social encyclical with a strong emphasis on the environment, it is certainly the case that in this, as in much else, he has picked up the baton from John Paul II and is running with it. Pope John Paul introduced ecology firmly into the Catholic agenda, vociferously from at least the time of Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), although he began with his very first encyclical in 1979, which referred to pollution due to industrialization. Roman Catholic support for measures to protect biodiversity should be uncontroversial after numerous public and authoritative statements by John Paul II underlining the importance of careful stewardship of the earth’s natural resources, including the rich diversity of species and their delicate ecosystems. These statements and others have been integrated into the relevant sections of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

Sometimes the conservation movement has been associated with anti-Christian ideologies, or with organizations that advocate forced reduction of the human population as the best way of alleviating pressure on the environment. The arguments concerning population are complex, and are examined by one of our advisers, Maria Sophia Aguirre, here. But one fundamental principle always remains true: that God’s creation has inherent value, and our human bodies are not isolated or self-sufficient but part of a vast, delicately balanced system. The way we treat humanity is not unrelated to the way we think of and treat the rest of this system and its various elements.

Pope Benedict too has been speaking on many occasions recently about the need for an ‘alliance between man and the earth’ before our degradation of the environment becomes unstoppable. The Church is obviously in no position to judge or interpret the scientific data on climate change, but when a large body of scientific opinion declares the problem serious, Catholic leaders should be willing to listen, and even to adopt the precautionary principle that, when the risks from doing nothing might be so great (amounting to planetary catastrophe) it would foolish and irresponsible not to do something to avert them. The Pope has asked everyone to adopt ‘a way of living, models of production and consumption marked by respect for creation and the need for sustainable development of peoples, keeping in mind the universal distribution of goods, as is so often mentioned in the Church’s social doctrine.’ Here, as elsewhere, the implications of Catholic teaching are more radical than is often recognized. More research is needed to work out these implications, and more action is required to put that teaching into practice.

In these connection, I want to mention the John Paul II Institute for Theology and Environmental Studies, founded and directed by Dr Constance Lasher. If Catholics are to take this subject seriously, they need to engage with it along the lines suggested by the Institute.

Human Enough? 13 September, 2007

The genetic chimeras and human-animal hybrids whose creation in the laboratory was recently approved by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority in Britain (claiming that the public is now ‘at ease’ with the idea provided it is done in the aid of medical research), are not quite the Chimaera imagined by Homer and Hesiod, a creature fearful, great, swift-footed and strong, who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion; in her hinderpart, a dragon; and in her middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire. Nor are they likely to resemble the Sphinx as visualized by Gustave Moreau. In another way – as the product of human science, rather than mythopoeic imagination – they are even scarier: the harbingers of a new wave of genetic manipulation, producing (and killing) creatures that are part human and part animal.

At the head of this column I could have posted the well-known photograph of a mouse with a human ear growing out of its back… except I couldn’t bring myself to do so, it looked so disgusting, poor thing. Such experiments, done in the name of medicine, indicate the extent to which all sense of the dignity and mystery of biological life has been lost. Animals – including human beings – are regarded as nothing more than machines, to be mended when broken, cannibalized for spare parts, or reconstructed into something else.

If such hybrids are close enough to human to be useful in research, are they not too close for us to treat them this way? Dr Helen Watt, the Director of the Linacre Centre for Health Care Ethics, advising the English Catholic Bishops, writes that: ‘We cannot safely assume that this procedure will not create a real, though damaged, human embryo, who will have no human parents, and whose quasi-mother is a non-human animal. This is a further offence to the embryo whom we plan to destroy, in that its very humanity will be called into question. Even if there were no risk of creating a genuine human embryo, it is a form of reproductive perversion to use a human nucleus to substitute in this way for animal reproductive material. The unique dignity of the human species, for which life and reproduction have a special meaning, needs to be safeguarded.’

* More information on this subject from Scientific American:
‘Irving Weissman of Stanford University and his colleagues pioneered these chimera experiments in 1988 when they created mice with fully human immune systems for the study of AIDS. Later, the Stanford group and StemCells, Inc., which Weissman co-founded, also transplanted human stem cells into the brains of newborn mice as preliminary models for neural research. And working with foetal sheep, Esmail Zanjani of the University of Nevada at Reno has created adult animals with human cells integrated throughout their body.

