Life after Epiphany

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2468946This past week in Australia has seen public outcry at the fact that the newly announced cabinet includes only one woman. Whilst I will plainly state my opinion that this is a cosmetic and transparently partisan complaint of little substance, given that our leadership should entirely be selected on capability and merit rather than meaningless gender quotas, I do not want to get stuck on this point. Rather, I would like to acknowledge that the vocation of woman is different to the vocation of man, and I would like to explore one aspect of this vocation of woman.

Now before the radical feminists of the world get all up in arms let me be very clear: I am NOT saying that there is not a role for women to play in leadership or government in this day and age. Absolutely not. There is overlap between the roles of women and men, but there are also characteristics of serving the Lord and building up the Church that tend to be unique to femininity and masculinity. I would envisage women as leaders to fall within the overlap, but perhaps a woman’s style of leadership might then veer into the area of what is unique to femininity.


Fr. Gerald Vann OP, in a book that is a personal favourite of mine, Heart of Compassion: The Vocation of Woman Today, appeals to the teaching of St. Paul in the Mystical Body of Christ and its composition comprising many different parts with different roles (1 Cor 12:21). He tells us that we will not achieve the freedom and dignity of woman by trying to make her a man – and then goes on to examine some of the ways in which the differences are complimentary. His underlying thesis appears to be that the woman’s contribution is ESSENTIAL to the success of the masculine vocation, and that the masculine vocation helps to give meaning or context to the feminine vocation.

After an examination on a generic level, Fr. Vann moves to a detailed exploration of the ‘Vocation of Tears’ that I found very striking… and moving. It is of course fitting that he establishes the Blessed Mother as the exemplar of a feminine vocation well-lived… she who kept all things and pondered them in her heart.

stMarysCathedralMAR2013 021What a precious gift, that the woman is, by nature, receptive and contemplative! Pondering deeply will almost always entail some kind of personal response, and often this is one of compassion. Maternity, whether biological or spiritual, requires compassion, and the Mother of Sorrow, depicted in the pieta holding her precious Son, teaches us trust during despair and courage in the face of suffering.

“We cannot think adequately of woman’s vocation within the Mystical Body of Christ without thinking of the mystery of vicarious suffering and expiation”

~ Fr. Gerald Vann OP (p70, Heart of Compassion)

Fr. Vann further illustrates with a look at St. Monica, quiet and patient over many years weeping and crying out to the Lord on behalf of her son, St. Augustine. He tells us that St. Monica would take part in the philosophical discussions that were involved in St. Augustine’s catechetical preparation for Baptism, but emphasised that the conversion came much earlier, a movement of the Spirit in St. Augustine’s life, an answer to prayer… the fruit of tears, not words.

“We are concerned with the tears that express a deep feeling of responsibility in the sight of God, that are themselves a prayer and a sacrifice to God, and that are part of the vocation of Christian motherhood because the love of the son who causes them is in itself an aspect of the love of God. It is tears such as these that can be the channel of saving grace; it is the children of tears such as these who cannot perish.”

~ Fr. Gerald Vann OP (p72, Heart of Compassion)

Fr. Vann exhorts women to learn to pray the De Profundis, i.e. Psalm 129 (130), on behalf of humankind, and in so doing, to unite our very prayer life with the one efficacious sacrifice made by Jesus on the Cross. If we look around us, we see so many reasons to despair, so many reasons to weep. Our tears, though, are not tears of despair. Our tears are fundamentally an expression of hope, hope in the love and mercy of the Father who keeps His promise to His children.


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A Shakespearean prankster and a stubborn Egyptian dead guy… the importance of the little choices we make

Harmless mischief, the little white lie, the throwaway hurtful comment… such little things really. Really?

Iago certainly thought so.

“An old black ram is tupping your white ewe.” Crass? Yes. But boys will be boys, right?

That is where it started. Later in Shakespeare’s play Othello, through a chain of choices that each represent only small increments of movement away from respectability, we see that that Iago has been drawn into something over which he no longer has full control. His agency has been compromised. His mischief has escalated beyond the category of harmless prank and entered the realms of the sinister… and as one watches the play unfold, one very much gets the impression that Iago is less and less free to choose a way out of his pattern of increasingly destructive behaviour – through circumstances that he himself orchestrated. The consequences of his earlier choices limit his options in later choices. Whilst his evil was not originally intended, it was still originally chosen.

choicesJumping back into the ancient text of Exodus, we see a similar scenario. Have  you ever read or listened to the passage about the famous showdown between Moses and Pharaoh, where God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and thought that something didn’t quite add up?

