Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Teilhard's litany of the Sacred Heart: (1) The Golden Glow

Let us begin our exploration  ( for a general account go HERE ) of the actual image of the Sacred Heart by focusing on an idea that comes to my mind every time I see the icon.  So it feels like the right place to start.  The gold on the icon has an amazing effect of changing with different light conditions and at different times of day and night.  I particularly like looking at it when the light is quite poor because it seems to glow in a very special way then.  On a card of the Sacred Heart found on his desk in New York in 1955 Teilhard had written a list - what has been termed a litany - which tries to sum-up in his terms what he understood by the Sacred Heart.    In his litany (SEE HERE) Teilhard refers to the Sacred Heart (in English) as 'The Golden Glow'.  I believe that  our icon captures this perfectly.  Firstly we have the gold of the icon which was applied as a background at an  early stage which conveys the light of God filling all creation.   We also have gold in the halos (  or nimbus or  aureole ) around Christ, the Blessed Virgin and Saint John the Baptist and St Mary Magdalene and the angels.  That is normal convention.   But in this icon the Sacred Heart itself has its own golden aureole ( the word prefered by Teilhard) as well as golden flames inside  coming from the heart and  golden flames in the nimbus surrounding Christ.

In a letter to Jeanne-Marie Mortier in 1948 he refers to 'The Heart of Christ at the heart of matter.  The 'Golden Glow' as I like to say in English'. In another letter to Claude Cuenot the same year he writes of the ' The Golden Glow: the glimmer of fire - love (attraction) and evolution of  love - the all, centered and non-diffused (expansion). 

 For Teilhard the Sacred Heart was a Golden Glow which signified Christ's divinity as a luminous energy of love.  It is the symbol of the presence of the divine centre of the universe.  It is God's love as a fire - which energises all life.  In a letter to Leontine Zanta in 1917 he refers to  the :

'vision of the mysterious  Diaphany (I prefer that word to Epiphany ) by which the universal Christ  illumines the unique  and higher substance of things, so as to act on us through them and so draw us to their common summit! 

Teilhard in front of the 'golden glow' in 1917
The year before this letter he had written his 'Three stories in the style of Benson' (1916) in which (in 'The Picture') he describes a vision of the Sacred Heart  in which the 'vibrant atmosphere' which surrounded Christ like an 'aureole' was  no longer 'confined to the narrow space around him, but radiated  towards infinity'.   He describes it as a kind of 'phosphorescence'  emanating from the heart of Christ  like ' a blood stream or nervous system running through the totality of life'. In his  essay 'The Priest' (1918) he says this:
In a very real sense, Lord Jesus, you are the full assemblage of all beings who shelter and meet and are for ever united, within the mystical bonds of your body.  In your breast, my God, better than in any embrace, I possess all those whom I love and are illuminated by your beauty and in turn illumine you with the rays of light (so powerful in their effect upon our hearts) which they receive from you and send back to you. ( ‘The Priest’, Prayer of the Universe, p 163)
What he later terms the Golden Glow is therefore the 'rays of light' which have a powerful effect on our hearts.   We must be open to this light and 'send it back' to God.  

In 1941 he gives his friend Lucile Swan a holy picture of the Sacred Heart. His letter describes it as: 

Lucile Swan

..a copy of the only “pious” object left, since years, on my working table. Hope you will not think it too “roman-catholic”. For me this quite simple illustration is a vague representation of the universal “foyer” of attraction which we are aiming for...

A few years before his death Teilhard wrote the most complete statement on the Sacred Heart ( The Heart of Matter, 1950) .  In it he notes that 'the moment I saw a mysterious patch of crimson and gold delineated in the Saviour's breast, I found what I as looking for  - a way of finally escaping from everything that so distressed me in the complicated, fragile and individual organization of the Body of Jesus.  It was an astounding release!' (p43).   This way of seeing the Sacred Heart as 'crimson and gold' radiating light was a profound and defining event in his life.   In our icon the Sacred Heart  is  crimson and gold and well  captures this idea we find in the Heart of Matter.  I think that if we want to see the Sacred Heart anew - or in a different way - we have to see it in terms of this golden glow. 

OF COURSE, any  image of the Sacred Sacred Heart can  only ever be a 'vague representation'  of what he calls a 'foyer' of crimson and gold  attraction towards which mankind are being drawn and towards which we should aim.   'Foyer'  on the face of it a strange word to use.  Does he mean that it is  a  lobby  or  a waiting room?  I don't think so.   It is more likely that he is using it in a very different sense: the word 'foyer' comes from the latin FOCUS, which means  a hearth or fireplace.  The image therefore vaguely represents a universal fireplace or focal point of attraction.  What he likes about the card is that it captures this sense of the Sacred Heart as a 'foyer' : it is a representation of the universal glow of divine love which is a universal focal point - foyer or hearth of the cosmos.  The Sacred Heart is indeed a sacred hearth!   The Golden Glow is the glowing light generated by that foyer.   Thus, on the 27th August  1941 he writes to  describing it as the ' light and the hearth of God' which is at the  'at the deep centre of everything'.  The Golden Glow is the light 'of  beauty and truth'.  

The Golden Glow in the icon  may therefore be  understood as the diaphanous light which illuminates and draws us  - attracts us -  to the divine centre of the cosmos.   As Sion Cowell expresses it in his utterly  indispensable guide to Teilhard : the Golden Glow is is the ' luminous fringe revealing the divinity of Christ (epiphany and transfiguration. ) and the active presence of the divine milieu'. ( Sion Cowell, The Teilhard Lexicon, p 86)  That is what the icon captures so beautifully.  It is filled with a diaphanous golden glow which evokes the  Golden Glow which we know better as the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Blessed Ghebre-Michael

I  am fortunate  to live in a parish which is served by members of the Vincentian order. And for this reason we remembered Blessed Ghebre-Michael  (1790-1855) today at mass.  (READ  more here)    His story is a sad one which highlights an important aspect of this icon: the relationship between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox  churches.   As we noted in an earlier blog, it was Blessed John Paul's  dearest wish that Catholics and members of the Orthodox tradition should seek greater unity and understanding.  This was clearly absent at the time of Ghebre-Michael when there was a good deal of tension and misunderstanding between the  two traditions.   His  martyrdom reminds us of the continuing need for a  of better understanding between the two great traditions of Christianity - which have so very much in common.   In its own small way I think this icon is trying to help that relationship by showing how the 'light from the east'  can serve to illuminate the most Catholic of images - the Sacred Heart.   In turn, I hope that someone from the Orthodox tradition can read this icon and find that they are illuminated by some light from the west!  By reflecting on the 'heart' in scripture we may converge towards a deeper relationship. 

