Gravity and Grace 5 December, 2009

See two related blogs, one  on EDUCATION, based on Beauty for Truth’s Sake, and the other on the ECONOMY, also containing reflections on politics, ecology and society.

This photo of a crucifix floating weightlessly in space inside the International Space Station, was taken by cosmonaut Maksim Suraev. He describes the several icons they have on board, and a “relic of the true Cross”, along with the Gospels. What a contrast to Soviet times! What a contrast, too, with first-century Palestine, when none of the stars in the sky were man-made. Since that time, men and demons have tried to eliminate Christianity and failed. Two thousand years later we are taking it with us into space.

The crew of Apollo 8 took turns to read from the Book of Genesis as they watched the Earth rise over the lunar horizon. Less than a year later, on 20 July 1969, Presbyterian Buzz Aldrin received communion on the surface of the moon itself. Later he wrote: “In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.’”

In Advent we await the birth of Christ. We know he has already come, but that he is also still to come in the future, when he will be revealed to all, and we live in the time between those two moments. It is like the time of Mary’s pregnancy, as she felt the new life growing within her, and prepared to give birth. We too must prepare ourselves to give birth, in our own way bringing Christ to our neighbour. When once we have received him in baptism, he will not leave us alone. When we “go up with haste” to the hill country (Luke 1:39), even to the hills of the moon and Mars, we will be carrying him secretly within ourselves.


Christmas has come, and in the period before Epiphany we might want to meditate on these words by the French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos (1888-1948), which are quoted in a reflection by Fr Thomas Rosica CSB on Zenit:

“From the beginning, My Church has been what it is today, and will be until the end of time, a scandal to the strong, a disappointment to the weak, the ordeal and the consolation of those interior souls who seek in it nothing but myself.  Yes […] whoever looks for Me there will find Me there; but he will have to look, and I am better hidden than people think, or than certain of My priests would have you believe. I am still more difficult to discover than I was in the little stable at Bethlehem for those who will not approach Me humbly, in the footsteps of the shepherds and the Magi.  It is true that palaces have been built in My honor, with galleries and peristyles without number, magnificently illuminated day and night, populated with guards and sentries. But if you want to find Me there, the clever thing is to do as they did on the old road in Judea, buried under the snow, and ask for the only thing you need– a star and a pure heart.”


I am very grateful to our webmaster, Mark Armitage, for the changes he has introduced to our site this month. We now have a Home page, and the main menu has been reorganised so as to make the site easier to navigate. Further improvements will be made in the coming year. — S.C.

Faith & Culture 4 November, 2009

On 14 November I had a table at the “Towards Advent” festival of Catholic culture at Westminster Cathedral. Alongside the latest issue of our journal, you would  have seen a display of the journal OASIS published from Venice and designed to foster greater understanding between Christians and Muslims.  

I also recently attended a conference of “Green Thomists” in St Paul, Minnesota. The Church has encouraged Catholics to recognize the importance of the environment and man’s role as steward of creation, but it has to be said that mainstream, “conservative” theologians have been a bit slow to respond – perhaps because they associate environmentalism with left-wing ideology. The conference was cosponsored by the revived National Catholic Rural Life Conference.

At another recent conference (this one on Religion, Science and the Environment) in Tennessee, the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, offered a useful summary of the environmental crisis. He doesn’t cover everything (more should be said about the accelerating loss of biodiversity), but this is enough to be getting on with:

” The explosion of knowledge has not been accompanied by an increase in wisdom. Only wisdom could make us realize that the Creation is an interdependent, undivided whole, not an assemblage of isolated, unrelated parts that can be eliminated, replaced or modified as we see fit. We have expanded our dominion over Nature to the point where absolute limits to our survival are being reached. We have lost half of the great forests of the world to the demand for timber and for conversion to agriculture, without thinking that these giant wet sponges are responsible for the delivery of much of the fresh water. Irrigation for agriculture takes 70% of global demand for water, and — almost unimaginably — some of the world’s greatest rivers are so depleted by the influence of humans that they no longer flow to the sea; and those that do, carry in their waters all the chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and waste materials they have collected along their course. Desertification is increasing on land at the same time that the fish stocks of the oceans are depleted by over exploitation; and those that remain are being poisoned by toxic materials dumped carelessly in their habitat. Instead of living on income, or the available surplus of the earth, we are consuming environmental capital and destroying its sources as if there is no tomorrow.”

What can we do about all of this? Stop ignoring it, for one thing. It is important to get informed, and then reflect. You will find resources for doing so on our “Economy” pages, and more will gradually be added. One important focus of our research is the relation, highlighted in Pope Benedict’s third encyclical, between natural and human ecology. Carl Anderson and Jose Granados put it like this in their book Called to Love: “Modern man’s estrangement from his own body – and so his homelessness in nature – is at the root of the ecological problems our society currently faces. The word ‘ecology’ comes from the Greek word oikos, ‘home’, and the theology of the body is a first step toward the recovery of the world as that home.”  — S.C.

See also The Economy Project and Beauty in Education.

A Theresian Mystery Play 19 October, 2009


Leonie Caldecott.        “Divine Comedy” in reheasal.

