Prayer of the Heart

JMJ

THE WAY OF A PILGRIM is a classic text of 19th Century Russian Orthodox spirituality, carrying forward the tradition of the Jesus Prayer or “the prayer of the heart”. I read the text once, as a new convert to Orthodoxy, because that’s what you do, but I was troubled by many words that seemed to be too newagey for me. They were very triggering for me – since I have a past in that world. What got me was talk about “unifying the heart and the mind”. This sounds (for those with the same history) like certain exercises in Western esotericism. So, on the advice of a wise priest, I didn’t go there. There’s enough in Orthodoxy – indeed in Catholicism as well – that one needn’t get trapped by one or another spiritual practice.

Recently, reading a book for my class in Old Testament, I came across this line:

To an ancient, the brain had no thinking role; it ran the senses of hearing and seeing and smelling. The heart did the thinking, and the kidneys gave the emotional feelings of joy, fear, and sorrow.

Reading the Old Testament, An Introduction, 2nd Ed.
by Lawrence Boadt, Paulist Press, 2012

I’ve been wondering what it felt like to “think in the heart”. I seem to naturally “hear” my thinking voice in my head, between my ears, in my brain. Working on the assumption that there’s no reason – at all – for that voice to located in any one part of our bodies, it seems that it’s set there by social construction: a child is told things from birth about where feelings and thinking (etc) happen inside and so it seems to be true.

Now, here this passage from A Way of A Pilgrim:

He opened the book, found the instruction by St. Simeon the new theologian, and read: ” ‘Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently, and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.'”

Translation from Russian by R.M. French

You see that that the writer is quoting St Simeon, a writer from the 10th Century. It’s certainly not newage stuff, but, as I mentioned, such language is used in that world too. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. Such language is quite common in both eastern and western religious traditions. Is is possible that this quest to put the “thoughts” in your heart is, in fact, an attempt to return to the way things were in the past when we all “knew” the heart was were thinking was? In other words, is this ancient and common spiritual practice a way to fix something that went wrong when we let the brain take over the thinking voice? There seems to be some sort of human awareness that this is broken.

The modern world seems to live in data and head-space, as if to say the heart is meaningless (except for “love” by which they mean gushy feelings and sexual pleasure). I have no further thoughts on this at the present time. It seems, though, as if the spiritual traditions of the world only “work” if the heart is doing the thinking.

In the Glory of the Cross

JMJ

FROM the Office of Readings for the Blessed Virgin Mary on Saturday:

The cross is our trophy raised against the demons, our sword against sin and the sword Christ used to pierce the serpent. The cross is the Father’s will, the glory of the only-begotten, the joy of the Spirit, the pride of the angels, the guarantee of the Church, Paul’s boast, the bulwark of the saints, and the light of the entire world.
– St John Chrysostom

It’s not only Jesus’ cross of which he speaks! Each of us have a cross to bear, our trophy against demons, our sword against sin. It is the Sword (of our lives) that Christ uses to pierce the serpent.

This Cross – which is pain and sorrow for us, which is different for each of us, which may be a “thorn in the flesh”, an addiction to sin, a sexual temptation, or a disordered affection, or a disease – this cross is the Father’s will, the glory of Christ, the joy of the Spirit, the pride of the Angels, the guarantee of the Church, our own boast, the bulwark of the saints, and the light of the entire world… if we but let God use it as he would.

Mediation… and you

JMJ

At the end of Messiah Handel composed a four minute long Amen that fugues its way through some classic baroque forms and progression ending, finally, with five very firm Amens presented as 3 and 2, with a break of four beats in total silence between them. Listening to the entire piece, it seems that silence is exactly the purpose of the last two hours. There is a chill of eternity in the silence and the slide of angels’ wings. I see the Dore engraving which heads this post: a silent swirl around the Divine Majesty.

We stand in that silent swirl at Mass and we discover it’s not silent: for the entirety of it sings continually, Sanctus! Sanctus! Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth! The hymn continually unites us to the one place, the one time, the one moment: the eternal now of what Dante called the White Rose of Paradise. We might, these days with our eastern overlap, think of it more as a lotus and we would not be wrong. The ancient Hindu geometric figures convey the same thing imagery of many-petaled forms around an all-embracing center. Recently in a discussion of this flower formed around the All-Holy Trinity in Dante, it was asked why everyone wasn’t rushing to the center: let me get in there! But, of course, that’s thinking as humans do. In submission to the will of God and yielding place to the others in the dance, one arrives exactly at the place where one should be. No location further in is desired or needed and to move out of place in the dance would be a sin. What, though, is the purpose of the dance?

Think of a prism, how light pours in on one side and is refracted out from another side. While never denying that God cannot reach eternity and infinity, being everywhere present and filling all things, he gives us that omnipresence and filling to reach ever more hearts drawing them in. God is the ground of being so each individual that participates in the act of being mediates God’s presence. For man, made in the image and likeness of God, our being is rooted in God and our hearts can contemplate the logoi or “words” in present in all created beings because we, too, through Baptism and the Church, participate in the Logos as God the Son is incarnate in human nature, restoring us to our place in the dance. We become the prism(s) through which the light is refracted to others around us. We are the way grace is actualized in the hearts of those around us (that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven).