‘No one knows what the consequences will be as the proportion of human cells in an animal increases. Weissman and others, for example, have envisioned one day making a mouse with fully “humanised” brain tissue. The lawyer developmental programme and tiny size of this chimerical mouse fairly guarantee that its mental capacities would not differ greatly from those of normal mice. But what if human cells were instead put in the foetus of a chimpanzee? The birth of something less beastly could not be ruled out.

‘The intermingling of tissues could also make it easier for infectious animal diseases to move into humans. Diseases that hop species barriers can be particularly devastating because the immune systems of their new hosts are so unprepared for them (the flu pandemic of 1918 is widely believed to have sprung from an avian influenza virus).

‘There are currently no international standard governing chimera experiments. Canada’s Assisted Human Reproduction Act of 2004 banned human-animal chimeras. The US has no formal restrictions, but Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas proposed legislation in March that would outlaw several kinds of chimeras, including ones with substantial human brain tissue. Some institutions that supply human stem cells set their own additional limits about what experiments are permissible.’Within the US, at least, greater uniformity may emerge from general guidelines on stem cell use recommended in late April by the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS recommended that chimeras involving most animal species generally be permitted. It urged a ban on any use of human cells in other primates, however, as well as the introduction of animal cells into human blastocysts. It also warned against allowing human-animal chimeras to breed: some human cells might have managed to infiltrate the animals’ testes and ovaries. Breeding those animals could theoretically lead to the horrible (and in most cases, assuredly fatal) result of a human embryo growing inside an animal mother.’

Picture from John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery

‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is Death’ 2 August, 2007

This quotation from St Paul (1 Cor. 15:26) is the epitaph that Harry Potter reads on the grave of his parents, and a kind of motto for the seventh and last of the Potter novels by J.K. Rowling that was published at the end of July. The books have divided Christian and literary opinion but have by now entranced several generations of children. As everyone knows, the books have been staggeringly successful. Now that the seventh is complete we can see more clearly what JKR has achieved in this meticulously planned and carefully executed series. They are about death and the desire for immortality, human virtue and the nature of evil, and in the end the victory goes to courage, self-sacrifice and love.

The idea that she has been trying to seduce children into the occult is ludicrous. Rowling is a Christian, and an admirer of C.S. Lewis. It may well be that when she chose as the motto of Hogwarts School the phrase ‘Never tickle a sleeping dragon’ (Draco dormiens numquam titillandus), she had in mind Lewis’s famous remark that stories of this kind can ‘steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.’ It seems that Rowling may have felt that Lewis ‘tickled’ those dragons a bit too much, and she was determined to be even more careful.

One writer on Harry Potter, John Granger, seems to have accurately discerned the deeper structure and intention of the series – indeed, many of his predictions concerning the seventh book have come true. He also shows why the books have been so popular. One of his important insights is that Rowling uses symbolism drawn from Christian alchemy to express the journey of the human soul – Harry’s transformation in Christ. As Rowling herself said in 1998, ‘I’ve never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that’s a different matter.’ Granger explains that alchemy – as understood by Shakespeare, Blake, Milton and C.S. Lewis – is not ‘stupid chemistry’ (let alone anti-Christian magic) but ‘the art of the transmutation of the soul.’ The outward work on metals and chemicals was merely a reflection of the inward work of purification, the ‘Great Work’ represented in the series by the seven years of Harry’s education at Hogwarts.

So if you want to find Christianity in Harry Potter, you have to look deeper than the surface of the text. Harry’s friends Ron and Hermione correspond to Sulphur and Mercury, which together work on Harry’s ‘Lead’ to transform him into Gold by the end of the series. The ‘Golden Snitch’ that the ‘Seeker’ (Harry) has to capture in the seven-a-side game of Quidditch is another symbol of the same process (the image of the Snitch on the cover of Granger’s book is from a 1613 alchemical text). Harry’s ‘patronus’ (a silver Stag that appears in order to protect him) is a common medieval symbol of Christ.

