Friday, 21 August 2015

Omnia Instaurare

Today is the memorial of St. Pius X. At Mass the priest memorized that his motto was Omnia instaurare in Christo, ‘To restore all things in Christ’. The word suddenly looked familiar: the Greek word stauros means ‘cross’.

Intrigued, I searched for an etymological connection, and found one. The words instaurare and stauros can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root stā- ‘stand, set down, make or be firm’.

Incidentally, the Hebrew root for ‘make or be firm’ is ’MN, from which the Hebrew word for ‘faith’ is derived (emunah); from the same root comes the word amen.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Strength to the Creator

At the beginning of Aronofsky’s movie Noah (which I still need to finish watching), Noah encounters a wounded animal. A small band of hunters are pursuing it, and because they threaten Noah, he kills them.

Later, one of his sons (probably Ham, he does have the name for it) asks Noah why the men were intent on killing the animal. Noah replies that they thought eating the meat of the animal would give them strength. The son asks, ‘Is it true?’ Choosing the indirect reply, Noah responds, ‘They forget: strength comes from the Creator.’

I was reading today’s Gospel (John 6:51-58), in which Jesus says emphatically that the one who has eternal life is the one who eats his flesh and drinks his blood. Verse 57 struck me in a new way: ‘As the living Father sent me, and I live through the Father, so the one who feeds on me (*), even he will live through me.’

A comparison is drawn here: Jesus relates to the Father as the believer (or rather: the eater) relates to Jesus. What struck me about this is the connection between ‘living through’ and ‘being sent’, which is only made explicit in the first half of the comparison. Being sent implies executing a mission for someone else, giving your strength to accomplish someone else’s will. So the Son draws his life from the Father, but the life itself is expended in doing the Father’s will.

So, to extend the comparison: the one who stands forward to feed on Jesus thereby indicates his willingness to be sent by Jesus. The strength that is given is not appropriated for oneself, but is lived out in mission: the strength from the Creator is expended for the Creator in the practice of obedience.


(*) I have used the ESV-translation of the verb trōgō. Some Catholic exegetes make much of the fact that John uses a word with the graphic original meaning of ‘chewing’ or ‘gnawing’. However, Strong indicates that the word can also be used in the more general sense of ‘eating’. Hence the slightly more neutral translation.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Violent God

Someone asked me to write about the apparent discrepancy between the loving God of the New Testament and the violence commanded, superintended, or executed by God in the Old Testament. While I think this distinction is oversimplified (cf. the last chapter of the Bible), I have done my best to answer cogently. The following response was considered unsatisfactory by the questioner, so if you have any ideas for its improvement, do share them. After all, it is likely that this question will be asked again.

In the Psalms, as in the entire Old Testament, there are texts in which God’s praises are sung, as well as texts about struggle. Questions can arise about how these relate to the double commandment of love which Jesus gives us: to love God above all and one’s neighbour as oneself.

Even in the Lauds of the first Sunday, whose Psalms are read on every feast day, we encounter this doubleness: after the Psalm of personal desire (“O God, you are my God, I watch for you from the dawn”) and the great canticle from Daniel (“Bless the Lord, all his works”), the last Psalm moves from song of praise to war chant: “Let the faithful celebrate his glory, rejoice even in their beds, the praise of God in their throats; and swords ready in their hands, to exact vengeance upon the nations, impose punishment on the peoples…”

Some say that the oldest text of the Bible is Exodus 15, the song of Israel’s liberation. Here, too, battle and praise blend together: “The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea…” The same goes for Psalm 136, with its recurring refrain “for his steadfast love endures forever”. The steadfast love of God is apparent both in his wise creation of the heavens and stretching out of the earth above the waters, and in his striking down the firstborn of Egypt. Verse 18 of this Psalm might sound paradoxical to our ears: “He killed mighty kings, for his steadfast love endures forever.”

How is this to be squared with the love of one’s neighbour in the New Testament?

Firstly, it is significant that the Biblical heroes are generally not impressive warriors. Again and again it is emphasized that the power of Israel does not lie in its strong men, but in God who protects the land. This becomes clear even during the military conquest of Israel, described in the book of Joshua: for instance, the walls of Jericho collapse because the people walk around them with the ark, according to God’s instructions (Jos. 6). But at the moment when the people does not act according to God’s will, even a weak army is capable of routing it, as happens at Ai (Jos. 7).

King David, the great hero of the Israelite people, starts out as a shepherd boy; he is capable of defeating the armoured giant Goliath because God decides the outcome of battle, and “the Lord saves not with sword and spear” (1 Sam. 17:47). This also becomes apparent in the rest of David’s life: he spends more time fleeing than achieving military successes. When he is in flight from the jealous king Saul, David refuses twice to kill his persecutor (1 Sam. 24 and 26); afterwards, in flight from his son Absalom, he lets himself be cursed without retaliating (2 Sam. 16).