After all, if God was hardening Pharaoh’s heart, wasn’t He forcing his hand, limiting his freedom? Perhaps, had not Pharaoh’s heart been hardened by forces beyond his control, he would have made a more merciful and reasonable choice and allowed the Israelites to go free without the need for all of those firstborn sons to die?

Ah… but look at the passage again. God did not “interfere” by hardening Pharaoh’s heart until he had already stubbornly refused to let the Israelites go on several occasions. Each time Pharaoh chose against the good, the just, the merciful – he influenced his own future and limited his own agency. God, in hardening the heart of the Pharaoh, was simply allowing the consequences of Pharaoh’s own earlier choices to come to fruition.

WE CHANGE WHO WE ARE with EVERY choice that we make, however small.

In our choices we could be constructing for ourselves a prison of our own making, or we could be slowly getting better at identifying and selecting the good.

Never give up the struggle to choose the good in the decision you have before you in the present moment. There is ALWAYS grace in the present moment, that precious help from God, to do as He would have you do.

Be encouraged! You may have made choices you regret in the past – no matter! By consistently responding to God’s grace – fighting against the attraction to the easy-to-attain compromises and by persevering in the struggle to choose good, you will slowly but surely develop a predisposition, a habit in choosing good – virtue! Over time, doing good becomes more a reflex action – muscle memory of the will, so to speak. Now THAT is freedom!

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The telos of beauty

Beauty – that transcendental, objective reality – should raise the mind to the Author of beauty. We should find His vestige in all things beautiful, and we should offer it back to Him in thanksgiving. 

This imprint of the Creator in all things beautiful – this is a form of self-gift. This is just another way in which God gives Himself to us. When we allow ourselves to be moved – when we allow our minds and our attention to be elevated and directed to Him – THIS is the manner in which we give ourselves back to Him. This mutual self-gift, rather like a marriage, gives birth. The fruit born of this marriage is thanksgiving, and the act of thanksgiving shapes our capacity to further behold beauty – thus the cycle of giving starts again. What is the telos of beauty? It is this – the wedding of humanity to God through the contemplation of His gratuitous love for us. We could call it communion – the answer to the prayer of Jesus during the Last Supper discourse in John’s Gospel where He prayed that all might be one in Him. The telos of beauty is indeed beautiful in its own right!


Art was once the bastion of beauty, the stronghold of the sublime. Now, the castle has been stormed and the vestige of the Creator that exists in the work of our hands has become obscured and difficult to distinguish.

All this at the hands of a defeatist phenomenon existing in the world today known as the cult of ugliness – a movement in active pursuit of the subversion of beauty.

Defeatist seems an odd descriptor, you say?

I stand by it. I propose that the cult of ugliness is a defeatist movement because I believe that it is born of a sense of inadequacy surrounding one’s ability to truly uplift, to contribute to the further generation of beautiful works and artefacts. In such a mindset, the only way to make a name for oneself in the world of art is to move the goal posts, to set a different benchmark of greatness. To be successful in art whilst working within the transcendental reality of beauty, one is required to be truly excellent, truly unique. One must have more than just a sense of the aesthetic, more than a yearning for self-expression. One must actually have elite artistic ability with one’s chosen medium and one must be able to unite this talent with both desire and capacity for expression. Taking it a step further, this unity of talent and articulation must be wedded to some participation in the otherworldly for the resultant artwork to truly move its beholder, to truly uplift an audience.

Our natural human desire to create is itself a vestige of our Creator. We know that unlike Him, we cannot create ex nihilo and so it is perhaps more appropriate rather to suggest that in art, we innovate. Whether our art is music composition or performance, whether it is sculpture or painting or calligraphy or architecture or any other form – we draw together in a unique combination of things that already exist – that which we have already seen, that which we know; then we add a little of ourselves to present in turn something different, something new. We work with established techniques and paradigms and we add our experience and worldview.

In the cult of ugliness, the ‘artist’ is defeated by this task before he begins. He is intimidated by the beauty he has perceived and his own inadequacy as an artist alongside another’s greatness. His response is to innovate through shock and he knows that to shock he must maim. He torments beauty, he teases it and turns it on its head. He produces something that runs away from beauty in much the same way as an angst-affected adolescent runs away from parental constraint, moving out of home before he is truly ready. Thus ’emancipated’ he spirals downward as he experiments with forms and subjects that are not objectively good. Perhaps short-term satisfaction is achieved, but ultimately good is not served because the sense of final direction, of purpose, is lost in a sea of endless possibilities. Such an artist thinks himself free; rather, he is imprisoned by the self-lie of his inadequacy.