Monday, 29 August 2011

John the Baptist

What I love about this icon is that although it is of the Sacred  Heart, it is  window into our faith as a whole.     In the Sacred Heart we are reminded of the humility of God in the Incarnation.   Today we remember the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. ( He has, of course, an earlier  feast in June to celebrate his birth.  Is he the only saint to have two feasts??)

Jesus told his followers that John was the greatest of all the sons of men.  Whilst John told his followers that Jesus was the Lamb of God.   In John we see another model of humility. John knows that the time has come when he must diminish and Jesus must increase.   And he humbly gives way to Jesus.

 I think this quality of humility must be one of the signs of a great soul.   The greater the soul, the smaller the sense of self importance.: the greater the soul, the smaller the ego.  None is greater than John, and yet none submits so willingly to his own diminishment.  He is also a figure of importance to all concerned with the place of faith in the public sphere.    John was not afraid to tell the powerful that they were in breech of God's law.   He was not afraid to tell Herod that they way he was living was wrong and immoral.  John told is how it was.   And, in Mark (6: 17-29) we are told that Herod rather respected him for that!  Indeed, that he liked to listen to him!  But he also liked his wife's daughter as well.  And that was John's misfortune.   There are several prayers to St. John the Baptist.  This one seems appropriate for today:

O Martyr invincible, who, for the honor of God and the salvation of souls didst with firmness and constancy withstand the impiety of Herod even at the cost of thine own life, and didst rebuke him openly for his wicked and dissolute life; by thy prayers obtain for us a heart, brave and generous, in order that we may overcome all human respect and openly profess our faith in loyal obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ, our divine Master.

As we pray to the Sacred Heart, St John reminds us that we must be open to the fire of God's love: we  must in all humility ask for our selfish self-seeking egos to be purified.   It is not our heads WE must lose, but our hearts that we must give.  We must diminish, if we are to increase.  **
** Having written this, I came this across this passage the following day by Benedict XVI which says it all so much better!

' The task set before the Baptist as he lay in  prison was to become blessed by this unquestioning acceptance of God'd obscure will;  to reach the point of asking no further for external, visible, unequivocal clarity, but instead, of discovering God precisely  in the darkness of this world...John event in prison had to respond once again and anew  to his own call for metanoia or a change of mentality, in order that he might recognise his God in the night in which all early things exist.  Only when we act in this manner does another - and doubtless the greatest - sayings of the Baptist reveal its full significance: ' He must increase, But I must decrease' (Jn 3; 30).  We will know God to the extent that we are set free from ourselves.'  (cited in  Magnificat, Vol 1, No 11, August 2011: p384) 

'We will know God to the extent that we are set free from ourselves.'   This statement seems to me to go to the very heart of the Sacred Heart.  As we become ever more attracted or pulled towards the Sacred Heart we become less constrained by the  narrow limitations of our own hearts - that is 'ourselves'.   Hence, the full significance of what the Baptist can bring to our understanding of this icon of the Sacred Heart of Jesus: we increase only as we diminish.   ( Teilhard had much to say about 'diminishment' that will require another blog! ) 

Sunday, 28 August 2011

St Michael the weigher of souls.

A little more on Michael.  A popular theme in the iconography of this formidable angel is job of weighing of souls.   I was thinking about this in relation to the angel with the measuring rod in the icon and I remembered a passage  from The Divine Milieu which is apposite.   

Teilhard invites us to understand how we are, as individual human beings, part of a cosmic tapestry.  We are not alone. Our souls are woven into the very fabric of God’s creation.  In the Divine Milieu he says this:

however autonomous our soul, it is indebted to an inheritance worked upon from all sides-before ever it came into being-by the totality of the energies of the earth: it meets and rejoins life at a determined level. Then, hardly has it entered actively into the universe at that particular point than it feels, in its turn, besieged and penetrated by the flow of cosmic influences which have to be ordered and assimilated. Let us look around us: the waves come from all sides and from the farthest horizon. Through every cleft the world we perceive floods us with its riches-food for the body, nourishment for the eyes, harmony of sounds and fullness of the heart, unknown phenomena and new truths, all these treasures, all these stimuli, all these calls, coming to us from the four corners of the world, cross our consciousness at every moment. If even the most humble and most material of our foods is capable of deeply influencing our most spiritual faculties, what can be said of  the infinitely more penetrating energies conveyed to us by the music of tones, of notes, of words, of ideas? We have not, in us, a body which takes its nourishment independently of our soul. Everything that the body has admitted and has begun to transform must be transfigured by the soul in its turn. (Harper edition: 59)

What we are  - what our souls are becoming – is the outcome of all of the multiplicity of influences  (small and large ) that have shaped our lives.  We are what we eat, but also what we experience physically, intellectually and spiritually.  Out of all this material we fabricate or build our soul.   Making our soul is our great work – our magnum opus.  Teilhard says that : 

it is we who, through our own activity, must industriously assemble the widely scattered elements. The labour of seaweed as it concentrates in its tissues the substances scattered, in infinitesimal quantities, throughout the vast layers of the ocean; the industry of bees as they make honey from the juices broadcast in so many flowers-these are but pale images of the ceaseless working-over that all the forces of the universe undergo in us in order to reach the level of spirit. ( p60) 

This is our task, to enlarge our soul.  God  gives us a soul and we have to grow it, nourish it, feed the divine spark that we have been given as children of God.  And in so doing we not only build  up our soul:    because we are part of a great tapestry of existence, we contribute in our own small way to the building of  a new creation.  