If you scroll down to last month’s entry you’ll see the impact St Therese of Liseux has had on us recently, and read about our new colouring book devoted to her. But this time I want to write especially about the play, A DIVINE COMEDY, which was written by Leonie Caldecott and directed by our daughter Tessa for the Oxford Oratory and the parish of St Aloysius. The cast included a total of sixty parishioners, their ages ranging from 4 to 80.  The roles of Louis Martin, Pope Leo and J.H. Newman were played by Oratorians. In the school matinee performance, Therese’s dog Tom was played byTruffle.

Watching it made me love Therese more than ever, and I think it had the same effect on the big audiences who came each night to see it take place in the church. It brought the parish together, it got young people involved and interested in the life of St Therese, and it communicated a huge amount about the life and especially the spiritual teaching of this wonderful saint who is so often misunderstood. Freddie Quartley’s painted set designs were extraordinarily atmospheric, showing the dark wood in which Dan is lost at the beginning of the play and whence he is rescued by the “Doctor” (Therese). I want to pay tribute to all those involved in creating such a wonderful experience – especially, of course, the actors, and the fathers of the Oratory for being such good sports. Please read more about the play in the programme notes by clicking on the link above.  — Stratford Caldecott

SAINT THERESE IN OXFORD! 1 September, 2009

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Issue 11 of Second Spring is now published, and so is Stratford Caldecott’s book Beauty for Truth’s Sake, but that’s not all. In the Catechesis section of this site you will find information about a new book by SCOTT HAHN called GOD’S COVENANT WITH YOU, beautifully illustrated by David Clayton, and also one on St Therese of Lisieux called TEACH ME THERESE, illustrated by Susan Bateman, which we are producing in honour of the visit of the saint’s relics to England at the end of this month. These are the latest books in the Second Spring Catechesis series.  Leonie Caldecott has also written a new CTS booklet about the Spiritual Children of St Therese (including Jack Kerouac and Dorothy Day!).  But there is more!  A musical mystery play about St Therese. Read on…

“Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world. It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning. That is why the Gospel fullness of truth was bound from the beginning to stir the interest of artists, who by their very nature are alert to every “epiphany” of the inner beauty of things.” –John Paul II

In many ways theatre is the ultimate forum for the “epiphany” that Pope John Paul II refers to here in his Letter to Artists, which is why the playwright-pope was so fond of this medium.  Using both the visual and aural senses, poetry and music, performed in real time with real people, thus echoing the liturgical action of the Church, it is in many ways the Queen of the arts.  We at the Centre for Faith and Culture, in collaboration with the Oxford Oratory, are attempting to rise to Wojtyla’s challenge on the occasion of the visit of the relics of St Therese to the UK.  Leonie Caldecott has written “Divine Comedy: A Theresian Mystery Play” in order to engage people of all walks of life, but especially young people, with the life, mission and charism of this “greatest saint of modern times”.

The play unfolds in the context of a very modern situation, a love story gone wrong, and a hero who, like Dante in the Divina Commedia, finds himself lost in a dark place where he can’t see the wood for the trees.  To his rescue comes a mysterious young woman who calls herself the Doctor.  She offers to help him find the girl he loves, on condition he consents to do a bit of time travelling with her on the way.  They go back 136 years to a small town in Normandy, France, and watch the life-story of a girl called Therese.  What relevance can the life of this over-protected nineteenth-century girl have for the problems faced by young people in the 21st century?  Daniel is about to find out.  En route he witnesses both heaven and hell, and discovers the true meaning of purgatory.  But through it all, only one thing really matters.  Can he find it in his heart to truly love another person?

Divine Comedy is being performed in the beautiful church of the Oxford Oratory, using all the parts of the church, as in traditional mystery plays, to embody the unfolding drama.  It is directed by Tessa Caldecott, who previously directed A Winter’s Tale with the Durham Shakespeare Company. The cast are drawn from parishioners and young people attending local schools.  It will run from the 30th September, the night of St Therese’s death, through her feast on the 1st October, to Friday the 2nd October.  Perfomances are at 8.00pm and tickets cost just £5.00 each (£3.00 for concessions), available from the Oxford Playhouse and through  Book now!

Searching for Sophia 29 July, 2009

Orthodox icons of Sancta Sophia (Holy Wisdom) depict her as an enthroned feminine Angel, but who is she, really, and where is she to be found? The Passages of the Old Testament in the Book of Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon which refer to Wisdom are usually taken by the Church Fathers as applying to the Second Person of the Trinity, the uncreated Logos who became Man as Jesus Christ. Yet the iconographic and mystical tradition suggests there is more to be said.

In the late nineteenth century, the Russian theologian Vladimir Solovyov attempted to say it – inspired by three visions of Sophia, one in Moscow, one in the British Museum and one in Egypt. Sophia, he thought, was the ‘finished unity of the all in God’, the cause and goal of creation, the incarnation of Beauty.  As such, she is feminine, because all of creation is feminine in relation to God.  Though created, she was with God in the beginning (Prov. 8:22), and at the end of the world she will be revealed as the Bride descending from heaven (Rev. 21:2).

The visionary archetype of Sophia has always appealed to gnostics, but that is not to say she cannot have a place also in orthodox – and even orthodox Catholic – theology. In medieval times, Sapientia or Sophia was portrayed as the patron and mother of the seven Liberal Arts, emblematic of the cosmic harmony and purpose which it was the essence of education to convey. Today, a sense of meaning and beauty must be regained in the face of widespread cynicism, reductionism and materialism.

