Julian of Norwich: The ‘Sharpness’ of Sin and the Goodness of Contrition

In the thirty-ninth chapter of the Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich writes about the effect that sin has upon the conscientious soul. It is a great pain to one who desires to escape vice and to grow in virtue, and in a certain sense is its own punishment. However, the sense of unworthiness that comes with an experience of the ‘scourge’ of sin does have its positive benefits – it humbles us, reminds us how far we are from any illusions of spiritual accomplishment or moral progression we may have entertained. That the recurrence of our falling into sin is thus a great antidote to spiritual pride (the worst form of the deadliest sin) led Julian of Norwich to see sin as something ‘behovable’, which has been translated as either ‘necessary’ or ‘inevitable’.

Julian plays with the idea of Adam’s felix culpa – the idea that in his fall, though it was in itself a tragedy, the path was laid for the even greater good of the Atonement, a reconciliation between God and man, which would lift us to even higher levels of virtue and intimacy with the divine – and treads a razor’s edge, desperate to remain faithful to the teaching of Holy Church, but also keen to affirm her intuition that God could not possibly allow such a thing as sin to besmirch His creation in any meaningful way. This leads her at times into murky waters, simply setting aside things like the wrath of God – a key teaching of both testaments – rather than seeing it in a proper integration with His love. Nevertheless, Julian’s considerations in this area do lead her to another important insight.

In seeing sin as something inevitable for fallen mankind, Julian went on to consider how it might then fit into a picture of God’s creation as all-good. This also led her down dangerous paths, affirming a divine ‘spark’ in man that remained untouched by sin or evil, akin to the teachings of someone like Meister Eckhart. However, an insistence on reconciling her basic intuitions with Church doctrine led her to see that sin was, as had been said about evil by Saint Augustine many years earlier, a privation – it is something that lacks any real substance and is in essence something negative, an absence of virtue. A well-integrated humanity would not sin because it would be properly ordered to reality, to the will of God, which is Love. Part of our fallenness is then actually ignorance, or even a kind of insanity.

When we have sinned then, we recognise not only that we have done wrong, have offended against the good will of our Creator, but that there is also a profound sense in which we know ourselves to have done violence to the fabric of reality itself. Deep down we know that the will of God is reality, and so when we sin we find ourselves in a kind of spiritual disjunct. This sense of disjuncture, perhaps even more than the feeling of moral outrage, is what so often causes a sense of embarrassment after sinning – ‘how could I have done this again?’ ‘Am I mad…what was I thinking?’ It is at this point that it is important not to fall into another kind of pride, lambasting ourselves only because we should have known better, because we have fallen short of our expectations, instead of turning to God in a spirit of true contrition.

Repentance, the full about-face from our sinful ways in a spirit of sorrow for what we have done, is, according to Julian, the great goodness that comes from our having sinned in the first place. By falling, we learn again our weaknesses, and are able to see with fresh eyes the cleansing and restorative power of the Holy Spirit – whilst convinced of our own righteousness, we often take the grace of God for granted, but we cannot do that now. In a strange sense then, just as the Fall of Adam could be described as a felix culpa, our individual falls are opportunities for grace which remind us of our need for God, cleanse us again of any feelings of self-sufficiency, and draw us closer to Him, through the manifold means of His grace afforded us by Holy Mother Church.

Furthermore, as Julian writes in the extract below, throughout all this we are sustained by God’s love, and it is never His will that we despair of our failings – we should look upon them with regret and with sorrow, but also remember them as the means by which we were drawn ever nearer to intimate relationship with the One who made us and redeemed us. He looks upon our repented sins not as wounds but as scars – the signs of His healing grace at work in our lives; grace which is able to take all the ways in which we choose to resist it and use them to bring us to blessedness:

Sin is the sharpest scourge that any elect soul can be flogged with. It is the scourge which so reduces a man or woman and makes him loathsome in his own sight that it is not long before he thinks himself fit only to sink down to hell…until the touch of the Holy Spirit forces him to contrition, and turns his bitterness to the hope of God’s mercy. Then he begins to heal his wounds, and to rouse his soul as it turns to the life of Holy Church. The Holy Spirit leads him on to confession, so that he deliberately reveals his sins in all their nakedness and reality, and admits with great sorrow and shame that he has befouled the fair image of God. Then for all his sins he performs penance imposed by his confession according to the doctrine of Holy Church, and the teaching of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the humble things that greatly pleases God…

…Dearly indeed does our Lord hold on to us when it seems to us that we are nearly forsaken and cast away because of our sin – and deservedly so. Because of the humility we acquire this way we are exalted in the sight of God by his grace, and know a very deep contrition and compassion and a genuine longing for God…

…By contrition we are made clean; by compassion, ready; and by a genuine longing for God, worthy. It is by means of these three that souls can attain heaven, as I understand it. (I am referring, of course, to those who were sinners on earth, and who are to be saved.) By these medicines it is necessary for every soul to be healed. Though healed, the soul’s wounds are still seen by God, not as wounds, but as honourable scars. Counterbalancing our punishment here with its sorrow and penance is our reward in heaven through the courteous love of almighty God. His will is that no one getting there shall be deprived of any of the benefits gained by his hardships. For in his lovers he regards sin as a sorrow and a suffering, and, because of his love, not as blameworthy. The reward we will receive will be no small one, but one rather that is great, glorious, and honourable. So shall shame be turned to greater honour and joy.

Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair even if they fall frequently and grievously. Our falling does not stop his loving us. Peace and love are always at work in us, but we are not always in peace and love. But he wants us in this way to realise that he is the foundation of the whole of our life in love, and furthermore that he is our eternal protector, and mighty defender against our enemies who are so very fierce and wicked. And, alas, our need is all the greater since we give them every opportunity by our failures.

Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love (1988), pp.120-121, Penguin Classics.