The Saints mediate this light to us, and the Church does so through the Sacraments: each one being a moment in time that is an actualization of the one eternity intersecting with us here. But that intersection pierces all of time: as the Incarnation is the presence of God in time, so now, the Son of God is the presence of humanity in Eternity. Each offering of the Mass is the one perpetual offering of the Son to the Father on the Cross by the Son. The Church is the Body of Christ offering himself to the Father though all of time.

This perpetual act of mediation frames literally everything the Christian does: God is in direct contact with everyone, but in his grace and in his humility, he is pleased to use everyone in mediation of this direct contact. It is no less direct here, for as the Consecrated Bread of the Eucharist is actually God so is his presence through mediation in your life and the life of those around you.

Let us close by returning to Handel and the silent, eternal song of Sanctus! Even music, well done, shares in this act of mediation: for we are creators like Our Heavenly Father, in whose likeness we share. Our creations, too, can serve as points of divine mediation. God can be present in the things we make, celebrating his glory even when not intended as such. This is why we can read the Gospel in E.T. as easily as in the Narnia stories. True acts of creation are, themselves, mediations of the one creator. Handel is reported to have composed the Messiah in 24 days and when he left his writing desk he is said to have exclaimed, “God has visited me.” Anyone who feels this in the music, or who sees it in the beauty of art or a building, or even in the beauty of another person, can confirm that God is present. For him who can read the signs, the same is true in mathematical code, or textual composition. As God is creator so are we and as we are ravished by beauty, so is he to give it to us by our own hands.

Danse Macabre 2021

JMJ

ALL HALLOWS EVE enchanted dark
A stroll I took in chill
To see the children on their lark
And thus a pipe to kill

The sunset orange watching pass
And night on coming strong
When deep from Mission hill and grass
I heard a haunted song

Then followed I this tunèd curse
Until I found the source
And deep beneath Dolores firs
I saw a morbid course

And dancing came the doomèd mob
In pairs of flesh and bone
A line was paced to plaintive sob
And cold as chiseled stone

Now though I thought in fright to flee
Before my feet would fly
Their rhythm’d steps came round me
That each might pass me by

And silent were the corpses all
But skeletons well said
Without the breath or fleshy pall
Upon their bony head

They spoke addressing me by name
Well done to find us here
And will you make our chorus fame
In gruesome verse appear?

I nodded silent as I typed
In thumbs upon my screen
unbidden verse my phone had striped
In pixeled eerie sheen

The first pair came in courtly swirl
And round me then to go
The bone man led a regal girl
Whose years made dancing slow

An empress grand she ruled the globe
A century bears her mark
Now unamused in weeds her robe
Death has a Victory stark

The second pair now came aside
In black and white a boy
The bones and he hob’d horses stride
With a candle as a toy

At altar knelt he near the south
And well he served the priest
But now for prayers he has no mouth
We take both great and least

The third pair came a man in suit
With marching hails the chief
and wearing chains of free world’s loot
The leader of their grief

We get them all said clacking jaw
In top hat or in none
No leader yet the world has saw
Who has this dance not done

And next there came in sleeves o’er long
A song book in her hand
The lead soprano with her song
And shin bones for her band

Her voice oft piped on eagles wings
Her hands on guitar strummed
But deeply buried gravèd things
Like songs have her made dumb

Antifa dancèd by my side
With Patriot Prayers in tow
Their axes choppèd each their hide
An eternity of woe

One skeleton prancèd by their side
The two had but one soul
Eternally now matèd they
And in one space they troll

Up next came an boy with bat
A beard and muscles slack
The dodger blue upon his hat
Was fading now to black

In leaving Brooklyn bone man said
The team betray’d their home
And round the world the cursèd dead
as traitors made to roam

A priest came next his back to me
His robes array’d for Mass
In Dance his face I n’er did see
Tho him did thrice me pass

His liturgy was drama trim
The showman ever play’d
And so in death his penance grim
His face away is staid

A cardinal with Capitol
Was turning on the ground
The skeletons would take their tole
As each his body found

A tech bro came: lyft, scooter, vape
And options like the dew
the ghosts of startups round him drape
and dreams are all askew

A data science preacher stood
behind her keyboard dark
with graphs and charts both mighty good
Predicting earnings dark

But prophets cannot profits tell
An ivory dancer said
And Mammon leaves one strait to, well…
It’s just enough she’s dead

An Abbot tall with croizer’d hand
was further down the queue
As bones did by him stand
like all the others too

A Jesuit came down the pike
Accompanying his charge
No heresy he didn’t like
His tent was mighty large

A politician found her mark
and made a Arabesque
So firm her planks her promise, hark!
To voters now address’d