Follow the links, read Granger, and you will begin to appreciate just how clever J.K. Rowling has been in weaving her tapestry of archetypes. In a sense, the literary quality of the prose is irrelevant here. Plot, wordplay, character development, relationships, symbolism, are more important, and they are the real reason the books have such an extraordinary effect on readers. There is room for disagreement about whether she succeeds in bringing the series to a satisfying conclusion, but criticism will miss much of the point if it does not take alchemical symbolism into account.

For a recent interview with Rowling that talks about her Christian faith see here. On the “gay Dumbledore” issue see here.  For an article by Michael Ward in Touchstone magazine on the hidden “astrological” code in C.S. Lewis’s seven Chronicles of Narnia see here.

On not knowing it all 2 July, 2007

Image from Hubble Space Telescope

In every age of the world, most educated people have believed the world is pretty much understood. Sure, there are a few fuzzy areas, but the priests/ scientists/ experts know everything that’s worth knowing except a few details. They thought that Aristotle knew it all, before the Scientific Revolution hit, and they thought Newton knew it all, but then along came Einstein. Now, according to those who follow Neils Bohr, quantum mechanics understood according to the Copenhagen interpretation is “the end of the road”. I wonder.

I recently heard the lady astronomer who discovered Pulsars confessing that the whole expanding-universe theory (red shift and all that) is beginning to feel like the old Ptolemaic epicycle theory of planetary movement – a description that generated more questions than answers, and was eventually swept away by Galileo and Kepler. Today, in order to explain the observed movements of galaxies, we have to postulate that the bulk of the universe is made up of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ that we cannot observe or detect. She concluded that we may be on the brink of another ‘paradigm shift’ in which a completely new explanation comes along to blow our epicyles out of the water.

In the mysterious world of the human genome, something similar is going on. Human DNA forms a molecular ‘book’ of three billion ‘letters’ around two meters long, coiled up within each cell. The script was analysed in the year 2000, marking the new millennium as – perhaps – an age of biotechnology. But at first it seemed to geneticists that 98.5% of that genetic book was completely useless. It was disdainfully (and arrogantly) termed ‘junk’ DNA, and written off as accidental duplication, more evidence of evolution’s wasteful randomness. Now everything is changing again. A closer look reveals how crude that understanding had been, and how much every tiny fragment contributes to the whole.

In physics, again, the multiplication of fundamental particles is getting beyond a joke. Atoms once thought to be indivisible were broken into every smaller and complicated fragments until a whole universe of complicated and paradoxical entities was revealed. The Large Hadron Collider to be turned on in Switzerland during 2008 will be the biggest particle-smasher of all time. Created in part to search for the Higgs Boson, or so-called ‘God particle’ needed to explain how the other particles gain mass, it is almost certain to turn our knowledge of the subatomic world inside-out yet again.

The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once wrote: “I believe that scientific knowledge has fractal properties; that no matter how much we learn, whatever is left, however small it may seem, is just as infinitely complex as the whole was to start with. That, I think, is the secret of the Universe.” He may be right. The universe is created by a God who stands beyond every infinity. Why should it not to bear a resemblance to him, even in its mysterious depths? [S.C.]


In the light of the above, what are we to make of the the draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, now before the British Parliament? Under the terms of the Bill, scientists will be allowed to create three different types of human-animal embryos or ‘chimeras’, according to the Catholic Herald newspaper in a front page article.

‘The first type – the chimeric embryo – is made by injecting cells from an animal into a human embryo. The second, the human transgenic embryo, involves injecting animal DNA into a human embryo and the third – a cytoplasmic hybrid – is created by transferring the nuclei of human cells, such as skin cells, into animal eggs from which almost all the genetic material has been removed. The Bill does not allow the creation of ‘true hybrids’ by fusing the egg and sperm of humans and animals and stipulates that human-animal embryos must be destroyed after two weeks.’

How long those restrictions will last, if the Bill is passed, is anyone’s guess. As the Bishops point out, the same Bill relaxes present restrictions on the storage of human embryos (from 5 to 10 years). An important and lucid paper on the issue is available from the Linacre Centre, the Church’s medical ethics think tank in London, or you can go directly to the paper from here.


