The Meeting of Heaven and Earth: On Particularity and Familiar Things

It is one of the joys of earthly life to take comfort in familiarity – the particular feel of a favourite chair, well worn by years of use; certain scents or sounds that evoke happy memory; the re-reading of books that have nurtured our imaginations in the past and continue to feed them in the present – and the joy we take in such things reflects the more general delight we take in the concrete and particular. The experience of fully encountering this moment – this place and these things at this time – communicates to us not only a feeling of assurance but also a sense of the sacred (and perhaps the former because of the latter). What degree of continuity will there be though, if any, between these experiences and life in Heaven; and what are we to make of the tension between our love of the concrete and our being called to renounce attachment to things in general – can that tension find a resolution?

The first thing to note is that, due to the Incarnation, Christianity is necessarily committed to the material – it is a deeply sacramental religion, with the hypostatic union of the human and divine natures in Our Lord providing the foundation for a system of mediated grace that flows from the Church (itself a thoroughly material entity) via the sacraments which it has received the authority to provide. Whilst the deeply physical nature of the means by which we receive grace to aid us on our way to God is denied vociferously by a great many Protestant churches (as well as the need for there to be any mediation at all) this remains a basic fact of historic, orthodox Christianity – a fact that is of great importance for understanding how God intends to bring us into relationship with Him, and which bears continual witness to the nature of the Incarnation itself.

This being the case then, our love of material things cannot be wholly wrong, even if it may need some qualification – matter, already in some sense hallowed by virtue of it being created by God and said by Him to be good, has received further consecration due to God having united to Himself our human nature, entered into our material world, and further blessed it by setting apart certain elements of that world (bread, wine, water, oil) for the effective communication of His own divine life. Such qualification that may be required is where the question of attachment comes in – if matter is something good, and even blessed, it is not our enjoyment of it that may lead us astray, but our being attached to it to the extent that we need it to be happy. If we take pleasure in sitting in an old armchair, this is a fine thing in and of itself, but if we begin to seek out such a feeling, then we have become, in a small but significant way, addicted to it – it is not the chair, nor the feeling of comfort that it gives us that is the problem, but the placing of our happiness in the re-creation of that feeling.

The attachment we feel towards such experiences and things (whether they be good, like the reading of a favourite book in a beloved armchair, or sinful, like drinking ourselves into a stupor) is due to our concupiscence – the preferring of lower goods (or even the perversion of good things) in contrast to the things reason tells us make for our highest good. Basically, we give too much of our affection and desire towards the things God has made, instead of He who made them; and this is due to a prior flaw in human nature, which is born of Original Sin. So, the problem is not our delight in the things of this world (the concrete is, as we have seen, not only good but is further blessed by virtue of the Incarnation) but our forgetfulness of where these particular goods receive their goodness from. Enjoying creation is a good and holy thing; preferring it to the Creator is not.

With respect to familiarity then, and our taking comfort in it, there should not be a problem in our doing so as long as we enjoy such things with a spirit of gratitude – if each time we nestle down in that favourite armchair of ours (sorry for repeating this example, but I really do love a good, well-worn armchair; the enjoyment of a bacon sandwich would work equally well) we recognise that these things, indeed anything is a gift of God, and thus our enjoyment becomes properly expressed within the context of thanks that He has provided us with them. This then ties into the question of what continuity there might be between these concrete experiences, mediated by our senses, and the heavenly life; as if our enjoyment of earthly things is properly ordered only when it is rightly aligned to their Provider, then any continuity between them and life in Heaven must be on that basis too.

Saint Augustine, in the concluding chapters of his De Civitate Dei, considers what life in Heaven might be like, and thereby the related question of what our resurrected life might be like – for another corroboration of the goodness of materiality is that we, along with the rest of the creation, will be reinstated and transfigured; Heaven will not be a place of ghosts, but of substance. What that substance will be, and the way in which our substantial but spiritualised bodies will interact with that new world, is what Saint Augustine goes on to consider (in Chapter 29 of Book XII), and in doing so (particularly in the second part of the excerpt below) he provides some illumination on this question of continuity:

If the eyes of the spiritual body have no more power than the eyes which we now possess, manifestly God cannot be seen with them. They must be of a very different power if they can look upon that incorporeal nature which is not contained in any place, but is all in every place. For though we say that God is in heaven and on earth, as He Himself says by the prophet, “I fill heaven and earth,” we do not mean that there is one part of God in heaven and another part on earth; but He is all in heaven and all on earth, not at alternate intervals of time, but both at once, as no bodily nature can be. The eye, then, must have a vastly superior power – the power not of keen sight, such as is ascribed to serpents or eagles, for however keenly these animals see, they can discern nothing but bodily substances – but the power of seeing things incorporeal…

…Wherefore it may very well be, and it is thoroughly credible, that we shall in the future world see the material forms of the new heavens and the new earth in such a way that we shall most distinctly recognise God everywhere present and governing all things, material as well as spiritual, and shall see Him, not as we now understand the invisible things of God, by the things which are made, and see Him darkly, as in a mirror, and in part, and rather by faith than by bodily vision of material appearances, but by means of the bodies we shall wear and which we shall see wherever we turn our eyes. As we do not believe, but see that the living men around us who are exercising vital functions are alive, though we cannot see their life without their bodies, but see it most distinctly by means of their bodies, so, wherever we shall look with those spiritual eyes of our future bodies, we shall then, too, by means of bodily substances behold God, though a spirit, ruling all things.

The City of God (2000), pp.861-863, Modern Library.

                Saint Augustine goes on to elaborate as to how this transparency of the material to the Spirit underpinning and vitalising it will lead to an increased intimacy between all created things – because God will be vividly apparent to us in and through the new heavens and new earth, each part of this realm will be for us something upon which our gaze may (as George Herbert writes in his poem The Elixir) ‘through it pass, and then the heav’n espy’; also communication between persons will be clear and immediate, unencumbered by the self-possession of sin, and enabled by the prior communion with God which all shall enjoy. Furthermore, in Chapter 30 of the same book, Augustine goes on to describe something of the freedom we will have in this communion, with its concomitant lack of attachment to things for their own sake:

What power of movement such bodies shall possess, I have not the audacity rashly to define, as I have not the ability to conceive. Nevertheless I will say that in any case, both in motion and at rest, they shall be, as in their appearance, seemly; for into that state nothing which is unseemly shall be admitted. One thing is certain, the body shall forthwith be wherever the spirit wills, and the spirit shall will nothing which is unbecoming either to the spirit or to the body. True honour shall be there, for it shall be denied to none who is worthy, nor yielded to any unworthy; neither shall any unworthy person so much as sue for it, for none but the worthy shall be there. True peace shall be there, where no one shall suffer opposition either from himself or from any other. God Himself, who is the Author of virtue, shall there be its reward; for, as there is nothing greater or better, He has promised Himself.

ibid, pp.864-865.

                Whereas in this life we experience God only partially, and do so through the things He has made, in Heaven we shall ‘see the material forms of the new heavens and the new earth in such a way that we shall most distinctly recognise God everywhere present and governing all things, material as well as spiritual’ – everything will be a window onto Him, and thus we shall enjoy all the things of the new heaven and earth precisely because they show us the divine life, not because of the things themselves. Furthermore, concupiscence will no longer be an issue, for ‘the body shall forthwith be wherever the spirit wills, and the spirit shall will nothing which is unbecoming either to the spirit or to the body’ and so nothing will stand in the way of that perfect alignment with the life of God that is our true destiny.

Therefore, if what Saint Augustine writes is correct, our enjoyment of the concrete and particular will not only find continuity with the heavenly life, but will thereby find its perfection – if the goodness of such earthly experiences can be located in our recognition that they come from God and to some extent bring us closer to Him, then how much more will the goodness of those very same things be realised in a context where they show us their dependence upon Him completely. In Heaven then, just as our sensory experience will be taken to a level beyond what it is now, so that we will be able to thereby know spiritual truth as well, so will the mediatory role of the rest of creation find its perfection.

This then would provide a definite point of continuity for us, linking the partially revelatory joys of familiar things and experiences to the unmitigated glorification all creation will provide in Heaven. However, although the prominence that is accorded to Saint Augustine is well-deserved, and his arguments here cogent, his is still but an opinion (albeit a very learned one), and the true nature of Heaven must by the nature of the case remain mysterious to us – how much stock can we actually put in what he says? It seems to me that, although it is true that we know vastly less of Heaven than we ever can hope to know in this life, that the arguments put forward by Augustine are based on sound dogmatic principles (i.e.; the goodness of creation, the resurrection of the body) and also that the central point of his conclusion cannot really be disputed.