A crowd came next in mournful band
Unmaskèd in the park
Unwilling now they hold death’s hand
Weeping in the dark

Another crowd then by me danced
their arms withal unshot
at common good they looked askance
and now in death are hot

And sovereign citizens arose
to proudly strut their stuff
no rights will their death oppose
the demons call their bluff

And then a greater crowd there came
Not was mask’d or led
but of their own will they came
to fall among the dead

Then Death herself the reaper grim
astride the path did stand
and all around her rais’d a hymn
this morbid bony band

We get them all We slay them all
And none can say us nay
We wake them all we take them all
as night ore-takes the day

And last alone some lonely bone
said to a novice sent
Tis I, I said and dropped this phone
and dancing off we went

Sorrowful Mysteries of Virtue

JMJ

DURING THE SPIRITUAL STRUGGLE (ascesis, podvig, jihad) to acquire the virtues there are three opponents that must be defeated: the world, the flesh, and the devil. In the course of this battle, the self is also conquered, but it cannot be so until the other three are defeated. Of course none of these can be defeated without the help of the graces offered by Our Lord in his Church and through the intercession of our brothers and sisters, especially the saints – especially the All Holy Theotokos and Blessed Virgin, Mary. Our Lady has offered many weapons to her knights in this crusade, most especially the Rosary. By way of meditation, here are the Sorrowful Mysteries considered as part of this battle.

This comes as a meditation and prayer for those who are working in the Courage Apostolate, but it may be of use for others.

I

In the Garden we struggle to understand what is happening. In the Dark Night we have to discern the three enemies and beg God’s grace to fight them. The death of what we think or imagine to be ourself is upon us. We must learn to see the false self, also, as an enemy. In fact we are called to slay this shadow before we can even offer our own gifts upon the altar. This will be the first (but not final) sacrifice. We must ask for courage, yes, and we must also accept the humility of obedience. Not my will, but thine be done.

II

At the pillar we face the Devil: who presents us with our own desires, memories, cravings. By the impiety of our straying he has power over us. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it: …we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. In the course of all that we have have seared our conscience and can only hear the whisperings of evil. All that we thought (previously) as “good” we must discard. What we face is the lashings of our addictions, the chemical imbalances we have created in our own brains by our actions. Eventually, as mentioned, we realize this means even our own ideas of who we are and what we have become. We must let these false goods die so that the real good may rise.

Of course the three things against which we struggle are never present alone. If one is there the other two are near. If one feels strongest the other two are just waiting to tag in. And so the world and the flesh are here as well. For what we have learned is engraved in our flesh and what we have learned we have learned from the world.

III

Under the Crown of Thorns we face the World and most especially we face the mockery of the world. In some cases we may be blessed to suffer actual persecution, but mostly mockery. We may suffer the relatively gentle mockery of allurements, or the fierce mockery of former compatriots in our sins. We may find our brows bleeding from the smiting of coworkers who reject us. We may feel the spittle of angry political opponents.

Most especially, we may find our hearts wounded by fellow Catholics who, rejecting Church teaching, try to lead us astray. We must offer this mystery especially for these who often defend our sins as cover for theirs or, perhaps, they feel they are doing a favor by “speaking out” when they are only speaking the voice of the World and not the Church and the heart of Christ bleeds for them too.

The devil tempts us all in our weakness and our flesh more but increasingly less willingly caves in. We find ourselves continually trapped in a three-way battle over ourselves.

IV

At the last carrying the cross we face the Flesh but always, really, we fight on all three fronts continually. Here, at last, though the victory is won in patience. We must learn to only keep going, to only just carry on. Here, no fall is too great as long as we only get up again and keep on keeping on. The flesh becomes stronger in virtue as its vices are weakened. Here each time we lift the cross again, it rises easier and easier. Yes, we must still die on it, yes that final sacrifice is coming, but here we are being prepared to make that offering.

The devil calls us back to our flesh. The world says Don’t leave me. Schylla and Charibdis seek to destroy us, but only keep on, one foot in front of the other. In the end the victory is death. But it is glorious.

V

The triumph is the Crucifixion. We have finally destroyed all our false selves. Now, at last, we can be crucified. For to crucify something false is to offer strange fire. Here at last is the final victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil. Death removes us from their power struggle. Death also opens us to God. Every little death is a prefiguring of this final sacrifice. Every little death takes us farther from them until at last we can be entirely God’s own. It is possible in life even for if you die before you die then when you die you will not die. But for most this death continues after death until, at last purged of all death, we can live, finally.