We are happy to be able to tell you that the publishing imprint ‘Second Spring Books‘ has now been established by Thomas More College, the publisher of our print journal. The list will not begin to take shape until next year, but further announcements will be made as the College’s plans mature. The ninth issue of Second Spring is now in the editing stages and should be available before Christmas. It is our first explicitly ‘thematic’ issue: the theme is ‘The Genius of Women.’ If you want to pre-order, please contact the subscriptions office at Thomas More College.

Beautiful Names 21 June, 2007

Even before the recent terrorist incidents in London and Glasgow, Islam was in the headlines in a small way in the UK, thanks to a musical work by the Christian composer John Tavener, commissioned by the Prince of Wales and performed in Westminster Abbey. Called ‘The Beautiful Names’, it is a musical setting for the 99 Names of God drawn from the Qur’an. This eclectic work (it draws for inspiration on several religions other than Islam and Christianity, and Tavener is an admirer of the perennialist Frithjof Schuon) has provoked unease among Christians who regard it as inappropriate for performance in a Christian church.

Given that ‘Allah’ simply means ‘God’, and given that none of the 99 Names would be out of place in a Christian litany, others have found the performance less objectionable. Christopher Howse (an orthodox Roman Catholic) in his column on this subject for the London-based Telegraph wrote, ‘The word Allah refers to the same God that Jews and Christians worship. There is no doubt of that. He is the God of Abraham and Isaac; the one living God. He is the God that Jesus worshipped and whom he invoked, in Aramaic, as he died on the cross, calling on him by the name Eloi.’ This comment evoked a storm of protest from bloggers, many of whom pointed out the difference between a God who is One and a God who is Three-in-One. One of them wrote: ‘if Allah is the same as the Christian God, then surely this is an argument to get rid of both of them and re-establish the true pagan religion of these isles, presided over by the noble order of druids.’

Dialogue in/with Islam

Along with the recent performance by Whirling Dervishes in the Vatican, this provides an occasion to think about the diverse nature of Islam, and to draw attention to a couple of interesting initiatives. One of these was the Open Letter of 2006 (by now signed by 100 leading Muslim authorities and scholars) in response to the Pope’s Regensburg address, which proved that reasoned and intelligent dialogue with Islam is possible. This has been followed in 2007 by an important new message from 138 Muslim leaders addressed to the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and others, which calls for cooperation on the basis of the fundamental principles of love of God and neighbour. Sandro Magister summarizes as follows:

As for content, the first letter supported positions clearly in favor of the freedom to profess one’s faith “without restrictions.”

It asserted the rational consistency of Islam, while maintaining the absolute transcendence of God.

It decisively restated the limitations placed by Islamic doctrine upon recourse to war and the use of violence, condemning the “utopian dreams in which the end justifies the means.”

And it concluded by expressing hope for a relationship between Islam and Christianity founded upon love of God and neighbor, the “two great commandments” recalled by Jesus in Mark 12:29-31.

The second letter picks up precisely where the first one left off, and builds upon its conclusion. The commandments of love of God and neighbor – found in both the Qur’an and the Bible – are the “common word” that offers to the encounter between Islam and Christianity “the most solid theological foundation possible.”

The official web-site of the second Message can be found here.

Background reading would include an important book recently published under the title Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition (ed. Joseph Lumbard), which includes the full-length version of an excellent essay on Jihad by Reza Shah-Kazemi available here on the Second Spring site. If you follow the link from the title above to the book’s page on Amazon and scroll down, you’ll see some interesting customer reviews (from scholars and soldiers). The book has also been discussed recently on the excellent Ratzinger Fanclub blog, ‘Against the Grain’ (2 July 2007).

Another important initiative on Islam is the work of Christian scholar Michel Cuypers (a follower of Charles de Foucauld) on the interpretation of the 5th Sura of the Qur’an, reported on Sandro Magister’s site (again, just follow the link). Cuypers has applied the technique of ‘rhetorical analysis’, developed by biblical scholars, to the last of the Suras to be composed. This form of contextual and structural analysis does not threaten the faith of Muslims but employs reason in discovering the meaning of the text: it may open up a new era of Qur’anic exegesis, and happens to support those who hold that the more peaceable verses of the Qur’an take precedence over the bellicose ones.