So a tension exists in the Old Testament. On the one hand, it happens multiple times that God interferes violently to save the people of Israel from its enemies, or orders Israel like a commander to do battle. On the other hand, there is a strong realization that God accomplishes his plans not thanks to Israel’s military power, but precisely in spite of Israel’s weakness. Professional fighters, glorified in the literature of other nations, are treated with suspicion in the Bible.

This prompts the question: how is it possible for such a violent God to lead such a tame people? In my opinion it is due to the fact that God’s violence is always aimed at (1) liberation from the oppressor and (2) protection of what is holy, in particular God’s people, God’s law, and the city of Jerusalem where God’s temple stands.

The central thought of the OT is that God gives a country to his people, destined to become the place where God’s law is put into action. This presupposes an attitude of humility and obedience on the people’s part (no self-glorification and aggression!). It also means that this gift should be cherished: as long as the law is obeyed, God will take care of the rest. In other words, God has delimited a space and given it to the people in his particular care. Whenever this space is threatened, God acts, precisely because He bears love towards his people.

One could object that in that case God’s love is not universal. If God single-handedly kills 185,000 Assyrians in one night to end the siege of Jerusalem (2 Kgs. 19:35), then does God love Jerusalem but not the Assyrians?

This way of thinking seems too individualistic to me. For the very reason that God loves all people, He cannot allow his holy city to be conquered, because it is the place from which He wishes to grant blessing to the whole world. But that means that this city must be defended against enemies who would violate the holiness of the place (and so annihilate the blessing). You could say that the world sometimes needs to be protected against itself, by means fair or foul.

Throughout the entire Bible, the idea recurs that God loves the whole world and wants to bless it, but through the people (and places) of his choosing. It starts with the ‘father of the faithful’, Abraham. God sends him on his way with this blessing: “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2-3)

To extend his love to the whole world, God chooses Abraham; but that means that the enemies of Abraham do not participate in God’s blessing.

What applies to Abraham, also applies to the people and the land of Israel: hence the war against the nations that stand in Israel’s way. Jerusalem in particular becomes a place of blessing for the whole world: it is destined to become the place of gathering for all nations to worship God.

The land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem were places of earth, previously inhabited by Gentile nations and subsequently capable of being threatened, sacked and destroyed by hostile powers. Hence the need to conquer them and then to defend them, with the ultimate aim of safeguarding God’s blessing. In Biblical historiography, God has a leading role in this process: in this way Israel is reminded that its power is not in military violence, but in listening to God’s law. God creates a space for the consciousness that his ultimate plan is the creation of a world of blessing and peace, so that mighty nations beat their swords into plowshares (Is. 2:4) and there is no more war.

In the New Testament, too, God sends someone to be a source of blessing for the whole world, namely Jesus. In the hearing of the skeptical Jewish council, Peter testifies about Jesus: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

That is a reason why the struggle in the Old Testament does not resurface the same way in the New Testament: Jesus Christ is handed over and put to death (and the Father allows it to happen, He does not intervene this time), but He is then vindicated by being raised from the dead and ascending into Heaven. He is no longer threatened and needs no more defence; He has already suffered everything and is therefore elevated above all dangers. God’s blessing is no longer bound to a certain place, but is accessible everywhere, because Jesus is with us everywhere.

The Old Testament shows us how important the ‘holy land’ is and how much God loves and protects it; in the New Testament, it becomes evident that this kingdom is ultimately the reign of Christ, which is realized in heaven and carried in our hearts on earth, which we are all invited to do.

That is why the Old Testament remains a source of inspiration to me, including the tougher texts. It reminds me that we must be active in searching for a place where we can worship God in peace and with a good conscience (which may entail a radical ‘no’ to ourselves or others); that the sacred in our lives is vulnerable and in need of protection; but also that we cannot enforce the blessing ourselves, because it comes where and when God wants, greater and deeper than we can imagine in advance.

Friday, 31 July 2015

From Gorging to Gorges

I had nothing to say this month because I spent all my time reading: Umberto Eco, William Desmond, Barbara Tuchmann, the Book of Judges. I was disconnected from Facebook, no people around me; it was wonderful. Today, however, on the memorial of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I am going to Austria with a group of warm-hearted young adults, to spend a week mountain hiking and meditating while walking. Wish us luck! That's all for now, because I'm typing on my cellphone.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

New Occupation

“As a young boy, the Prince of Dragonstone was bookish to a fault. He was reading so early that men said Queen Rhaella must have swallowed some books and a candle whilst he was in her womb. … Until one day Prince Rhaegar found something in his scrolls that changed him. No one knows what it might have been, only that the boy suddenly appeared early one morning in the yard as the knights were donning their steel. He walked up to Ser Willem Darry, the master-at-arms, and said, ‘I will require sword and armor. It seems I must be a warrior.’”
(from A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin)

I wrote that I sometimes wondered what my younger self would think if he could see me now. If he could have seen me last Thursday evening, he would have been astounded. First he would have seen me at evening prayer in a long white robe, in a square chapel, holding a priest’s garment while he walked round to incense the altar; then taking the censer and swinging it at the priest and the lone seminarian whom we could call the congregation (doing some violence to the etymology).