Bicameral Minds on Perelandra

JMJ

Julian Jaynes’ epic 1976 work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind argues that the human mind had a major evolutionary change as recently as 3,000 years ago: that the left and right brains used to talk to each other and that this conversation could be perceived as an external voice, as the voice of God. This stoped about 1,000 Before the Christian Era. Jaynes suggests this is the real origin of all religion – the human brain talking to itself. He further posits that the evolutionary opening-up of this conversation (so that it became more unified) resulted in our modern mind – the way our “internal conversation” is all “internal”. Except in cases of certain mental illnesses, we don’t think of or experience the various voices in our head as anything but our own consciousness. The change 3,000 years ago left us hungering for that directive voice in our head. This is a very cursory view of the theory, but the book is worth a read: it explores everything from Homer to the Hebrew Prophets and modern experiments. Perelandra, CS Lewis’ meditation on man, woman, and the fall, presents a different idea of this bicameral conversation in a prelapsarian culture on Venus. A man and a woman are situated by God (Whom Lewis named Maleldil) on a planetary Eden. A tempter and a defender are sent from Earth to mix things up. Ransom, the protector, encounters the Eve of Venus or the Lady, as she is called in the book, just in time to begin the battle with evil. The story plays out in a different way from our own Eden story. There’s much else to meditate on and there’s spoilers below this paragraph: if you’ve not read it you should – you may want to pass this post by. That said, though, we’re going to focus on the bicameral conversation and implications for our human, earthly faith.


As Ransom begins to interact with her he finds the Lady strange and somewhat childlike, even silly. She grows wiser, even as he watches! She seems to be constantly growing more mature. She is somehow plugged into the Holy Spirit in an active, two-way conversation. At times this conversation is very present, pulling her full attention away from whatever is before her. At other times the conversation is somehow under the surface, but it’s always available to her awareness but never intrusive. When Ransom says something about Earth or our history – forgetting that the Lady has never been to Earth – suddenly she understands. “Maleldil is telling me…” she says when he asks her how she knows. Maleldil tells her about space travel and Mars. Other things, which are deemed less important, Maleldil does not share with her even when she asks.

The Lady of Perelandra is fully engaged in what Jaynes would call a Bicameral Conversation- except it’s actually God she’s talking to. It can be somewhat frustrating for the reader: there’s no plot device that this ongoing conversation cannot trigger. Deus ex machina except it’s actually Deus himself, not a machine. You keep waiting for her to stop talking to Maleldil and to become an active part of the book. It’s as if there’s someone outside of the sphere of reality that is interfering with what could otherwise be an excellent book about good and evil, women and men. One keeps expecting her to pull out of the conversation or perhaps to grow up. Maybe later she will mature and God will let her stand on her own? But by the end of the book – when the evil has been destroyed and she has not fallen as our first parents did – the conversation is still going. She has become infinitely wiser and yet God still whispers in her ear.

Even reading the book several times, this conversation with someone offstage constantly annoyed this writer. Why was this character – and her husband as well – so immature, even at the end of the book when they were infinitely wiser? By “immature” here what is indicated is there’s a sense where the characters in this constant conversation with Maleldil have a sort of crutch in the mind of the reader: can she (later they) not make decisions on their own? Are they condemned to be children forever? Even when they are sitting on their thrones triumphant, Lord and Lady of their own world, Maleldil is whispering in their ears about what should be done next, about what choices can be made, about how to live. Even when the “good guy” makes choices he seems to be able to do so on his own without little whispers in his ear.

For our first session of class this semester, studying the Old Testament with Wendy Biale, we were asked to read the opening parts of God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology by Dominique Barthélemy, OP. In discussing Eve’s Fall, Barthélemy notes that “it seems to me to be neither at the moment when Eve began to doubt, nor when she committed the act, but when she left herself open to the fascination of the doubt, when she entertained the doubt. It was precisely then that she became responsible; at the moment when she began to dwell pleasurably on the eventuality, on that doubt which touched on the motive of the divine command, when she let her mind play with what the serpent suggested. It was not the fact of having heard, it was not the fact of having acted, it was the fact of having lent her ear willingly, of having reflected and dwelt on the possibility, of having as it were forgotten in that moment all her daily experience of God’s dealing with their lives, of God’s dealing with creation, and having preferred instead the most unlikely eventuality, which was at the same time the most terrifying: that she might be sport of God… There we have that fragile second when there is indeed still real liberty of choice and then, an instant later when there is liberty no longer. Although nothing has been done, one has toyed with and welcome the idea that it might possibly be done. And in this toying, the decisive element takes the form of a sort of crazy attraction to what is worst.” (Emphasis added.)

What Eve did was to push God away for a moment to think on her own to make up her own mind. She knew what the command was but, having embellished it on her own above and beyond God’s command to not-eat (we shouldn’t even touch it, she added) Eve takes the place of God in her own mind, “wait, maybe I have this wrong”. Sin occurs exactly in that moment where we say, “Everyone hush! (Including you, God…) Let me think for a moment.” In that moment of silence we seem to automatically drift to the worst possible reading.

Even in that moment of Eve thinking on her own – or attempting to – God was still there for the Word can never be silent, but Eve, having made the choice to pull out of the conversation, kept going. The end result was that her tuning device, if you will, could no longer pick up that station and neither can any of her children. Even for us, with the restorative grace of Baptism and continual fortification of the Sacraments, the channel is always just-slightly-enough out of tune. We pick up part of the conversation with care, and none with ease. And now our psychologists posit that the ability to do so, at all, is a sign of devolution at least if not outright mental illness.