Roger Scruton on The Disadvantages of Conservatism

I have read, enjoyed and been edified by many of Roger Scruton’s articles and essays, and have found his A Dictionary of Political Thought a continually useful resource, but until now I have never gotten around to reading one of his books. Now though, I have finally obtained a copy of his celebrated and seminal treatise The Meaning of Conservatism, and am so far thoroughly enjoying it. In its opening pages, I came across a passage that seemed to me sum up a great deal of the frustration that one experiences being a conservative in modern Western society:

In considering the relation between power and authority, it has to be conceded that the conservative suffers from a singular disadvantage, and this disadvantage makes it necessary for him to be stronger, more cunning, even more Machiavellian, than his usual opponents. For, lacking any obvious aim in politics, he lacks any offering with which to stir up the enthusiasm of the crowd. He is concerned solely with the task of government, and his attitude defies translation into a shopping list of social goals. He looks with scepticism upon the myths of equality and social justice; he regards universal political agitation with distaste, and the clamour for “progress” seems to him no more than a passing fad, serious only in so far as it constitutes a threat to the political order. What then can persuade the people to acquiesce in his ascent to power? It is well to say, with Burke, that the promises of revolution must be empty (since they can be understood only be presupposing precisely the social arrangement that it is intended to destroy). But what other promises can the conservative provide?

The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), p.26, Penguin.

            The principle task of Scruton’s book was and is to describe the essence of conservatism – not to make a philosophical case for it, nor for any particular policy or set of policies, but to create a work of dogmatics, setting out plainly what the conservative outlook is. Contrary to what we see in modern party politics, where conservative parties are often only identifiable as such by their commitment to one particular view of free-market economics, and are in many ways just as wedded to the progressivism that was introduced into Western political life by the rapid growth in popularity of socialism in intellectual circles, conservatism is essentially about conserving things.

To stand for the conservation of certain things in a culture which can be said to lie at the heart of that culture and give shape to its identity – its institutions, laws, customs, traditions, moral values, etc – is to place oneself at a disadvantage because, as Scruton writes, this will mean ‘lacking any obvious aim in politics’. To be a conservative is to wish to see preserved what is good about life in a given culture, and this ordinarily does not require having any ideological goals – it is an act of maintenance. When the ideals of others seeking to uproot or destroy the permanent things in a culture are brought to the fore however, what was an act of maintenance becomes an act of defence, and the person doing the defending is at a disadvantage – novelty is exciting, and it is not attractive to be the one saying we should keep things as they are.

Furthermore, socialism (in its various forms) has been able, because people are drawn to the surface ideals it proposes of increasing equality and lifting people out of poverty, to emerge relatively unscathed from the manifold disasters that have resulted following its full implementation. Despite millions of deaths and profound degradation of culture when and where socialism has been put into practice, it has managed to be absolved of these sins, largely on the basis that progressivism and equality are buzzwords that people routinely find appealing. Yet in any cases where conservative governments have had deleterious effects, it has had the result of confirming people in the belief that all authority and any commitment to tradition are therefore always bad:

The great intellectual advantage of socialism is obvious. Through its ability to align itself with ideals that every man can recognise, socialism has been able to perpetuate the belief in its moral purity, despite crime upon crime committed in its name. That a socialist revolution may cost millions of lives, that it may involve the wilful murder of an entire class, the destruction of a culture, the elimination of learning and the desecration of art, will leave not the slightest stigma on the doctrines with which it glorifies its action. And yet those lonely restorationists who have committed crimes in the cause of continuity, have – because they fought not for an ideal but for what they took to be a reality – often simply blemished the idea of authority which they hoped to serve.


            The conservative is essentially for something – a way of life, a culture, a set of principles – and wishes to conserve it or them, whereas the progressive is always against things, particularly the established order. There is often talk from progressives of creating a bold new utopian future, but there is very little agreement as to what this utopia will look like, and it often seems to be characterised only by the elements of the status quo which will be rejected or removed from the common life. This fundamentally negative attitude – to protest against rather than to affirm – is also highly attractive to the modern mind, which sees rebellion and upheaval as intrinsically good things, simply because they are involved in progressing, and progress is itself taken as a good. Thus the conservative is again at a disadvantage in terms of his ability to garner popular support.

Ironically though, it is often only in circumstances when the existing order is being threatened that the conservative outlook is thereby able to be clarified and given more concrete expression. As conservatism is about maintaining what is good in a culture, it is therefore also in great part about being in favour of things which we simply assume as good; it is an affirmation of the complex mixture of things that human beings have always taken for granted as constituting the background to a well-ordered and happy life, and never taken the time to ask why. As noted before, conservatism is not really an ideology at all, but more accurately a cast of mind, which recognises the things that make for stable communal life, and the necessity of certain values and institutions in making that stability possible.

When presented with a threat to that way of life though, the principles held to be of value by conservatives have to be brought into focus, refined, and articulated with clarity, much as heresy causes the Church to refine and clarify her doctrine. Perhaps then it is the particular task given to conservatives to be at the disadvantage they always are in situations of revolt or upheaval because, as the ones zealous for the guarding of what is good, true and beautiful in life, they must also be the ones who have to bear the brunt of the attack against those very same things. To be a conservative is a disadvantage at times, but that very predicament, when it occurs, also reminds us of what an honour it is to be the ones standing firm for what has enriched our culture, and in defence of what seeks to destroy it.

Also, as Scruton noted in an interview with Orthodoxy Today, many of the things that conservatives are in favour of are of a non-negotiable character, and support of them will involve taking the criticism that we are simply stating obligation as opposed to arguing for our position (with the implication that what is absolute and has enjoyed long-standing acceptance is unreasonable, whereas what is novel is the result of unfettered reason beholden to nothing but the ideal):

…the most important obligations governing our lives as social and political beings — including those to family, country and state — are non-contractual and precede the capacity for rational choice. By referring to them as “transcendent” I meant to emphasize that they transcend any capacity to rationalise them in contractual or negotiable terms. They have an absolute and immovable character that we must acknowledge if we are to understand our social and political condition. The refusal of people on the left to make this acknowledgement stems from their inability to accept external authority in any form, and from their deep down belief that all power is usurpation, unless wielded by themselves.