Once again, an important issue that comes up in this Sura (which, interestingly, is partly about the Last Supper) is whether God ‘begets’ a Son. The Qur’an, of course, denies this (though it does not deny that Jesus had no human father). But it is clear from the following verse that what the Qur’an denies is not what the Bible affirms: And when Allah will say: O Isa [Jesus] son of Mariam! did you say to men, Take me and my mother for two gods besides Allah, he will say: Glory be to Thee, it did not befit me that I should say what I had no right to (say)…[5.116]

No Christian can possibly take Jesus and Mary to be ‘two gods besides Allah’. That is simply not what the doctrine of the Trinity is about. Surely it is time for Muslim scholars to admit the fact. Maybe then a deeper theological dialogue will become possible. In the meantime, it is essential that the ongoing violence against Christians around the world be denounced and curbed by Islamic authorities, and that the commonly accepted interpretation of the Shari’ah that requires apostasy from Islam to be punished by death or imprisonment be firmly rejected.


A recent column by John L. Allen Jr discusses the tension between ‘liberal’ and ‘Islamist’ forces in Muslim countries, and speaks of the emergence of ‘neo-Sufism’ (which he describes as ‘an attempt to blend the best elements of modernity with fidelity to basic Islamic values’) as an alternative. He writes:

‘This movement attracts less attention because it doesn’t produce fireworks, but it’s a significant presence within Islam, and some experts believe it may be the best way out of the present crisis. At one level, “neo-Sufism” can simply refer to a revival of interest in Sufi spiritual and mystical practices. In Indonesia, for example, reports indicate that a growing number of young university students and affluent housewives are attracted to Sufi prayer services, especially Thursday night gatherings when followers sing the 99 names of God. … Neo-Sufism as an organized social force, however, might be defined as a competitor to Islamism, with the crucial difference being that radicals want to seize political power, while neo-Sufis want to change people’s souls.’ One of the leaders of Neo-Sufism in twentieth century Turkey, Said Nursi, argued that ‘the time of the “jihad of the sword” was over, and that now is the era of the “jihad of the word,” meaning a reasoned attempt to propose Islam as a basis for a reconciliation of science and modern institutions with religious faith and morality…. As early as 1911, Nursi argued that Muslims and “pious Christians” should make common cause in defending a moral and spiritual vision of human life against the momentary illusions of consumer culture.’

Oasis in Venice

The final initiative I want to draw your attention to is ‘Oasis‘, a journal published in several languages (but predominantly English) by the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, Angelo Scola. This remarkable project is dedicated to providing information for Christians living in close contact with Islam. It was launched recently at the UN, where Prof. Carl A. Anderson of the Knights of Columbus introduced three main speakers: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a lecturer in Islamic studies at the George Washington University; Israel Singer, the President of the Policy Council of the World Jewish Congress; and Angelo Scola, the Patriarch of Venice. The journal, which has reached its sixth lavish biannual issue, is unusual in being both irenic and realistic, with an emphasis on the importance of culture and of historical witness. It puts human persons, not ideologies, at the centre of things. Still little known in Britain or the United States, it deserves attention from those concerned with religious pluralism. [S.C.]

Interior Life 2 May, 2007

In a much-celebrated recent talk published in First Things, Archbishop Chaput of Denver remarks that “Americans now face the same growing spiritual illness that J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Romano Guardini, and C.S. Lewis all wrote about in the last century. It’s a loss of hope and purpose that comes from the loss of an interior life and a living faith. It’s a loss that we can only make bearable by creating a culture of material comfort that feeds—and feeds off of—personal selfishness.”

How do we address that loss of an interior life? In a recent document (Sacramentum Caritatis), Pope Benedict recommends a “mystagogical approach to catechesis, which would lead the faithful to understand more deeply the mysteries being celebrated.” Mystagogy is one of the sections you will find on this web-site, and it is not unrelated to the talks the Pope has also given recently on Clement of Alexandria and Origen, both of whom helped the Church discover the interior meaning of Scripture and of Christian existence in the light of faith. But reading documents is one thing, praying another. We have to give more time to prayer if we are to rediscover our interior life.