This very cult of ugliness has infiltrated the realms of Sacred music, Sacred art and Church architecture. It can’t be questioned – one glance at Parramatta’s award-winning Cathedral “restoration” will confirm my claim. The case can be strengthened by one visit to the average youth Mass where one hears music in which the compositional priority is to comply with the constraints of a certain sub-culture; it almost seems that glorifying the Lord with the music is just an incidental thing.cathedralinside

This cult of ugliness has penetrated our defences – but the most devastating result of this is NOT the absence of beauty that COULD and SHOULD be present. That alone is a loss to the community, but the real travesty is the DIVISION that this has caused.

tabernacleopenparraI still attend Mass at the Parramatta Cathedral, because Our Lord resides there in the Tabernacle, even if the Tabernacle DOES look like Calel’s escape shuttle from Superman IV. I still attend Masses with sub-standard music when something more preferable isn’t available and I will sing along with a wholehearted intent to praise the Lord. I would rather sing the Ave Verum than One Bread, One Body but I will sing the latter when that is being sung because even when it DOESN’T feel like it, the reality of the Mass is that it is a participation in the Heavenly Wedding Banquet.

A few thoughts, then, on how we can assess whether art is suited to a Sacred purpose:

Sacred art should make the heart skip a beat for the original Artistan.

Sacred art should draw us closer to the Sacred Heart.

Sacred art should NOT be divisive.

Sacred art should NOT massacre the notion of beauty.

Our response to Sacred art, and our cultivation of it, should be ordered toward an authentic Communion with God AND His Church – a participation in the Divine Marriage to which we are all called.

Only thus will the telos of beauty be realised.

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subverting shame – a symbol of love


Crucifix laid out for Good Friday veneration.

 Shame is a lie.

Likewise, discouragement is a device of the evil one and must be seen for the deception it is.

Shame is our instinctive response to an internal acknowledgement of inadequacy or wrongdoing. Discouragement is a response to an awareness of shame. A spiral of lies.

Before Jesus shouldered our sin upon Himself and died to reconcile the world to Himself, the cross was the instrument of the most shameful death in society. Crucifixion was the execution of choice for criminals and agitators; there was nothing dignified nor heroic about it.

Setting humanity straight in more ways than one, Jesus subverts everything we think we know about the world. The Cross had no power over the Creator of its makers, nor the nails over the Lord of the man who hammered them into place.

A friend of mine wrote a wonderful song, a reflection on this very point. Her song was called “Not by Nails” and it speaks of the Love which held Our Saviour to the Cross. God is love, and Jesus is God. Jesus was physically nailed to the Cross but it was Jesus’ own choice to be bound by that physical reality. Love and obedience carried the day. Jesus did the Will of His Father out of such a pure, personal, particular and preferential love for you, for me, for each individual that ever has or ever will live that we can’t even begin to fathom it.

Horror is juxtaposed with beauty. That Holy Face which was Transfigured has, for a time, become disfigured. (Pope John Paul II writes eloquently on this reality in Vita Consecrata.)

As a child, I understood on some level my complicity in Christ’s death, but rather than solemnly contemplate in silent gratitude the gift of our salvation and the means by which it was wrought, I used to get very upset about the brutal way in which Jesus was executed. It took some time before I started to learn that love was more than a feeling. Love is a choice. Love is the choice symbolized by the Cross.

Before Jesus died for us, shame was the only appropriate response to sinfulness and inadequacy. In dying, Christ won for us the freedom to choose between  continuing to dwell in that shame, or a radically different response: love… and the trust and the gratitude that go along with it. I no longer look to myself and my weakness. Yes – my weakness is there… but I’m not scandalized, I’m not ashamed. No… I no longer look to myself. I have Christ ahead of me and I choose to look to Him, to He who is Love.

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feeling emotions vs. harboring bitterness

glowingCrucifixVarovilleThere are two major differences that I think are immediately observable between “feeling what you’re feeling when you’re feeling it” and “harboring bitterness”:

  1. Freedom
  2. Love

Feeling in its first instance is a passive act and is a morally neutral act. Essentially it involves the apprehension of some aspect of an external reality through the senses (whether external/physically or internal/emotionally.) Using a Thomistic benchmark, it does not yet even qualify as a “human act”; a non-rational being with a sensitive soul is capable of this act.

The human response to this initial sensation is where the will is first employed.

As far as I can see, in the case where someone causes a situation whereby the reality is apprehended and interpreted as emotional pain, a few things happen:

  • There is an awareness of the unpleasant sensation of pain.
  • Then there is an attempt to ascertain the cause of the pain… and the selection of an appropriate response.