When standing up for things that, by their very nature, are of a non-negotiable character and often rest on acceptance rather than protest or argument then, we will often be accused of being ‘backward’. Similarly, when defending positions long held by a culture, but which do not fit the new and exciting moral innovations proposed, we will be called ‘bigoted’. Both these tactics, particularly the use of the term ‘bigot’, are designed to silence the conservative opponent by labelling them as someone whose opinion does not even need to be listened to – by describing someone as a bigot, the progressive makes it plain that they need not engage with their opponent’s opinions, as they are morally reprehensible. Thus the conservative is also up against an extreme self-righteousness which cannot countenance any opinion at variance with its own, and will use smear tactics to avoid actual engagement with the other.

Conservatives then are at a number of disadvantages, but the one thing we have on our side is what I have alluded to a number of times already – we stand for something, and the things we stand for are precisely what many people instinctively know, even if they cannot articulate them, make for the health and happiness of their culture. The ideas of the Left may well have a perennial ability to excite and instil a spirit of rebellion, and an amazing knack for avoiding any long-standing bad press despite countless failed and bloody campaigns waged in their favour. However, that progressive ideology is always essentially something negative, that at its core it is about tearing things down, is its biggest weakness, and the reason why its implementation has always involved a top-down imposition of its doctrines onto the populace.

Contrariwise, people know deep down what has made their culture what it is and thus what is worth conserving, and so whilst the spirit of rebellion will always re-emerge, gaining supporters because of the inherent appeal of novelty, the conservative outlook will, despite its disadvantages, always win the hearts and minds of the people. We were made to create, not to destroy, and we know what is good when we see it – what has worked to enrich and assist a culture is worth holding on to, and this is not only the essence of the conservative spirit, but the heart of humanity. It is a great honour to suffer calumny or to be ostracised when it is for the things that make us what we are, the things that make for fulfilment at work and happiness at home.

George Herbert and the Music at Midnight

John Drury’s recent (and most excellent) biography of George Herbert is entitled Music at Midnight, and takes its title from a passage in Isaac Walton’s Life of Mr. George Herbert. The passage describes an episode that had occurred one night as the poet was walking from his home in Bemerton to the nearby cathedral city of Salisbury, where he was to join with some friends in playing a little music. Herbert was a keen and very competent musician, and composed many pieces – both religious and secular – throughout his life, as Walton describes prior to the episode in question in his Life:

His chiefest recreation was music, in which heavenly art he was a most excellent master, and did himself compose many divine hymns and anthems, which he set and sung to his lute or viol; and though he was a lover of retiredness, yet his love to music was such, that he went usually twice every week on certain appointed days to the cathedral church in Salisbury; and at his return would say, that his time spent in prayer and cathedral music elevated his soul, and was his heaven upon earth. But before his return thence to Bemerton, he would usually sing and play his part at an appointed private music meeting; and, to justify this practice, he would often say, religion does not banish mirth, but only moderates and sets rules to it.

George Herbert: The Complete English Works (1995), pp.371-372, Everyman’s Library.

            This wonderful description (particularly delightful are the concluding comments about having to justify attendance at a private rehearsal, and the way in which religion ‘moderates and sets rules’ to mirth) gives a vivid sense of Herbert’s passion for music, and the regularity of his life. He was a man who loved (and to a certain extent depended upon) routine, and this is an important thing to remember when evaluating the episode that John Dury uses as a preface to book. It is also worth keeping in mind just how much music meant to him – that it ‘elevated his soul’ – when we read in what context the words ‘music at midnight’ were uttered.

Walton’s account of George Herbert’s life is in many ways overly romantic and he does seem in part to have fallen into the trap of reading the man through his work, seeing Herbert as an ideal pastor and model for all that Walton believed Anglicanism was and should be – there is certainly something of hagiography about it. Nevertheless, the events recounted in the biography remain fundamentally reliable, and if one can filter out the parts in which Walton waxes lyrical about Herbert’s saintliness and see the occurrences for what they are, then the Life remains a good resource. The passage from which Drury takes the title for his book is one which seems to represent a plain reporting of events, and is as follows:

In another walk to Salisbury he saw a poor man with a poorer horse that was fallen under his load; they were both in distress, and needed present help, which Mr. Herbert perceiving, put off his canonical coat, and helped the poor man to unload, and after to load his horse. The poor man blessed him for it, and he blessed the poor man; and was so like the good Samaritan, that he gave him money to refresh both himself and his horse, and told him, that if he loved himself, he should be merciful to his beast. Thus he left the poor man, and at his coming to his musical friends at Salisbury, they began to wonder that Mr. George Herbert, who used to be so trim and clean, came into that company so soiled and discomposed; but he told them the occasion; and when one of the company told him he had disparaged himself by so dirty an employment, his answer was, that the thought of what he had done would prove music to him at midnight, and that the omission of it would have upbraided and made discord in his conscience, whensoever he should pass by that place. “For if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound, so far as it is in my power, to practise what I pray for. And though I do not wish for the like occasion every day, yet let me tell you, I would not willingly pass one day of my life without comforting a sad soul, or showing mercy; and I praise God for this occasion. And now let’s tune our instruments.”

ibid, p.373.

            The two things that emerge from this account are a.) that doctrine and life should be one, both pervading every fibre of our being, readying us at any second for the former to become incarnate in the latter; and b.) that doing good really is its own reward. With respect to the first of these, it is clear (though hard to make a reality) that, as Herbert said, we are bound to practise what we pray for – most fundamentally of all, we pray for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in Heaven, and this means that our wills are to be so in harmony with His that we do what He wishes out of love for Him and that we do what He wills precisely because He, the One we love, wills it.