There is another kind of “interior life”, too, which the Church is concerned to protect, and that is life of the unborn child. October marks the 40th anniversary of the Abortion Act that opened the door to 7 million abortions in the UK (600 a day). This includes abortion of fully-developed children in the womb if they are classed as “disabled”. The same act also paved the way for the destruction and cloning of more than a million embryos. Meanwhile the abortion toll in the US is something like 1.3 million each year.

In the 1990s in Scotland and in Pennsylvania, USA, initiatives were started to reduce the number of abortions by providing pregnant women with the necessary support and resources to enable them to keep their children (in the former it was a Church initiative, in the latter state-funded, and other states have followed this example). Such programmes are successful and humane – why can’t they be more widely available, encouraged, and funded?

In England we are used to hearing about crises in the NHS (National Health Service). Recently there was one crisis that many of us were delighted to hear about – caused by more and more doctors refusing to perform abortions. What needs to happen now is more to help the women who are seeking those abortions in the first place. Help not to find an abortionist but to have the child and, if necessary, to find a couple willing to adopt it.

The loss of our interior life of prayer, the destruction of life inside the womb, the culture of death all around us – all of this has deep roots. It is part of the devil’s job to keep us too busy to think about the causes, and to take steps to address them.

week five

The law of England stubbornly refuses to recognize the unborn child as a legal person. This was perhaps forgivable 50 or 100 years ago when so much less was known about life before birth. But now that we can look through the ‘window on the womb’ and watch children grow, such thumbs, stretch limbs, now that we know about genetics and the continuity of human life from fertilization onwards, it is forgivable no longer. It is now so evident that birth is simply an incident in a developing human life – a change of environment, not of moral status – that it can only be a matter of time before the law, if it is not to continue to be an ass, has to confer legal personhood on the unborn human being.” – Prof. Jack Scarisbrick (founder of LIFE).

Opening the Path to Heaven 5 April, 2007

April 23, St George’s Day, is traditionally William Shakespeare’s birthday, but how much do we know about England’s greatest poet? In her wonderful book, Shadowplay, Clare Asquith reads between the lines of the plays, revealing not just a man of passion with deep sympathy for the persecuted Roman Catholics of his time, but a man seeking to influence the course of the Reformation. The plays contain messages addressed to Catholics, Puritans and courtiers, messages advocating tolerance and wisdom at a time when these were in short supply. Clare Asquith is one of the main tutors at a summer school this July in Oxford, where students of Shakespeare can explore the religious and cultural factors that shaped the Renaissance both at home and abroad in Italy.

By the way, in this connection I was pleasantly surprised to note recently how our online Forum on SHAKESPEARE’S SECRET has taken off, and the high level of the discussion. The Forum is free to register, and you don’t need to register in order to read it, only if you want to post replies and start threads. We began our online Forums in response to popular demand after a conference on Fantasy Literature a few years ago, and the Shakespeare Forum began as a way of helping last year’s Summer School students stay in touch with each other. But it has grown since then, and is open to anyone. Drop in and take a look. — S.C.

The Easter Triduum

Christians all over the world were trying to enter imaginatively into the journey of their Lord to Calvary and beyond, through death to resurrection and eternal life. Jesus makes the solid Cross into a gateway, a road to heaven. For meditations see ‘The Stations of the Cross‘ elsewhere on this site.

Good Friday. The Cross is the form of his death. The Cross is the shadow of man. It is what all men fear. It is whatever human nature fears and shrinks from. It is the darkness, the humiliation, the ignominy, the ugliness, the powerlessness, the rejection, the immobility…. He embraces this, and he does it for us. In each of us, he can do the same. When we face the shadow, he is able to embrace it and transform it. Deep within, he is there praying in us, through his Spirit: Not my will but thine be done.

He is the one who is personally offended in every sin, every compromise with the truth, every betrayal of a friend, every act of adultery, every theft, every lack of attention. Now he begins to feel the weight of this reality. The Cross he has started to carry is a kind of ‘sacrament’ of sin. In the Cross all sin, all that blocks grace, all that is counter to the Holy Spirit, all that kills love in us, is mysteriously present.