Thus every man, in the course of his life, must not only show himself obedient and docile. By his fidelity he must build  - starting with the most natural territory of his own self – a work, an opus, into which something enters from all the elements of the earth.  He makes his own soul throughout all his earthly days; and at the same time he collaborates in another work, in another opus, which infinitely transcends, while at the same time it narrowly determines, the perspectives of his individual achievement: the completing of the world.……. Beneath our efforts to put spiritual form into our own lives, the world slowly accumulates, starting with the whole of matter, that which will make of it the Heavenly Jerusalem or the New Earth. (61) 

Above all, making a soul is about working with God: becoming a partner in building the new creation - the New Jerusalem  being measure by our angel in the icon.  

It is through the collaboration which he stimulates in us that Christ, starting from all created things, is consummated and attains his plenitude. St. Paul him self tells us so. We may, perhaps, imagine that the creation was finished long ago. But that would be quite wrong. It continues still more magnificently, and at the highest levels of the world. Omnis creatura adhuc ingemiscit et parturit. And we serve to complete it, even by the humblest work of our hands. That is, ultimately, the meaning and value of our acts. Owing to the interrelation between matter, soul and Christ, we bring part of the being which he desires back to God in whatever we do. With each one of our works,we labour-in individual separation, but no less really-to build the Pleroma; that is to say, we bring to Christ a little fulfillment. (p62) 

We make our soul throughout our earthly life.  Thus each one of us is called to make our  OWN soul, and thereby  contribute to the building of a New Earth.  That is our job. That is what we were born to do. St. Michael’s job is to prompt us into thinking about how we are doing!  So when we think of St. Michael we should be asking ourselves this question: how is our soul-building going? Have we been working with God to bring about a New Earth? 

Teilhard uses the idea of an industrious bee making use of all the sources of nectar.  He asks us to consider seaweed and how it filters out tiny particles from the great oceans to build its cells and structure.  Building a soul is  like that : it is work.  Indeed, it is our  life’s work.  Building a soul requires us to be active - in all things for Christ.  Making a soul requires us to struggle and take risks: to make a soul you have to get out there!     In the light of this  I think I understand afresh the parables of the talents and the pounds we find in the Gospels of Mathew(25; 14- 30) and Luke (19:12-27).   I always used to think that it was so unfair to punish the man who took no chances and just kept the money safe.   He returns what  he was given, after all!   But, of course,  God wants us to take risks and be busy and active: he wants us to be risk takers in a spiritual sense.  And to love with an open heart is the greatest risk of all.   He wants us to be like the bee and the seaweed: we have to work at it.  You can’t build a soul sitting on it.  Our icon is calling us to be active in bring about the fullness of God - the pleroma - we see before us. 

Perhaps what is wrong with so many people nowadays in our society is that they have no sense of having a soul.  They live in a world which is – in so many senses soul-less.  We live in a world which seems to be loosing its soul.   Sadly, we live in a world  in which the sacred is no longer present to people in the ordinary business of their lives - and oftentimes it is not present in places which should be sacred.  But the soul yearns and thirsts for the sacred and the holy: because  it  thirsts for God.  However, when human beings  loose that sense of having a soul and needing the sacred they also lose much else besides: above all  they lose their sense of being part of the great tapestry of existence : they have little sense of  being connected  or belonging or responsibility to others or to the planet as a whole.  All to often human beings are not interested in building their souls or building a new earth, so much as feeding their appetites for things of this world.  What the Gospels tell us is that there is a dangerous trade-off: maximize your material gains at the cost of losing your soul.  You make all the money in the world, but the price is that you fail to make your soul.   Perhaps that is what St. Michael’s job is.  He puts all what you have made of your material stuff in one cup, and what you have made of your soul stuff in the other.    

Nowadays many people ( like me) check their own blood pressure with a cheap but effective bit of kit that can be bought for a few pounds or so.   I think when I see St Michael on the icon now  I am going to check the balance on how my soul making is going.  Think I might put a picture of seaweed on my desk!  Be like seaweed is not so obvious be  like a bee, but  I think I am more like of a piece of seaweed than a buzzing bee. 

And finally:  when we think of 'making a soul' and 'building' a soul we need to think about the tools.   The supreme tools for helping us to make our soul are, of course, the seven sacraments which flow from the feet of Christ.  And for Teilhard this means a love of the Eucharist above all else. 

Friday, 26 August 2011

St Gabriel:the angel who knocks on the human heart.

We must not go any further without exploring the role of Gabriel in the icon.  He too has much to say to us and provides a good deal of food for our thought and prayer.

As we look at the image of St. Gabriel (in green) next to St. Michael we are reminded of the part which he has played in defining moments throughout the Old and New testaments.  Here in the icon Gabriel looks down on the Blessed Virgin  and St. John the Baptist and we cannot but think of the central role he plays in the Bible as God's messenger for VIP messages.

Pope  Benedict XVI gives us a wonderful passage in a homily (given in 2007 on the occasion of the ordination of six  bishops) which is an absolutely perfect aid for reading this part of  our icon of the  Sacred Heart.  It says it all really.

We meet the Archangel Gabriel especially in the precious account of the annunciation to Mary of the Incarnation of God, as Luke tells it to us (1: 26-38). Gabriel is the messenger of God's Incarnation. He knocks at Mary's door and, through him, God himself asks Mary for her "yes" to the proposal to become the Mother of the Redeemer: of giving her human flesh to the eternal Word of God, to the Son of God. The Lord knocks again and again at the door of the human heart. In the Book of Revelation he says to the "angel" of the Church of Laodicea and, through him, to the people of all times: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me" (3: 20). The Lord is at the door - at the door of the world and at the door of every individual heart. He knocks to be let in: the Incarnation of God, his taking flesh, must continue until the end of time. All must be reunited in Christ in one body: the great hymns on Christ in the Letters to the Ephesians and to the Colossians tell us this. Christ knocks. Today too he needs people who, so to speak, make their own flesh available to him, give him the matter of the world and of their lives, thus serving the unification between God and the world, until the reconciliation of the universe. Dear friends, it is your task to knock at people's hearts in Christ's Name. By entering into union with Christ yourselves, you will also be able to assume Gabriel's role: to bring Christ's call to men. 
(See here for original text.) 