My younger self might have eyed all this sceptically, for it is not true (as has sometimes been supposed) that he ‘needed to see things’; some argument and an intense dose of poetry was required to open his eyes to the beauty and validity of sensory expressions of the sacred. Even my contemporaneous self (that would be me) is more moved by the aspect of order than by free-floating shininess.

Be that as it may, my sensitive and tender-skinned younger self would have been even more stupefied on seeing me, divested of my alb, run upstairs, change into sports gear, and get into the car for krav maga practice.

Krav maga, or, as I prefer to call it, קְרַב מַגָּע (I’m just showing off here; do tell me to stop) is a form of martial arts developed in the 1940s by a Hungarian Jew. Imi Lichtenfeld happened to be a boxer and a wrestling champion, skills which he put to use and modified in fights against fascist gangs to protect the Jewish community. After he got into trouble with the local government (which was not pro-Semitic), he left and ended up in Israel, where he started training paramilitary troops from 1948 onwards.

Unlike most Japanese martial arts, which have a certain elegance and focus on specific movements (as I understand it, having no experience with them), krav maga focuses on maximum efficiency in realistic attack situations. Every defensive move is accompanied by a simultaneous offensive move (and followed up by a few more). No holds are barred: all weak parts of the body are exploited (though, obviously, safety in training is observed: you don’t actually get to punch people in the face, which is a small price to pay for not being similarly punched yourself).

I have been training since the end of January. I had been saying since last Summer that I wanted to do some form of martial arts, and some friends encouraged me to try krav maga. So during my last exam month, I considered it was probably going to be then or never; and faced with that dilemma, I took the step. The fact that Deacon Prins practices kickboxing (and derives satisfaction from it in moments of pastoral challenge), and that Fr. Hagen once served with the Dutch Marines (and has learnt to kill people with his bare hands, as he told me afterwards), helped me to cross the threshold.

Since then, I have gotten scrapes on my toes, knuckles and elbows, my arms and wrists have been jarred by blocking movements, my lips have bled, my self-confidence has gone up, and it’s been great fun overall. One particularly fun moment consisted in meeting a person who had gone on the diocesan pilgrimage to Rome, in which around 800 people participated. I knew him from the pilgrimage as a father of two kids (including a young one that was kissed by the Holy Father!); he knew me as a seminarian, and when we saw each other again at the training centre, we had difficulty recognizing each other.

It has been educative as well. After the second lesson, you think you are stronger than the world; after the fourth, you find out you are not. The confidence boost comes with a realization that most attackers are stronger, faster, more resilient, and more merciless than your own hero fantasies make them. It’s good to discover that while holding a solid punching pad.

Yesterday I filled out and sent my subscription form to the national office of the IKMF (International Krav Maga Federation). In the evening I went to Haarlem for training. Around the beginning of the lesson, because of an unlucky foot movement by my partner (I think), part of my toenail tore. It took me a while to notice what had happened; we were concentrating on something else. Small droplets of blood were all across our corner of the room. I went to the reception, where I was skilfully bandaged by a concerned lady, and spent a significant time scrubbing my own blood off the mat (I almost wrote ‘mopping’, but it wasn’t that bad). Then I resumed training.

Now if I could punch, hammer and kick my thesis into completion…

Friday, 29 May 2015

The End of an Era

Yesterday was my last day of class at seminary: an hour of musical repetition for Corpus Christi and two hours of General Sacramental Theology.

For a moment I thought that my days of school were over, that twenty-one years of formal education had come to an end. It was not so; next year I will still have to take some weekend classes. But the balance of my life will shift to real-life observation (initially) and practical assignments (as my internship advances).

In a way, I am looking forward to it, despite feeling quite unprepared. There is much I still want to practise, many questions I do not know the answer to, many books I would still love to read. But perhaps the point of the past twenty-one years consists in that realization.

Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine contains the following exchange:

‘Well.’ She started pouring tea. ‘To start things off, what do you think of the world?’
‘I don’t know anything.’
‘The beginning of wisdom, as they say. When you’re seventeen you know everything. When you’re twenty­-seven if you still know everything you’re still seventeen.’
‘You seem to have learned quite a lot over the years.’
‘It is the privilege of old people to seem to know everything. But it’s an act and a mask, like every other act and mask. Between ourselves, we old ones wink at each other and smile, saying, How do you like my mask, my act, my certainty? Isn’t life a play? Don’t I play it well?’

So what have I learned at seminary, besides living a liturgical life? Partly, to be more tolerant and patient. And this at a seminary which has the reputation of being strict and conservative. Whatever they tell you, you were not born to change the world, only to help some people take some small steps, hopefully without doing too much damage in the meantime. As St. James says,

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness. For we all make many mistakes…
(3:1-2)

But (not to end on too depressing a note) also this: the Bible is much more interesting than I thought. It is a patchwork and a whole, it stimulates but eludes interpretation: call it ‘hard-to-get’. It is a pluripotent stem cell of meaning with many offshoots that are interesting in their own right.

During my years at seminary, I have also gotten to know the human dimension of the Church. That makes it possible to joke about religion, even if Humor ist, wann man trotzdem lacht. Jokes about religion are the best because there is always something that the joke does not cover, something to return to after laughter, a solace and a challenge. I came into the Church because She inspired reverence, and now I paraphrase Tertullian: credo quia absurda – but these are two permanent aspects of the same creation, two sides of one moon.

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Dragon's Head

On 25 December 800, when Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III, a delegation of Eastern monks was present in Aachen. They sang a Greek hymn which pleased the pious emperor (who rose daily at 5am for Matins) so much that he had it translated into Latin. The various stanzas of the hymn were used as antiphons, which were used eventually at the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. So our liturgy teacher told us. The fourth antiphon runs:

Caput draconis contrivit Salvator in Iordanis flumine; ab eius potestate omnes eripuit.
‘The dragon’s head the Saviour has crushed in the Jordan river; out of his power He has torn all men.’

The initial words of this antiphon sounded familiar, and so they were:

At the very end of the corridor hung a portrait of a very fat woman in a pink silk dress.
‘Password?’ she said.
Caput draconis,’ said Percy, and the portrait swung forward to reveal a round hole in the wall the Gryffindor common room, a cosy, round room full of squashy armchairs.

This, as you will have divined, occurs on Harry Potter’s first evening at Hogwarts. The password of Harry’s house is the first part of a liturgical antiphon celebrating Christ’s victory over the devil, just like his parents’ gravestone in the last book contains a Biblical quote looking forward to the Resurrection.

I was excited about this discovery and decided to double-check. This was rather a let-down. It turns out that the password also has a place in a different symbolic universe: that of geomancy. Geomancy is a practice which seeks to know the future through reading patterns of soil, rocks or sand tossed on the ground. Wikipedia identifies 16 geomantic figures, consisting of four rows referring to the four elements (fire, air, water, and earth); each row can have either two points (passive) or one (active). 2 possibilities for each row * 4 rows = 16 figures.

The most ‘active’ figure is Via (the Way), which looks like this:
   x
   x
   x
   x

The most ‘passive’ figure is Populus (the People):
x    x
x    x
x    x
x    x

And this is Caput Draconis:
x    x
   x
   x
   x

This figure, Wikipedia tells us, is generally neutral, but fortunate with starting or beginning new things – such as a Hogwarts education. But there are stronger indications that Rowling was making a reference to geomancy. For one thing, Fortuna Major is one of the 16 figures and also functions as a Gryffindor password at some point.

Then there is an reversed pair of Albus (‘white’) and Rubeus (‘red’), which Harry Potter readers cannot fail to recognize as the first names of Dumbledore and Hagrid. The figures resemble, respectively, an upright and an overturned goblet. Albus stands for ‘peace, wisdom and purity’, and while the disagreeable elements of Rubeus have been excised from Hagrid’s character, it still refers to ‘good in all that is evil, and evil in all that is good’ (like a good heart in a fierce and towering appearance, seeing the spirited beauty in dangerous creatures, and unmasking overly smooth politeness?).

Anyhow, given the plurality of interpretations possible in any literary work, I’ll just stick with my own reading while acknowledging a potential tension with the mind of the human author.

P.S. I skimmed the Geomancy article on Wikipedia, which describes the formation of any chart of geomantic figures. The first four of these are random, or ‘inspired’ (take your pick); the other figures are computed from the first four. Thus one ultimately arrives at a chart of sixteen figures; or sometimes fifteen, in these troublous times, for so the section concludes:

A sixteenth figure, the Reconciler or superiudex, is also generated by adding the Judge and the First Mother, although this has become seen as extraneous and a ‘backup figure’ in recent times.

Who could have believed that the Judge and the First Mother would generate the Reconciler?