The key to all he says is this – that whatever we encounter in Heaven will be in some way, though in truth we know not how, continuous with this life, but that the root of this continuity is God. If anything of this life survives into the next, it will be because it spoke to us of God; if any experience or mode of being finds some analogy in Heaven, it will be because it showed us Him – what makes Heaven the blessed place that it will be is God alone, because ‘as there is nothing greater or better, He has promised Himself.’ All things in Heaven will be there to glorify Him who is our greatest, and, in the end, our only good. That many things in this life already do speak to us of Him in part should give us some confidence that they will therefore also play a part in the hereafter; but whatever the reality is, we will find that it fulfils and far exceeds all that has thus far given us joy.

John Betjeman: Advent 1955

As today is the first Sunday of Advent, I had been hunting around for some time for a suitable poem with which to mark the day. Similar to the way in which one might search about looking for new clothes and then find a warm, well-worn and perfectly fitting jumper already there in the cupboard, I eventually (and thankfully) stumbled across John Betjeman’s Advent 1955, perfect for the occasion not just because it actually has the word ‘Advent’ in the title, but because it conveys (in typically comforting yet deceptively astute Betjemanian fashion) a good deal of what Advent is all about – true conversion of spirit, effected by gratitude and expressed in generosity.

The poem begins by bringing to mind the particular weather that exists at this time of year (particularly in Britain), where the crisp air of autumn begins to take on a bit of an extra bite and the nights grow darker still. Betjeman here manages to conjure up in marvellously vivid fashion that feeling of winter weather ‘setting in’ – in the landscape around, in the growing wildness of the season and in the feeling of the cold beginning to reach into one’s very bones. There is also at this time of year a sense of time quickening – something that Betjeman contrasts to the prolonged and languid days of summer, and which evokes the dominant theme of Advent; that of expectation and of a growing sense of meeting what the future holds in store for us.

At this point Betjeman has some of his beloved church bells announce the time of Advent, and uses this as a platform from which to ask us the questions – what are we looking forward to, and how do we prepare for it? He then produces a litany of the many ways in which we subvert this period, cheapening it with commercialism and confirming ourselves in petty parsimony. By drawing our attention to these things, so prevalent amongst us yet so antithetical to the spirit of Advent, we are prepared to see precisely how we really should be behaving instead. Preparation for reflection on the Birth of Christ and his Second Coming should involve cultivating within ourselves a spirit of gratitude and generosity, and, as Betjeman’s concluding lines submit, the latter of these should flow from the former.

In the Incarnation, God gave us His very self, uniting His divine Person to our human nature, drawing to Himself all our weaknesses and affording us the opportunity to enter into the riches of that life which we have rejected. Furthermore, in doing this He showed us His true nature – One who yearns to draw close to His creatures, and is thus willing to humble Himself in order to do so. During Advent, as we look forward to the image of the Child born into poverty, in straitened circumstances and (in a double sense) distant from home, we look to a God who greatly desires that we know Him and who comes to deliver us from the selfishness of sin – it is our gratitude for this great gift that should inspire us to give of ourselves as Our Lord gives to us, and it is the extent to which we, in love, pass on the gifts we have received by which we will be judged when He comes again:

 

The Advent wind begins to stir

With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,

It’s dark at breakfast, dark at tea,

And in between we only see

Clouds hurrying across the sky

And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry

And branches bending to the gale

Against great skies all silver-pale.

The world seems travelling into space,

And travelling at a faster pace

Than in the leisured summer weather

When we and it sit out together,

For now we feel the world spin round

On some momentous journey bound –

Journey to what? to whom? to where?

The Advent bells call out “Prepare,

Your world is journeying to the birth

Of God made Man for us on earth.”

            And how, in fact, do we prepare

For the great day that waits us there –

The twenty-fifth day of December,

The birth of Christ? For some it means

An interchange of hunting scenes

On coloured cards. And I remember

Last year I sent out twenty yards,

Laid end to end, of Christmas cards

To people that I scarcely know –

They’d sent a card to me, and so

I had to send one back. Oh dear!

Is this a form of Christmas cheer?

Or is it, which is less surprising,

My pride gone in for advertising?