Why is it necessary for him to suffer all this personally, consciously? It is necessary because he is the incarnation of the fullness of God and the fullness of man. The Father does not hold back anything of the divine nature that he can give to his Son; the fullness of human nature must be united with that. Not that his human experience becomes infinite: that would not be human. Rather, the human in him achieves its maximum capacity. ‘No cry of torment can be greater than the cry of one man. Or again, no torment can be greater than what a single human being may suffer’ (Wittgenstein).

From a Crucifixion by Cimabue

Holy Saturday. Was everything for nothing? So it seems, when the Lord has gone. We go through the motions, we commemorate the person we have lost. The women observe the Sabbath, then they will go to the tomb. In the meantime, while all reason for hope seems to have disappeared, we are filled with a quiet anticipation. The world is waiting for something. Undergound the seed of life is beginning to do its mysterious work.

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous. that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerlly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water” (I Peter 20).

Easter Sunday. Christ is risen, and risen no more to die. But risen to what a life, and in what a form? To a life not longer subject to death, to entropy. Are we tempted to cling, like Mary Magdalen, to what is familiar? Do we look for him among the dead, and fail to see him? He will reveal his new life to us when he chooses, on the road, in a closed room, by a campfire on the seashore in the dawn light. He will go where we must follow, but for now part of us is left behind. Part of us is still in the tomb. Yet when we remember him, we remember not the past but the future. Something is possible now that was not before, and the way to heaven is open. “There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body…. The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:40-57).

The Sky at Night 8 March, 2007

Saturn from the Cassini probe March 2007

This is what science is about, what makes it worthwhile – the discovery of beauty. This wonderful picture of Saturn from the Cassini space-probe, and the glorious vistas of deep space opened up by the Hubble telescope, are the kind of thing that get people interested in science as a career. Not to mention the unsolved puzzles. Why does one of Saturn’s moons look as though its two halves had been stuck together with glue? Why is another, a tiny ball of ice, venting like a volcano to create the E-ring? In Britain the long-running television programme ‘The Sky at Night’ is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary. We congratulate and thank Sir Patrick Moore for all that he has done to awaken minds both young and old to the splendours and curiosities of space.

We know that the great breakthroughs of science are made with the aid of imagination; they involve creation as well as discovery. This suggests that the gulf between science and art can be bridged, but probably only if we give up the modern notion that beauty is merely subjective, existing not in the world but only in our minds (as if our minds were not also part of the world!)…

The purpose of art is surely not just to shock, to amaze, to entertain, or even to transform our perception, but to do all these things by revealing something to do with reality, to reveal something TRUE. Thus the gap can be bridged in both directions.

What then is the difference between science and art? Maybe art is searching for beauty and truth in the way things appear to us, even if it uses appearances to speak of something deeper. Science, on the other hand, searches for beauty and truth behind appearances, in the hidden order of causality.

The medieval concept of a ‘liberal arts’ education is interesting: grammar, logic and rhetoric (needed for communication and argument) were followed by the study of arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy – not all of them ‘arts’ in the modern sense, but at that time the split that defines our culture had not yet taken place. The four disciplines of the quadrivium had at least one thing in common: a basis in number, in mathematics. Music was the expression of numerical harmonies in time, geometry the exploration of relationships in space, and so on. The assumption here was that by learning to understand these relationships, this harmony in the cosmos, our minds would be raised towards God, in whom we could find the unity from which they all derive, the ‘love that moves the sun and the other stars.’ Thus the quadrivium would prepare the ground in us for the contemplative sciences, philosophy and theology.

Perhaps we need to think in fresh ways about education in our time. Perhaps we need to rediscover the liberal arts.

Integral Christian Humanism 3 February, 2007

In his Peace Day message for 2007, Pope Benedict XVI has called for an ‘integral Christian humanism‘. It is this humanism that we are seeking to nurture through our web-site and our work at ResSource and the Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture. It is also the vision of education that lies behind the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, with which we have recently entered a very exciting partnership. The College Press will publish our print journal, Second Spring, beginning with issue 8 (now at last in production), and plans for several collaborative educational projects are in train. The new College president, Dr Jeffrey O. Nelson, writes of this arrangement: ‘This is an ideal partnership, one aimed at furthering a new evangelization through the formation of young persons and the transformation of existing cultures in the great tradition of Christian humanism rightly understood: the cultivation of intelligence, conscience and grace.’