Where do we go for wisdom? There is a wonderful homily by Bishop Anthony Fisher by this title on the New Springtime web-site. New Springtime is the faith and culture journal of the Australian Catholic Students’ Association.

The Maryvale Institute in Birmingham is a place where many have found an education in wisdom, in the midst of a busy life – a rare oasis of intelligent orthodoxy. The site of the first English seminary after the Reformation, and later a place of retreat for John Henry Newman and his followers, Maryvale is now a college for theology and catechesis. It offers a range of BAs and other degrees and shorter courses using a sophisticated “collaborative learning” or “distance learning” model, based on course books, occasional residential weekends and summer schools. This means that you can take a degree, under the supervision of excellent tutors, while still remaining in full employment. Take a look at what they have to offer! In the economic downturn, this may be exactly what you need.

Sophia Institute Press seeks to publish works of holy wisdom that are faithful to the tradition of the Church. Its logo, based on an image of the Greek Athena, recalls the complementarity of the Greek philosophical and Catholic theological traditions, for in the natural wisdom of the ancients lies a promise and a foreshadowing of that which came into the world through the Blessed Virgin Mary in the person of her Son.

CLARIFICATION —  Sophia Institute Press recently sent out an advertisement for the post of Editor in Chief. This has confused some of our readers, who may recall that a few months ago announcements were made that Stratford Caldecott had been appointed Editor at Sophia. (The post of Editor in Chief did not exist at that time.) In fact there have been major changes on the Board of Sophia, and the association with Thomas More College and Second Spring which led to my original appointment has been severed, at least for the time being. However, these changes are likely to strengthen Sophia rather than weaken it. In planning for new investment in the future of the company, the Board of Sophia have recognized that the function of editorial manager at Sophia, located in New Hampshire, cannot be performed long-distance from Oxford, which is where I am based – hence the new job opening.  For my part, I remain an Editor for Sophia and will be happy to work closely with the new Editor-in-Chief whenever he or she is appointed. Meanwhile the journal Second Spring has resumed publication at Thomas More College and should be with you shortly.– Stratford

Freedom under attack in Britain? 1 July, 2009

See our Economy blog for news on Catholic social teaching – now featuring commentary on the encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI and ongoing discussion of controversial points.

‘God and my right’

Barrister Neil Addison published an excellent piece in the UK’s Catholic Herald on 13 July under the title RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IS UNDER ATTACK IN BRITAIN. In fact the headline is slightly misleading. Addison says, ‘I do not consider that we are in an era of anti-Christian persecution. Indeed, to suggest that we are demeans the word “persecution” and those many Christians who are suffering real persecution to the point of death.’  But, he continues,

‘What we are in is an era of increasing government interference and regulation of what used to be regarded as private life and an increasing intolerance of those who disagree. We are in an increasingly authoritarian society and the Church is always the first victim of authoritarianism because the Church exists as an organisation that is, or should be, independent of the state, and which has a basis for its motivation and thinking which is independent of the state.’

And he writes:

‘When we look at our current controversy over MPs’ expenses the constant refrain that is coming back from so many MPs is that what they did was “in accordance with the rules”. But what is missing in this response is that they never considered whether what they were doing was morally right or wrong and that, I suggest, epitomises a broader problem in our society. We are not showing respect for conscience and the desire not to do that which is morally wrong because we are no longer acknowledging the importance of morality itself and are instead fixated on mere legalism and rules.

‘As a lawyer I am constantly dealing with the efforts of government to legislate on everything and the consequence is that politicians are infantalising us as a society by removing our ability to think in moral terms. The result is that we have more criminal legislation than ever before and more crime, more financial regulation and more fraud, more interference by government officials in all aspects of life and more government failure and incompetence….

‘The new Equality Bill currently before Parliament epitomises this tendency. Nearly every form of discrimination is banned even for private associations and churches. Or, to put it another way, they are to lose the right to choose. Churches are to be banned from preferring Christians in their employment practices except in the employment of priests or religious teachers. They are not going to insist that employees live in accordance with the ideals or principles of the Church, and any employment or membership decision they take can be questioned and investigated by an unelected quango, the Equality and Human Rights Commission.’

Addison points out the inconsistency at the heart of this agenda:

‘The Labour Party would not employ a member of the BNP in any capacity; the Conservative Party would not employ a card-carrying Communist. Why, then, should the churches be obliged to employ people whose religion or lifestyle is incompatible with the beliefs or principles of that church ? I do not believe that political parties should be obliged to employ people whose political beliefs or activities are incompatible with their own. Political parties are entitled to preserve and defend their distinctive identity. I just make the point that religious organisations should be entitled to the same freedom to preserve their identity.

‘As the Government’s proposals stand I, as a Catholic, would be entitled to apply for the post of general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain and to sue if I was not appointed. And a member of the National Secular Society would be entitled to apply for the post of general secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. It is lunacy – and more than lunacy, it is dangerous to freedom and democracy, because democracy requires not just individual freedom but also freedom of association.

‘We need to defend the principle of civil society in which associations and organisations, as well as individuals, have rights and are allowed the freedom to preserve their distinctive nature and contribution to society as a whole. It is no coincidence that the first thing that any totalitarian state does is to regulate and control association, organisations and churches. We need to be alert to this danger and we need to defend the rights of churches and other organisations, not simply in order to defend religious freedom but in order preserve freedom itself.’