In the same homily the Pope has this to say about the role of angels:

Sacred Scripture and the Church's tradition enable us to discern two aspects. On the one hand, the Angel is a creature who stands before God, oriented to God with his whole being. All three names of the Archangels [ Michael, Gabriel and Raphael] end with the word "El", which means "God". God is inscribed in their names, in their nature. Their true nature is existing in his sight and for him. In this very way the second aspect that characterizes Angels is also explained: they are God's messengers. They bring God to men, they open heaven and thus open earth. Precisely because they are with God, they can also be very close to man. Indeed, God is closer to each one of us than we ourselves are. The Angels speak to man of what constitutes his true being, of what in his life is so often concealed and buried. They bring him back to himself, touching him on God's behalf. In this sense, we human beings must also always return to being angels to one another - angels who turn people away from erroneous ways and direct them always, ever anew, to God. 

There is far more to say about Gabriel and angels , but I think that Pope Benedict's words capture all of what I want to say - except more elegantly and more concisely.   ( Just a little footnote, perhaps: when Benedict says  '...thus serving the unification between God and the world, until the reconciliation of the universe..' is he showing his 'inner Teilhard' again!?)

Thursday, 25 August 2011

St. Michael - Quis ut Deus?: a question answered.

It struck me the other day when we said the prayer to St Michael the Archangel after the Rosary before mass that I had rather over looked him  - but of course Michael has a VERY  important part to play in this icon.   I had to check with Ian as to which one of the two angels was actually St. Michael as he is not killing a dragon, or wielding a sword, holding a  pair of scales or treading on Satan!   Michael's presence in the icon reminds  us that he is the angel of light, who watches over  the planet and keeps an eye on Lucifer and protects us from evil.  In the Catholic tradition he is seen as the guardian and protector of the Church.  And, although he does not carry them in our icon  he is often shown with scales, weighing our souls.  He is the supreme commander of the hosts of heaven. In our icon of the Sacred Heart St. Michael  is the angel on the right of the cross facing us wearing a red cloak.  And to the left, on the same side as the Blessed Virgin, is St Gabriel.

And as we think on St Michael, we pray:
Saint Michael the Archangel,
 defend us in battle;
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
 May God rebuke him, we humbly pray: 
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
 by the power of God,
 thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits 
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
Back in the 1990s Blessed John Paul urged us not to forget this prayer.
St. Michael, Ian Knowles at Elias Icons
Although today this prayer is no longer recited at the end of Mass, I ask everyone not to forget it, and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against the forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world. (Pope John Paul II, Regina Caeli, 24 April 1994) (Here) 
The significance of St Michael was also noted by Benedict XVI in 2007.  

[St. Michael] defends the cause of God's oneness against the presumption of the dragon, the "ancient serpent", as John calls it. The serpent's continuous effort is to make men believe that God must disappear so that they themselves may become important; that God impedes our freedom and, therefore, that we must rid ourselves of him. 
However, the dragon does not only accuse God. The Book of Revelation also calls it "the accuser of our brethren..., who accuses them day and night before our God" (12: 10). Those who cast God aside do not make man great but divest him of his dignity. Man then becomes a failed product of evolution. Those who accuse God also accuse man. Faith in God defends man in all his frailty and short-comings: God's brightness shines on every individual.  (Here) 

Reflecting on these observations by Bl. John Paul and Benedict ,  it seems to me that however much we focus on the light and fire of God’s love in this icon, we must never forget that there is also so much darkness in our world.   This is all the sadness and misery caused not by chance or human foolishness, and trials of evolution but darkness by design  and with a malign purpose.   There is wickedness and evil in the world and as Christians we are called to battle against it: we have need of the Prince of the angelic host.  The world is at times a dark and wicked place which badly needs the light and fire of Christ.  St. Michael should therefore prompt us to reflect upon what Bl.  John Paul refers to as the ' forces of darkness and the spirit of the world.'  At the time John Paul was calling on us to say this prayer one of the great forces of darkness - communism - was in decline, but another force of darkness was on the rise: materialism.  Mankind was losing its sense of the sacred and the holy.  Human beings were being seduced by the consumer society with all its false promises that money and wealth could make us all happy.  This was not a 'dark force' which was as obvious as that represented by Joseph Stalin  -  for  the new dark forces were far more insidious.  If the old dark force was about Marx, the new dark force was about the temptation of Markets and the belief that we could consume and spend our way to happiness.  This new dark force taught that  'I consume, therefore I am.'  It commanded:  'Be fruitful and consume the earth!'   John Paul was so right to remind us that we had a battle on our hands, but it is more and more evident that it is not a battle we are winning.  We need the spirit of St. Michael as we battle this dark force in all its many shapes and forms.

But in the light of Benedict's observation in 2007 (above) we can also see St Michael in another way.    St. Michael is battling against those who wish to get rid of God - those who want to make God disappear or like Prof. Richard Dawkins make him into an illusion and a delusion.   But - and this is Teilhard's point - God  gives a purpose to evolution.  God is the direction of evolution.   God is a God of evolution.  This is what this icon is all about. Christ is the Omega point of the evolution of creation.  If we take God out of evolution then we diminish the dignity of man: we become , as Benedict puts it, just another 'failed product of evolution'.  St Michael is battling a dragon that wants to remove God, but also a dragon that wants to destroy the dignity of a species that is not an evolutionary failure, but a partner in the ongoing creation and evolution of the universe.  The dragon wants a universe that has no purpose or direction.  The dragon wants a universe that is meaningless.   Our icon in its way is battling the same dragon: because it is saying the universe has a point.  The universe has a direction.  The universe is converging on a sacred centre.  A centre of divine energy: a love that drives the stars and all creation.   Perhaps it is for this reason that St. Michael is also acknowledged ( in the Litany of St. Michael) as the Guardian Angel of the Eucharist.  And given the close relationship between the Sacred Heart and the Eucharist, it is fitting and very beautiful that Ian had the foresight to paint St. Michael in the icon.  St Michael is battling against those dragons who wish to to take God out of evolution and out of the cosmos - or who wish to take evolution out of the cosmos.   I now think of him (in Teilhardian terms) as the Guardian Angel of the Eucharist and Guardian Angel of Evolution! 