There should be a seamless unity between what we pray for and the way we live our lives, so that at whatever time of day, whatever state of life we find ourselves in, we give ourselves to the task presented to us, and do the most loving or compassionate thing. As Herbert himself writes in his poem The Windows:


Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one

When they combine and mingle, bring

A strong regard and awe: but speech alone

Doth vanish like a flaring thing,

And in the ear, not conscience ring.


As is noted in the poem above, it is only when this unity exists – when the doctrine we profess becomes expressed in the way we live – that a real and lasting impact is made in the lives of others. There is no dichotomy here, no placing of praxis over doctrine or vice versa – authentic faith holds on to and internalises what it believes to be the truth, so that those truths cannot help but be expressed in our actions. If this is true of an individual, it will not matter what time of day it is, whether they are tired or irritated – the truths of the Gospel, forming the background of the mind and filling the chambers of the heart, will flow outwards in the way that person reacts to whatever is put before them.

The second point about Walton’s account of Herbert’s encounter with the man and his horse, is that, as Walton relates Herbert having said to his co-musicians, the events of that night would ‘prove music to him at midnight’ – that is they would have the same effect upon him as the cathedral music he so enjoyed at Salisbury, an experience which was to him ‘heaven upon earth’. Thus Herbert (via Walton) communicates to us an essential truth about the Christian life and the universal human search for happiness – it is by giving ourselves in service to others that true happiness is found, by steadfastly refusing to appease the various competing demands of the ego and supplanting our selfish desires with loving action.

When we act in a spirit of true love – the seeking of the good of the other, for the other’s sake – those desires (which we have for so long convinced ourselves constitute our selves) can be quietened and calmed, allowing our true identities to emerge and thus allowing genuine peace and joy to dwell in our hearts. The ability to act in such a spirit can only come however, by first submitting our wills to God, and this is what connects this paradoxical key to happiness to the prior point about our beliefs becoming one with our praxis. Again, one of Herbert’s poems illustrates this point very well, and in this case the whole thing (The Elixir) is worth citing:


Teach me, my God and King,

In all things thee to see,

And what I do in any thing,

To do it as for thee:


Not rudely, as a beast,

To run into an action;

But still to make thee prepossest,

And give it his perfection.


A man that looks on glass,

On it may stay his eye;

Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,

And then the heav’n espy.


All may of thee partake:

Nothing can be so mean,

Which with his tincture (for thy sake)

Will not grow bright and clean.


A servant with this clause

Makes drudgery divine:

Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,

Makes that and th’action fine.


This is the famous stone

That turneth all to gold:

For that which God doth touch and own

Cannot for less be told.


The integration between doctrine and life, and the connection between this integrated faith and lasting happiness or joy, is a recurring and key feature in George Herbert’s poetry. It is perhaps also, whether his non-religious admirers would like to acknowledge this or not, one of the main reasons why his work has proved to be so enduring. Herbert speaks of and offers the reader a life that is well-grounded, rooted in something sure and lasting, which can survive great suffering and which enhances life’s pleasures. He also consistently locates the source of this joy as being a life given not just to others, but to the Other – to God, as known and loved in Our Lord Jesus Christ. Faith in and love of Him can transfigure ones vision, helping us to see the world as he does, so that to drop everything and help our neighbour truly will be for us ‘music at midnight’.

To take our greatest pleasure in helping others, in the name of the love that has been shown and given to us in Christ, is to become truly ourselves and truly free. The only thing one could suggest as a criticism of this vision is that any sins of omission we make will be to us, as for Herbert, barbs to our conscience. But in a world where love grows cold and the consciences of many have been dulled to a worrying degree, the suffering of a little compunction now and then is a small price to pay – it is part and parcel of what it means to be ‘in’ Christ and to love the way He loves, which is the only way to truly love, and which provides a remedy the world needs more than ever.

G. K. Chesterton: Saint Francis and Brother Fire

G. K. Chesterton’s short autobiography of Saint Francis of Assisi has, amongst many other qualities, the singular virtue of successfully separating Saint Francis from modern images of him as some sort of super-tolerant, all-inclusive eco-warrior. Instead, Chesterton places him in his true context – as a fervent lover of Christ whose love of the world and all things in it can only be properly understood in light of that greater Love, and whose life can only be properly understood in light of the extreme asceticism which allowed him to further purify his vision so that, paradoxically, by denying the trappings of the world he might see it more clearly and thereby love it all the more. His vision is outlined by Chesterton here:

St. Francis was not a lover of nature. Properly understood, a lover of nature was precisely what he was not. The phrase implies accepting the material universe as a vague environment, a sort of sentimental pantheism. In the romantic period of literature, in the age of Byron and Scott, it was easy enough to imagine that a hermit in the ruins of a chapel (preferably by moonlight) might find peace and a mild pleasure in the harmony of solemn forests and silent stars, while he pondered over some scroll or illuminated volume, about the liturgical nature of which the author was a little vague. In short, the hermit might love nature as a background.

Now for St. Francis nothing was ever in the background. We might say that his mind had no background, except perhaps that divine darkness out of which the divine love had called up every coloured creature one by one. He saw everything as dramatic, distinct from its setting, not all of a piece like a picture but in action like a play. A bird went by him like an arrow; something with a story and a purpose, though it was a purpose of life and not a purpose of death. A bush could stop him like a brigand; and indeed he was as ready to welcome the brigand as the bush.

Saint Francis of Assisi (2008), pp.71-72, Dover Publications.

            Thus, in Saint Francis of Assisi, the key thing to remember with respect to his view of the natural world was that he did not value it for itself, nor did he value it as a vague generality, permeated by divine energy or energies. He valued the natural world as he did because every element of it came directly from the hand of God, and because each thing therefore had its own particular purpose and character, given to it by its Creator:

In a word, we talk about a man who cannot see the wood for trees. St. Francis was a man who did not want to see the wood for the trees. He wanted to see each tree as a separate and almost a sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man…

…This is the quality in which, as a poet, he is the very opposite of a pantheist. He did not call nature his mother; he called a particular donkey his brother or a particular sparrow his sister. If he had called a pelican his aunt or an elephant his uncle, as he might possibly have done, he would still have meant that they were particular creatures assigned by their Creator to particular places; not mere expressions of the evolutionary energy of things.

ibid, p.72.