Depending on the extent to which this causal chain is followed back, this is often where the wheels come off the cart. If the attempt stops at “person x did action y” then there is no major problem here. But if the attempt proceeds further back to “person x did action y because of cause z” then we’re in trouble. Attributing motives to anyone is a dangerous exercise… the suspected motives may or may not correspond with reality and the mere perception of mal-intent is enough to arouse some degree of anger or one of its variants – e.g. indignation, regardless of the actuality.Having said that, at this point, even considering the possibility of mal-intent and experiencing a sensation of anger is natural (albeit irrational, given that intention is still unknown) and this in itself has not reached a stage where “harbouring bitterness” is a problem.

When a person starts to turn the situation over one’s mind and replay it, seeking more and more to understand the cause, something for which there is inadequate data, one sets oneself in a pattern of repeated sensation and then emotional response. To attempt to ascertain a motive with inadequate data is a futile exercise and as such the person is no longer operating in a rational way.

1. Freedom

This irrational, cyclical pattern establishes a slavery of sorts. It’s a slavery to the desire to know a question to which the answer is unavailable. It’s also a slavery to an emotional response to supposition rather than reality. If the irrational nature of the internal behaviour was demonstrated to you, and you were free to break out of the cycle, you would. Your will can only choose what your intellect paints as the good. The problem is, you’re not free. You impede your sight by the compounding of the emotional response and your ability to correctly apprehend reality is hampered. Since you cannot apprehend reality correctly, your intellect has incomplete or incorrect information. Therefore it cannot correctly inform the will. Obviously its not as linear as this in reality, but this is an approximation of what’s going on.

FEELING precedes the response. Feeling allows for freedom, because it is a morally neutral act, but the subsequent acts that take on a moral value are as yet undetermined.

Bitterness, or resentment, has a moral value. It is an act subsequent to the feeling. (And, not subscribing to post hoc ergo propter hoc, there is no assigning a necessary causal link between feeling and responding with bitterness/resentment. ) In reality, I believe that bitterness/resentment is caused by the cyclical pattern of behaviour that I have outlined above. So there is an act (or many) between initial feeling and the resultant bitterness, and this/these has/have moral value too. As far as I can see, bitterness/resentment could be characterised by the simple act of allowing this cyclical pattern to continue. Allowing slavery to continue.

FEELING doesn’t impede freedom. Bitterness does.

2. Love

OK – so at this point, out comes the obvious Scriptural description of some of the characteristics of love:

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

(1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

And so we’re positioned for a syllogism:
1. Love is not resentful. (1 Cor 13:5)
2. A thing can’t be and not be at the same time.
(Aristotle, Metaphysics Book 11 Part 5)
conclusion: Therefore love and resentment are mutually
exclusive realities. (1 + 2 really does = 3!!)

This means If one performs an act that is characterised by love, then it is not characterised by resentment. The converse is also true.
Given that the Great Commandment is an injunction to love, then love is the due good of any act. Given that resentment is tantamount to an absence of love, it is an absence of the due good, i.e. evil. Bitterness/resentment is, quite simply, a sin against charity.

therefore… note to self!!

Analysing a scenario where someone has hurt me is normal. Working through what happened and testing various different possibilities (even on the level of motives) is normal. In most cases it is not possible to know what the other’s motives are, so once possibilities have been tested, to continue to wonder is futile. It creates the risk of bitterness/resentment – an occasion for sin.

Replaying events and causes and motives – this is to be avoided. Having considered all data and seen that insufficient data exists to draw a rational conclusion, the only course of action is to LEAVE IT, to embrace it as God’s Will, to see that whatever the circumstances, God has allowed this to happen in His Providence for my ultimate good. Any other perpetrators/agents involved need to be disregarded. This is how God wills the situation to be, and I seek to do His Will in all things.

As for FEELING it – that’s fine. To feel it, to suffer it in union with Him – that is profoundly human. Whatever it is – well its bound to be such a little thing, really, in the context of His Cross.

Best thing to do is to THANK Him for this opportunity to suffer for Him even in a small way, and then to move on, to choose to leave the past in the past, and to live in the present moment.

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‘saving’ Kierkegaard… looking for truth in his dialectical approach to freedom

Some time ago, when I first read Søren Kierkegaard in anything more than a passing way, I have to admit I got pretty worked up on his behalf. His personal story was somewhat tragic, and the confusion in his texts did little to comfort me that he ever found peace or fulfilment. Not surprising, really, that he writes so extensively on despair. As I explored some of his work, it struck me that he really seemed so sincere… in a Kantian duty-driven kind of way.