Michael is, therefore, the  great defender of the earth against the evil  dragons which prowl around looking to devour and diminish our humanity.  In the book of Revelations ( 12:7-8) he  is shown as throwing Satan out of heaven , but he also has many less military responsibilities.  He is the patron saint of a holy death.   He is patron of the sick and dying but also of people who protect us : ambulance drivers and the police as well as sailors and knights as well as paramedics.  And for those of us familiar with radiotherapy, he is patron saint of radio therapists.  In other words, St. Michael is on our side: he reminds us of how vulnerable our souls are to the all temptations of the material world.   He reminds us that we need protection: oftentimes from our worst enemy: ourselves.

I remember when I was a child I used to be told not too look too long in a mirror as you would see the devil!   One day, I decided that I would spend all day looking in the mirror just to see what happened. Well, I managed about 15 mins and then got bored.  I told my mother than I had looked in the mirror for 'ages' and I had not seen the devil. 'Are you sure? ' replied my mother.  'I just saw myself. That is all!', I said right back at her.  'Exactly', she responded and got on with washing the floor.  St Michael reminds me that one of the dragons that consumes and destroys is looking right back at me every time  I shave.  The dragon of the unrestrained ego.  The dragon of the self.   When we pray to the Sacred Heart we are asking for the fire of God's love to consume us: to cleanse us from all the diseases of  our self - our heart, our real, our deep us .  Our prayer to the Sacred Heart is about the realization that we must be rescued from ourselves: our self-love.  So.. St. Michael is there to remind us that we battle the dragons that prowl around us, but we must also battle our inner dragons.

St Michael’s name in Hebrew means ‘Who is like God?’ ( In  many representations he is shown with the Latin translation of the Hebrew  : Quis ut Deus? ) Which  in itself is a fascinating thing -  to have a name which is a question!  Thus as we look at St. Michael in the icon we should reflect on that name : ‘Who is like God?’  St Michael looks at us and asks: ‘Who is like God?’   We can answer him, of course, ‘nothing’ and ‘no-one’.  Michael therefore reminds us of our need for humility.  He reminds us of the humility of God in becoming man.   Quis ut Deus?  Nothing is like God. And yet God humbled himself to become as we are.  Michael's question should make us reflect on the sheer enormity of the Incarnation.    (Indeed, it is the cosmic significance of the Incarnation which is the central theme in Teilhard's work.)

Quis ut Deus? should also make us reflect upon the words of Saint Bonaventure, the great Dr. Seraphim of the Church,  as we respond to St Michael's gaze in the icon:

'The Word was made flesh'  These words give expression to that heavenly mystery.... that the eternal God has humbly bent down and lifted the dust of our nature into unity with his own person.' ( cited in Ilia Delio, O.S.F. The Humility of God: A Franciscan Perspective, St Anthony Press, 2005, p51)

From this perspective  of Dr Seraphim we contemplate  the icon once  again and realize that there is a different answer to St. Michael, qua question. We can answer St Michael from the litany of the Sacred Heart. 

Heart of Jesus, Son of the Eternal Father, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, formed in the womb of the Virgin Mother by the Holy Spirit, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, in whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Divinity, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, united substantially with the word of God, have mercy on us.

Heart of Jesus, of infinite majesty, have mercy on us.

Heart of Jesus, holy temple of God, have mercy on us.

Heart of Jesus, tabernacle of the Most High, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, house of God and gate of heaven, have mercy on us.

To have seen the Son is to have seen the Father.  'Who is like God?'  Asks Michael, Prince of the Heavenly  Host.  We answer him:  the Word of God made flesh. 

Quis ut Deus?  Christ Omega: the child born to Mary.  The redeemer  whose coming was heralded by St Gabriel. The first born from the dead who will unite all things to himself.

Quis ut Deus? St. Michael: you are  the question on which our faith turns.

Your answer is to be found in the reply given by the Blessed Virgin Mary who had been  greeted as one full of grace by St. Gabriel who stands by your side. 

So there they are  at the top of the icon,  St Michael posing the question and Gabriel as herald of the answer. God is love and in Jesus born of Mary we see what God’s love is like. 

This is what God is like.  God is like the Sacred Heart.  The golden glow, the furnace at the centre of all things.  The Alpha and the Omega

St Michael, Archangel, Prince of the Heavenly Host, Commander of the Army of God, Guardian of the Catholic Church is answered. 

Wednesday, 24 August 2011


Perhaps the most common prayer to the Sacred Heart is that of ' I place all my trust in you.'  And when we reflect on the Sacred Heart we naturally, therefore, turn our minds towards the idea of trust.  Again, when we reflect on so many of the social, economic and political  problems which beset our world the role of trust is central.   In my library I have at least a dozen books on trust, and the research on trust in economics and sociology, political science and other social sciences  is considerable and growing.  I recently bought a copy of the Harvard Business Review ( July/ August 2011)  for a journey  and that was a special issue entirely devoted to the challenge of building a culture of trust which could facilitate collaboration in organizations and thereby promote innovation.   The Sacred Heart is so important when it comes to thinking about our problems that  for this reason, as for many others, the Sacred Heart should be seen as a symbol of Catholic Social Teaching (CST).   As Benedict points out in his Encyclical Caritas in Veritate (HERE)  the whole message of CST is that of love.   And love and trust are intertwined and inter-connected in so many ways.