So, for the modern or post-modern reading Lewis’ story now, the Lady seems forever childish precisely because we have no way of imagining what that ongoing conversation would be like. We may, for moments, tune in: hands held up in silent prayer and bliss before the exposed Eucharist, the joyful awe of the conception of our children, the peaceful bliss of Viaticum, but it seems painful to sustain, like a holiday that has gone on too long and we only want to get back to regular work just for the sheer normalcy of it all.

Is it possible to sustain it longer? Can we offer to God our on-going conversation? We are not sinless like Eve or the Lady of Perelandra. We are off a different sort, now, but maybe. We have different offerings: stumbles, pricks in the flesh, weak joys, half-baked ideas, spiritual blog posts generated in off moments in parking lots. We might be able to offer these to God as a sort of firstfruits to see if they can be blessed. The normal process is to suddenly cry out for help as we sink beneath the waves, but Peter first said, “If it’s you, call me to come to you…” We might be able to sustain the action more and more each time, with practice. Pray for strength, make the essay with grace, fail and try again. Eventually, it may be possible to pray for the enter tire morning commute. As the Catechism points out, “praying” is the relationship itself. It’s not the particular words we use or the rites, it’s the relationship. It’s not something you can do sometimes. When one is married, one is married always. The only reason to pretend otherwise (even in the house, first thing in the morning) is to prepare for adultery. You’ve already done it in your heart at that point.

As with other relationships, this one starts out small. We cannot sustain it: even though we are designed for it, we are not strong enough. By grace we can be brought forward, able to hold on longer. After a while we may be able to sustain a portion of a holy hour or a walk in the park aware of being In the Presence.

Jaynes seems to be right in that our mind used to, at one point, be better tuned to this conversation. It may even be the Left and Right brains as he theorizes. It follows that having severed the connection in Eden millennia ago, the whole physiological and psychological process would continue to break down. Even in evolution it is true, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” It is possible to imagine that 3000 years ago something else broke.

But by grace, we can begin to repair the instrument.

At the end of Perelandra the Lady and her Lord, having triumphed over the temptation, are enthroned and ruling over Creation is a way that humans have not been able to do since our First Parents fell. As a result, everything is disordered – even the creation itself groans under the weight of our initial misstep. On Perelandra the human beings became as gods in their own right. We only do so by grace and, mostly, after death. We have literally no experience of what this would be like. As this writer noted his frustration with the childishness of the Perelandran Lady, so he must also note his sadness that he cannot be so childlike. As this writer finds her on-going conversation with God to be a sort of crutch, so he can only limp along, on hobbled feet, sad that his pride will not let him have such a crutch. Yet it is so in hope: for filled with grace it is possible that healing can come. One day, Maleldil may be telling me.

It was precisely in her willingness to keep listening to the conversation that the Lady of Perelandra was able to avoid what was, indeed, the only pitfall: trying to stand on her own, apart from the Ground of Being that is God himself. He is not a crutch so much as the very thing we stand on at all, where the Word is the act of standing, and the Holy Spirit is the power to stand. We would not be without beingness Himself. We pretend otherwise at our own peril.

Sonnet XVI: Harrow

JMJ

Alone by Abraham he watching stands
And turns to John the Cousin as they smile
Isaiah grins at Moses laughing while
Judith and Esther wait in garland bands

Now righteous pagans rise to hear the trial
Lao tzu has joined him and Gautama too
The final stanzas of hells songs are through
And yawning gapes the maw of death most vile

As light breaks open hades darkened rue
And angels chaining demons part the throng
Comes Jesus here to one for whom he’s long
Been grieving. Joseph, Daddy, chaste and true

And riven hell releases hist’ry’s clans
As Son and Abba weep ore claspéd hands

Solar Wind

JMJ

EACH STAR HAS A field of energy that is going both outward and inward. The outward energy we call a “wind” because it is unseen and “blowing” outward from the star: it is the light, itself, actually. If you can see the star you are “in” the wind from that star. Our star, Sol, being closest we are in this wind the most, of course. There are eddies and cross-currents, and shadows, if you will. It would be possible to “sail” on this wind. In fact there are designs for such ships: they are as beautiful and graceful as sailing ships on our seas. As much as there is outward, there is also the inward energy which we call gravity. The mass of the star literally curves space and pulls things towards it. Again: if you can see the star’s light, the gravity is also present. Sol’s gravity is closest to us and affects us the most, but all objects have gravity so the gravity from our nearest neighbor, Luna, has a heavier pull on us. Gravity – although it holds everything together – is a weak force and it is made weaker by distance. Light and wind go much further.