            The central difference between Saint Francis of Assisi and the modern romantic or pantheistic lover of nature is in that key passage above where Chesterton says that he ‘did not call nature his mother’ – there is a difference in priority between the medieval saint and the modern pantheist (of whatever stripe – though principally a New Age or even secular phenomenon, some Christians have regrettably adopted a theological stance indistinguishable from pantheism), in that Saint Francis loves nature because of God, not because it is God; his love for God comes first, and validates the lovability of everything else in creation, precisely because it is what God has made.

This, as Chesterton rightly observes, is why he insisted on referring to the various aspects of the natural world in fraternal or sororal terms – to make plain that they were his co-creatures, and that his harmony with them was based not on romantic sentiment but on a common source; Saint Francis and his brothers and sisters in nature were all subjects of the same Lord, and children of the same heavenly Father. Similarly, the reason he so revelled in the existence of his earthly co-inhabitants was the same reason he revelled in his own existence – he had a profound and consistent vision that all their lives were rooted in and upheld by absolute gratuity; all life is a gift, from start to finish.

It is this awareness of the gift-like nature of existence, that we may not be here but are, and are so on the basis not of our own decision but because of the continual self-giving of Another, that enabled Saint Francis to live such a life of untrammelled joy, even and particularly when living through moments of great poverty and intense suffering. His capacity – shared, though experienced and expressed differently, by all the saints – to know the joy of Christ’s love in all situations, was itself connected to this awareness and gratitude for the utterly gratuitous and utterly dependent nature of existence; something that is shown with great vividness in the account of an attempted treatment for the blindness he was experiencing towards the end of his life:

St. Francis was a dying man. We might say he was an old man, at the time this typical incident occurred; but in fact he was only prematurely old; for he was not fifty when he died, worn out with his fighting and fasting life. But when he came down from the awful asceticism and more awful revelation of Alverno, he was a broken man. As will be apparent when these events are touched on in their turn, it was not only sickness and bodily decay that may well have darkened his life; he had been recently disappointed in his main mission to end the Crusades by the conversion of Islam; he had been still more disappointed by the signs of compromise and a more political or practical spirit in his own order; he had spent his last energies in protest.

At this point he was told that he was going blind. If the faintest hint has been given here of what St. Francis felt about the glory and pageantry of earth and sky, about the heraldic shape and colour and symbolism of birds and beasts and flowers, some notion may be formed of what it meant to him to go blind. Yet the remedy might well have seemed worse than the disease. The remedy, admittedly an uncertain remedy, was to cauterise the eye, and that without any anaesthetic. In other words it was to burn his living eyeballs with a red-hot iron. Many of the tortures of martyrdom, which he envied in martyrology and sought vainly in Syria, can have been no worse. When they took the brand from the furnace, he rose as with an urbane gesture and spoke as to an invisible presence: “Brother Fire, God made you beautiful and strong and useful; I pray you be courteous with me.”

ibid, p.77.

            As Chesterton goes on to point out, it is not often that opportunity is given to a poet (or to a philosopher) to put their vision to the test – he writes, ‘William Blake would have been disconcerted if, while he was re-reading the noble lines “Tiger, tiger, burning bright,” a real large live Bengal tiger had put his head in at the window of the cottage in Felpham, evidently with every intention of biting his head off.’ Yet Saint Francis’ vision of the world as total gift, with everything in it beautiful and dignified because of the precise purpose it had been given by God, was upheld by him right to the point of his Brother Fire being used to cause him unbearable pain. In the moment of anticipation, knowing suffering to be imminent and unavoidable, he still retained that sense of wonder that such a thing as fire (or such a person as Francis) should be at all.

There is something childlike in Saint Francis’ character – a disposition of trust, thankfulness and mirth that we see in little children; a disposition which Our Lord calls us all to develop, that we might better be able to receive the Kingdom of God (c.f. Luke 18:15-17) and which He displayed Himself during His earthly ministry in the loving trust that He placed in the Father. It is in this respect – in the total giving of himself to God in a spirit of gratitude and trust – that Saint Francis appears to us most clearly as an alter christus. He was only able to imitate Our Lord by way of sacrifice and suffering because of this prior realisation and acceptance of the total dependence of all things on God.

It is also this clear and childlike (or rather clear because childlike) vision which enabled Saint Francis to revere the natural world as he did. In seeing the existence of each animal or plant around him as originating directly from the loving will of God, it focused his vision and allowed him to see each created thing as something completely unique and therefore wholly valuable in and of itself. Saint Francis’ vision was the complete opposite of a vague pantheism or a romanticism that loves nature for its own sake – he saw with the utmost clarity beyond creation into the depths of divine Love and, via the continued purification of that vision through a life of asceticism and self-sacrifice, was able to see the created world with even greater vitality than a purely natural appreciation can afford. Because his love of the world was rooted in the Love that made the world, he could welcome everything in it with open arms – even the searing heat of his Brother Fire.

Saint John Paul II on Love, Truth, the Family and the World

Today is the first official feast day of Pope Saint John Paul II, and I thought it would be appropriate, given that we have just experienced/endured the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, to revisit some of his presentation of what the Church teaches about the family, as expressed in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. Saint John Paul wrote about a great many things, but perhaps his greatest legacy is in the writing he left behind dealing with issues of life (c.f.; Evangelium Vitae) and the family – a body that he rightly recognised as the most fundamental unit of society, the place in which education about ‘first things’ (i.e.; morality, issues of ultimate meaning, the questions of truth and justice) is inculcated in us, and which therefore acts as a ‘domestic church’ (c.f.; Lumen Gentium, 11).