At a personal level I am sure that we have all known of or experienced what happens when two people who love one another stop trusting each other.   When  one person cannot trust another love so often withers and dies.   To love is to trust another person completely  - with your whole heart.  To love is to make yourself open and vulnerable.  And when a person you have trusted betrays that trust we all feel very hurt and wounded.   The Sacred Heart is a powerful statement of love and trust.  God loves and trusts us and all too often we repay that trust by hurting and wounding the Sacred Heart.  But God is infinitely  merciful  and forgives all the times we turn away from him.  Hence asking for God's mercy is a key aspect of the Sacred Heart.

The trouble is that human beings have a considerable capacity not to forgive and once trust has gone - either in a bang or a whimper - it is a challenge to re-build trusting relationships.   And yet so much of what makes society possible is to do with trust.   Trust is central to economic life as it is to social and political life.   If people cease to trust each other or cease to trust particular groups of people, or if they cease to trust institutions civilization can rapidly fall apart.   Our age is experiencing so many problems which are all really about trust.  The Church itself  has a problem of re-gaining the trust which it used to enjoy and which it oftentimes took for granted.

But trust is not something which can be made to order.  Trust takes a long  time to build: but it can be destroyed and reduced to rubble in moments.   When I was an undergraduate one of the things I studied was game theory.  This involves using mathematical models to understand how rational human beings make decisions.   Game theory gave a very distorted perspective on human nature: it assumed that rational human beings would always seek to maximize their own interests and so many of the 'games' we 'played' showed that human beings assumed that other human beings could not be trusted.  It was a mathematics of distrust.  ( It was this maths which was, of course, the theoretical underpinning of MAD - mutually assured destruction strategies during the cold war!)   More recent research into game theory, however, has shown that human beings can indeed learn to cooperate and trust one another, and thereby advance their common interest.   A key factor in the development of such cooperative strategies is repeat interactions.  That is, the more games you play, the more players learn how collaborating with other players is good for everyone!  In other words, we now  have a mathematics of how trust can be built!

The Sacred Heart should remind us EVERYTIME we reflect upon it, that we are all made in God's image.  And that God is love.   If we are to built a civilization of love we have to understand that it requires human beings to work hard and struggle at building a world in which there is more trust between people and between peoples.   In a sense, therefore, CST is really about how human beings can learn to trust, because without building trust,  a civilization of love is not possible.  But our faith in Christ as the point at which all creation is converging should fill us with hope that over time and over space humanity will evolve in the direction of  building the earth by building  a world which seeks to solve its problems through building relationships of trust.  (The New Jerusalem being measured by our angel will be built from the bricks of trust!!)   It is not going to happen overnight or in a few years.   It will not happen as result of a 'revolution': building a civilization of love is essentially an evolutionary process.   And we are asked to ' trust in this slow work of God'.   The Sacred Heart call us to trust in the power of love and not to despair when hate is triumphant.  Perhaps evolution is just another word for the cross or another word for hope.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Good politics and bad policy: rediscovering fire.

Ian’s invitation to get the icon 'working' (SEE HERE)  has stimulated so many ideas and I have to take care not to get carried away.  But I find the discipline of the icon  very useful  to focus attention on the issue he raises.  
An icon is a kind of window and this icon is calling us to look at our world through the image of  the Sacred Heart.   Yesterday I read through the Sunday papers and was drawn to a remark by Catholic convert and ex-PM, Mr. Tony Blair.  He pointed out – à propos the recent riots - that good politics does not always make for good policy. ( Read HERE )  And, quite unusually for a politician he admits to having made mistakes in the past : where good politics led to very bad policy.   I am sure that the Angels are still rejoicing  even as I write!  But this raises the issue of what makes for good policy.  If policy is a function of politics, then it follows that we have to reflect on how politics can inform better policy designs.  The answer to this can be found at the bottom of the icon.  The seven streams of water stand for the seven sacraments, but it occurred to me that they can also stand for the seven virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and courage ( the four cardinal virtues) and faith hope and love (the three theological virtues). (1)  We are thereby reminded that the Sacred Heart is described (in the litany) as ' virtutum omnium abyssus': the abyss of all virtues.   That is to say that it contains the very the height and depth and fullness and utter perfection of all the virtues.  In Jesus - the New Adam - we have the perfect model for the virtuous life. 

If human beings are to create productive and resilient political, economic and social orders  they have to do so by seeking to live virtuous lives and designing institutions and policies that can promote or facilitate the good (virtuous) life.  As a Meerkat might put it: ‘simples’.   A visit to the famous Palazzo Publico in Siena will show that this is not exactly a brilliant new insight.  Back in the 14th century the good citizens of the city had the sense to commission frescoes to remind their politicians that ‘good’ and bad’ government had consequences and that Good government was virtuous government. (SEE HERE ) When virtue did not inform government Siena would look like parts of England a week or so ago!  I have long argued that such artwork should be installed in every Cabinet room and Parliamentary chamber in the world! 

The key question to ask of any policy is straightforward enough: will it or has it promoted or undermined the capacity of human beings  to live a virtuous life?  If not, then is will be bad policy. Simple.  If politicians lack virtue they produce bad policy, and if citizens lack virtue  they will not lead a good life.  In this sense the rioters are indeed just a reflection of the political class. The frescoes in Siena by Lorenzetti really says it all.  If rulers rule without virtue and citizens live without virtue the result is corruption, chaos and disorder.

And what of our icon?  What does it say?   The Sacred Heart is telling us that the greatest of all the virtues is love.  It tells us that the very centre of God is a furnace of love.  Like Dante, (2)  Teilhard is asking us to appreciate that it is love that drives the stars and planets and  that human beings have a spark of this divine fire and the purpose of existence is to harness this energy.   Let me repeat what Teilhard said about this energy  because it contains the essence of what the Sacred Heart is about:

Quelque jour, après l’espace, les vents, les marées, la gravitation, nous capterons, pour Dieu, les énergies de l’amour.- Et alors, une deuxième fois dans l’histoire du Monde, l’Homme aura trouvé le Feu. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, L’Évolution de la Chasteté, ( Les Directions de L’Avenir, Éditions du Seul, Paris1973, p92) (One day, after we have harnessed  the energy of space, the winds, the tides and gravitation we will harness, for God, the energies of love. And then for the second time in the history of the world, Man will have discovered fire.