The catastrophic decline of religious belief in Britain and indeed a belief in any kind of objective system of values is surveyed in a useful article from the Zenit news service here. Clearly, the ‘new evangelization’ which Pope John Paul II called for has been completely ineffective, if it has even begun. Christian apologetics has reached only a tiny minority, and in general serves only to make those who already believe feel more secure in their faith. This makes it ever more urgent for Christians to understand the reasons why most types of evangelization are ineffective – in other words, to understand the nature of the culture in which we live, and the unconscious assumptions that we often fail to recognize and challenge. In that understanding we will find the secret of true and effective evangelization.

Statement on this theme by Bishop Peter Smith here.

Living with the invisible 1 June, 2009

Our eyes can see only a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum – that section we call “light”. Scientific instruments can see most of the rest. But even with every instrument known to man, 96% of the universe is missing, invisible, absent. Called “dark matter” by the scientists, its existence is known only by the process of deduction, and our inability to find it remains a mystery.

The Church Fathers also knew that most of the creation is invisible – that the tiny part we can see forms a miniscule percentage of the whole. The invisible creation includes the hierarchies of angels, creatures somewhat separated from the flow of space-time. The parable of the Good Shepherd – in which the man leaves his 99 good sheep in the field to go and find the missing 100th – was interpreted in accordance with this belief. The 99 sheep were the invisible angels, the 100th was the wayward human race. The Shepherd is the Son of God, who lifts the lost sheep on his shoulders by assuming human nature, and carries it back by ascending to heaven.

We seem to be trying to build a civilization on the assumption that only what is visible really matters – as though God and the angels did not exist, as though values and ethics belonged only to a secret, interior world that had nothing to do with time, space and matter… or politics. But reality has a way of catching up with us. The invisible scandal of child abuse suddenly becomes visible, the abuse of expenses is published for all to see, the lies on which our financial security had been founded are exposed. The invisible is made visible. That which by its nature cannot be seen is revealed by its effects. The sinking of the Titanic has archetypal resonance for us because our whole way of life is heading for a similar disaster. Civilization, punctured by the invisible, is heading into icy depths.

We cannot live without God, and civilization depends upon the sacred, whether we acknowledge the fact or not. Human rights, which we make so much of today as the basis for a secular morality, in fact do not exist without God. They belong to us insofar as we are made in the image of God and exist in relation to him. Our value derives from that likeness, and we have a destiny in him that is defined at our creation. Any other attempt to construct a set of rights for ourselves is built on sand; it is merely a list of what we wish for ourselves. The rights of the unborn, invisible in the womb, or the elderly and the slum dwellers, invisible at the margins of productive society, will always be trampled underfoot, if that is all they are. Seven million babies have been aborted in Britain alone in the last forty years. But the invisible exists, and the blood of the invisible cries to heaven.

The Centre for Faith & Culture and Second Spring join the rest of the Catholic community in welcoming the appointment of Archbishop Vincent Nichols as the new Archbishop of Westminster. In the wonderful homily he preached at his installation he says that belief in God “opens us to all that lies beyond. It’s a constant invitation to go beyond our immediate knowledge and awareness, and even our current commitments. Faith in God is not, as some would portray it today, a narrowing of the human mind or spirit. It is precisely the opposite. Faith in God is the gift that takes us beyond our limited self, with all its incessant demands. It opens us to a life that stretches us, enlightens us, and often springs surprises upon us. Such faith, like love, sees that which is invisible and lives by it.”


Please note the various improvements that our webmaster Mark Armitage has recently made to the Second Spring website. You can explore the site by clicking on the buttons in the main menu, on the left of your screen. And don’t forget to keep up with our Economy blog.

May in Oxford 3 May, 2009

May is one of the most beautiful times to see Oxford. The month begins with the Magdalen College choristers singing in the dawn from the top of the College tower over the River Cherwell. Anyone venturing through the city streets later that morning is likely to encounter Morris dancers and other people behaving even more strangely. This year a woman dressed as a sheep was wandering across the road on all fours. By now the two main arteries into the city – Woodstock and Banbury Road – are transformed into avenues of white and pink blossom. As the days of sunshine become more frequent, one begins to think of strawberries in the park and picnics on the river.

If the weather is not so hot, the museums offer an interesting refuge – the Pitt Rivers is open again after a major refurbishment, although the Ashmolean is closed until November. The Museum of the History of Science is much more fun than it sounds, and right at the architectural heart of the university, among the greatest concentration of colleges and libraries, next to Sir Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre. There are also some very fine art exhibitions. ART JERICHO recently exhibited a rich selection of very fine etchings by Jane Peart, Heather Power and Morna Rhys, and is now featuring the 71st annual exhibition of the Society of Wood Engravers, which is not to be missed.

Tourists with a religious bent might find information of interest on our ‘Oxford Centre’ page. May being Mary’s month, why not make a mini-pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Oxford, at the church of St Aloysius, where Gerard Manley Hopkins once preached, and which is now the home of the Oxford Oratory? In mediaeval Oxford there were many well-known images of Our Lady, including the one before which St Edmund of Abingdon made his vow of perpetual virginity at the age of twelve, placing a gold ring on the statue’s finger. Tragically, this and other signs of devotion to the Mother of God were destroyed by a later age and it was not until the nineteenth century, at the time of the ‘Second Spring’, that Our Lady of Oxford was to return.