This idea of the family as domestic church – a place where the Faith and central human values are first passed on to us in order to shape our consciences and prepare us to face the world – correlates with the findings of sociologist Mary Eberstadt, who has recognised a proportionality between the decrease in traditional family life and the decline in religious observance (with the former influencing the latter), and must form the basis of any movements the Church makes to engage the wider culture, much of which no longer recognises the traditional model. This is something John Paul recognised, and outlined in the opening of his Apostolic Exhortation:

The family in the modern world, as much as and perhaps more than any other institution, has been beset by the many profound and rapid changes that have affected society and culture. Many families are living this situation in fidelity to those values that constitute the foundation of the institution of the family. Others have become uncertain and bewildered over their role or even doubtful and almost unaware of the ultimate meaning and truth of conjugal and family life. Finally, there are others who are hindered by various situations of injustice in the realization of their fundamental rights.

Knowing that marriage and the family constitute one of the most precious of human values, the Church wishes to speak and offer her help to those who are already aware of the value of marriage and the family and seek to live it faithfully, to those who are uncertain and anxious and searching for the truth, and to those who are unjustly impeded from living freely their family lives. Supporting the first, illuminating the second and assisting the others, the Church offers her services to every person who wonders about the destiny of marriage and the family.

Familiaris Consortio, 1.

            These opening lines recognise that there has been a profound change in the domestic lives of many people, whilst also giving due attention to those who have lived in fidelity to traditional values in accordance with the Church’s teaching. A consistent thread within the Exhortation is that not only should the Church give equal care and attention to both groups, resisting the temptation to focus on irregular situations to the detriment of those who have sacrificed much to remain faithful, but that preservation and promulgation of orthodox teaching on the family must always be a priority in any engagement with the wider culture – we must first strengthen our own sense of what we are for before we can offer it as an alternative to or critique of the modern world:

The Church is deeply convinced that only by the acceptance of the Gospel are the hopes that man legitimately places in marriage and in the family capable of being fulfilled…

…At a moment of history in which the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it, and aware that the well-being of society and her own good are intimately tied to the good of the family, the Church perceives in a more urgent and compelling way her mission of proclaiming to all people the plan of God for marriage and the family, ensuring their full vitality and human and Christian development, and thus contributing to the renewal of society and of the People of God.

ibid, 3.

            Maintaining the truth about the family is thus not only for the good of individual families, but for the good of society itself. Working to preserve and present positively the truth that lifelong commitments between one man and one woman that are open to life and dedicated to raising children in concert with the inseparable values of Truth and Love, and that are properly ordered to transcendent ends, can only enrich the wider society, providing it with citizens who are well integrated and have learned by example the importance of responsibility and faithfulness, as well as the need to live one’s life in the context of goals wider than one’s own individual concerns.

The education of the moral conscience, which makes every human being capable of judging and of discerning the proper ways to achieve self-realization according to his or her original truth, thus becomes a pressing requirement that cannot be renounced…

…To the injustice originating from sin – which has profoundly penetrated the structures of today’s world – and often hindering the family’s full realization of itself and of its fundamental rights, we must all set ourselves in opposition through a conversion of mind and heart, following Christ Crucified by denying our own selfishness: such a conversion cannot fail to have a beneficial and renewing influence even on the structures of society.

ibid, 8-9.

            Familaris Consortio is a long and rich document, which I cannot possibly do full justice to here, but these opening paragraphs give a strong sense of what sort of vision Saint John Paul had for the Church’s teaching on the family and the role of the family in the world – just as the Church is to be salt and light to the world, the Christian family, as a ‘domestic church’ is to sow the same sort of seeds, offering an alternative to neighbours and leavening the society at large by its example:

…the fruitfulness of conjugal love is not restricted solely to the procreation of children, even understood in its specifically human dimension: it is enlarged and enriched by all those fruits of moral, spiritual and supernatural life which the father and mother are called to hand on to their children, and through the children to the Church and to the world.

ibid, 28.

            The Church and the family are thus called to be effective signs to the world, and neither of them can do this if, in an attempt to reach out to the diverse ways of living in modern life, they compromise those basic values which constitute the very form of what they are meant to be offering as an alternative. An engagement with the world which compromised any aspect of the traditional family model would, in the long run, not help anyone – by weakening the very resources of what the Church is offering to the world, the latter would thereby be left to its own devices and simply continue in the ways it has become accustomed to. If the Church truly believes that it has an alternative vision which is capable of transforming the current situation, then to compromise those resources and leave the world so bereft would not be a loving or merciful thing at all:

To the extent in which the Christian family accepts the Gospel and matures in faith, it becomes an evangelizing community. Let us listen again to Paul VI: “The family, like the Church, ought to be a place where the Gospel is transmitted and from which the Gospel radiates. In a family which is conscious of this mission, all the members evangelize and are evangelized. The parents not only communicate the Gospel to their children, but from their children they can themselves receive the same Gospel as deeply lived by them. And such a family becomes the evangelizer of many other families, and of the neighbourhood of which it forms part.”

ibid, 52.

            It is thus incumbent upon the Church not only to present her teaching with clarity and consistency, that Christian families may be able to better form new generations in the task of evangelising the culture, but also to provide sound and continual pastoral care, so that faith is nourished and sustained, and also that families are accompanied by the Church during periods of difficulty. Again, priority must be given to those families who are faithfully living out the virtues of the Gospel – not as some sort of reward for their faithfulness, but because those who do commit themselves to evangelical living are the foundation and future of that continual mission to spread the light of Christ throughout the surrounding culture.