The Sacred Heart expresses a hope and a faith in the capacity of human beings to harness  all of the energy contained in the universe.  The energy contained in space, the winds, the waves and in the very force of gravity itself.  Mankind has been amazingly successful in capturing energy and using it to solve problems and improve the quality of life.  But of course, mankind has also abused this capacity to harness energy ever since Prometheus discovered fire. 

Our icon invites us to look at the world through the Sacred Heart of the universe.  It is asking us to see that the most powerful energy that humankind has available as a problem solving resource is the energy of love.  In the icon Jesus is pointing to his divine centre saying: ' here it is is!  Come to the source'.  And this means that when we look at problems and policy we have to ask one question:  how have human beings harnessed love?   Has a given policy served to cultivate or foster the capacities of people to work  with one another and live alongside one another? Has it served to facilitate the growth of cooperation and collaboration? Have given institutions promoted and built trust and understanding?  Have policies sought to cultivate the potential that human beings have for altruism and mutual aid?  Have policies sought to promote the idea of a virtuous life?   Or have policies served to foster greed, selfishness, irresponsibility and disregard for others?  Have policies served to promote hate and misunderstanding? Has public policy served to promote a sense of solidarity and a desire for the common good?  In short, has the attempt by human beings to solve those problems they believe require forms of collective action enabled them to discover fire for the second time?  Or have our decisions led  just to the fire that burns and destroys?  Have they been about the fire of love, or the fire of hate, greed and me, me, me, ME ?  Have people opened their hearts to their neighbours or have they closed their hearts and lived for themselves alone? 

However, when we look at so much public policy here and elsewhere we find that it has tended to be less about the heart than the head.  All too often human beings get carried away by a misguided belief in the powers of rationality and reason.  (Or the flipside of this, the equally dangerous idea that free markets left to themselves will solve all our problems.)  All too often they fall prey to the illusion that they can know and analyse their problems, when in truth the world is far too complex to be reduced to some kind of puzzle to be solved by the application of calculation or analysis or market forces.  All too often policy is  driven by the belief that policy makers KNOW  what they are doing and KNOW what the consequences of their actions will be.  Sadly, history shows that human beings are not too clever when it comes to foreseeing the unintended consequences of their big ideas.   Human beings do best when they proceed by evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change: what Teilhard refers to as the process of  tâtonnement: trail and error learning.  

And so, as in the case of the recent riots in England: let us proceed to address the underlying causes by tâtonnement.  The causes are very complex – that is to say there are many variables all interacting with one another. (And for Teilhard evolution is the story of increasing complexity and inter-dependence.)  For policy makers to say that it is all because of this factor or another (moral decline ...etc...) is dangerous  nonsense.   Human beings advance – as all evolving life – by their capacity to learn from their mistakes  rather than their claims to knowledge.  In other words we learn by carrying the cross of failure and we must never be deluded by thinking that we KNOW.  

It is learning from  failure - learning from the way of the cross - that is ever the engine of human progress.  What we do know is that human life progresses when human virtues flow and irrigate society and that it gets in  a terrible (God forsaken )  mess when they do not flow.  What we also know (the icon tells us) is that love is the most powerful energy in the world – and indeed in the universe! The Sacred Heart is reminding us that there is one thing we really do know: God is love and we were made for love and to love.  Life has a purpose and a destiny: unity with the Omega of the divine centre.  For human life to progress it needs faith and hope.  But above all it needs humanity and humility to learn from its mistakes and thereby how to harness that energy that glows at the very heart of the Cosmos. Humanity has to learn to trust in that sacred energy and not  fall prey to the illusion that harnessing all the other physical or material energies in the  universe will solve our problems.  Yes, let us harness all the energies that fill our universe and use them to build a better world but we must do so in ways that are mindful of the fact that  the only energy that can enable humanity to realize its full potential is there right in the center of the icon.  We need science, but we also need a sense of the sacred.  Our world needs  reason, but a reason which is not cut off from the sacred.  And it also needs a sense of the sacred which embraces science.   Indeed, rediscovering the fire at the Omega point is nothing less than the rediscovery of a universe that is sacred and filled with the presence of God in all things, and a cosmos that  has a sacred heart at its core.   


(1) There again, we can read them as the 7 'heavenly virtues': Chastity; Temperance, Charity ( caritas) ; Diligence ( Industria); patience; Kindness (humanitas) and humility. 
(2) 'L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stele.'

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Making a splash!

 I feel  as if I have been standing by a pool-side  for sometime  trying to work up the courage to jump into the cold water, when suddenly someone has jumped in and soaked me!  And given that I am soaking wet, I  might as well take the plunge!  Ian’s last blog on ‘letting the icon begin its work’ was a timely post and encourages me to jump back into what is a very large and deep pool.   If you read back to the start of the blog you will find that it begins with my interest in the relationship between Christian faith and the public square, and my belief that the Sacred Heart had a critical role to play in  political and policy debates.   And it follows that if  the Sacred Heart is a summary of our faith, then our icon must, perforce, be the window through which we look out on the public square!  Ian is right to bring our attention to this point: we have to put our window to work.  We have to start using it.   Thus far the icon for me has been about focusing my prayer life: but of course it has to work in other ways.   Prayer  is also about action:  prayer is about wrestling with human problems and the human condition.  I had not read Fr. Mark Kirby’s piece on the Sacred Heart, but I find it quite one of the best things I have read on the Sacred Heart to date.   Fr. Kirby’s point is well made: all theology is ultimately a theology of the Sacred Heart.  And that includes theology which is concerned with politics and public policy. 