Every once in a while a star’s gravity might “catch” a passerby, even millions of miles away and that object begins a long journey inward, towards the star. If the item is small it may – eventually – just get pulled into the star and consumed in the fire. If the item is a bit larger and moving fast enough, its velocity and trajectory may take it around the star and shoot it back out into space, only to slow down later and come back for the same trip. This might take millions of years to complete, but the same process will repeat. As it comes in, pulled by gravity, the solar wind will push off bits and pieces. The object will, over much time, get smaller and smaller. Eventually it will not be able to escape the star again – and it will get pulled into the fire. Else, it may – somewhere out in space – just disconnect from the gravity, get pushed away in the wind, and never come back. If the item is frozen, covered in some gas or liquid, it may melt at high speed, throwing off a tail of reflected light and so, instead of an asteroid, we have a comet. These things may pass us, here on Earth, as we go on our own way and we see them and smile, gaze in awe, or make a wish. We, too, are held in place by gravity against the solar winds, our home’s size, trajectory, and speed keeping us just where we need to be to live.

Now, let us consider the comet and the star, as a sign of the soul’s journey to God.

For this image, though, God would be the only star in all the universe. Yes, we have other things that we think are stars, but they are not really stars at all. As the comet gets closer in love, the tail is all that is superfluous blown away – think of confession, the struggle for virtues, the acts of self-sacrifice, the withering of the ego. Each time the comet circles closer, losing its speed and trajectory, and the orbit grows smaller. The away and return gets shorter. In the end, all refuse jettisoned, it falls into the fires of eternal love.

And even for far-distant things, the choice is only to ride the gravity in or to let the solar winds blow one into distant eternities away. Coming closer means the fires get hotter, the winds stronger. If the soul holds on to anything here, she will be blown further away. She must let it all go, let it all go, let it all go behind as she falls closer and closer to the star. And she is a she, passive, drawn forward, as the star is a he, the active drawing forth. With God, the entire cosmos is she, passive before the one active mover of all.

There is a further realization, for God is everywhere present, filling all things. There is not “distance” from God: there is no center. There is no place towards which the gravity draws or from which the winds blow. That a soul is not flooded with fear at the light, or blown apart by the wind, that a soul is not burned instantly, and still must move forward to see more is, itself, an act of grace. God has hidden himself that he may be found. He woos us, but we must allow ourselves to be wooed.  God’s action of withdrawal is the opening for us to follow. His hiddenness calls us to find him. His fading light in the distance becomes the dawn of our faith and that faith becomes the light for others. “Just as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so is it better to give to others the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.” (Summa Theologiae, II-II Q. 188, A. 6)

We live and move and have our being in the star, yet the darkness, too, is real: as the comet moves forward, the refuse burns away and the light is more revealed. God is love. And we are nought but loved, even in the fire that cleanses us. And the refuse, itself, becomes our glory for we leave a beautiful passing.

Consider What You Say

JMJ

From the letter of Blessed Humbert of Romans On Regular Observance (Opera de Vita Regulari). This is the alternative Second Reading for the Office of Readings on the Memorial of Bl Mannes, the brother of St Dominic (18 August). This is from the Daily Office propers of the Order of Preachers.

A brother should never pass over in silence what needs to be said, nor say what should not be spoken. When a brother intends to speak, let him first consider his words in his heart that he may express honorably, moderately, truthfully and kindly what it is he wishes to say. For the tongue is deceitful, puffed up, inflamed with duplicity, and hateful to God and humankind.

Dearly beloved, consider carefully what you say, to whom, when or where, how or how much, and certainly why you say it. Otherwise, if the proper circumstances are lacking, your speech may give rise to a bad conscience in your own heart or to scandal in the heart of your hearer. You should aim for three things in your speech – gesture, voice, and meaning. Let your gestures be controlled, your voice well-modulated, your meaning always true.

Do not do battle with words, nor worry about gaining victory in disputes. Always avoid words which are damaging to the speaker or to the listener. One should keep away from speech which is not a credit to the one who speaks, or to the one who listens, or to the one about whom a person speaks.

Consider also the time for speaking, because at times one should keep silent and at other times something should be said. There is never a time when evil should be uttered; sometimes even good things should not be mentioned. When another has begun to speak, we should be silent, lest we appear to interrupt what the person has to say. When we sense that our audience is not prepared for what we have to say, we should refrain from speech. At times we should keep silence to avoid loquaciousness or because we have not yet formulated in a suitable manner what we wish to say, or even because the words that we have decided to you are no longer appropriate to the conversation.

Let the elderly speak of the wisdom of reflection, the young of a readiness for work, the wise of the mystery of the Scriptures, the simple of examples of good works, those concerned with business of the needs of the active life, those living quietly of the sweetness of the contemplative life, prelates of the management of temporal and spiritual goods, subjects of obeying commands.

When we wish to speak for our own building up, let us choose how we can bring others to Virtue, and by what teaching. When we speak for the building up of others, let us turn to those things that we hope to correct in ourselves through our exhortation. Furthermore, let our teaching tend toward this goal: to urge the timid to constancy, the proud to fear, the bold to reflection, the lukewarm to fervor, the boisterous to silence, the speechless to a word of exhortation, the impatient to gentleness, the careless to vigilance, the cruel to forbearance, the hasty and demanding to restraint.