The different dimensions of this partnership will unfold over the coming months. In the meantime, we are making some overdue revisions and additions to our two web-sites.

Pilot edition of forthcoming publication Such was the popularity of this little book, the MASS ILLUSTRATED FOR CHILDREN by Susan Bateman, that we are reissuing it in a revised edition shortly, both in the UK and the US. Teachers, catechists and parents are finding it helpful as a way of introducing children to the central mysteries of the Catholic faith. You can find it in the Books section of this site. It will be followed by other titles in the coming years, as our company ResSource becomes a fully-fledged publisher at last!

By the way, the director of our educational arm, ResSource, the artist David Clayton, will be visiting Los Angeles and San Francisco to give some talks in April, and (with Stratford Caldecott) Washington DC in May. If anyone wants an interesting talk on art history or the philosophy of art, on sacred geometry, iconography or practical Renaissance drawing techniques, please contact us through the web-site.

Finding our bearings 8 January, 2007

On 22 December the Pope in an address to the Roman Curia made some comments on the importance of children. Here is an extract:

‘A child needs loving attention. This means that we must give children some of our time, the time of our life. But precisely this “raw material” of life — time — seems to be ever scarcer. The time we have available barely suffices for our own lives; how could we surrender it, give it to someone else? To have time and to give time – this is for us a very concrete way to learn to give oneself, to lose oneself in order to find oneself.

‘In addition to this problem comes the difficult calculation: what rules should we apply to ensure that the child follows the right path and in so doing, how should we respect his or her freedom? The problem has also become very difficult because we are no longer sure of the norms to transmit; because we no longer know what the correct use of freedom is, what is the correct way to live, what is morally correct and what instead is inadmissible.

‘The modern spirit has lost its bearings, and this lack of bearings prevents us from being indicators of the right way to others. Indeed, the problem goes even deeper. Contemporary man is insecure about the future. Is it permissible to send someone into this uncertain future? In short, is it a good thing to be a person? This deep lack of self assurance — plus the wish to have one’s whole life for oneself — is perhaps the deepest reason why the risk of having children appears to many to be almost unsustainable.

‘In fact, we can transmit life in a responsible way only if we are able to pass on something more than mere biological life, and that is, a meaning that prevails even in the crises of history to come and a certainty in the hope that is stronger than the clouds that obscure the future.

‘Unless we learn anew the foundations of life – unless we discover in a new way the certainty of faith — it will be less and less possible for us to entrust to others the gift of life and the task of an unknown future.

‘Connected with that, finally, is also the problem of definitive decisions: can man bind himself for ever? Can he say a “yes” for his whole life? Yes, he can. He was created for this. In this very way human freedom is brought about and thus the sacred context of marriage is also created and enlarged, becoming a family and building the future.

‘At this point, I cannot be silent about my concern about the legislation for de facto couples. Many of these couples have chosen this way because — at least for the time being — they do not feel able to accept the legally ordered and binding coexistence of marriage. Thus, they prefer to remain in the simple de facto state. When new forms of legislation are created which relativize marriage, the renouncement of the definitive bond obtains, as it were, also a juridical seal.

‘In this case, deciding for those who are already finding it far from easy becomes even more difficult. Then there is in addition, for the other type of couple, the relativization of the difference between the sexes.

‘The union of a man and a woman is being put on a par with the pairing of two people of the same sex, and tacitly confirms those fallacious theories that remove from the human person all the importance of masculinity and femininity, as though it were a question of the purely biological factor.

‘Such theories hold that man — that is, his intellect and his desire — would decide autonomously what he is or what he is not. In this, corporeity is scorned, with the consequence that the human being, in seeking to be emancipated from his body — from the “biological sphere” — ends by destroying himself.

‘If we tell ourselves that the Church ought not to interfere in such matters, we cannot but answer: are we not concerned with the human being? Do not believers, by virtue of the great culture of their faith, have the right to make a pronouncement on all this? Is it not their — our — duty to raise our voices to defend the human being, that creature who, precisely in the inseparable unity of body and spirit, is the image of God?”‘

[Picture credit: Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Titian (Longleat Estate).]