I agree with Ian that the general tone of the response to the riots in several English cities has not been impressive and I think the reason for that  is that  the riots have confused and bewildered us in terms of what it tells us about our society.   Yes, what stands out in all the mess and confusion is the response of the two people he mentions to the violence and brutality that resulted in death and destruction  in the cause of shoes, booze, technology and doughnuts.   The tragedy of recent events is the sheer banality of it all it was not about rights or liberties but grabbing what could be grabbed.    However, through the clouds of all the confusion about what the riots tell us about ourselves, the reaction of the two men shone like two beams of light cutting through a thick fog.  The light of  father who chose to remain calm and ask others not to respond with violence to the death of his son  and two other young men.  The light of  the student who faced the media with a smile and told of his regard for the country in which he was living and showing no bitterness or anger for what had happened to him.  In Teilhard’s sense these two people were harnessing the energy of love – rather than acting as a channel of hate.

The Sacred Heart speaks powerfully to a humanity which so often rejects love and chooses hate and selfishness.  When we realize the capacity human beings have to do bad and wicked things we can only seek the mercy of a God who is calling us to realize the potential we have to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.  And yet what we saw is how easily human beings can do precisely the opposite.  The Sacred Heart is calling us to trust in love, and reject hate.     The Sacred Heart is showing us that if we are to evolve a better civilization  it has to be one which, in the words of Blessed John Paul, is a civilization of love.   The looters showed us in no uncertain terms what a civilization based on self-love – greed- looks like.   And it is not a pretty sight.

As to  the causes of the kind of events we witnessed on our streets, I think looking through the window of our icon can help us to better understand what we are seeing in the world today.  In the Sacred Heart as Christ Omega we are looking at the world from the perspective of a God whose purposes and designs are being worked out through the cross of evolution.  We have to understand that humanity is still evolving and in many respects what we saw in those riots was an aspect of the ongoing (painful) evolution of humanity.    Let us just look at two aspects of the riots: technology and the compression of humanity. 

Teilhard understood that human evolution was a story of communication.  Technology, he argued in the future would  increasingly mean that human beings would be ever more inter-connected and  that would have huge consequences.   Technology clearly played and important part in organizing the looting and rioting.   Technology which would enable human beings to communicate with one  another  had, he believed, the potential for greater understanding and unity between human beings.   But what we saw was the potential for technology to connect people in ways that would enable them to do bad  and selfish things rather than seek the common good.   Evolution for Teilhard is not a straight line.  It is about pain and error, mistakes and failure.    Human beings progress through ‘groping’ around using trial and error.   Technology  can be an instrument of democratic change, but also of tyranny.  It can be a tool to enable human beings to do good, but also a tool which can be used for  bad.   We saw the bad, but we also saw the good.   We saw how people used technology to form anti-social networks, but also later on, how it was used by people to form pro-social networks.   Human beings have choice : they can either be open to the energy of  love and solidarity or they can  close themselves off  from that energy.   To believe in a loving God, who created all things and who is the beginning and end of all things is to believe that human evolution has a point  or a purpose.    To believe in a God who is love is  to believe that evolution has a destination.   To trust in the Sacred Heart is to trust in the slow work of God.  To trust is to have faith in the future.   A civilization of love can only be built in a civilization in which people trust one another and  hope in the future.   When human beings do not trust and do not hope a civilization of love is not possible.   And so, through trial and error, we have  as a society and as a planet to learn to create the conditions and institutions in which human beings can learn to trust one another. 

But this challenge of building trust is  ever more complex.  One reason for this was again evident in the riots: the compression of humanity.   England, like many other countries today is being shaped by the pressures of massive  shifts and movements of the human race.  London and other British cities  has changed dramatically within my lifetime.   The planet is  experiencing unprecedented movements of peoples.  Teilhard likened this to ‘compression’.   This compression of humanity is clearly a critical phase in the evolution of our species: like it or not, humanity can no longer live in little self-contained islands.   Like it or not, England is a multi-racial  country.   What I took away from the riots was a positive thing.  What took place was nasty, brutish and thankfully short – but  it also showed   how  the country was evolving.  What we remember about the riots is that people came together.  It was not about racial conflict, it was about people coming together.  We were all inspired by the reactions of two Muslims.  In some way the  events showed  that we were groping our way to  more understanding.   The riots brought out the capacity that people have to show sympathy and kindness and build trust – and yes it showed the capacities we have to  love our neighbour as ourselves.  To have trust in the Sacred Heart is, I think about having faith in the human capacity for love.   

To trust in the Sacred Heart is to have faith in evolution not as the story of  human selfishness and greed or the story of self-interest and survival of the fittest, but as the story of  how human beings progress through exercising their capacities for mutual aid and reciprocal behaviour.   To have trust in the Sacred Heart is to believe that God is love and the creation is an act of love which culminates in what we see in our icon.  If we see the world through this window then we have the strength to trust, hope, and love.  Through the smoke and fires of failure we have faith in the future above and ahead of us.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Feast of St. John Eudes

I have been so busy today that I quite forgot what the day was: the feast day  of St John Eudes!  I got home and read Ian's blog this evening -  it is very important as it invites us engage with the real world and its troubles and I shall respond tomorrow.   But for now, I want to draw attention to St. John Eudes who did so much to promote the devotion to the Sacred Heart and furthermore to show how it was relevant to the problems of his day  - not least in terms of the shortcomings of the Church.  I think we are called to do this in own times and in the face of our problems.  At the outset of the project we asked for his prayers and patronage for this icon, and I feel that he has indeed been watching over it and interceding on our behalf. So as this day draws to a close I want to ask him to pray for all who place their trust in the power of God's love as revealed in the Sacred Heart.

Our wish, our object, our chief preoccupation must be to form Jesus in ourselves, to make his spirit, his devotion, his affections, his desires and his disposition live and reign there. All our religious exercises should be directed to this end. It is the work which God has given us to do unceasingly.
(St. John Eudes, The Life and Reign of Jesus in Christian Souls).