In addition take care that when a brother speaks, he not move about inappropriately, nor destroy the charm of his speech by glancing about or making faces.

May you avoid every word that is bitter, proud, disparaging, flattering, vicious, sworn by oaths, superfluous, or careless. As you ought not speak ill of those who are absent, so you should not laugh at those who are present. Do not jest with those who are senseless, nor envy the learned.

Keep silent about trivialities; speak about what will bear fruit. In your conversation do not keep your heart on your tongue, but rather check your tongue with your heart. Surely when you come to speak, you can offer a few words that are intelligible. Love quiet reflection; flee the business of the world. Through silence the heart is quieted, pain is avoided, peace is maintained, and the mind is raised more quickly to contemplation. The more you withdraw from the noise of business, the closer will God be to you.

Almah Parthenos

JMJ

IN ISAIAH 7:14 the Spirit of the Lord speaking through the Prophet says, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (AV) and people bicker a lot about the word “virgin” there: the Hebrew – according to the Masoretic text is עַלְמָ֗ה almah which means only a young girl. The Greek, however, is παρθένος parthenos which means rather a lot more than just young girl. In fact parthenos means so much more than almah that there is a story about this word choice:

In the middle of the 3rd Century Before the Christian Era, Ptolemy II asked for a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, tradition says the project was given to 70 wise elders who, in prayer and meditation, sought to render a translation that could be seen as spirit-breathed and trustworthy. This translation is called the Septuagint, often noted as the LXX for the 70 translators. As one elder was translating Isaiah, he tried to render the word almah as νεᾶνις neanis meaning only a young girl (as in other passages in the scriptures), but the Holy Spirit told him to write parthenos. The man objected but God insisted – and promised him he was to see the fulfillment of this prophecy with his own eyes. This man, the legend says, was Simeon who was blessed to hold in his own hands the Messiah as a baby. Your host digresses, but only a little bit: the story makes it clear even earlier Christians saw there was a crucial difference between almah and parthenos.

As this scripture comes into Latin, Roman culture, it gets rendered virgo which actually means less than the Greek and the Hebrew. By way of exploring these differences, there may also be something to learn about current issues in the Church and something about ourselves in relation to God and each other.

Before we go any further though let the reader understand clearly: none of this is to be read as commentary on the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Your host believes, together with Holy Church, that the Mother of God was alma, parthenos, and virgo before and after giving birth to the Second Person of the Trinity. The best description of the All-Holy Theotokos uses all three of these words in their fullest cultural meanings. It’s the cultural meanings that are the focus. To reiterate, we are exploring these words in order to have a better context for discussing current issues in the Church.

The Latin word, virgo, can mean a young woman or girl, but it specifically refers to not-having sex and, even more specifically, to the membrane called the hymen. If this is intact, the woman is a virgo. There is a word for “young girl” in Latin puella, but culturally it’s missing the context of virgo. As I noted, the Latin word actually means much less than either alma or parthenos. It’s this word that comes into English as “Virgin” and so, too, it means much less for us. When we discuss sexual issues in the Church we often get hung up on virgo.

Alma is used a few times in the Hebrew scriptures. In almost all cases it can mean only a young girl without implying anything about their personal history. Culturally such a young woman may not yet have been married but at a time when they were given in marriage rather young (by our eyes) it is more a chronological term dealing with age. Even in the important passage in Isaiah, the woman in question is only being used as sort of a time-keeper. The Prophet is saying that she will have a child and before the child grows up all the predictions will come to pass (meaning they are not far in the future). The woman will still be a young woman at that time, actually, still a neanis, a youth. Perhaps, though, she has stopped being parthenos. We are not told. She may be virgo. We are not told.

The important word is παρθένος parthenos. At the time of the Ptolemy II parthenos was an honorific applied to several Greek goddesses: Artemis and Hera, although Athena is the best known example. Her temple in Athens included a statue called Athena Parthenos and this statue was also copied in several places. Parthenos is the adjective. The noun becomes the name of the Temple: the Parthenon. Please note that all three of these goddesses had extant stories of their sexual activities. They would not be virgins as we, today, understand that word in either a secular or religious context. The goddeses are not virgo. Parthenos carries a different cultural meaning.

Other persons in the Septuagint are called parthenos: one example is Rebecca, the woman who was to become the wife of Issac and the mother of Israel (Jacob). While it is outside of the scope of the present essay, fruitful meditation could arise on the connection of the Biblical title parthenos to the Mother of Israel and the Mother of God. The title itself is also applied to certain classes of people through the Old and New Testaments. It’s usually rendered as virgin(s) in English and Latin, implying no-sex but, again, culturally I think it means rather a bit more, even in the 1st Century of the Christian Era. Its meaning in the 1st century becomes our meaning today but we have forgotten it.