Hartwell de la Garde Grissell was an Oxford convert who became a Private Chamberlain and personal friend of Pope Pius IX. The Pope granted him indulgences for a painting of Our Lady as “Mother of Mercy”. After Grissell’s death in June 1907, he left his his painting of Our Lady of Oxford to St Aloysius’ Church, on condition that a suitable chapel should be built. The relic chapel is where the image is venerated today, amid the bones of the martyrs who hid in the Roman catacombs and laid down their lives for Christ and His Church. On the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy in 2001, Cardinal Stafford, then President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, said Mass in the church and prayed at the shrine of Our Lady of Oxford.

That we can address Mary as Our Lady of Oxford reminds us that although the Virgin’s care and intercession is universal, she is also able to care for each one of us individually. To have her image set up in a particular place shows that she is not remote or unapproachable, but rather our Mother, whose love for each of us is intimate and personal.

All things rising, all things sizing

Mary sees, sympathizing

With that world of good,

Nature’s motherhood.

No Story So Divine 1 April, 2009

Apologies for delays to Second Spring issue 11, which is still in production. In the meantime, please note the new features on this site, including our redesigned CHRISTIANITY section, and CATHOLIC OXFORD, accessed from the menu on the left. In the run-up to the release of the eagerly-awaited papal encyclical please visit our new web pages on Catholic social teaching and the economic crisis.


Calvary by Daniel Mitsui

‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Many people have seen in Jesus’s cry from the Cross an indication that the Son of God was allowed to experience the whole of human suffering – including the pain of real despair and a sense of meaninglessness. As the sun itself seemed blotted out of the sky, the world seemed to lose its connection to God. And yet it was God who experienced this exile.

One human being can only experience so much. But each of us can find our own suffering in his. We know that he has accepted it for us, even as we fight against it in ourselves. He makes suffering a sacrament, a thing that connects us to him, and therefore a conduit through which grace can flow to us through him.

The relationship works both ways, of course. That is why traditional piety at Passiontide tells us that our own sins have nailed him to the Cross. My little acts of selfishness, pride, self-indulgence, dishonesty and betrayal find themselves in the treachery of Judas, the denials of Peter, the weakness of Pilate, just as my own sufferings have found their home in his. This is not ‘guilt tripping’ but realism. The life of Jesus in me cannot be disconnected from his life in Galilee, Calvary, Gethsemane – or heaven.

I have known people who, whether for a short time or longer, have lost their religion. Faith deserts them, as though it was never there. Sometimes this is because deep down they don’t want to believe. However it happens, they have lost their connection with Christ. He has become to them merely a figure in the distant past, or a person in a story that has been heard once too many times.

The best argument I have heard against faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was this. If it is true, and if Catholics receive God in communion every week, how do they remain such a miserable bunch? This applies not just to the ones who hypocritically receive communion without even trying to live the moral life that it signifies, but to those who are devout, good people. Shouldn’t something more extraordinary happen to them? Surely they should be transformed into something more impressive, if God is entering them every week?

It will happen. Just give it time. If we look at ourselves, instead of hastening to judge others, we will see how easily we have built a wall of habit and inattention around ourselves that prevents grace flowing into every part of our lives. Why am I not transformed? Even when my heart is spiritually alive, the blood of Christ somehow does not reach my hands and feet. The eucharist, though it keeps me alive, cannot do more than that without my help.

Mostly we simply continue to struggle – with the same habits, the same sins, the same thoughts, repeating ourselves day after day. ‘Baptism is the beginning of a struggle, more or less severe according to God’s providence, that ends only at the moment of death’ (Vivian Boland OP, Spiritual Warfare). By all accounts, the moment of death itself is the most intense part of the struggle. It is like the struggle of a woman giving birth, for we are giving birth to our eternal selves. The best way to prepare for that moment is by receiving the sacraments and trying to be faithful to them: they may not transform us, but they give us the strength to continue the struggle.

Or think of it like this. We are on a journey, but we are tempted to go in many directions. Going to Mass, being reconciled and receiving communion is a way of turning back towards God. We may not get far, but at least we are facing in the right direction.

The image is reproduced with permission from

Are we forgetting how to read?

“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going — so far as I can tell — but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

“I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes….  For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded... But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles….” Read the whole article by Nicholas Carr here.

The Messenger

Éala éarendel engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended
Hail Earendel, brightest of angels / above the middle-earth sent unto men

These lines from Cynewulf’s poem Crist, which inspired Tolkien on the eve of the First World War, became the seed of the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. In those stories, Earendil (the father of Elros and Elrond) is a messenger to the angelic Valar from the races of Elves and Men, conjoined through his own ancestry. He jouneys into the Farthest West at the darkest moment of earth’s history, bearing the holy light of the Silmaril upon his brow, to beg for assistance against the Dark Lord. Having set foot in the Undying Lands, where his appeal is heard by the Valar, he is not permitted to return home but is given immortality, and his ship is given the power to journey among the stars. He becomes the world’s first space-traveller, and the flaming jewel he wears as a token of love appears to us as the Evening and the Morning Star. At the end of the First Age, in response to Earendil’s intercession, the armies of the Valar descend upon Middle-earth to overthrow the power of Morgoth. Descending from the heavens in his silver ship, Earendil slays the greatest of dragons, Ancalagon the Black, and Morgoth himself is thrust by the Valar beyond the Walls of the World into the Timeless Void.