However, once this is appreciated, due care must also be provided to those in irregular situations, and after addressing the situations of those in difficult circumstances (e.g.; migrant families) and those in mixed marriages, Saint John Paul goes on to examine those who are living outside of the regular framework (e.g.; those in trial marriages, ‘free unions’, and the divorced and remarried). In all these cases, he combines a pastor’s concern for the difficulty of the particular situations and the problem of reconciling them with Church teaching, with an insistence on the impossibility of compromising the truth:

The pastors and the ecclesial community should take care to become acquainted with such situations and their actual causes, case by case. They should make tactful and respectful contact with the couples concerned, and enlighten them patiently, correct them charitably and show them the witness of Christian family life, in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation. But above all there must be a campaign of prevention, by fostering the sense of fidelity in the whole moral and religious training of the young, instructing them concerning the conditions and structures that favour such fidelity, without which there is no true freedom; they must be helped to reach spiritual maturity and enabled to understand the rich human and supernatural reality of marriage as a sacrament.

ibid, 81.

            In his conclusion to the Exhortation, Saint John Paul summarises the essence of what all our present discussions about marriage and the family, both in the Church and in society at large, revolve around – namely that there is such a thing as truth, as the right way for humanity, that at its heart it involves love, and also that true love always involves and requires sacrifice:

The Church knows the path by which the family can reach the heart of the deepest truth about itself. The Church has learned this path at the school of Christ and the school of history interpreted in the light of the Spirit. She does not impose it but she feels an urgent need to propose it to everyone without fear and indeed with great confidence and hope, although she knows that the Good News includes the subject of the Cross. But it is through the Cross that the family can attain the fullness of its being and the perfection of its love.

ibid, 86.

            It is a loss of this sense of sacrifice that is at the root of so many of our problems today – we speak much of love, but only as a feeling; and in a culture of instant gratification have taught ourselves that we have a right to happiness which must be realised without any effort on our part. What Saint John Paul II’s teaching reminds us is that we can never truly find our way to lasting happiness without renouncing the clamouring desires of the self. We want Christ without the Cross, and it is part of the Church’s role in the world to tell us not so much that this is not allowed, but that it is simply not possible – true love always involves the via crucis.

John Paul’s teaching on the family is fundamentally rooted in this truth, and his presentation of the positive vision of the family that the Church offers shows us that the only way in which families can be domestic churches (i.e.; to be seeds of light and life to the surrounding culture) is by creating stable environments where the cruciform love of Christ is central to all other aspects of that environment. The only way to counter the currents of selfishness and atomisation that are so prevalent in our culture is to shape future generations of people who know in their heart that true love is always in service to the truth, and always involves true compassion – the suffering with and for the other.

The creation of families rooted in this love is the only means by which the mercy our culture so desperately needs can be effectively and consistently delivered to it, and the only way in which such families can be both created and sustained is if the Church is vigilant in preserving its teachings in all their fullness, that she might present them in all their beauty to the society at large. In a spiritual desert, it is no good for anybody if the only source of living water itself becomes dried up – this is something that Saint John Paul II saw with great clarity, and why he saw the preservation of the splendour of truth as a necessary precursor for the conveying of divine mercy to a wounded world. He also saw that in a world as wounded as ours, the rescue operation that Christ has entrusted to His Church must start from the ground up – that is, it must start with the family.

The Fundamental Option


During the Synod on the Family, I have sensed behind many of the more ‘progressive’ opinions voiced the shadowy presence of the ‘fundamental option’ theory. This is not something that I am aware has been mentioned explicitly, but I think it forms part of the assumptions of many prelates seeking changes in Church teaching. This is a re-blog of a post on the fundamental option from last year, which also includes some corrective wisdom from Saint John Paul II, whose feast day it is tomorrow (I’ve updated him from ‘Blessed’ to ‘Saint’ in the post accordingly).

Originally posted on Journey Towards Easter:

The theory of the fundamental option is a difficult topic to discuss, for many reasons – the primary one though is that it describes something that is very close to the true state of things, and yet does so in a way that is both misrepresentative of those truths, and very attractive to modern minds; another is that it has a direct emotional relevance to all of us (or at least someone we know). I shall address the first point towards the end of my post, but before I take a look at the second, I will briefly outline the essence of this theory, so that it is clear from the start what I am (and am not) talking about. To set the historical context though, first voice must be given to Karl Rahner, who can be said to be the originator of this theory in its fullest form:

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C. S. Lewis on Sex, Love, Marriage and the ‘Right’ to Happiness

The last thing that C. S. Lewis wrote before his death in November 1963, was a short essay entitled We Have No Right to Happiness, that was published by the Saturday Evening Post in December 1963, and reprinted in the God in the Dock collection many years later (1998). At the beginning of the piece, Lewis considers whether we have any particular ‘right’ to happiness in general, but spends the greater part discussing the issue of whether anyone can be said to have an unlimited right to sexual or romantic happiness, and whether this can ever really be said to justify abandoning one’s marriage vows. The answer to this query may seem obvious to many, but in an age where commitment seems to be ranked lower amongst our priorities than ever, it is a question worth revisiting.

In the essay, Lewis not only provides a strong critique against those who would claim all sorts of things as a ‘right’ which are, by the nature of the case, not so at all, but also draws attention to the validity of certain claims to rights per se, and to the assumptions we all make (even those who wish to contravene or supersede commonly held or traditional moral values) when making such claims, thus highlighting the absurdity of isolating some aspects of those assumptions (i.e.; of the Natural Law) and arbitrarily raising them above the others. Finally, this particular issue is linked to the wider concerns and ramifications of individualism and relativism – things already prevalent in Lewis’ day, but yet to have gained quite as much of a hold over the popular imagination as they have today.

Lewis begins the piece by describing a hypothetical conversation between himself and a woman named Clare, about a man (Mr A.) who had divorced his wife in order to marry another woman (Mrs B. – who had also divorced her husband) on the grounds that they had fallen in love and, because of the ‘right to happiness’, were justified in abandoning their spouses. Whilst there also exist many much more sympathetic reasons for ending a marriage this rationale is unfortunately not only an increasingly common one, but is also now widely seen to be acceptable by our society. I present here the bulk of Lewis’ response to the situation (and Clare’s approval of it):

I went away thinking about the concept of a “right to happiness”. At first this sounds to me as odd as the right to good luck. For I believe – whatever one school or moralists may say – that we depend for a very great deal of our happiness or misery on circumstances outside all human control. A right to happiness doesn’t, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic.