When you look up παρθένος parthenos in Strong’s Greek (the standard Greek reference for Biblical Scholars, augmented on the net by several other resources) we are come to word number 3933.
Usage: a maiden, virgin; extended to men who have not known women.
properly, a virgin; a woman who has never had sexual relations; a female (virgin), beyond puberty but not yet married; (figuratively) believers when they are pure (chaste), i.e. faithful to Christ their heavenly Bridegroom (2 Cor 11:2; Rev 14:4).
Word Origin: of uncertain origin.
Yet, as I’ve already noted, the several Goddesses to whom this title was originally applied were not “women who have never had sexual relations” and two, at least, were married.

Digging into the word further we need to go back to the temple mentioned earlier, the Parthenon. Whence that title for the Temple? We need to go to Liddell & Scott which is a rather more secular source for words outside of the Bible. Here we find the root word, παρθέν parthen which means “maidens’ apartments in a house” and was used of the apartments for the priestesses in the western end of the temple. So that is kind of like saying “a rector lives in a rectory”. Which came first, the house or the occupant? In the case of the clergyman, the office of rector was first, of course. But digging deeper into parthenos it seems the word was used for both men and women, always implying unmarried, but not always implying sexlessness, and not always implying virgo. What it does carry is implication of a sexuality being set apart and, in the case of women in Ancient Greece, this is important. They are set apart for a divine purpose – not for their father’s use in the way of the time. This is why Athena gets called parthenos – and the other goddeses: even though they are not virgo they struggle against all the male deities that want to own or control their sexual identities. They are enclosed in their own apartments, as it were. Having set their sexual selves aside for divine purposes, assuming they continue in that, they stay parthenos even after no longer being virgo, and even into old age. By the time it gets used in the LXX parthenos is culturally tied to those apartments in the greek Temple and to the patroness of Athens. Just as now we do not use “rector” without the Christian echos so, too, the LXX used parthenos. And this is where the meaning for the Mother of God and the Mother of Israel becomes important: regardless of their status as virgo, their sexuality, their sexual being, there sexual identity was consecrated; that is, set apart and dedicated to God’s purposes.

This is where this word, parthenos, should be important for the Church.

There are earlier essays in this blog on the difference between being a bachelor and being celibate. Essentially the difference is between a job and a vocation: the former is what one does, the latter is what one is. Celibate, here, means parthenos: having one’s sexual identity so consecrated to God by self-choice, self-gift (to God, that is) that any use outside of God’s plan is inconcievable, pardon the pun. It’s a placing of this part (whole) of one’s life at God’s disposition and trusting in him to maintain his plans and purposes.

It is possible to see clerical life in the teachings of the Church as sort of perpetual bachelorhood. One can be a virtuous bachelor, like Charles in Brideshead Revisited, or one can be unvirtuous. In Courage to be Chaste, Fr Benedict Groeschel, CFR, recognizes that there’s a type of person who just stopped having sex because they can’t anymore. By way of examples, this can happen because they feel they are too old, or because they don’t want to take risks reaching out, or because they fear rejection. Whatever the reason they simply stop having sex and then (because of sloth, fear, or habit) they just don’t anymore. Father Benedict finds this to be of concern: he recognizes that they’re following the rules, they may even have chosen to follow the rules after a time, but in the end, they’re only not-having sex. They are not celibate. They have not give all to God at this moment. St Jane Frances de Chantal notes, “Give God your unconditional consent and… What happens is that love seeks out the most intimate and secret place of your soul, as with a sharp sword, and cuts you off even from your own self.” (From: The memoirs of the secretary of St Jane Frances de Chantal, used in the Office of Readings for her Memorial.)

In this light we can see that sometimes, even something that is not sex-having could be a sin against this status as parthenos if it means placing one’s sexual identity (or even seeming to place one’s sexual identity) before others as an offering, thus recanting, at least for a moment, on one’s vows. We refrain from being cut off even from our own self. There are many reasons one might do this: feeling lonely, of course, or feeling awkward. One knows that one can’t have sex, but I can at least pretend I might, you know. That way I can enjoy this conversation, or initiate this flirty moment on the street, or even install a hookup app on my phone: I do not intend to use it of course, but you know… just to look. And just to look as if I might use it if I wanted to. Even while still not-having sex, this participation in the glamour of sin (even while not going all the way) is not parthenos. And, in the throes of passion, it’s possible this is setting us up for a fall that’s even worse.

It’s important to see that this is not only an issue for clergy who up hookup apps on their phone, however. Since the Mother of God is called to parthenos so are we all called to this: we give our entire self over to God, we consecrate our entire self to him. This means that even our sexual identity is his as well. We are cut off even from our ideas of “who we are” and “what we feel” in that all of it is given to God, holding nothing back. In marriage this means refraining from lust and that the gift of self is given to God through giving to our spouse and, in this way, to our children. In all other states of life, we are called to refrain from lust and offer the Gift of Self as God has commanded us in the moment. We live in a way set apart from the world, in a way that marks us as God’s own. Like those in Athens, we have our dwelling place in the courts of the house of Our God, the True and Living God.