The most effective prayer of intercession is made by one who can represent by his ancestry all the afflicted peoples of the earth, to plead for pardon and pity. And intercession is necessary, not because God is deaf to the cries of individual victims, but because we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and the history of our own woes is bound up in a larger story.  The events to which the myths of the Simarillion look forward have taken place in reality. Jesus Christ who is both God and Man has paid the full price of our redemption, pleading on our behalf at the throne of God for pardon and pity. “For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24).

See Ted Nasmith’s painting of Earendil’s voyage here.

The Problem of Evil 1 March, 2009

In his new booklet for CTS, Edward Hadas tries to get to the roots of the present financial crisis, the full scale of which continues to unfold in the headlines every day. “Banks have failed, governments have debauched currencies and the rest of the economy has been thrown into recession. If only the business of banks worked anything like as smoothly as the aviation system. Then crises of the sort the world is now enduring would be almost as rare as plane crashes. Could that happen? No one can be sure in advance, but it is worth trying to create a sounder financial system. The current crisis provides an excellent opportunity. ”

Hadas concludes his analysis with a “moralist manifesto” that aims to integrate finance with morality. For in the words of the Church’s Compendium of Social Doctrine: “The moral dimension of the economy shows that economic efficiency and the promotion of human development in solidarity are not two separate or alternative aims but one indivisible goal.”


Visit our Stations of the Cross during Lent.

Where did evil come from?

There is a gaping hole in the Christian explanation of the universe. Or that is how it appears to many young people. Where did evil come from? The standard answer, of course, is “free will”, but that isn’t enough. The question is why, if God knew that sin and therefore suffering would ensue, did he continue with the creation?

The Christian tradition replies (a) that any creation is better than none, and (b) that God made sure that it would end well, by dying on the Cross. But many believe that non-existence is better than suffering (witness the rise in suicide and the arguments for mercy-killing). And they ask, how can it be made to end well by yet more innocent suffering? Especially if an eternal hell lies in wait for those who don’t repent.

Lent seems a good time for Christians to reflect on all this, and to try to clarify what is going on. Two preliminary points come to mind. Point one. As Chesterton once said, you should not look a gift-universe in the mouth. How can we pretend to be able to judge whether the whole is worthwhile, or weigh the positives against the negatives and find it wanting? We are simply not in a position to be able to do so. Point two. Suffering is not cumulative. As the philosopher Wittgenstein pointed out, there is no suffering greater than the suffering of one man. I’ll come back to that next month, as we approach Easter.

Meanwhile, the origin of evil is still on the agenda. How could the highest Angel, Lucifer, reject God in full knowledge of what he was doing, and of the consequences, so completely that he will never repent of it? That is the question, surely, in its starkest form? The fall of humanity is merely an echo of the angelic fall that preceded it.

Satan in his original glory, William Blake

It is impossible to reject God completely, since our being comes from him. To reject him in that sense is beyond our power; it would be to un-make ourselves. But what is possible – for a creature that is like God but not God – is to reject “part” of God, or an aspect of God; specifically, its own loving relationship with God. In fact, the more like God, the more beautiful and glorious, a creature is made to be (and Lucifer was very great), the more intense must be the temptation to reject that relationship.

To be like God is to be self-sufficient in every way except the most important – we depend on God for our existence. But if our existence is already assured, we can reject God in every other sense. Lucifer has what he wanted: himself. He was faced with a choice between water and fire, between flowing and burning. In choosing to keep what God had given him, rather than give it back to God, he chose the fire.

But why did God, knowing that Lucifer would reject him, go ahead and create him anyway? We might turn the question around. Would Lucifer in fact have chosen non-existence, if that had been an option for him? It seems not, because he wanted his own being so much he was prepared to reject God in order to keep it for himself, even if it meant being wrapped in flames.

In Tolkien’s creation-myth, Ainulindale, God tells Melkor (Lucifer) that the divine plan for creation as a whole cannot be thwarted: “For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” In God’s design, even the rebellion of Satan, with all its dreadful consequences, can be accommodated. No comfort there, of course, to the mother whose children are being tortured to death before her eyes. But who said the truth must be immediately comforting?

We assume too readily, also, that Revelation (and therefore theology) must have an answer to all our questions. The Venerable John Henry Newman wrote: “Now why does God permit so much evil in His own world? This is a difficulty, I say, which we feel at once, before we open the Bible; and which we are quite unable to solve. We open the Bible; the fact is acknowledged there, but it is not explained at all. We are told that sin entered the world through the Devil, who tempted Adam to disobedience; so that God created the world good, though evil is in it. But why He thought fit to suffer [permit] this, we are not told. We know no more on the subject than we did before opening the Bible. It was a mystery before God gave His revelation, it is as great a mystery now; and doubtless for this reason, because knowledge about it would do us no good, it would merely satisfy curiosity. It is not practical knowledge.” Read the whole sermon.

If you are looking for more Lenten reading, I cannot recommend too highly Timothy Radcliffe OP’s Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist, which is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book. It manages to be both funny and wise on every page.