The only cards that really count

Are that extremely small amount

From real friends who keep in touch

And are not rich but love us much.

Some ways are indeed very odd

By which we hail the birth of God.

We raise the price of things in shops,

We give plain boxes fancy tops

And lines which traders cannot sell

Thus parcell’d out go extremely well.

We dole out bribes we call a present

To those to whom we must be pleasant

For business reasons. Our defence is

These bribes are charged against expenses

And bring relief in Income Tax.

Enough of these unworthy cracks!

“The time draws near the birth of Christ”,

A present that cannot be priced

Given two thousand years ago.

Yet if God had not given so

He still would be a distant stranger

And not the Baby in the manger.

Saint Faustina Kowalska: A Litany of Thanksgiving

On the 17th of September 1937, Saint Faustina Kowalska wrote in her diary of a feeling that had come upon her that day. First there is the announcement of her intense appreciation for the beauty in the world and the graces that are given us (the extent of which we will only be known to us when ‘the veil is lifted’, at which point we will be staggered by how much we missed), but also of sorrow for the souls who are blind both to the beauty of creation and the graces offered – those who are ‘like stone’ and who ‘see nothing but themselves’. After this short declaration, Saint Faustina composed a series of meditations on God’s gifts to us – a litany of thanksgivings for the means of grace made possible through the Incarnation and its continuation in the Catholic Church.

These meditations (section 1286 in the diary) can be read as a devotional poem, but would also work well as a canticle or hymn, such is the cyclic character of the verses, the persistence of the theme that they speak of, and the joyous, uplifting feeling that characterises thanksgiving in general and is expressed by Saint Faustina’s vivid and impassioned words in particular. Furthermore, the recounting of the benefits that the individual sacraments have on the soul actually provides a very useful (and very concise) catechism on the means of grace, showing yet another mark of a good hymn – the ability to teach the one who praises in the very act of praising.

I have also included two stanzas that express gratitude for a religious vocation, as the sentiments expressed therein can still be applied to lay people; nevertheless, these could easily be omitted if one were to use Saint Faustina’s words for private meditation or reflection. At any rate, if, as in the words of G. K. Chesterton, ‘thanks are the highest form of thought and…gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder’, then the following lines should hopefully provide any one who reads them with a superb springboard for a day filled with contemplation and joy – they are filled with delight in the gifts of God and overflow with an irresistible sense of a life lived in true harmony with His love:

 

Thank You, O God, for all the graces

Which unceasingly You lavish upon me,

Graces which enlighten me with the brilliance of the sun,

For by them You show me the sure way.

 

Thank You, O Lord, for creating me,

For calling me into being from nothingness,

For imprinting Your divinity on my soul,

The work of sheer merciful love.

 

Thank You, O God, for Holy Baptism

Which engrafted me into Your family,

A gift great beyond all thought or expression

Which transforms my soul.

 

Thank You, O Lord, for Holy Confession,

For that inexhaustible spring of great mercy,

For that inconceivable fountain of graces

In which sin-tainted souls become purified.

 

Thank You, O Jesus, for Holy Communion

In which You give us Yourself.

I feel your Heart beating within my breast

As You cause Your divine life to unfold within me.

 

Thank You, O Holy Spirit, for the Sacrament of

Confirmation,

Which dubs me Your knight

And gives strength to my soul at each moment,

Protecting me from evil.

 

Thank You, O God, for the grace of a vocation

For being called to serve You alone,

Leading me to make You my sole love,

An unequal honour for my soul.

 

Thank You, O Lord, for perpetual vows,

For that union of pure love,

For having deigned to unite Your pure heart with

mine

And uniting my heart to Yours in the purest of bonds.

 

Thank You, O Lord, for the Sacrament of Anointing

Which, in my final moments, will give me strength;

My help in battle, my guide to salvation,

Fortifying my soul till we rejoice forever.

 

Thank You, O God, for all the inspirations

That Your goodness lavishes upon me,

For the interior lights given my soul,

Which the heart senses, but words cannot express.

 

Thank You, O Holy Trinity, for the vastness of the graces

Which You have lavished on me unceasingly through

life.

My gratitude will intensify as the eternal dawn rises,

When, for the first time, I sing to Your glory.

 

taken from Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul (2014), pp.462-464, Marian Press.

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.