I can understand a right as a freedom guaranteed me by the laws of the society I live in. Thus, I have a right to travel along the public roads because society gives me that freedom; that’s what we mean by calling the roads “public”. I can also understand a right as a claim guaranteed me by the laws, and correlative to an obligation on someone else’s part. If I have a right to receive £100 from you, this is another way of saying that you have a duty to pay me £100. If the laws allow Mr A. to desert his wife and seduce his neighbour’s wife, then, by definition, Mr A. has a legal right to do so, and we need bring in no talk about “happiness”.

But of course this was not what Clare meant. She meant that he had not only a legal right but a moral right to act as he did. In other words, Clare is – or would be if she thought it out – a classical moralist after the style of Thomas Aquinas, Grotius, Hooker and Locke. She believes that behind the laws of the state there is a Natural Law. I agree with her. I hold this conception to be basic to all civilisation. Without it, the actual laws of the state become an absolute, as in Hegel. They cannot be criticised because there is no norm against which they should be judged.

The ancestry of Clare’s maxim, “They have a right to happiness”, is august. In words that are cherished by all civilised men, but especially by Americans, it has been laid down that one of the rights of man is a right to “the pursuit of happiness”. And now we get to the real point. What did the writers of that august declaration mean?

It is quite certain what they did not mean. They did not mean that man was entitled to pursue happiness by any and every means – including, say, murder, rape, robbery, treason and fraud. No society could be built on such a basis. They meant to “pursue happiness by all lawful means”; that is, by all means which the Law of Nature eternally sanctions and which the laws of the nation shall sanction…

…But the question as to what means are “lawful” – what methods of pursuing happiness are either morally permissible by the Law of Nature or should be declared legally permissible by the legislature of a particular nation – remains exactly where it did. And on that question I disagree with Clare. I don’t think it is obvious that people have the unlimited “right to happiness” which she suggests.

For one thing, I believe that Clare, when she says “happiness”, means simply and solely “sexual happiness”. Partly because women like Clare never use the word “happiness” in any other sense. But also because I never heard Clare talk about the “right” to any other kind. She was rather leftist in her politics, and would have been scandalised if anyone had defended the actions of a ruthless man-eating tycoon on the ground that his happiness consisted in making money and he was pursuing his happiness. She was also a rabid tee-totaller; I never heard her excuse an alcoholic because he was happy when he was drunk. A good many of Clare’s friends, and especially her female friends, often felt – I’ve heard them say so – that their own happiness would be perceptibly increased by boxing her ears. I very much doubt if this would have brought her theory of a right to happiness into play.

Clare, in fact, is doing what the whole western world seems to me to have been doing for the last forty-odd years. When I was a youngster, all the progressive people were saying, “Why all this prudery? Let us treat sex just as we treat our other impulses.” I was simple-minded enough to believe they meant what they said. I have since discovered that they meant exactly the opposite. They meant sex was to be treated as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilised people. All the others, we admit, have to be bridled. Absolute obedience to your instinct for self-preservation is what we call cowardice; to your acquisitive impulse, avarice. Even sleep must be resisted if you’re a sentry. But every unkindness and breach of faith seems to be condoned provided that the object aimed at is “four bare legs in a bed”…

…The real situation is skilfully concealed by saying that the question of Mr A.’s “right” to desert his wife is one of “sexual morality”. Robbing an orchard is not an offence against some special morality called “fruit morality”. It is an offence against honesty. Mr A.’s action is an offence against good faith (to solemn promises), against gratitude (towards one whom he was deeply indebted) and against common humanity. Our sexual impulses are thus being put in a position of preposterous privilege. The sexual motive is taken to condone all sorts of behaviour which, if it had any other end in view, would be condemned as merciless, treacherous and unjust.

Now though I see no good reason for giving sex this privilege, I think I see a strong cause. It is this. It is part of the nature of a strong erotic passion – as distinct from a transient fit of appetite – that it makes more towering promises than any other emotion. No doubt all our desires make promises, but not so impressively. To be in love involves the almost irresistible conviction that one will go on being in love until one dies, and that possession of the beloved will confer, not merely frequent ecstasies, but settled, fruitful, deep-rooted, lifelong happiness. Hence all seems to be at stake. If we miss this chance we shall have lived in vain. At the very thought of such doom we sink into fathomless depths of pity.

Unfortunately these promises are found often to be quite untrue. Every experienced adult knows this to be so as regards all erotic passions (except the one he himself is feeling at the moment). We discount the world-without-end pretensions of our friends’ amours easily enough. We know that such things sometimes last – and sometimes don’t. And when they do last, this is not because they promised at the outset to do so. When two people achieve lasting happiness, this is not solely because they are great lovers but because they are also – I must put it crudely – good people; controlled, loyal, fair-minded, mutually adaptable people.

If we establish a “right to (sexual) happiness” which supersedes all the ordinary rules of behaviour, we do so not because of what our passion shows itself to be in experience, but because of what it professes to be while we are in the grip of it. Hence, while the bad behaviour is real and works miseries and degradations, the happiness which was the object of the behaviour turns out again and again to be illusory. Everyone (except Mr A. and Mrs B.) knows that Mr A. in a year or so may have the same reason for deserting his new wife as deserting his old. He will feel again that all is at stake. He will see himself again as the great lover, and his pity for himself will exclude all pity for the woman…

…Secondly, though the “right to happiness” is chiefly claimed for the sexual impulse, it seems to me impossible that the matter should stay there. The fatal principle, once allowed in that department, must sooner or later seep through our whole lives. We thus advance towards a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skill may help us survive a little longer, our civilisation will have died at heart, and will – one dare not even add “unfortunately” – be swept away.

taken from Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (2002), pp.388-392, Harper Collins.