Talking of God 6 February, 2009

Darwin in 1840

This month being the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, most of us are already tired of the theory of evolution. Yet it goes to the heart of the modern world, and as such this web-site cannot let the moment pass without adding to the festivities. I recommend the articles you will find in the “Darwin” issue of Philosophy Now magazine (Jan/Feb 2009). Among them is an enlightening piece by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci. In it he writes:

“Just as the Standard Model in physics is undergoing challenges and revisions (think of string theory, for one), so is the Modern Synthesis in evolutionary biology being challenged. An increasing number of scientists – including yours truly – have grown dissatisfied with the fact that the current version of the theory does not adequately address many important questions. These include the role of developmental processes in evolution, the origin of completely novel traits (such as the turtle’s shell, for instance), the increasingly-plausible possibility of so-called ‘soft’ inheritance (ie, mechanisms of heredity that do not depend on DNA), and even whether and how the propensity to evolve – the so-called ‘evolvability’ of a lineage – can change during the course of evolution.

“Moreover, some evolutionary biologists think evolution is a much richer phenomenon than the Modern Synthesis allows, and includes the ability of natural selection to act not only on individual organisms, but at both lower (gene) and higher (species) levels. Perhaps more speculatively, but also most interestingly, some of us are pursuing research that for the first time since Darwin looks seriously at the possibility that natural selection may not be the only natural mechanism generating complexity. Intriguing mathematical models borrowed from complexity theory suggest that intricate forms and behaviors may be generated ‘for free’ as an emergent property of certain types of non-linear systems, of which living organisms are but one example (other examples include meteorological phenomena such as hurricanes, and computer-based algorithms, such as the appropriately named game ‘life’).”

The scientific status of the theory of evolution is therefore more complicated than we are often led to believe. We should beware of those who seek to turn it into a monolithic dogma to oppose Christian or other religious beliefs. My own summary article on the question can be found here. As Richard Dawkins retires as Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and is replaced by the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, with any luck we will find ourselves moving into a “post-Dawkins” phase of the debate about religion and science. Du Sautoy is an atheist but a much less militant one than Dawkins. In a calmer atmosphere we may perhaps reflect on the debate less in terms of the intellectual arguments but more in terms of what it reveals about our religious imagination.

Our God is Too Small

For the whole debate may be less about ideas than about images. We are persuaded by the sheer size and complexity of the world revealed by modern science to abandon our image of a God who is personally concerned with one small corner of the universe and our insignificant species. Religious believers have often cultivated an image of God that seems inadequate to cope with the cosmos as a whole, including all the innocent suffering it entails. There seems little connection between the loving Jesus of private devotion, the warlike Jehovah of the Old Testament, and the implacable Law that determines the extermination of millions of lives in natural disasters. But we need to respond to the increased scale of the universe not by abandoning but by expanding our idea of God.

God stops making sense when our image of him is both too little and too big. Too little: – we think of him as just a BIT bigger than us, or than the universe as a whole, whereas in reality he is INFINITELY bigger. As the great theologians have always said, we know that God is, and we know what God is not, but we are fooling ourselves if we think we know what God is. (In that sense theology is an exercise in controlled folly.) But at the same time, our image of God is too big. By that I mean he is not just small enough to fit in our heads, he is INFINITELY small. He is within the within.

The God Within

Perhaps what is missing in much religious formation is the vital instruction to look for God within ourselves. That is to be distinguished from identifying ourselves with God, or thinking that God is Myself. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within.

No, what I mean is that we need to discover God at the root of ourselves if we are discover him anywhere at all. Within ourselves, but beyond the self, is the living presence of the God who creates all things from the inside out. That is the God who is closest to us, whose reality is most evident. When we are tormented by the problem of evil, or uncertain about the meaning or value of Scripture, there are voices in our head that say, “You know it doesn’t really make any sense!” But there is a much quieter voice we need to learn to hear that whispers, “Just be patient and trust, and I will lead you to what you need to know.” That quieter voice is harder to hear because it comes from a deeper level – not from the self but from beyond the self.

The Two Halves of God

The secret of religious faith is when we manage to put the two halves of God together – to see and feel the connection between the inner God and the outer God. The outer God is so much bigger than anything that exists that even the word “exists” can only be applied to it with inverted commas. This is the God whose watermark runs all through the world in the form of a beautiful order – the same order that science has partially explored, the order that determines the rain to fall on the good and the bad alike, the order by which a man may give thanks for his bread, but the parasite may also give thanks for the warm body on which it feeds in the dark. How can we relate to that God, unless we know that it is also the God that creates us from within, that we find within ourselves, at the origin of our own minds, the source of all our consciousness and love? THAT God, who is the same God because ultimately there can only be one, is a God we can communicate with.

The Christian faith pus the two halves of God together in a particular way. The inner God and the outer God meet in Christ, who is outside ourselves yet inside the universe. More on that another time.

Growing Intolerance of Christianity in Britain

The newspapers in Britain have recently drawn attention to the case of a Christian nurse suspended for offering to pray for an elderly patient (or, in Newspeak, ‘failing to demonstrate a personal and professional committment to equality and diversity’!) – and then reinstated after the absurdity of it was pointed out in the House of Commons. It was then revealed that the National Health Service has also issued guidelines that define all attempts to ‘preach and to try to convert other people’ in the workplace as a form of harrassment. Similar stories continue to emerge which appear to indicate increasing intolerance towards those who speak of Christianity in public. Put this together with the following comment (Telegraph, 8 Feb 09), and we may have further reason for concern:

“The evidence is growing by the week that the Government is creating a surveillance state. It was confirmed yesterday that a database containing the international travel records of all citizens is being compiled; and Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, is drawing up plans to keep similar details of every phone call and email that is sent. In addition, the records of all children are to be held on a system called ContactPoint, a national ID database is currently being developed, all health records currently held by GPs will be centrally available and a database of DNA profiles, ostensibly for criminals, is being built by stealth. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous CCTV cameras in every public space make personal privacy increasingly hard to maintain.”