My grand plan was to pray for the repose of his soul, freed now from his “sickness unto death”, not so much “in fear and trembling” as in the hope that he could finally rest in peace. I proceeded to look for an opportunity for a plenary indulgence to be offered for him. I got all excited and was encouraging those with whom I lived to adopt for themselves a messed-up philosopher and to gain a plenary indulgence to be applied to him. My reasoning was this: these people who have done so much damage to the world through their contribution to Western thought – if they got to Heaven, could you imagine how fervently they would be interceding for us in an effort to mitigate the disaster their work could have caused?! Perhaps it all sounds a little silly, but that’s just where my mind went.

I have to admit my genuine (yet surprising) sympathy for this confused man motivates me to attempt to find SOME truth, however little of it exists, amidst the mess of fear and insecurity and lovelessness by which his work is characterised.

Something that really climbed inside my head and asked me to explore it was Kierkegaard’s dialectical notion of ‘self.’ Kierkegaard defines self most deliberately at the commencement of his work The Sickness Unto Death:

The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation relating itself to itself in the relation. The self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is… in short, a synthesis.

What seems at first glance like confused rambling is really a sophisticated presentation of a reflexive locus of self-relating between self as it is (S1) and self as it will be (S2) which is synthesized in the very process of becoming. (No, don’t get excited Whitehead. Heel, Hartshorne! I am NOT a proponent for process philosophy… not indiscriminately, anyway, and certainly NOT applied to God. Now THERE is something to post about at a later date!!) So let us consider moving from S1 to S2, where at the next point in time S2 becomes S1a seeking to move to S2a which then in turn becomes S1b, etc.

Among the several different lenses through which Kierkegaard explores this notion of self, one in particular really took hold of my interest; Kierkegaard proposes the dialectic of thesis: possibility and antithesis: necessity, arriving at the synthesis freedom. If we substitute these values into Kierkegaard’s “formula” for self (above), we see movement from necessityS1 to possibilityS2, which having been exercised, becomes necessityS1a, that is, the necessity of the self at the next given moment. Freedom within this scheme, therefore, constitutes this continuous movement through time from necessity to possibility.

Before jumping in and exploring his views on necessity and possibility in any depth, its helpful perhaps to establish a benchmark against which we can test what Kierkegaard tells us. A slightly Thomistic vein of thought is helpful here. A true conception of freedom is ordered toward the ultimate good of the self. The ultimate good of self surely consists in the attainment of its final cause, which is to be itself in the presence of God. In the process of attaining this final cause, freedom is the ability to exercise the will, informed by a judgment of the will and with the agreement of the appetite (c.f. Summa Theologiae Ia Q.83 a.3) An obvious impediment to freedom would be coercion; a less obvious impediment may be ignorance of the good – how can one choose what one does not know?

Now Kierkegaard astutely observes that to be spoiled for choice is not freedom. This overemphasis on possibility – to be able to arbitrarily choose anything without any sense of necessity, is actually an impediment to freedom. It causes stagnation on the cusp of decision, and the movement from possibility to necessity ceases. (Incidentally it is interesting to note the similarity between what I have called here “stagnation on the cusp of decision” and what Camus calls “living life at the crossroads”… is the existentialist ever truly free?) At any rate, I feel compelled to interpret Kierkegaard’s position here as a claim that to operate on this plane is to abuse one’s imagination. The use of the imagination involves drawing self out of self in most cases to be another self for a period of time. From an opportunity cost perspective, excesses of this can be dangerous – all that time in possibility is unable to then be spent in actuality. Living thus in the imagination rather than in reality is an impediment to the attainment of the ultimate good for it represents ignorance of the good.

Likewise, “our hero” realizes that to overemphasize necessity results in either determinism or fatalism… ultimately, in the absence of hope. The trajectory of the determinist is fixed upon necessity and never moves back to possibility. The fatalist has no God, or perhaps more accurately, necessity itself functions as the god of the fatalist. There is no room for possibility here – therefore no room for choice and no context for freedom. Kierkegaard asserts that such people are “bereft of imagination” and as such are unable to engage in the activity described above that Kierkegaard calls “healthy functioning of self”. Essentially this exaggeration of necessity constitutes a subtle form of coercion and as such is clearly an impediment to freedom.

Testing against the benchmark established earlier, we can see that both of these discussions of what Kierkegaard claims freedom is not are, in themselves, accurate. His negative doctrine of freedom appears sound.

The positive claims Kierkegaard makes concerning what freedom is are more complicated to test, and I’ve run out of time for now. I am glad, however, that I was able to find some truth in amidst the confusion, even if it resides only in his negative doctrine!!