Proselytism vs Evangelization

It is of course true that some forms of proselytism are objectionable and do amount to harrassment. But there is also a danger that such rulings may be used as an excuse to suppress any religious talk at all. That would be a shame, because nothing is more interesting to most people than the meaning of life. And if you believe something is true, good and beautiful, the natural reaction is to want to share it – to help others to see it too. This certainly applies to Christians, who are in any case obliged by their faith to evangelize. The point is always to do it tactfully and prudently, in a way that does not offend and alienate others.

The NHS document (‘Religion or Belief’) can be downloaded from here. It includes some interesting statistics on religious belief in Britain – between 1996 and 2006, the proportion who claimed no religious allegiance rose from 42.6 to 45.8%. As one might expect, the biggest rises were among Muslims (from 1.8% to 3.3%) and non-denominational Christians (from 4.7% to 9.6%). The number of those who identified themselves as Roman Catholics rose very slightly from 8.9% to 9%, while other Christian denominations declined.


PS. I was recently appointed Senior Editor at Sophia Institute Press. My task is, while preserving the traditional Sophia strengths – its popular reprints, spiritual classics and self-help and transformational titles, as well as the successful new imprint for Catholic fiction, Imagio – to broaden the range to include more scholarly, though still accessible titles in keeping with Sophia’s developing role as a College Press. Read more…

An interesting new year 7 January, 2009

When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars which you arranged, what are we that you should keep us in mind, men and women that you care for us?

A question often asked (rhetorically) by modern sceptics is how the Maker of such a vast universe could be as concerned as the Bible claims with one tiny planet and one tiny species among so many. The question was answered by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Silmarillion, when he writes in his Elvish creation myth the Ainulindale (bearing in mind the Ainur are the Angelic spirits and Arda is the Earth):

Now the Chidren of Iluvatar are Elves and Men, the Firstborn and the Followers. And amid all the splendours of the World, its vast halls and spaces, and its wheeling fires, Iluvatar chose a place for their habitation in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of the innumerable stars. And this habitation might seem a little thing to those who consider only the majesty of the Ainur, and not their terrible sharpness; as who should take the whole field of Arda for the foundation of a pillar and so raise it until the cone of its summit were more bitter than a needle; or who consider only the immeasurable vastness of the World, which still the Ainur are shaping, and not the minute precision to which they shape all things therein.”

If you go to the magazine section and click on ‘current issue‘ you will see a draft of the cover and list of contents based around the theme of divine praise. The printing of the issue has been delayed, but to make up for that, I am paying some attention to the renovation of various sections of this web-site. We continue to place important new papers in the Articles section, including links to articles in other journals that you may find of interest. The Apologetics section (‘Christianity Q&A‘) and the one on Catholic social teaching (‘Sane Economy‘) will receive special attention and be extensively revised during the year. In the Spirituality section (‘Mystagogy‘) I have recently added a series of meditations on the Rosary. The Books section will gradually be expanded as new publications come along, and readers can already find there additional materials, background reading, and further research that could not be included in the printed books themselves, as well as copies of reviews and helpful links. Other sections will continue to be updated – including, of course, the main Links section.

Our ONLINE COMMUNITY serves as a space for discussion of current events as well as publications and conferences. This online facility can be really useful for maintaining contact with people of similar interests and for sharing ideas and scholarship. There is a brand-new section called Questioning Faith where you can ask difficult questions.

Though the financial recession and tensions in the Middle East will dominate headlines for a while, this also promises to be a year in which there is a lot of talk about science. February marks the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, and November the 150th of ‘The Origin of Species’. It is also the 400th year since Galileo turned his telescope to the heavens. The summer may see the Large Hadron Collider turned on at last – colliding particles together at close to the speed of light just to see what will happen. We are looking out for good popular science links and articles to add to the site, to help our readers follow these events and reflect on the relationship between their faith and the discoveries of science.

The “Atheist Bus”. The newspapers have been reporting on the placing by atheists (including Richard Dawkins of Oxford) of a message on the sides of buses around Britain: There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life. It was the advertising standards authority that insisted on the “probably”, thus at a stroke converting the atheist bus into an agnostic bus, and planting the seeds of worry in the minds of many who had not given God’s existence a second thought for many years. How can you relax and enjoy life if it is conveying you inexorably to a possible confrontation with the God you have been denying?

The astute Catholic commentator Sandro Magister has rightly picked up on a recent address by Benedict XVI on the intelligent structure of the universe – mathematics not as a proof but as a pointer to the existence of God. “The great Galileo said that God wrote the book of nature in the form of the language of mathematics… It seems to me almost incredible that an invention of the human mind and the structure of the universe coincide… In this sense it really seems to me that mathematics – in which as such God cannot appear – shows us the intelligent structure of the universe… Only because our mathematics is reliable is technology reliable. Our knowledge, which is at last making it possible to work with the energies of nature, supposes the reliable and intelligent structure of matter.” You can read the full article here.

Of course, very few people read the Pope. A more direct approach would be to send round an alternative message on the buses. Something like this, perhaps: There might be a God. Why does that worry you?